In the build up to our trip to Taipei we explained to anyone and everyone we were going to sample the delights of snake alley. It became a story we’d repeat whenever a new crowd was around, refining the dialogue to the point of well-versed drama. We told them we were going to sample a shot of blood, a shot of bile and a shot of venom.
It always provoked a strong reaction. Mostly people marveled at our manliness for trying such a thing (which turned out to be a lie) and poignantly, manliness is at the heart of the matter. Snake concoctions are not only meant to offer medicinal benefits but are also supposed to improve sexual virility. Though we found no evidence to support it, the belief is the shots make you a better lover and a stronger man.
Huaxi Street Market, otherwise known as snake alley, is a place you have to see for yourself. Throughout the market they sell various snake derivatives such as snake soup but the shots are what we’d come for. To extract the precious liquid they bash a snake’s head until it’s unconscious then hang it and slit it open to drain its blood as well as any other bodily fluids you want to drink.
Snake alley reminded us of a tired games arcade. It looks like a tunnel dressed in drag. We strolled through the entrance and the first thing we noticed was an old hag sitting on a stool absent mindedly sawing up a strange object with an enormous blade. We walked forward to get a closer look. It was a turtle in her hand, and it was alive.
She was cutting it from its shell with the rustic precision of a coal miner. Held on its back in the palm of her hand with its stomach facing upwards, its limbs were twitching energetically but without anything to grab hold of they had little purchase. It looked like little more than a symbolic gesture of struggle. A death dance.
Having chopped the animal from its shell, she dropped it onto a metal tray that resembled a WWII-era bed pan. It fell onto a mound of turtle carcasses – there must have been about a dozen in there – and she nonchalantly picked up another fresh animal to start the process all over again. This all took about 20 seconds.
Keen to wipe away the gory image we carried on to find the shots. A vendor pointed us towards the snake stall but he seemed insulted or angry. We couldn’t tell but in hindsight he seemed to disagree with the business we were about to engage with.
He’s not alone in his contempt for the snake trade either. Up until the 90s it was common to see stall vendors in Huaxi skinning snakes in front of you and draining their blood but it was a process that incensed animal rights activists. Campaigners forced many of the vendors to close and the market changed. There used to be snake stalls aplenty but we could only count one prominent snake stand and that’s where we headed.
It was a sobering experience. If we'd thought the hag mangling the turtles was bad enough, the one governing the snakes was the Pol Pot of animal cruelty. She leant forward on her stool, barking undecipherable Chinese into the type of earpiece used by Britney Spears. What she was saying sounded mean. Very mean.
The snakes we'd imagined writhing powerfully in baskets appeared to be just one snake - but what a specimen. Housed in a glass cage about two metres by half a metre, the pale yellow reptile was curled up like a mattress spring but looked surprisingly docile. Roughly three metres in length, the snake looked as if it had been fed recently and had an easy life.
Which turned out to be exactly the case. Living inside the cramped cage alongside the enormous snake were five white rats. They were freaking out. One wall of the glass cage was actually a metal gauze and four of the rats were nibbling furiously to try and make good their escape.
The other rat, meanwhile, was sniffing alarmingly close to the snake which simply gazed on calmly. It knew its supper wasn’t going anywhere. The experience had echoes of that scene in Jurassic Park when a lamb is dropped into an enclosure with a T-Rex.
The evidence of previous kills was obvious and shocking. The floor of the glass cage was covered in a mish-mash of cardboard splattered in dried blood, while behind the enclosure were people sitting and eating snake.
Our lack of experience in abattoirs let us down. Knocking a snake out then drinking its blood is an emotive way to kill any animal. We also looked at the shots sitting above the cage, the terrified rats in the cage, the hag on the stool, the pile of turtles a few stall back, and realized we weren’t going to do it. As manly as it would have made us, we just weren’t manly enough.
And neither are most visitors as evidenced by the animal rights lobby pushed the snake trade to extinction. An abiding legacy of that pressure is you’re prohibited from taking photos. They don’t want to stir up another storm. The poisonous woman manning the snake pit reacted furiously when we tried to take a snap.
Feeling uncomfortable we kept on moving but no sooner had we left the tunnel of horrors then we stumbled across more sights that left us dumbfounded. Dotted between little arcades where children were playing on racing simulators and shoot ‘em ups we could see brothels. Brothel after brothel. We walked past a beaming child who’d just won a cuddly toy only to see a corridor containing a room full of numbered doors and girls plodding up the stairs in short skirts and heels.
It left us gob smacked but then it dawned on us - the snakes and the brothels are connected. The snake derivatives are viewed as natural aphrodisiacs while the neighbouring brothels are of course where you’d benefit from your magic potion. A shot of snake blood here, an hour with a lady of the night there – it sounds like a tale from the underworld.
Snake alley is a crazy place. Even if you might feel conflicted about appearing to support animal cruelty, you want to see it before it disappears. The whole experience borders on disorientating – we couldn’t quite work out what any of these people were doing here, or at least what they were all doing in the same place. It’s overwhelming, and in many way, completely tangential to the rest of Taipei which is characterised by exceptionally cheerful people. So you’ve got to have it on your bucket list, but try the shots? You’d be braver than we were.