In the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, the famous Shilin night market is a shopper’s paradise and the place to go for some rather unusual snacks
Saturday night in Taipei and there’s only one place to be seen. Everyone, it seems, has descended on Shilin and its famous night market for an evening for shopping, eating and yep, you guessed it – more shopping. After all, there aren’t many places where you can get everything from oyster omelettes to T-shirts featuring scandalous depictions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
Its popularity is testament to the sheer variety and quality of the food and goods on offer. The pavements are swamped with huge vats of bubbling soup and funfair games (top prize: a giant cuddly Snoppy), leaving bargain-hunters spilling into the traffic-clogged avenues. While Friday and Saturday evenings are easily the busiest nights of the week, it’s not until you venture away from the main roads and delve into the warren of (still densely crowded) backstreets that you get an idea of just how vast this market is.
But unlike others in Asia, Shilin is not overrun with hell-bent foreign tourists on a mission to stock up on cheap and cheerful tat. No, here the locals are it too. Concentrating primarily on fashion and catering almost exclusively for the youthful Taiwanese population who flood in with their immaculate locks and carefully considered wardrobes, Shilin is bursting with forward-thinking boutiques and ample outlets offering “designer” goods and bottom dollar.
Girls clutching “Louis Vuitton” bags line up under a canopy of red paper lanterns to try on a new pair of “Ugg” boots. Others, meanwhile, riffle through rails of colourful hot pants that would taint even Kylie’s cheeks with a rosy glow. The river of bodies, of which I am part, marches forth slowly but purposefully. Despite the sheer number of people crammed into each narrow backstreet, it’s all very orderly. There’s no pushing. No shoving. No annoying person walking against the tide.
Bargains are out there to be had - if you have the patience and energy to hunt them out. Haggling is acceptable, but most items come with a fixed price. Belly dancing outfits, for example – I was gift shopping, honest - are non-negotiable at T$150 (£3.20), but vendors, like most Taiwanese people, are extremely friendly and good-natured so there’s no harm in a spot of friendly bartering.
Elsewhere, you can get your nails done at one of the many manicure parlours before moving next door, turning your palm over – careful not to smudge the handiwork, mind – and having your fortune and future revealed.
The sounds and smells of Shilin are constantly evolving. Excitable conversations merge with the crackling twangs of Europop booming from speakers, while the delicious scent of roasting sweet potatoes is rudely compromised by the sharp whiff of chicken feet stewed in soybean sauce that sweeps in with a bang.
Nibbling on a chicken’s toenail isn’t for everyone. So let’s be grateful for the abundance of other local - and non-foot-related - specialities on the menu. There’s duck heart skewers, poached quail eggs and as many scoops of taro ice-cream as you can stomach…
EVA Air fly from London Heathrow to Taipei via Bangkok