Eye of newt and toe of frog – Macbeth’s witches could have done the weekly grocery shop in fascinating Taipei, while Harry Potter could fill his tuckbox for Hogwarts
JK Rowling’s Diagon Alley and Taipei’s Snake Alley both come complete with crones, cobras and bubbling cauldrons. One, of course, is fictional, while the other writhes in reality, a vital part of the nightlife in the capital of Taiwan.
There's cage upon cage of snakes hanging from hooks, and I watch in horror as a pale yellow python scoffs its rodent dinner in a single gulp. The shelves behind are stacked with glass jars a bit like in an old-fashioned sweet shop. But, instead of humbugs and bull's-eyes, these are filled with every pickled part of serpent imaginable.
The Taiwanese consider snakes to be medicinal. Their meat is stewed into soup as an aphrodisiac, and the blood and bile made into eczema-soothing balms. Sandwiched between the snake shops are tattoo parlours, herbal potion-makers and fortune-tellers. Only magic-wand-makers are absent from the picture.
It comes as a surprise to learn that Taiwan, a country the size of Holland and the second most populated on earth, has not developed much of a tourist industry. Industrialisation from the 1960s onwards created one of the richest economies in Asia, and made-in-Taiwan electronics dominated stores in the world’s high streets. But visitors have been mainly confined to business travellers, who rarely stray from the capital with its palatial hotels and lively nightlife.
Indeed, to most westerners, Taiwan means Taipei, a Singapore-style city that is rich in cameras and computers, but not much else. Actually, this is rather unfair. Night markets and good-value restaurants abound – and you can eat surprisingly well for just £2 at any of the night markets in Taipei, with wonderful fresh food such as oyster omelettes and ‘stinky’ tofu (which is not as bad as it sounds).
The National Palace Museum holds the world’s largest collection of Chinese artefacts, with treasures such as carved Buddhist figurines and a Mother of Pearl Crown depicting five grinning skulls from the Ch’Ing Dynasty.
I stayed in the Art Deco-style Landis Taipei
, which is a member of Leading Hotels of the World. There’s also a Grand Hotel Taipei
which was once a Shinto shrine.
However it is the countryside that is the real reason to visit. A three-hour drive south of Taipei brings you into a beautiful mountain area of lush vegetation, 4000m peaks, and the resort of Sun Moon Lake.
At 6am the sun is rising on the shore where an old woman practices T’ai Chi. The Victorian watercolour landscape is shrouded in a wispy veil of mist and only the occasional putt-putt of a passing boat interferes with the sound of silence.
This is Taiwan’s principal destination for honeymooners. Visitors to the lakeside Lalu Hotel come here for peace and quiet, and they will certainly find it in the gorgeous accommodation with its bonsai trees, polished teak floors and lilies in sleek black vases. In front of the hotel, guests relax around a slate-grey infinity swimming-pool that perfectly matches the pearl grey waters of the lake.
Suites are minimalist, and there are eight villas with brick and slate walls, open fireplaces, bathrooms with deep slate tubs and small private gardens with outdoor showers. In the Lalu Hotel Sun Moon Lake
spa, I am given a Mandarin-style suit to wear for my Oil Free Massage from a tiny Chinese woman with deceptively strong hands.
But the serenity of Sun Lakes dims in comparison with the rugged beauty of the Taroko Gorge in the Taroko National Park in the east of the country, reached by a 30-minute flight from Taipei to Haulin. Taroko was the setting for the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The natural marble gorge swirls in red, white, silver and green patterns, and is laced with dramatic waterfalls and volcanic hot springs, and dotted with brilliant red bridges and small pagodas.
Grand Formosa Taroko
is a comfortable base from which to explore the area’s seven hiking trails and bathe in the hot springs. We arrive at the hotel after dark and take a minibus to the Wenshan Hot Springs 10 minutes away. Fortunately I have a torch to clamber down uneven stone steps and over a swaying suspension bridge, before finally reaching the shallow rock pools lined with gritty volcanic mud. This is the natural way to experience the springs – and it is free. From the bank, a couple of monkeys keep a curious eye my group’s progress.
Mornings start early at Taroko Gorge if you are to walk any of the trails before it becomes too hot and humid. We choose the Paiyang trail, which is 2km long and includes clambering through tunnels and a cave that goes under and behind a waterfall that ‘rains’ inside. Again, torches are essential, and waterproof bin-bag-style raincoats are provided. Bats squeal and reel above us and we teeter along the narrow ledge trying not to fall into the water.
Yes, JK Rowling would just love Taiwan.