I took the red line all the way the Danshui MRT station – about 35 minutes, and got off into a completely different environment. I walked down Gongming Street, alive with crowds of people as it was a Saturday. The street was lined with shops and food stalls, robot dogs, mini-helicopters, and all the usual madness. I grabbed something to eat from one of the stalls – some elaborately-prepared and seasoned tofu, and also some white tea. I strolled around the place, it had a real market-town feel, bustling, noisy and full of colour and life. Eventually, I reached Fort San Domingo, built by the Spanish way back in 1626, although that fort has since been rebuilt in 1642. The Chinese had it from 1683 to 1867, then the British got it in 1868 and made it a consulate. I wandered around the rooms of the fort, full of information boards, but barren of much else save some pretty lame black statues of various people doing administrative duties in the fort. The views from the top of the hill were quite nice, however. It started raining, so everyone took shelter in the fort shop, much to the delight of the shopkeeper, but I braved it and strolled down to the promenade, where there are lots of seafood restaurants, dessert outlets and coffee shops. I got talking to a woman from Indonesia working in a drinks stall. What was she doing in this little stall in the outskirts of Danshui? Married to a local, that’s what. She said she missed Indonesia, but clearly she had put a lot into her new life – a customer approached her in Chinese, and she responded fluently. Then, I looked up to the right of the stall, and, above a small cake shop, I saw my name. Donovan’s Coffee. I couldn’t quite believe it. I had to have a drink there. Inside, I asked if the owner was around. The girl working there said he’d popped out for a bit, so I ordered a coffee and sat on the balcony overlooking Danshui river. It proved to be slightly uncomfortable, as lots of Taiwanese passing kept stopping and staring at the foreign face gazing out from Donovan’s coffee. I went back inside to find the owner, Tim Donovan, and his American friend, Bruce. Larry was full of Irish cheer and charm, and welcomed me like a member of his own family, although I could see the flicker of disappointment in his eyes when I spoke for the first time and my accent contained not a trace of his homeland. Still, we had a good chat. He’d been here for 10 years. He loved Taiwan, had made this his home. He was comfortable and content. I told him I’d pop back one day. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the chance, the world is so big, but it was nice to talk.
I left Donovan’s Coffee and headed back to the train station, and back to Taipei. It had been a nice day, but there was more I needed to see before I headed back to the hotel to shower, change and head out for another night on ale. I decided to head to the temple highlight of Taipei for a spot of culture-observing, Longshan Temple, and then Snake Alley to perhaps try what-else but snake’s blood, before heading out into the night for the last time.
I caught the MRT to Longshan Temple station, and walked around the various exits trying to find directions to the temple. The area next to the station is a small park, and in here, and all around the station, scores of Taipei’s homeless gather to play majhong, have a smoke and a chat, get pissed, and pass out ad infinitum. The hordes of beggars could surely mean only one thing – a significant religious site was nearby. I found the temple eventually, on Guangzhou street, and it glowed magnificently in the dwindling light. It was a beautiful spectacle, and packed with worshippers chanting in hypnotic states, throwing joss sticks, lighting incense sticks, and bowing in front of numerous Buddha’s. Huge enormous bronze incense sticks greeted me as I pressed on further, and huge carved stone columns gave the place an obvious significance. Most of the worshippers here pray to the diety Guayin, though 165 other deities are enshrined within the temple, including the goddess Matsu who provides for the safe return of travelers by sea or land (Guayin, in touch with modernity, deals with air travellers’ concerns). I strolled around taking discreet photos of worshippers, and the striking architecture of the temple, before heading out past the little waterfall in the courtyard, and away from the ‘hustle-monks’ hawking cedar-wood beads amongst other things.
From the temple, I worked out that I could easily walk to Snake Alley aka Huaxi St Night Market. I found it, after walking through a few other little open-air markets full of colour and character. A big sign read ‘Welcome to Huaxi Tourist Night Market’ in front of a covered street that ran for about a kilometre. I knew at once it would be shit. It stank of organs, which I could see locals chomping down happily at the side of little restaurants, or slurping them up in dishes like ‘pig intestine soup.’ Enough to make me vegetarian. I came across the first tourist trap: The snake meat restaurant. A man with a microphone was standing behind a table upon which was a cobra. He was taunting it with a stick, and it attacked it without enthusiasm, but the crowd were still impressed. People were sat on tables in the restaurant behind enjoying snake sate, snake meat soup, snake blood and liquor. ‘Roll up, roll up….get your cobra snake-blood here! Makes a man strong and his woman wanting to put him under lock and key to use all to herself, such will be his virility after a shot of cobra’s blood! Spots, blemishes, or other imperfections? Drink cobra’s blood, and you’ll look like a GQ cover star! Cancer? Not after a shot of cobra’s blood!’ Well, it was all in Chinese, but I can imagine the kind of things the man was saying.
Took an uninspiring stroll up and down the ‘alley’, then decided to head to Yoshinoya for a rice bowl with beef. Simple and filling. I was now ready to hit a bar. I took a cab to the ‘Combat Zone’, and to ‘My Place’ bar where I had met the barmaid Nicole who had fed me loads of tequila to cure my hangover, and the English ‘teacher’ and his mate from HK a few nights before. I was hoping to see them here again, but only Nicole was around. It was quiet, so I had a couple of pints of Taiwan Beer, then decided to head to a club. As last night was spent in a bit of a sleazy dive, I opted for a more upmarket choice tonight, again courtesy of Toby’s friend living here, ‘Nathan’, whom I still hadn’t met nor even spoken to. Still, his messages each contained a little nugget of information that ensured my nights went well. I followed his latest SMS, and found myself in a taxi bound for ‘Luxy’, one of the top clubs in Taipei.
Luxy had a dress-code, and was full of the ‘beautiful’ people – Taiwanese girls looking like dolls – no visible imperfections at all, Taiwanese blokes, sharply dressed, impeccably groomed, young International university students, and a few balding white blokes in their 40s with overhanging guts, hand in hand with doe-eyed mutes. I had a couple of vodka cokes, and soon got chatting to a young Irish bloke, Gary, at the bar. I told him about my day in Danshui, and about Tim Donovan. ‘Yeah, I know Tim. There are only 8 Irish people in the whole of Taipei. We can’t even make a bleedin’ Gaelic football team’ he moaned. ‘Still, I’m loving it here, though.’ ‘So, what do you do out here?’ I asked. ‘This.’ He replied, pointing to the shots of tequila in front of him. ‘They pay me to come to this club with me foreign friends and party. It’s great. I drink for free all night, and they give me a bit of commission.’ He’d brought at least 30 people with him tonight. They all knew him, he was popular with all, and a clear ladies man. His Irish charm effortlessly attracting both Taiwanese girls and foreigners. ‘Come, have a bleedin’ drink. What’chya want?’ He offered. Soon, I was up with him and his 30 mates on stage, dancing in front of the DJ booth and looking down on the sea of faces gyrating on the dancefloor. Gary and his mob were invincible. Young, lots of friends, popular, in a foreign country where you are feared as much as respected, where you are an attraction and a novelty, with money, time and freedom. I used to be like that. In Osaka, when we all used to go out in mobs of 30 or 40, we were the same. We didn’t go to a party, we were the party. The time of our lives.
I left before I could get too nostalgic or drunk. I said goodbye, got in a taxi, went back to the hotel. A great day, and a great night, in this surprisingly great city. I left the next morning to go back to Singapore, and suddenly Singapore seemed very very plastic and small. Taipei – a real place, real people….Singapore….Butlins for adults on heat.