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Snake in the glass

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Snake Blood WineA slurp of serpent's blood, whether it lifts the libido or not, gives Jano Gibson a true taste of Taipei. 'Want to drink some snake blood?" asks a tall, balding man with a green-and-black snake writhing and hissing in his hands.

 

It's been less than two hours since my plane landed in Taipei on a chilly spring night. Already, I've narrowly avoided being mowed down by a maniac on a motor scooter and prostitutes have propositioned me outside my hotel. So, snake blood? Heck, why not? Skolling reptilian bodily fluids might do some good - perhaps even cure jet lag.

 

But before I can find out, four young local men - one with "Suicidal Tendencies" inscribed on his baseball cap - push past and enter the snake handler's brightly lit blood-drinking diner. It's one of a handful of outlets that spruik the supposed aphrodisiac qualities of snake blood in Taipei's salacious Snake Alley, an enclosed night market filled with sex-toy shops, foot-massage parlours and herbal-remedy outlets.

 

The four young men order the house specialty - shots of snake blood and venom followed by snake-bone soup. As with a fast-food restaurant, it takes only seconds to deliver the goods. But those who gather around to see the "delicacies" need to be prepared - it's like watching a horror movie. The snake curls and whips its body in agony as the handler slits open its chest and rips out a heart that continues beating for several minutes. Then its body is stretched vertically and clamped at each end as droplets of red blood fall into a plastic jug half-filled with water.

 

"It looks like watermelon juice," someone says, as the snake's disembowelled body continues to slap around in its final throes.

 

The snake handler pours the red liquid into shot glasses, which the young men enthusiastically swig. They high-five each other and await their next course. Having witnessed enough gore for one night, I leave them to it and wander back to the hotel for a good night's sleep - the first of five nights I'm spending in the city as part of a package tour.

 

Taipei, in the north of the small, mountainous island of Taiwan, is a bustling metropolis of 2.6 million people. The city is home to the world's largest collection of Chinese art.

 

Its food, be it barbecued chilli squid from a street stall or a bowl of beef noodle soup at a top-notch restaurant, is as good as any in Asia. There are natural hot springs in the forested mountains that surround the city. And nearby is a jaw-dropping gorge that some consider the eighth natural wonder of the world.

 

It's a city where, almost everywhere, tradition and modernity stand side by side: ancient temples alongside space-age shopping malls selling the latest in high-tech gadgetry; old teahouses competing against an influx of Starbucks cafes; and traditional herbal-remedy stores neighbouring interactive gaming arcades filled with youngsters.

 

Even the world's tallest skyscraper, the recently completed Taipei 101, embodies an old-meets-new juxtaposition. The 508-metre-high grey goliath, which dominates the city's skyline, is modelled on a shoot of bamboo - a Chinese symbol of resilience and strength.

 

The view from the top of the building is phenomenal. The city looks like a snakes-and-ladders board, with networks of highway winding above grids of grey apartment blocks. Tiny yellow taxis and blue buses seem to dawdle at a snail's pace in the streets below. Through the thick smog you can make out the majestic mountains of the Yangmingshan National Park.

 

An excursion to the park is among the day trips in the package tour. It takes about an hour to drive to Yangmingshan - a quiet and peaceful place, with dense, green forests opening out onto pretty, manicured gardens. In spring, young couples come here to stroll through azaleas, rhododendrons and Japanese cherry blossoms. However, the natural hot springs are the No. 1 drawcard.

 

There are three rules at the hot springs - bathe naked, shower before entering the baths and, most importantly, don't do anything that might make other guests feel uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable just stripping off in front of the five middle-aged Taiwanese blokes who have also come to Yangmingshan in the tour bus. But they don't seem the least bit put off by all the birthday suits and, after about 10 minutes, it feels natural wandering about the outdoor bathing section stark naked.

 

The section has three man-made bathing pools: one at a calming 37 degrees, another at a fiery 45 degrees and a third at a shivery 15 degrees. Dipping into the third one after the hottest pool makes you know you're alive. After an all-too-brief hour of wonderful indulgence, the tour bus driver musters us up and takes us to the hotel.

 

It comes as a shock, being back in the big smoke after such a blissful experience. But I know the perfect remedy. On my first morning in Taipei, I had discovered a little stall around the corner from my hotel that sells pearl tea - a sweet, milky drink with balls of tapioca to chew on at the bottom of the cup. The stall is run by a wrinkly old man who has a Confucius-style white beard and a good grasp of English.

 

I tell him about the hot springs and how great it is that Taiwan is on the Ring of Fire, without which there would be no such springs. He agrees, but says that living on top of volatile tectonic plates has its risks. A huge earthquake in 1999 toppled buildings across the country and left thousands dead, including a good friend of his.

 

"What do you do if you feel an earthquake?" I ask. He strokes his beard silently and a big smile spreads across his face. "Pray to God. What else can you do?"

 

It's not quite the pragmatic response I expect, but it's an insight into a society under constant threat - both from seismic activity and from Taiwan's neighbour, China.

 

Just 165 kilometres of sea separates Taiwan from China, but the divide between the pair seems insurmountable. Their feud has been simmering since China's nationalist president, Chiang Kai-shek, was toppled by the Communists in 1949 and fled to Taiwan. The region has been on a knife edge since. China has 800 missiles aimed at its recalcitrant province and the US is ready to protect Taiwan at all costs.

 

One of the tension points between the pair is the collection of Chinese art stored at Taipei's National Palace Museum. The museum, part of which is undergoing renovations until July, houses 650,000 Chinese artefacts - the largest collection of its kind in the world. Some treasures, including jade carvings, paper scrolls, ceramic teapots and i originally in Beijing. It was hastily moved to Taiwan in 1949, when it became apparent the Communists were going to take over in the mainland. It was thought they would destroy the collection because they considered it a symbol of the bourgeoisie. Legend has it that not a single artefact was damaged during its relocation to Taiwan.

 

One of the most remarkable items on display is a miniature boat sculpted from olive stone. Created almost three centuries ago, the three-dimensional boat is only a quarter the size of a matchbox car. Yet the sculptor has created an intricately shaped boat with people inside. With the help of a magnifying glass you can see someone boiling a pot of tea and another person steering the boat.

 

On the first night in Taiwan, I watched as a snake was gruesomely sacrificed. And yet, for some reason, and with just a few hours left before the flight back to Sydney, I decide to do the unthinkable and drink snake blood. I'm not quite sure why I've made such a decision. Perhaps it's to do something outrageous that I'd never ordinarily do. Perhaps it's the journalist in me wanting to test claims that snake blood is an aphrodisiac. Or maybe, after surviving five days in a foreign land, I've deluded myself that I'm as tough as Indiana Jones.

 

Whatever the case, I'm too much of a wimp to watch another snake die and will drink the gory stuff only if it has been prepared for some other blood-thirsty patrons. When I head back to Snake Alley, a young couple is dining there. They've downed their shots of snake blood and poison and are slurping down a bowl of snake-bone soup. The snake handler has some blood left over in a jug. He pours the red liquid into a clear shot glass and hands it to me.

 

The couple stop their slurping to watch me sink the shot. The handler eagerly awaits my reaction. First, I smell it. It has a sweet aroma. Then, tentatively, I br ing the glass to my lips and take a tiny sip. It's not viscous or bitter, as I'd imagined it would be, but watery and sweet, like lolly water or watermelon juice. Feeling emboldened, I down the whole drink in one gulp.

 

In the hours that follow, I experience no heightened sense of awareness, no mythical powers and certainly no serpent-like anatomical adjustments. But from now on, whenever a discussion comes up at dinner parties about what is the strangest thing you've ever consumed, I can say that I drank the blood of a snake.

 

 

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