The Wrong End of the Blow Torch
The Fire Doctor of Taipei has coated my back with a brown paste of herbs, covered me with a towel, and spritzed on some alcohol. After lowering the lights, he tells me to be calm, and then lights up the blowtorch. I hear a sound not unlike that of a gas burner being lit, and catch the reflection of flames off a nearby mirror. It takes a few moments to register that the source of the fire is my back, followed by the sudden rush of intense heat.
For over a dozen years, Master Hsieh Ching-long has been using open flame to rid the pain. Master Hsieh (pronounced Shay) created fire therapy a dozen years ago after medical training in Beijing, applying his knowledge of traditional medicine, martial arts, and pyromania to invent a powerful treatment for muscle aches and sports injuries. Photos on display in his small clinic depict the doctor with several dozen local celebrities, and he tells me that business is booming. “Not anybody can heal with flame,” says the Fire Doctor. It requires years of martial arts training, so that you can channel your inner energy and use your hands as iron. I’m not sure what this means exactly, but it sounded comic-book cool, and when he demonstrated the above by ripping an apple in half with his thumbs, I knew I was in good hands.
Being set alight was my thrill of choice in Taiwan, the “other” China. Officially recognized by only 23 countries, the island nation lives in a constant state of tension with its larger Chinese neighbour, with mainland invasion just a few missiles away. Established in 1949 after the communist revolution, Taiwan’s US-supported economy boomed, its democracy flourished, and today it is amongst the sharpest claws of the Asian Tiger economies. With political rhetoric heating up, many look to the success of Hong Kong as a potential future for the peaceful reintegration of Taiwan and China. In the meantime, I had my own heat to deal with.
I was hoping Master Hsieh could use his able hands, scarred with burns over time, to untie the thick plane knots in my back. My treatment would come in three stages. Firstly, he would use heated glass cups to realign the energy. Gwyneth Paltrow popularized this treatment a couple years back when she revealed the source of the circular purple welts on her back. It was only during my second treatment, when the blowtorch was fired up, that my nerves began sweating. The herb paste burns for a several seconds before the good doctor douses the flames with a towel, and massages the intense heat into my skin. “Now for the dangerous part,” he says, in which open flame is applied directly to the skin. Photos of other patients on the wall showed grilled skin, lines like steak on a barbeque. I sit upright, and feel the flame rolled down my back on cotton doused in alcohol. It hurts. A lot. I smell the sickly-sweet scent of skin being scorched. Finally, the doctor uses his vice-grip hands for a deep tissue massage, and signals the end of the treatment. My back is bright red, but thankfully free of burn marks. I step out into the heat of Taipei, my adrenaline ablaze; the stiff muscles from yesterday’s long-haul flight slashed, burned, and cast off into oblivion.
Master Hseih Ching-long’s Fire Clinic is located at No.2, Sec. 1, Chenggong Rd., Nangang District, Taipei City 115, Taiwan. Treatments typically last 40 minutes, and cost around $35 per session. Different skin can react to open flame in different ways, and heat bruises are common.
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After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.