March 25, 2008
Matsu - Nankan
I like to travel and recently I had been wanting to try something a bit different. So when a friend suggested Matsu, I jumped at the chance.
Apart from the main island of Taiwan, there are various islands and archipelagos belonging to Taiwan, of which Matsu is perhaps the most remote, at least of the inhabited ones. I had an image in my mind of remote stone houses set in wind swept fields with swirling fog and driving rain. Like I said, I wanted something a bit more challenging for this trip.
Matsu is an archipelago of 19 islands and islets in the Taiwan Strait, very close to China. In fact, on a clear day you can see the coast of China and stories persist of frogmen from either side of the Strait swimming across to perform nefarious acts on their counterparts. And this military influence is still very much present and gave the trip an interesting edge.
The two main islands are Nankan and Beikan with each having a small airport. You can fly to either from the domestic airport in Taipei (Songshan) but to get the most out the three days we had, we chose to fly into Nankan then back from Beigan.
It was a brisk 50 minute flight on a Uni-Air plane. Actually you can also take a ferry from Keelung, but it takes about ten hours to reach Matsu and with only three days for this trip, the plane won hands down.
Do note though, that getting to Matsu can be tricky. It is very prone to fog (especially from around March to May) when planes will not fly (thankfully). The waters can also be rough in which case the ferry will not sail from Taiwan. Then from June to October the islands get very busy, so make sure you book your hotel in advance.
Someone told me before the trip, "You have to love the sea to visit Matsu," and to a large extent that is true. If you have, and I quote, "seaphobia" then this might not be the place for you. You can see the sea from virtually every part of each island. Having grown up next to the coast, this was perfect for me. The clean air and fresh salty breeze which hit us after leaving the plane were great.
Nankan is the biggest island in the chain and the seat of the local government. It is also one enormous military base, literally the whole island. It seemed like every hill had been hollowed out,? every cliff had lookouts and every harbor a strong coastguard presence.
The military presence in general though has decreased dramatically in the last few decades, and there is a push to make the islands more of a tourist destination. In fact more and more of the military installations are now being opened to tourists, like the wonderful Beihai Tunnels (more later).
We decided to hire a car, although the bus service looks reasonable and you can hire scooters. The island only takes about half an hour to drive round, but with two, western sized passengers, a car seemed the more comfortable choice. Especially seeing as the roads are often steep and pushing a scooter uphill didn't seem like a good idea. Another option is to hire a taxi driver to take you round the island. If you have very limited time then you will see the most this way.
There are only three roads on the island, but it was still surprisingly easy to get lost. GPS devices work if you have one, and that did save us a couple of times. The interesting thing is that during this military/tourist crossover, you actually are allowed to drive through some of the military bases to get to your destination, for example the Nankan visitor center (which is well worth a visit). The general rule of thumb we were advised was, "If they (the soldiers) stop you, don't go there." This was seeming more like the rugged trip I had been looking for!
On a slightly more serious note though, don't try and take photos of military sites or staff without asking. We did ask a couple of times to be refused every time. This is still an active and sensitive military place after all.
Of places to go and see, try the Visitor Center first. They have a map and other information in English, including an introductory DVD which I recommend. Mark the places on the map that interest and off you go.
I thought the Beihai Tunnels were the highlight (and they are next to the Visitor Center). This enormous structure was blasted out of the granite cliffs and cleared by hand. The original purpose was allow small ships and landing craft to sail into them for safe unloading, but are now open to the public when the tide is low (check with the Visitor Center for opening times that day). Walking round you can almost hear the sounds of ships docking with relieved sailors having made the crossing from Taiwan.
Where the caves are perfect for foggy days, the fishing villages are better done in the light. There are nine dotted around the island, and most of them contain some examples of the old style architecture mixed in the newer buildings. Fushing Village (which used to be called Niuchiao Village and no one there seems to know why it was renamed) in particular is worth visiting. If you look carefully, you will find a restaurant in a converted house, which is apparently over 100 years old. The food is very good and the staff very friendly. If you look even more carefully, you will find a small tavern (bar). Perhaps the only place serving draft beer on the island (and strangely an Australian brew), you can at least have a flagon of a kind of ale and imagine the pirates of years gone by.
Actually when I asked why people set up shop on Matsu hundreds of years ago, the answers were either, "wealthy fishermen" or "traders", but no one mentioned pirates until I got back to Taiwan. A Matsu born couple now living in Taiwan took one look at the fishing villages and said straight away, "pirates". I am quite sure that there were fishermen and businessmen, but you can imagine the many coves of fog bound Matsu being perfect hideaways for pirates.
Another village worth mentioning is Jinsha (or possibly Tsinsha depending on the map again). This small village was practically deserted when the troops came, but people are slowly moving back. A lot of the buildings still lie in ruins (which can make for some great photos), but there is a large amount of regeneration going on. What I really liked about this was that they are preserving the architecture and rebuilding with the same materials. It is pretty unusual to see that anywhere else in Taiwan, and the areas they have already rebuilt are quite charming.
Most of these renovated buildings are becoming "homestays" which I think is another excellent idea. If you have four people in your group, you can have an entire building to yourselves and make it your Matsu home for a very reasonable price. Although it will take a few years to finish the whole area I'd imagine, this really is a glimpse of the future of Matsu I think, and it will make a really unique place to visit, or even stay for a while.
Another place that is familiar with most people in Taiwan (actually what most people now associate with Matsu) is Tunnel 88 and the famous grain liquor, kaoliang. You can visit the tunnels (where they store the "old wine" as well as the vats of kaoliang) and the "brewery". Be prepared though, you will have to sample some of the liquor before you leave, regardless of the time of day (there is no pressure to buy anything, this is just being friendly).
We chose one of the better hotels on the island, and although I can't mention the name here, it kind of reminded me of "Dawn of the Dead". Not that the hotel had anything to do with zombies. This was really off-season (March) so it was kind of empty, but very comfortable and the rooms had heaters (important with the cold sea air). More crucially for me, there was a great view of the sea and a nice little balcony outside the room where you could sit and enjoy the sound of waves.
There is plenty of accommodation though, but as I mentioned if you come in peak season, make sure you book well in advance.
There are also other sites to see, including a giant sign that can be seen in China, various memorial parks, other tunnels with guns still in place (we couldn't get them to fire though), a museum, the "Iron Fort" and more. The map has everything marked in English.
So after two days, we were off to the next island, Beikan.
•Previous article: The Strawberry Fields of Dahu
•Next article: Matsu - Beikan