The Taiwan Strait Islands Travel Guide

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The Taiwan Strait Islands, sprinkled across the windswept channel that separates Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China, hold endless fascination for travellers and Chinese history buffs. With enormous geopolitical significance that far transcends their tiny size, the islands to this day form a natural buffer between the two versions of China.

Closest to the main island of Taiwan, the Penghu Archipelago is littered with ruins from the Dutch colonial period as well as successive Chinese regimes, and boasts some of Asia’s most magnificent golden-sand beaches and unspoilt coral reefs. In the warmer months, regular commuter ferries allow for easy island-hopping here, opening up possibilities for a variety of watersports, from the region’s most underrated snorkelling and diving to some of the world’s most celebrated windsurfing. In addition, the curious basalt columns that buttress the sheer cliffs of many of Penghu’s islands give them a mysterious, primordial dimension and make them eminently photogenic.

Kinmen and the MatsuIslands, huddled just off the mainland Chinese coast, were once among the world’s most austere Cold War flashpoints but are now becoming the main bridges for closer ties between Taiwan and the People’s Republic. Despite the damage caused to these islands by heavy PRC bombardment in the 1950s and 60s, many historic monuments and relics remain largely intact, testifying to their prolific histories and strategic importance as maritime trading entrepôts. Kinmen, an island of extensive tunnels and imposing military installations, boasts especially well-preserved Ming dynasty structures and entire villages of hybrid Chinese-European houses.

Kinmen

The islands of KINMEN (金門; jīnmén), huddled just over 2km off the mainland Chinese coast, are among Taiwan’s most fascinating travel destinations, with a wealth of historic, cultural and culinary delights rolled into one of the most heavily fortified places on earth. Once the front line in the struggle between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, the main islands of Kinmen and Lieyu are seemingly impregnable fortresses. Indeed, if you’re looking for a beach, think again; the superstitious Chinese fear of the sea is still much in evidence here, and beaches remain underdeveloped or littered with rusting iron spikes. Yet within this harsh exterior, and in between myriad military sites, some of Taiwan’s most emblematic culture thrives, largely undiluted by outside forces and the encroachment of modernism.

Kinmen is home to an impressive concentration of historic structures, from Ming-dynasty memorial arches and Qing-inspired burial mounds to “Western-style houses” (yánglóu), actually European-Fujianese hybrid structures built by prosperous Kinmen natives who made their fortunes in southeast Asia. Scattered all over the island are Kinmen’s signature folk icons, the most common of which are the intriguing stone wind-lion god statues (風獅爺; fēngshīyé) that for centuries have watched over the island’s villages and are believed to protect them from the ravages of heavy winds and storms.

In 1995, much of the island became Taiwan’s sixth national park – the only one dedicated to the preservation of historic monuments and battlefield memorials. Many once-important military sites have been decommissioned and are now open to the public, giving tangible insights into the grim reality that for Kinmen’s hardy residents has only recently begun to brighten.

A brief history

Though archaeological evidence suggests that Kinmen was inhabited as long as 6500 years ago, it was not until 317 AD that the first traceable ancestors of contemporary Kinmen clans moved to the island to escape turmoil in central China. This settlement was on a small scale however, and the island remained a cultural backwater until the Tang dynasty, when the ancestors of twelve clans, led by Chen Yuan, arrived to breed and raise horses in 803. The horse-breeding efforts met with limited success, and much of Kinmen’s development over the next few centuries consisted in the establishment of oyster farms. In 1297, a salt mine was set up to supply the mainland. In the following centuries the island became a popular hiding place for Chinese and Japanese pirates. In the 1640s, the Ming loyalist general Koxinga occupied the island and used it while preparing his navy to fight against the Qing forces that had overrun China. During his reign, many of the island’s indigenous trees were felled for use in shipbuilding, leaving much of Kinmen barren and subject to the severe winds that dominate the Taiwan Strait.

After the Opium War in 1842, when the nearby city of Xiamen became one of China’s five treaty ports, many Kinmen residents began travelling to Southeast Asia via Xiamen to do business, in the process amassing considerable wealth, which they used to build lavish, European-inspired houses back home. But when the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, Japanese forces immediately seized the island and occupied it for eight years, bringing to an end its most prosperous period. In 1949, Kinmen bore the brunt of another invasion force, this time from Chiang Kai-shek’s retreating Nationalist army, which used the island as the front line in its preparations to recover mainland China from Mao Zedong’s Communists. On August 23, 1958, the Communists launched a brutal artillery attack on Kinmen, firing almost 475,000 shells in 44 consecutive days of bombing. The shelling continued intermittently for the next twenty years. Since the lifting of martial law in 1987, Kinmen has undergone a small-scale renaissance, with promising economic ties to mainland China being forged, setting the stage for a new period of growth and development.

Getting an edge on the enemy

By far the most unique of Kinmen souvenirs – and the most telling of its recent history – is the amazing range of cutlery forged and fashioned from melted-down artillery encasements left over from mainland attacks. With more than 970,000 shells having pounded Kinmen over a twenty-year period, there is a seemingly endless supply of raw materials, and industrious locals have learnt how to make a living from designing knives, meat cleavers, axes and even swords from the spent casings.

Although you’ll find the cutlery for sale in shops all over Jincheng, usually starting at about NT$900 for a basic knife or meat cleaver, the creations of Maestro Wu’s Steel Knives (金合利鋼刀; jīn hé lì gāng dāo) are widely considered the finest; pen-knives are NT$900, with up to NT$2200 for the best cleavers. Founder Wu Chao Hsi, son of an iron caster who learned tool-making techniques in Xiamen during the Qing dynasty, carried on the family tradition with Allied bomb shells in World War II, and continued during the years of mainland bombardment, transforming the exploded casings into magnificent instruments (after 1958 he used mostly propaganda shells that only partly broke up). His business continues to thrive under third-generation Wu Tseng-dong, drawing on Japanese designs, with outlets all over Kinmen and a glitzy showroom on a small square just off Juguang Road (51 Wujiang St), just outside the Qing Dynasty Military Headquarters, and a store at 21 Mofan St. The showroom is a good place to buy the cutlery, and staff can arrange tours of their workshops.

The Matsu Islands

Poised tantalizingly close to the coast of mainland China’s Fujian province, the MATSU ISLANDS (馬祖列島; mǎzŭ lièdǎo) are second only to Kinmen in their proximity to the PRC – a fact that explains the formidable displays of military force on most of them. The archipelago is geographically, historically and culturally distinct from mainland Taiwan. Its inhabitants’ ancestors originally migrated from northern Fujian, and here more than anywhere else their traditional ways of life are preserved. In addition to upholding their fishing heritage, most of the islanders speak the Minbei dialect, commonly referred to in English as the “Fuzhou” dialect – it’s markedly different from the “Minnan” (southern Fujian) dialect that’s predominantly spoken throughout Taiwan.

Although the archipelago comprises nineteen islands and islets, only six of them are accessible to tourists, each with a distinct flavour and appeal. While the main island and tourist centre, Nangan, has the greatest variety of attractions, the less crowded Beigan has the best beaches and examples of northern Fujianese architecture. Hilly Dongyin and Xiyin – which are connected by a causeway – feature the most striking topography, and the sister islands of Dongju and Xiju are brimming with historic landmarks. In fair weather, all the islands can easily be reached via ferries originating at Nangan, but you should allow at least a week if you want to visit all of them at a leisurely pace. Given the distance required to travel here from mainland Taiwan, it makes sense to take your time and soak up the atmosphere at each one.

Although the entire archipelago is named “Matsu”, locals and Taiwanese tourists routinely refer to the biggest, most visited island of Nangan as “Matsu” as well: according to legend, the Chinese goddess Mazu’s dead body washed ashore on one of its beaches.

The best period to visit is from late May to September, as warm weather and clear visibility allow for regular flights and ferry services. The islands are shrouded in thick fog from March to early May and battered by heavy winds in winter, making air and sea connections highly erratic and visits far less enjoyable at these times.

A brief history

The Matsu Islands were first settled in the mid-1300s, when fishermen from China’s Fujian province used them for shelter during stormy weather and eventually set up permanent bases. The heaviest migration took place in the 1600s, when boatloads of mostly northern Fujianese refugees began arriving in the wake of the Manchu invasions from northeastern China. Throughout much of the Qing dynasty the islands were plagued by piracy, with periodic raids forcing many settlers at least temporarily to abandon their homes. Unlike the rest of Taiwan, the Matsu Islands were never colonized by the Japanese, and they remained sleepy fishing outposts until 1949, when the retreating Nationalists seized them along with Kinmen and built numerous military installations to fend off advances by mainland Communists. In August 1954, the Nationalist government sent 15,000 troops to Matsu, instigating an artillery bombardment by the Communists. The shelling continued steadily until 1956, when the US supplied the Nationalists with sophisticated weaponry that effectively countered the Communist offensive, and the bombing continued only sporadically until August 1958, when the Communists resumed a massive artillery attack on the island and threatened to invade. The US responded by deploying its Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait, providing naval aircraft that enabled the Nationalists to establish control of the region’s airspace. In October 1958, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong proposed a deal: if US warships stayed away from the mainland coastline, the Communists would only bomb the strait islands on odd-numbered days. The offer was rejected at first, but two years later the Americans and Taiwanese agreed and the alternate-day shelling continued until 1978.

Martial law wasn’t lifted on Matsu until 1987, but since then the military presence has been gradually scaled back and local businesses have increasingly turned towards tourism. In recognition of the islands’ unique history and culture, the archipelago was designated the Matsu National Scenic Area in 1999. In 2001 Matsu (and Kinmen) received an economic boost with the implementation of the Three Small Links agreement, which allows local residents to engage in limited direct travel and trade with mainland China.

Beigan

The archipelago’s second-largest island, BEIGAN (北竿; běigān) has charming villages and superb scenery, including several secluded beaches with dramatic mountain backdrops. Beigan once boasted the Matsu Islands’ only airport and was the nerve centre for tourism, but since the 2003 opening of the Nangan Airport it has become sleepy even by comparison with its bucolic neighbour to the south. Although some tourists still fly to Beigan from Taipei, many arrive by ferry from Nangan and spend a night in a rustic village homestay.

Nestled in the island’s northwest corner is the village of QIAOZAI (橋仔; qiáozǎi), so named because of the many small bridges that span the gullies carrying runoff from nearby Leishan (雷山; léishān). While most villages in Matsu were settled by northern Fujianese, Qiaozai is unique in that it was founded by fishermen from the southern part of the province. Once Beigan’s biggest, most affluent village, these days it’s not much more than a laid-back fishing settlement, although it is noted for having more temples than any other village in the Matsu Islands.

To the west of Qiaozai along the main road is the unmistakable village of QINBI (芹壁; qínbì), with terrace upon terrace of two-storey stone houses tumbling down a hillside to the sea – arguably the archipelago’s most picturesque community. Spending a night in one of Qinbi’s rustic homestays is highly recommended, but even if you don’t stay here it’s definitely worth a stroll through its narrow lanes and up its steep steps. If time permits, a short swim across the shallow water to Turtle Islet (龜島; guīdǎo) – a granite outcrop in the middle of the bay – yields unrivalled views of the village as well as of the sea to the north.

Dongyin and Xiyin

Matsu’s most visually compelling islands are DONGYIN (東引; dōngyǐn) and XIYIN (西引; xīyǐn), two hilly tracts of land connected by a causeway at the archipelago’s northernmost point. Characterized by sheer granite cliffs that plunge dramatically to the sea, the scenery here is sublime – especially on the larger island of Dongyin, where most of the sights and all of the tourist amenities are located. Dongyin also has some standout historical sites, such as the solitary Dongyong Lighthouse that dominates the island’s far eastern tip.

Owing to their isolation, the islands get comparatively few tourists and locals tend to go well out of their way to make them comfortable. And, although both islands are still heavily militarized, even the soldiers are exceedingly friendly to the few visitors who make it here.

Accommodation

All of Dongyin’s accommodation is centred in the villages of Lehua, Nanao and Zhongliu, and consists of standard but affordable hotels whose management will often book onward ferry tickets for you without charging commission.

The Lao Yue Hotel, 29 Lehua Village (老爺大飯店; lǎoyé dàfàndiàn; t 0836/77168; NT$1001–1500), has small, clean rooms with TVs, some with views onto the harbour. Further up the hill, the Mingjian Star Hotel, 66 Zhongliu Village (明建星大飯店; míngjiànxīng dàfàndiàn; t 0836/77180; NT$501–1000), has basic rooms from NT$900, some with computers and free internet. Near the post office, the Xinhua Hotel, 46 Lehua Village (昕華飯店; xīnhuá fàndiàn; t 0836/77600; NT$1001–1500), is great value and has a restaurant and free internet café – it’s a short walk from here to the ferry pier. Comfy but with less style is the Yingbin Hotel, 78 Lehua Village (盈賓休閒旅館; yíngbīn xiūxián lǚguǎn; t 0836/76336; NT$1001–1500), with rooms from NT$1200.

Arrival and information

The easiest way to get here from mainland Taiwan is on the Keelung ferry, which stops at Dongyin’s Zhongzhu Harbour (中柱港; zhōngzhùgǎng) on even-numbered days. If you want to get here from Nangan, your only option is to take the Keelung ferry at 9.30am (odd-numbered days only; buy tickets at Fuao Harbour 7–8.30am). Tickets cost NT$350, and the boat usually arrives around 11.30am. In winter you also have the option of taking the helicopter from Nangan. There is no public transport on the islands, so you’ll probably need to rent a scooter or hire a taxi for sightseeing – walking is a possibility, but Dongyin is several kilometres in width and it would take the better part of a day to see the main sights on foot.

There are no scooter rentals at Zhongzhu Harbour, but it’s possible to rent them in the nearby villages of Lehua, Nanao or Zhongliu, all of which are clustered together on the hill that rises from the harbour and are a short walk or taxi ride from the pier. Some hotels in the villages will rent scooters for NT$500 a day without needing to see any identification.

The Dongyin Visitor Center (東引遊客中心; dōngyǐn yóukè zhōngxīn; daily 8am–noon & 1.30–5.30pm), 160–1 Lehua Village, has interesting English-captioned exhibits on the islands’ history.

Eating

Dongyin’s best eating places are down-to-earth and serve up mostly northern Chinese specialities. For dinner, try Zhen Shan Mei (珍膳美餐廳; zhēnshànměi cāntīng; daily 2–9pm; t 0836/77289), 93 Lehua Village, whose friendly owner learn how to make dumplings in Beijing. The most popular place for breakfast is Maiweideng (麥味登早餐; màiwèidēng zǎocān; daily 6am–3pm; t 0836-77255), 123 Zhongliu Village, which has morning goodies ranging from steamed buns and fried bread sticks to rice porridge and hot soy milk.

The Penghu Islands

The windswept PENGHU ISLANDS (澎湖群島; pénghú qǘndǎo) are considered national treasures by the Taiwanese, who invariably gush over their epic histories, striking topography, searing heat and, perhaps most of all, the brilliant fine-sand beaches that attract legions of holidaymakers every summer. Situated in the south of the strait, the sprawling archipelago stretches some 60km north to south and 40km east to west, encompassing 64 islands – only twenty of which are inhabited. The major population centres are on the main islands of Penghu (the largest island and the archipelago’s namesake), Baisha and Xi – the large landmasses that comprise the island chain’s heart. Sprinkled to the north and south of here are distinct groups of islets known as the North Sea Islands and the South Sea Islands, accessible by ferries operating from two separate hubs on Penghu, whose main town of Magong is the primary entry and exit point for most tourists.

The Penghu Islands are continually buffeted by strong northeasterly winds, which have weathered away their rock foundations, creating some of their biggest attractions – the magnificent basalt mesas that rise sharply from the sea in astonishing arrays of temple-like columns. The winds also make Penghu a major centre for windsurfing, particularly in winter, when Magong hosts one of the sport’s premier international competitions. The islands are also havens for other watersports such as sailing, sea kayaking, fishing and snorkelling.

Rounding out Penghu’s appeal is the rich assortment of historic sites scattered throughout the chain, and unusual local snacks such as dried squid, brown sugar cakes and peanut candy. You’ll need at least a week to see everything.

A brief history

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlements in Penghu were not formed until the early twelfth century. In 1281, shortly after the Mongols conquered China and founded the Yuan dynasty, they set up an official garrison to govern the islands.

During the late Ming period, Penghu’s population began to rise dramatically as droves of Fujianese fled the political and military upheaval on the mainland. The Dutch set up a temporary base in 1604, but the Ming government expelled them under threat of force. After failing to seize other outposts in the South China Sea, the Dutch returned in 1622, reoccupied the main island of Penghu and built a fort near Magong. In response, Ming forces attacked in 1624 and, after eight months of fighting, the Dutch signed a treaty that actually allowed them to build outposts on the main island of Taiwan in exchange for leaving Penghu.

In 1661, when Ming loyalist Koxinga was en route to Taiwan, he used Penghu as a base, and a garrison was later established here. But his family’s rule over the islands was short-lived: Qing-dynasty admiral Shi Lang seized Penghu in a naval battle in 1683. Just over two hundred years later, in 1884, the French briefly occupied Penghu, but their rule was also cut short when the Qing ceded the islands to Japan in the 1895 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Shimonoseki. Just over fifty years later, the archipelago again fell into Chinese hands, when the Nationalists seized it during their retreat from the mainland.

Following the lifting of martial law in 1987, Taiwanese began to visit and the archipelago was officially designated a national scenic area in 1995. Though development of Penghu has been decidedly low-key until now, the local government has been pushing to build a slew of giant five-star resorts and casinos to attract more international (read mainland Chinese) tourists. The plan was quashed, in its current form at least, by a referendum held in 2009 (56 percent of residents voted against the casinos).

Magong

Penghu Island (澎湖本島; pénghú běndǎo) is home to the archipelago’s biggest town, MAGONG (馬公; mǎgōng), which is also the major transport hub, with an abundance of hotels, restaurants and historic monuments. The downtown area itself is easy to navigate on foot: you can duck into the narrow lanes that traverse the old centre without fear of getting lost.

Wangan

The archipelago’s fourth-largest island, WANGAN (望安島; wàngān dǎo), is one of the highlights of a visit to the Penghu Islands, with secluded beaches, one of Taiwan’s best-preserved traditional fishing villages and the chain’s only nesting sites for the endangered green sea turtle. As with other islands, the best way to get around here is by scooter, especially if you want to see all the main sights.

One of the island’s biggest treats is the captivating Zhongshe Historic Village (中社古厝; zhōngshè gŭcuò) on the west side. Written records of the village date back about two hundred years, but locals claim it was first established about three hundred years ago. Although there is a small, ageing population, most of the houses have long since been abandoned, leaving the tiled roofs and coral walls to collapse. The upside of this neglect is that the village has retained its original dynastic layout, giving it a timeless aura. Just north of the village is Tiantai Hill (天台山; tiāntáishān; 53m), an excellent spot for a panoramic view of the island. On top of the hill is “God’s Footprint” (仙腳印; xiānjiǎoyìn) where, according to legend, the footprint of Lu Dong Bin – one of the most renowned of China’s “Eight Immortals” – is said to be embedded. According to the tale, the footprint was left after Lu stopped to relieve himself while walking through the Taiwan Strait. His other footprint is allegedly on top of a cliff on the east side of nearby Hua Islet (花嶼; huāyŭ).

About one kilometre north of the ferry pier is the Wangan Green Sea Turtle Conservation Center (望安綠蠵龜觀光保育中心; wàngān lǜxīguī guānguāng bǎoyù zhōngxīn), a museum with exhibits on all marine turtles endemic to the region. Wangan’s beaches are the only nesting sites in Penghu where green sea turtles return regularly to lay eggs, and the museum is mostly geared towards educating visitors about the importance of not disturbing them. The turtles usually mate in March and April and typically crawl onto Wangan’s southwestern beaches in May and June to lay eggs. If you’re visiting during this time, or even later in the summer, there’s a chance you could see them. However, access to these beaches is often restricted during this period.

Practicalities

It’s possible to fly between Wangan Airport (望安機場; wàngān jīchǎng; t 06/999-1806) and Kaohsiung. Daily Air offers one-way flights from Kaohsiung (35min; around NT$2000) in a small propeller-driven plane on Tuesday and Friday mornings (returning a few minutes later).

Multi-island boat tours starting from the South Sea Visitor Center call here for up to two hours as part of their circuits, but to really gain an appreciation of the island it’s best to stay overnight. Rent a scooter, as the sights are spread out (NT$200/2hr or NT$350/day, including a full tank of fuel; no driving licence required). The other option is to join a group of Taiwanese tourists on a whirlwind minivan tour for NT$150 per person.

A great place to stay on Wangan is the Chihshean Tourist Hotel (致仙屋海景民宿; zhìxiānwū hǎijǐng mínsù; t 06/999-1413; NT$1501–2000), 24 Dongan Village, which has spotless blond-wood chalets in a variety of sizes from doubles up (all en-suite with TVs).

South Sea ferries

Ferries to these islands leave from the South Sea Visitor Center (南海遊客中心; nánhǎi yóukè zhōngxīn; daily 6.30am–5.30pm; t 06/926-4738), at 25 Xinying Rd in Magong. Here a couple of private operators offer a variety of tours; weather permitting, these sail daily to Tongpan, Hujing, Wangan and Qimei for around NT$700, leaving at 7.30–8.30am and returning in mid-afternoon – the boats make very short stops at each island. For NT$500 you can visit the first three islands only (skipping Qimei), while NT$350 covers just Tongpan and Hujing. Try to buy tickets in advance.

Otherwise, to stay longer you need to take the public ferry, giving you the option of staying overnight. The ferry departs daily at 9am, arriving at Wangan at 9.45am (NT$278); it departs Wangan at around 10.05am and heads to Qimei (NT$443 from Magong). The boat leaves Qimei at 1.40pm to arrive at Wangan at 2.25pm; it then leaves Wangan at 2.40pm for arrival in Magong at 3.25pm.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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