Day two, and Matsu just gets better and better! Away from Nangan island (which is a half-way point for people travelling on the Three Mini Links to or from China), everything seems, if possible, even more peaceful, even more remote from Taiwan (it really feels like another country here) and, best of all, even more friendly. Not that the folk in Nangan are distant or unhelpful in any way (the owner of the hotel I stayed at last night gave me a free lift on his motorbike across the island to the ferry harbor this morning), it’s simply that on Dongju (東莒) the folk are unbelievably friendly, constantly breaking through that personal curse of mine, my awkward shyness, with offers of food, comments on where to go and what to see, and, a bit scarily, some really odd shellfish (at both lunch and dinner time today) which they’d only moments before collected from the beach nearby.
This evening, after being treated to a couple of tasty fried oysters, I was treated to a bizarre kind of shellfish (apparently only found here, my host told me proudly) that looked like a large snail, only the creature inside it was green and grey and about two inches long, tapering to a corkscrew point at the end just like a pig’s curly tail. ‘Dragon something-or-other’ he called it. With no way to refuse the offer, I simply put the whole thing in my mouth and started chewing on it in an effort to get the ordeal over with. It was only then my new friend told me that you shouldn’t eat the curly ‘tail,’ although I didn’t need him to tell me: it was god-awful bitter!
He then proceeded to show me how it should be done, digging a second of these shelled monsters out, pulling the spiral thingy off with his chopsticks, and offering me to enjoy. How could I refuse? It was still pretty awful, but luckily I’d already finished my meal and after swallowing it and waiting a moment or two so as not to seem impolite, I made a quick getaway before he could goad me – the sadistic bloke – into consuming any more: a big plate of them still sat on my table as I rushed for the door.
Lunchtime had already seen another culinary first, when I was invited to lunch at my homestay on Dongju island by the lovely family here. After a bowl of delicious crab noodles (yep, they’d caught the crabs themselves that morning) a large plate of small fried whole fish, heads and all was placed on the table in front of me and everyone started tucking in. The whole body, head, tail, guts, eyeballs – all of the fish was eaten, dipped in wasabi powder. Knowing there was no escape, I picked one of the slightly smaller ones, about twice the size of my thumb, dipped it in wasabi salt, and bit its head off. Actually it was very tasty, not at all fishy, and most of the bones dissolved in the mouth, although I could swear I felt on my tongue one of the eyeballs before it went down….
I’d better not say much about the places I saw today. Matsu is absolutely, sublimely stunning in this wonderful weather, but it’s a place best explored without knowing too much of the myriad wonderful little surprises and awesome vistas, bays, plunging cliffs, secluded little lakes and sandy beaches awaiting you here.
Today I crammed two tiny neighbouring islands, Xiju (西莒) and Dongju, into my itinerary, with another, much-anticipated morning tomorrow to savor the second at my leisure. Xiju and Dongju Islands (although I do like their former names, East and West Dog (西,東犬) even better) are the southernmost islands of the Matsu group, and with only four boats each day from Nangan Island, they’re much less often visited than that, the main island of Matsu, which is about an hour’s boat ride away. They’re also very small: Xiju forms a triangle about 1.5 kilometers along each side, and Dongju (a couple of kilometers to the east) is a long sausage about 4 kilometers long by just one wide. On the map they also look quite unprepossessing, with few of the red ‘tourist attraction’ labels that pepper the bigger islands of Nangan and Beigan (北竿), and with the highest hill on the two islands failing to reach two hundred meters, they don’t seem to promise much.
Dongju especially has some absolutely stunning scenery and I’ll come out and say it (and I don’t thing I’m likely to change my mind in the future) that it has some of the most magnificent coastal scenery in all Taiwan. Think of the awesome, rugged cliffs of Cornwall and you’ll know just what this glorious place looks like. The coastal cliffs along the east coast of the island really are that good!
The undoubted highlight of this whole trip so far was finding an unsignposted stone path (but then most of the paths here seem to be unsignposted) starting near Dongju’s famous old lighthouse (a real historic relic at 140 years old!) just as the sun was lowering this afternoon. The path winds along the edge of Dongju’s awesomely rugged east coast cliffs, which somehow glowed orange, even though the sun was setting behind them, teetering on the edge of dramatic sheer precipices and revealing deep new inlets and even a few gloomy caverns, cut deep into the granite. It made me think of the magnificent scenery of Bitoujiao (鼻頭角) and Lungdong ( 龍洞) on Taipei’s northeast coast. The cliffs here are at least the equal of those stunning places, possibly even more dramatic, yet (and here’s the point!) I had them completely, utterly, magically to myself.
Taiwan will never, ever, cease to amaze me.
More photos – Xiju Island: