With my third day here over and four islands ticked off, Matsu is already guaranteed a place as one of my very favorite corners of this extraordinary country of Taiwan. Matsu may be about as off the beaten track as it’s possible to get in Taiwan, but (ironically enough considering the army is still a very conspicuous presence throughout the islands) one of the great pleasures in being here is the enormous freedom to explore at will. Between them, ferries and motorbikes (which can be borrowed from hotel and homestay owners on each island) provide enough mobility for one of the best island-hopping experiences in eastern Asia, with a little advance planning.
Taking a ferry back from Dongju to Nangan, then another from Nangan onwards to Beigan (北竿) island today was itself an experience. Here are none of the modern yachts that speed tourists comfortably to touristy places such as Keelung and Turtle Mountain Islands, around the Blue Highway off Danshui, and out to Xiaoliuqiu in Pingdong Country. Refreshingly, the boats here aren’t intended for tourists at all, but as an essential means of daily transport for local people, so there’s none of the plush upholstery, sparkling hull, and captain dressed in bleached whites. The boats here are old but sturdy, the cabin arrangement reminds of the seating inside Taiwan’s intercity buses a decade or so ago, the pilot chews betlenut or smokes, and the passengers are mostly soldiers, with a sprinkling of locals and the occasional tourist from mainland Taiwan (easily distinguished by their new, fashionable clothes and sun hat).
Getting around and between the six main islands of the Matsu group is a breeze, although it takes a little time to work out the ferry timetable, which changes each month and (on some routes) even between odd and even days. Getting aboard the boat is itself an interesting demonstration of the pecking order that exists here. As a foreigner I’m mostly invisible, and take my place with the other civilians milling around in a small cluster, waiting to board. The soldiers on the other hand, which always form the large majority of passengers on any boat, have to form an orderly line, standing behind the rest of us. They’re mostly college-age kids who drew the shortest of straws and ended up here, and are treated pretty sloppily. As we wait for the disembarking passengers to get off, the boys in green, hauling big and very heavy packs off the boat and on to the dock, are told off by the irritated old lady checking tickets for being too slow. It’s almost oven-hot standing out here under the full glare of the midday sun waiting for the welcome shade of the boat’s cabin, but no-one seems to pity the soldiers, who have to wait longer than the rest of us to get out of the heat, and they, in full uniform, have to lug their great heavy packs around. Lord alone knows what must be in them; bricks perhaps.
Disembarking off a boat onto a new island is always much anticipated. I’m generally off the boat before I get a clear sight of my latest destination (the windows of the boat are so dirty and covered with dried salt it’s hard to clearly see anything out of them). The first thing to do is find a bed for the night and a scooter to get me around. Unfortunately the harbor on each island isn’ t always conveniently near the island’s biggest (or sometimes only) village, yet I’ve had no problems so far. Arriving on Dongju yesterday, I was offered a ride up to the island’s main settlement in a Taiwan Electricity van, which was just as well, because the walk, which looked short on the map, was up a long, steep hill with no shade. Today I did even better; on Beigan island there’s a scooter hire place right beside the harbor, which is also a good thing, as it’s four or five kilometers from there (once again over a steep hill) to the main village, on the opposite side of the island.
That scooter hire shop is something of a rare phenomenon on Matsu; instead the island dwellers have the wonderful and very convenient custom of renting their own scooters out to visitors staying at their hotel or homestay. No driving license or ID needed, and no helmet provided. The only problem with this quaint practice is that many of the machines are barely roadworthy. Riding around Dongju yesterday, the brake lever on my scooter broke half-way round the island, and I had to complete the circuit with only one usable brake, which is actually quite dangerous, since the Matsu islands consistently have some of the longest, steepest hills that I’ve ever encountered in Taiwan. Descending the longest, scariest hill of the day, I had to drag my left foot along the ground while jamming on the solitary brake in an effort to stop myself from accelerating too fast. Matsu is one place where riding a geared motorbike (if such a thing existed here) would be a far safer proposition.
Apart from a few minor mishaps, I’ve made my way around very successfully so far. Just before lunchtime today I accidentally drove off on someone else’s scooter (everyone always leaves their keys in the ignition here; it’s that safe). Luckily I realized my mistake in a few moments and drove back, casing a good laugh. Not quite so funny, today’s smart new rental bike fell off its stand while I was investigating some armoured tanks, and the brake lever bent right around like a crooked stick. Hope the bloke doesn’t notice it when I take it back to the shop tomorrow.
These islands are so small you could walk from end to end of most of them in just a few hours, but for all that can go wrong having a scooter gives time to explore the many unsignposted side roads. Often marked with abandoned guard boxes, machine gun turrets and various other paraphernalia, I soon realised that the only out-of-bounds ones are (usually) pretty obviously barred with big spiked wheels, tire-blowing chains and the like, plus sometimes a machine-gun-bearing soldier as well. It’s a bit intimidating at first, but after a day or two I’ve become quite bold, and found some of the finest views over chains of islands or into deep chasms in the cliffs, as well as eerie, abandoned military strongholds, by exploring these unguarded side lanes. If there’s no armed guard, no chains that will rip through my scooter wheels, and no other tangible barrier across the road, chances are it’s not forbidden to explore it. For some reason however, this rule doesn’t apply on Beigan Island, as I continuously found myself driving innocently onto military-occupied land today, to be told by a soldier that I shouldn’t be there, although by doing so I did manage to briefly enjoy the fantastic view from the army-controlled summit of Mt Bi (壁山), the highest point in the Matsu archipelago, before being turned back.
So how does Beigan rank alongside the other islands? The most scenic parts of the island are its remotest corners: the two far ends. Mount Nigu, which looms over the island’s southernmost extremity, has some huge, wide open panoramas over nothing but open grasslands, some impressive cliffs, and the offshore Clam Island. At the opposite end of the island, beyond the airport, Houao (actually a separate island, joined to Beigan by a natural sandbar) has several interesting abandoned army tunnels, which give access to some precarious and very scenic cliffside views, and the fine Luoshan Trail, which has plenty of fine views over some of Beigan’s loneliest and most unspoilt countryside.
The island’s most popular and valuable attraction however is none of these worthy candidates, but is instead the famous, much photographed old village of Chinbi. This place has been described as the main tourist attraction in the whole Matsu archipelago, and upon seeing it from the coast road below, my impression was ‘what the hell were they thinking? I was horribly disappointed. Admittedly, if you sit in just the right place (hint: try one of the parasols set up on the terraces in front of the village’s two popular coffee shops) the view of old granite houses, tumbling down the steep hillside to a bay of still, blue-green water, out of which looms the low dome of Turtle Island, really is quite magical. But move your head ever so slightly, and the electricity poles, the forest of power cables, and (the worst offender of all) the pair of hideous white hotel buildings (all concrete and white tiles) perched above the village destroy the illusion of beauty far more surely than that building in London Prince Charles once memorably described as a ‘monstrous carbuncle’.
I did finally discover that the beauty of Chinbi village could be appreciated pretty well by taking one of the two footpaths that wind down the steep wooded hillside above down to the village, giving some gorgeous partial views of the houses with the bay behind. However I still can’t shake the feeling that the place would be immeasurably nicer if someone took a wreaking ball to those ugly great white monsters hanging over the view.
The list of ‘official’ tourist attractions on Beigan is quit short because, frankly, there aren’t so many, compared with some of Matsu’s more alluring islands like Nangan or Dongyin. Ugly development (rubbish dumps, building sites etc) have horribly disfigured the countryside in several places, the island’s flooded Beihai Tunnel is a pale shadow of its breathtaking counterpart on nearby Nangan, and the military have hogged the island’s best viewpoint: the summit of Matsu’s highest point, Mount Bi, leaving tourists to make do with a roadside viewing platform.
This ain’t Kenting, but the beaches are easily the best in Matsu. The nicest, which stretches north for about six hundred meters from Beihai Tunnel, is a beautiful and relatively secluded place for a seaside walk, although the more popular destination for local swimmers (the water doesn’t look very clean though) is Tangao Golden Sand Beach, actually a sand bar connecting the main island with the offshore islet of Houao. This must have once been an awesome natural landmark, until the island’s airport runway was built right across its middle.
It’s tiring work exploring by scooter and on foot, and tomorrow I get to slow down a little, spending the whole day here on Beigan Island. It’s a big one. I don’t regret for a minute returning early from Malaysia. This is a bigger, more fun adventure than many a trip I’ve taken abroad in the last few years, cheaper too, and it just keeps on throwing up fun or strange new experiences.
Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.