It’s a well-known fact that relations between Taiwan and China have improved vastly over the last few years, but for some reason it seems no-one has told the military stationed on the two northernmost islands of the Matsu group, the stunning isles of Dongyin and Xiyin.
If the army presence on Beigan seemed greater than on the three islands I’d visited before it, it was nothing compared to the iron grip in which the military continue to hold these two isolated islands (joined together by a causeway), over fifty kilometers north of their nearest neighbour in the Matsu group, and representing the northernmost territory of Taiwan.
Dongyin is generally regarded as the most scenically stunning of the Matsu islands, which, at its best, it certainly is. The island’s easternmost peninsula, on which can be found the famous ‘Suicide Cliff’, the island’s historic lighthouse, and the extraordinary formation ‘A Thread of Sky’ (among other amazing natural wonders) represents some of Taiwan’s most fabulous coastal scenery: it’s quite simply stunning.
Unfortunately however, until the military finally relinquish their still almost paranoid grip on the island (and there are signs that they are letting go, although slowly), and nature is allowed to take over and soften the cruel blemishes and scars, as it has in Nangan and the two ‘Dog’ islands, visitors to these spots of dramatic beauty will have to put up with some pretty unsightly country in between, and play along with the military as it continues to enforce a number of simple but irritatingly unnecessary formalities.
Pick one tourist sight, any sight, on either of the islands, and you’ll almost certainly have to deal with a soldier or two, and many of them really like to blow their whistles at you, direct traffic or just act stiff and intimidating. To be fair I met a couple of very friendly guys in green, who seemed happy to talk to a foreigner and point the way ahead with a few friendly ideas, but far more likely is the ubiquitous order forbidding you to take pictures of any military personnel or buildings while snapping the tourist sights (you’ll hear that everywhre you go here). And you’re constantly being watched – all the time – at some of the more sensitive spots.
On Dongyin and Xiyin I finally abandoned my ‘if a road is not blocked, explore it anyway and see if it turns up anything interesting’ principle, which had done me proud on previous days, turning up some fabulous views. Gun totting soldiers are everywhere here, and it’s as if they’re always on the lookout for foreign spies. To make it worse direction signs are not always very clear and I got whistled at and motioned to turn back several times after accidentally taking the wrong road at a fork.
Still, there are some awesome photo ops here (Andong Keng Dao pops up one supeme surprise at the end of one of its many long, black tunnels) , some of Taiwan’s most unusual and fascinating geological marvels, and Taiwan never looked more like Cornwall than here. Brits feeling homesick for the old country should come here, and (assuming they can faze out the heavy military presence) they’ll truly feel just like they’re back in the old country.
Just don’t make Dongyin the only stop on a Matsu tour. Nangan and Dongju, especially, offer a far more relaxing experience, and between them the (relative) freedom to explore some of the island group’s other greatest military-built, cultural and natural sights.