According to the elegant phrase on the T-shirts sold at the gaggle of tacky souvenir stalls that greet new arrivals to Green Island stepping off the boat from Taitung, “Green Island is … F***ing Hot“. Actually for about half of our three days’ stay on the island, the weather was Bl**dy Chilly, as a front of cool, rainy weather coincided with our visit, but in another sense the blokes that coined that slogan got it right.
The line of souvenir stalls that set up to meet incoming boats is a first clue that tourism has come to Green Island (綠島) in a big way during the last few years, and the sea of scooters (many with the whole family aboard: we saw one poor vehicle groaning under the weight of five bodies!) soon confirm that this is no longer a sleepy, unspoilt backwater, at least during the summer high season.
The main village on the island, Nanliao (南寮), which starts about a kilometer north of the harbor, is a kilometer-long, ragtag strip lining the seafront, uncomfortably reminiscent of the main drag in Kenting. During open hours, the narrow street seems almost constantly jammed with scooters and pedestrians, who weave through and around each other in a chaotic kind of dance; it’s a miracle we didn’t see any accidents during our time there. Both sides of the street are lined with small restaurants, home stays, shops and ice bars selling seriously strange ‘desserts’ whose main ingredient (besides ice) is dried, shredded sea grass, an ingredient which makes those ices with taro and beans available everywhere else seem positively mainstream. At least so far there aren’t any noisy disco bars or nightclubs.
Green Island is ruled these days, it seems, by package tours, and we weren’t able to book a room unless we also bought the whole package including round-trip ferry tickets, a rental scooter, vouchers for a hot spring, a snorkeling lesson (!) and a mysterious-sounding ‘nighttime tour’. These deals actually work out pretty good value, and it’s a good way to avoid the minor hassle of sorting out times of ferries etc, but at the same time you’ll be assured of a uniquely Taiwanese experience. The snorkeling excursions (which never seem to run with less than a hundred or so people in a group) are directed with military discipline, and since half the snorkelers can’t swim, everyone has to hold on to brightly colored buoyancy rings, tied together in long strings and towed out over the shallow reef by flipper-wearing instructors. Eventually our instructor calmed down enough to let me and a couple of others let go of the ring and swim around a little, but only after we informed him we were qualified divers.
As evening falls, countless hundreds of hungry holidaymakers converge on the restaurant strip in Nanliao, or crowd into the string of BBQ joints out near the lighthouse, just north of the village, for supper, and an hour later, huge gangs of scooter riders (2, 3, even four on a bike) converge in swarms outside each home stay and hotel to take part in a summer-nightly phenomenon possibly unique to Green Island: the evening scooter safari. Seeing the great convoys of scooters, all cruising along the narrow roads that climb over the hilly grasslands in the north of the island and shooting powerful flashlight beams across the meadows and into the trees, it seems impossible that anyone would spot anything, but the island’s population of sika deer, which apparently outnumber its permanent residents, are pretty easy to find, and (snacking on a certain species of succulent shrub that grows along one road) we discover plenty of specimens of a rare species of stick insect unique to Green Island, which apparently once fetched daft sums of money when sold to eager Japanese collectors, before a law was passed to protect the remaining individuals.
All this is undeniably fun in a way, but thankfully Green Island has a lot more to offer than hanging out with the masses. It’s not as jaw-droppingly scenic as Lanyu or the loveliest islands of Matsu, but it certainly has its moments. Apart from the famous hot springs, right down on the rocky foreshore of the island’s southernmost tip, the most popular natural curiosities on the island are probably the Pekingese Dog Rock (哈巴狗岩, on the island’s east coast) and the General Rock (將軍岩), which really does look like some seated sage, propped up beside the road next to the island’s notorious prison, but even on this small isle a number of fascinating places get mostly overlooked in the summer rush for the island’s underwater wonders and its edible goodies. The prominent headland called Gong Guan Bi (公館鼻), just to the west of the General Rock is actually the remains of an old volcano, and offers some great easy-ish scrambling on its steep, untouched cliffs.
Nearby are the grassy clifftops of Cow’s Head Hill (牛頭山; if viewed from the west, near the prison, the name is strikingly appropriate). Trails cross the grassy heights, past the cow’s rocky ‘horns’ and end at impressively sheer cliffs, with long views along the island’s rugged eastern coastline. Below the cliffs, reached by a path along the seashore, is one of the island’s several gaping caverns, known as the Swallows’ Grotto (燕子洞). It’s an impressively huge (if shallow) cave – the biggest I’ve ever seen in Taiwan – especially remarkable for its sinister history; this place is where the bodies of dead inmates taken from the nearby prison were cremated. The small cemetery where their remains are buried lies beside the trail on the way to the cave.
For Green Island’s most outstanding chunk of scenery, however, head to the east coast. Halfway down is the Pekingese Dog Rock, a small offshore island and one of the island’s most photographed spots. The scene here is impressively wild and beautiful in rough weather (as we discovered: it got seriously windy during our brief stay on the island). A short path (called for some reason the Little Great Wall, 小長城) leaves the road and climbs out onto a headland just to the north of the island and gives the classic view, although it’s teaming with tourists in good weather.
Ignored by many visitors who rush past on the way to the Pekingese Dog Rock and the gorgeous seaside hot springs further south, the small road a kilometer or so north of the Little Great Wall, signposted to Youzihu (柚子湖), winds down to a rocky beach at the foot of the cliffs and Green Island’s most explorable destination. The great outcrops of rock towering above the beach are made for climbing, and the deserted stone houses of an abandoned aboriginal settlement lie in an overgrown meadow behind the beach. It’s possible to walk along the coast below the cliffs in either direction for quite some distance. Walk northwards and the large and conspicuous ‘cave mouth’ that pierces the cliff face at the far end of the next bay eventually turns out to have two huge entrances; it’s the impressive Wangong Arch. In the other direction, a small gap in the tall barrier of jagged rocks that hems in the bay in front of the abandoned aboriginal village leads to another large cove with some amazing conglomerate rock formations and a stream cascading onto the beach. Climb up the very steep cliff face beside the cascading stream and at the top you’ll find a small and well hidden grotto, quite invisible from below, where the stream falls over the island’s only waterfall into a rock pool. This enchanting, secret place is used by young locals as a natural shower, although the rains a day earlier made the water a tad muddy on my visit.
Among Green Island’s many sights, however, none live as long in the memory as a visit to the island’s notorious prison. An annex is still used to hold especially dangerous criminals, but the main buildings have been converted into an eye-opening and rather impressive museum dedicated to one of the darkest periods in the island’s recent history, the ‘White Terror.’
Much political leverage has been extracted out of the Kuomintang’s policy, during the period of martial law (1949-1987) of imprisoning dissidents here (alongside common criminals), but the museum makes a particularly profound impression, simply because it lets the facts speak for themselves, without drama or any obvious political agenda. Estimates as to the number of political prisoners detained here during the thirty-plus years it was in use vary hugely, but taking a look around it’s clear that inmates (some of whom were held here for such seemingly minor offences as ‘insulting’ President Kai-shek) must have had a very hard time of it, living in awful conditions, serving sentences of up to thirty or more years. Much of the prison is now open to visitors: the solitary confinement block, the main cell block (a hexagonal building from which corridors radiate out like spokes on a wheel, each lined with prison cells), the visiting room, where convicts could talk to family members via phones (although this privilege was apparently granted only to the common criminals held in the prison) , and a small theater screening thirty-minute films giving a vivid introduction to the history of Taiwan’s political dissidents. Most moving of all, however, is a room displaying a couple of documents, in immaculately hand-written characters, laying out the ‘charges’ facing certain dissidents sentenced to internment on the island. On the walls of the same room are hung portraits of thirty or forty of them, photographed a couple of years ago when they returned to the island; a mixture of sad, angry, thoughtful, and occasionally smiling faces, these photos, more than anything else, really bring home the horror and magnitude of the political repression that reigned during those decades in Taiwan.