Saturday, August 15, 2015

Discover Taiwan: Off the Beaten Path (Part 4)

Matsu Island

There and Back Again

            Just getting there and back was an adventure. Squid had gone ahead to Keelung for hours in line to get a ferry ticket. When I finished work I raced to Keelung on the scooter, only to see the counter close before our number even came up. We decided to ride back to Taipei and forgo sleep to hope against all hope that we could somehow get onto a plane. By a stroke of extreme luck, the airline opened up an extra plane, which was enough to get us flying to Matsu. That was only the beginning. Matsu’s airstrip is notoriously treacherous, and planes often have to turn back if conditions are poor. Our pilot made a first pass, and deemed it too dangerous. We circled around, our hearts racing, caught between willing the pilot to land no matter what and not wanting to crash. After a shaky approach, we touched down to cheers from the cabin. It was the same thing to leave. We had been checking in to see the status of flights that day, and we got increasingly worried as flight after flight was cancelled due to poor conditions. We were booked on the last flight of the day. Having to work the next day in Taipei, I was dreading the imposition I was going to burden my schools with. Our plane tried to land once, and as when we had arrived, it pulled up and circled around. A local said that they only made two attempts before returning to Taipei. Once again tension was high as the plane made its second approach, and the airport resounded with cheers when it landed successfully. 

Pirates of the Dong Hai

            After landing in Matsu, we rented a scooter and set off to explore the island.
 There are a surprising number of things to see and do in Matsu, which is steeped in history. The first sign of its centuries old story are its stone houses. They cling to the hillside, or squeeze together haphazardly on the plain.
This is because, centuries ago, the towns’ fishermen had to contend with pirates, so the towns’ chaotic layout served as a defence mechanism. Few places in Taiwan have preserved traditional houses as well as on Matsu.

         The island’s recent rise in tourism, since a movie was shot there, has kickstarted the economy, and many buildings are being restored. Some are likely beyond repair, so their ruins will continue to dot the landscape, which is just fine with me.

The Clouds of War

            When Chiang Kai Shek’s forces fled China and took refuge in Taiwan, Matsu became a flashpoint of the war. The island is covered in bunkers, some of which have interesting stories to tell such as the Iron Fort, and some of which are closely guarded by Taiwan’s most venomous snake, the Hundred Pacer, so nicknamed because you’ll only be able to take a hundred paces before its bite kills you. The Iron Fort was for “elite frogmen units”, and it is basically an outcropping of coral stone that was carved up to protect guns and cannons. They even had a dog with a military rank.
You can visit a museum dedicated to the battles fought around Matsu, and learn about the last “comfort house” for Taiwanese soldiers. It was only shut down in 1991, having been “an effective preventive measure for sex crime […] for nearly 40 years according to the museum’s inscription. Damn that Chen Shui-Bien for shutting it down and putting the island’s residents at risk again…
            The island’s most impressive military constructions are the tunnels built to protect Taiwan’s fleet. Dug into granite, the tunnels were made without heavy machinery, and if memory serves 3000 soldiers died during their construction.

Deer Island

            The islands of Matsu are beautiful, but none moreso than Daqiu.
The island is almost completely unsettled, with only a handful of buildings and 1 bed&breakfast. A well maintained path can lead you around the island, but it’s best to go off the path and “hunt” the deer yourself.
The island has a healthy deer population, and it’s possible to get quite close to them. We are told the deer were settled on another island when a zoo closed, but they actually swam back to their home. Just beware of the chickens while hunting! Squid and I topped a ridge while trying to sneak up on deer, only to have about a million chicken heads swivel towards us (nefariously, I have no doubt). Then the chicken hordes swarmed us. Making a harrowing but heroic escape from the hungry chicken horde, we continued to track the deer, and we regretted not having booked a night at the island’s B&B. Running out of time, we left the deer to circle the island, and made our way back to the ferry.
We stopped to admire the propaganda inscriptions on the walls of the houses, with mantras such as “Death to Mao!”. Bucolic.

A Sea of Stars

            We had no idea what sea sparkles were, and I’m not really sure anyone knows even now. Some call them plants and some call them animals. Whatever they are, they are magical. They emit blue light whenever they are startled, and crashing waves suffice to do that. That means that, if you’re lucky, you can be treated to glowing blue surf. What’s even more fun is finding a puddle of seawater at low tide and running your hand through it. Your hand will trail tiny, flickering, blue lights like a Disney wizard. The same thing will happen when you walk on the beach; every footprint will sparkle. Make sure you have a camera with very high ISO and preferably a slow shutter speed to be able to capture it. Our B&B offered us a night tour that brought us to a few spots where the creatures could be seen, but on the second night we were able to find them on our own, on a beach where we could get very close. They apparently only appear between April and August, so plan accordingly.

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