Since the beginning of the COVID outbreak, until recently, travel has been unrestricted within Taiwan! During that time I was fortunate enough to visit most of the country’s iconic sites. My options on new places to explore were starting to get limited. That may sound like a bad thing, yet I see it as an opportunity!
As I was planning on being in Taiwan for the long haul, I had plenty of time to start exploring the more obscure places, the spots left off your typical top 10 lists. So, which peculiar site should I visit this time? Why not travel to a turtle-shaped volcanic island that’s filled with poisonous snakes and abandoned war tunnels? That sounds just like my kinda place! Next stop, Turtle Island!
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This time Jess and I wouldn’t be the only ones on this journey. We’d be travelling to Turtle Island from the coast of Yilan country early in the morning and we had friends close by in the hot spring haven town of Jiaoxi who just so happened to be celebrating a birthday that week. Therefore it was the perfect time to have a few drinks over some classic Taiwanese re chao (熱炒) before our little day-trip.
One Hell of A History
So why would we want to visit this tiny uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific? Well for such a small island it comes with one hell of a rich history and is something straight out of a James Bond movie! For centuries Turtle island was home to nothing more than a humble settlement of fishermen before they were ousted by their Japanese Colonists.
It’s then believed that the Japanese started using the island as a scientific base to experiment with poisonous snakes. Some say it was an effort to create new anti-venom, others believe they were trying to craft new biological weapons of war. Either way, after the Japanese occupation came to an end, the scientists just released all the snakes into the wild and fucked off. The result was an island filled with deadly snakes which, in the words of our guide, “you are 100% guaranteed to see one”.
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Oh, but it doesn’t end there! During the country’s period of martial law, the island was occupied by the Taiwanese military who built multiple tunnels and lined the coastline with artillery guns pointing out to sea.
AND, not to mention the island is a god damn active volcano!! Even though it hasn’t erupted for thousands of years, evidence of the Earth altering power can be seen in the changing colour of the sea which surrounds the island’s coast (more on that later).
Stuck in a Group
To get there we needed to take a boat from Wushih Harbour, which immediately was a problem for land-loving Jess. As she wasn’t a lady of the ocean, even facing a 20-minute journey seemed daunting. However her super necessary and totally not a placebo seasickness pill seemed to work.
Things didnt get off to the best of starts. Visiting the island could only be done as part of a tour group. That meant we had to stay with the group for the entire time we were on the island…uhhhhh! The shit drives me insane. I don’t want to share my experience with 50 other people and neither do I want to walk at a snail’s pace in single file behind OAPs and having to awkwardly chuckle at the tour guides piss-poor dad jokes. Just let me be free, man.
Climbing the Mountain
There were only a few things to do on the island, the highlight of which was to walk to the peak of the mountain. We started off dragging our feet behind a slow line of older folk, which quickly got infuriating. Every few meters the group would stop so the guide could give an impromptu lecture about the biodiversity that he came across, which obviously was all in Chinese so completely fucking useless to me.
Mercifully our own little group of friends separated from the pack and trotted along ahead leaving the gentric crowd behind. The walk started getting tougher as the steps just coming kept going! There were 1706 steps in total, which was the equivalent of walking to the 81st floor of a skyscraper. Mercifully it only took about an hour to get to the peak, and thankfully it was well worth the effort.
A View For a Kill
From the peak of the island, or peak 401, you had a complete 360 panoramic view of the island in all its glory! From here you could look back onto the entire Eastern coast of Taiwan! It also gave us our first opportunity to see the unique shape of the island! From the head poking out into the open ocean to its long tail stretching back towards the coast, it definitely was unique!
This was also the best place to get a look at the island’s biggest highlight, the milky sea. It was the only proof of the volcanic activity that still survives beneath the island. As the sulfuric hot spring water mixes with the colder ocean water to create a light blue sea that lines the coast around the head of the turtle.
Exploring the Lakes
We quickly rushed to the bottom of the mountain so we could explore the rest of the island. Along the way, we had a better chance of appreciating the island’s fauna. We passed many multi-coloured skinks that scuttled across the forest and would sunbathe on the many steps. Turns out that our guide was a liar because we didn’t see any snakes despite his “100% guarantee”, which was very very disappointing.
There was only one other area of the island left to explore. Each of the remaining sites surrounded an enormous freshwater lake that was filled with dark blue koi fish. On the opposite side of the lake was an enormous statue of Guanyin which was once a site of prayer for the island’s original settlers.
A Nice War Surprise
As we made our way along the shoreline we came across a sign that pointed towards a “war tunnel” which instantly lit a fire under my arse! I had no idea there was any kind of war relic here! I love that sort of thing and I always make a habit of hunting down as many war-related sites as I can whenever I travel! Turns out, this one was even better than I expected!
I’ve been in war tunnels before; from exploring ones in the mountains of Italy to the many that lay beneath Okinawa, but I’d never seen any like this! It cut through the entire island from one side to the other in one long never-ending corridor. There wasn’t another person in sight, it was completely empty, which really helped set the mood!
Even better, at the end of the tunnel was a genuine artillery gun which could have been used when it was functional. It pointed out to sea aiming down the southern coast of Taiwan, ready for whatever came. I’d never seen such a complete and untouched military remnant like this and it was god damn incredible.
Living in a Ghost Town
For centuries this little island had a small community that lived on the island. From the native fishermen to the Japanese scientists and the Taiwanese military, a small group of people has always called the island home. That was until the military left, leaving behind an eerie decrepit village.
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For the last leg of the tour, we had to head back onto the boat. We were headed around the perimeter of the island so we could have a closer look at the island’s geology. It also gave a better perspective on the shape of the island, which actually did look exactly like a turtle!
The main purpose of the loop around the island was to get a much closer look at the milky sea, or a much closer smell to be exact. It smelt horrid, like rotten eggs that hit you in a wave of putrid fog! The cliff edges were pasted yellow from the constant streams of sulphur that came bursting up and turned the sea light blue in contrast to its navy surroundings.
This was apparently the point where the volcano last erupted. It was also the most likely place where the next eruption may originate from. That made Jess very uncomfortable as in the last few weeks news had hit that the volcano is very much still active and could erupt at any moment. Sadly, it didn’t.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.