The Ultimate Travel Plan: Turtle Island (Guishandao)
An abandoned military base on a deserted, venomous snake-filled volcanic island sounds like something straight out of the latest James Bond movie, but that’s exactly what you find on Turtle Island! This eerie turtle-shaped isle standing in the middle of the Pacific is one of the more unique tours available in Taiwan, and most definitely worth the effort to get there!
So cue the music and don your finest attire as we find out everything you need to know about “Island, Turtle Island!”
Table of Contents
A Brief History of Turtle Island
For such a tiny island, it comes with one hell of a vivid history! Guishan (translated directly as Turtle Mountain) Island was named after its striking resemblance to a turtle making its way through the ocean. The island is also the only active volcano in Taiwan, though its last eruption was way back in 1785!
The island was inhabited as early as the Qing dynasty by a few solitary fishermen that established a community of around 700 individuals at its peak. The village even had its own elementary school, police station and, of course, a temple.
Life of an Islander
Life was tough for the locals of Turtle Island! Taiwan is sadly prone to severe typhoons which would invariably destroy the island’s docks, leaving the locals cut off from the rest of the world with a limited food supply for weeks on end.
It all came to a head in 1977 when the government voluntarily relocated the locals onto the mainland. That same year, the island became a restricted military base that played host to a constant garrison of soldiers.
By 2000, martial law was abolished in Taiwan and Turtle Island became a nature reserve and tourist attraction. To this day, many of the same military installations remain!
The madness doesn’t end there! During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945), the Japanese also set foot on the island. Legend tells that they used the island as a scientific base where they experimented 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 ended, the scientists released all the snakes into the wild and left the island! Whether that tale is true or not, the island really is filled to the brim with deadly snakes…
Where is Turtle Island?
Turtle island stands 10 km off the coast of Toucheng in Yilan County on Taiwan’s east coast. From the island, you have a glorious view of Taiwan’s eastern coast and further out into the Pacific Ocean.
How to Get to Turtle Island?
Sadly, for pure solo travellers, visiting the island can only be done as part of a tour. What’s more, most tours strongly suggest you stick with the group at all times as a) there are venomous snakes everywhere and b) who knows what kind of secret military installations you’ll come across.
That being said, it’s pretty easy to break from the group and just walk the trails yourself!
No matter what route you take, all roads lead to Wushi Port, as all tour boats leave from here. To get there, you have 3 options.
Take Kuo-Kuang Bus 1811 or 1812 from Taipei Main Station and get off at the Harbor stop.
Hop on a train to Toucheng Station then transfer onto Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Bus Green 18 to Lanyan Museum stop.
Take a train to Jiaoxi Station then transfer onto Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Bus Green 19 to LanyanMuseum stop.
The ultimate guide on visiting the aboriginal volcanic island off the coast of Taiwan, Lanyu
There are actually a few types of tours to choose from.
Whale watching on a ferry around the island costs about 800-1000 NT$, while it also costs the same for a 2-hour lap of the island.
If you want to combine whale watching and a tour of the island, it will cost 1200+ NT$. It’s the same price even if you skip the whale watching.
You can purchase a ticket at the harbour or book online in advance.
When Should You Visit Turtle Island?
Turtle Island is only open to the public from 1 March to 30 November every year, 9 am – 5 pm. The summer season from June to August offers slightly extended hours, 8.30 am – 5.30 pm. Even so, only 100 people are permitted to visit the island daily.
For whale watching, your best bet is to visit between April to October.
What is There to See on Turtle Island?
For a tiny little deserted island, it has a lot to offer! The spectrum of attractions extends all the way from the geological to the eerie. Plenty to make your time there worth it!
Yin Yang (Milky) Sea
Easily the island’s biggest highlight is the evidence of the volcanic activity that boils beneath the surface. The Yin Yang Sea as it’s known by locals earned its name from the mixing of sulphur-rich hot spring waters with the cold dark waters of the ocean, creating a milky wash emanating from the cliff edge.
Though one of the best vantage points is from Peak 401 (more on that later), taking a ferry around the island lets you get up-close and personal with the geological beauty. Though it does come with a price, as those sulphuric liquids produce one hell of a stench!
Though experiencing the Yin Yang Sea from the ocean is a must, the best views are from the island’s highest peak! Creatively named 401 Peak (because it’s 401 meters above sea level), a platform provides visitors with a perfect 360 panoramic view of the island and, more importantly, the perfect view of the Milky Sea wrapping around the turtle’s head!
To get there, you’ll have to tackle a total of 1,706 steps! Just make sure you break away from the group as early as you can, otherwise, you’ll be permanently stuck behind a long trail of hobbling grandmas!
Guishandao Military Tunnel
Just to add to the fascinating mystique of Turtle Island, it also has an abandoned military tunnel! During Turtle Island’s armed heyday, a tunnel was constructed from one corner of the island to the other. It led to a couple of outposts and an arsenal of devastating weaponry that looked out to the Southern sea.
Once the military left, the tunnel had lost its purpose. Regardless, it was left standing as a reminder of the role the island once played. Though all the weaponry was taken away (obviously), a single artillery gun was left behind which still points towards the coast.
Continuing with our eerie theme, the island also comes with its own abandoned ghost town! Though the island was once home to 700 inhabitants, these days the island is completely void of people, leaving behind an old disintegrating village.
All that remains are a few crumbling buildings and basic foundations of what used to be a fundamental part of the village. The best surviving relic is the old elementary school which also served as the barracks for the military that were once stationed here.
Directly next to the old village is the wonderfully tranquil Guiwei (translated as turtle tail) lake, which makes for quite a picturesque shot! The island’s citizens repeatedly tried to turn this freshwater lagoon into a harbour, yet each typhoon would undo all their hard work and reblock the entrance. Since then, they cut their losses and permanently damned the lake.
A trail leads around the lake’s perimeter and towards the statue of Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy) on the opposite side of the lake.
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Even on an abandoned military base, Taiwan still makes sure there’s a decent temple on it! Gonglan (or Putoyan) Temple has actually stood on the island since the Qing Dynasty. Though it started with nothing more than an incense sachet as its shrine, the temple soon became a vital place of worship for the fishermen who would come to pray to Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea, for safety and prosperity.
When the locals left, they took their image of Mazu with them. However, following the arrival of the army, they brought their own figure of Guanyin and renamed the temple.
Last but not least, we come to the end of our island tour and quite literally the end of the turtle. As the island is shaped like the water-dwelling reptile, there’s even a rocky outcrop sticking towards the mainland in the shape of a tail!
The best point to see it from is on Peak 401, though you’re also able to walk along it! The length of the tail is actually determined by the weather, as it’s known to “wag” depending on the time of year and recent typhoons.
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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.