Summer is here, and a no better time for a vacation! But where shall we venture this time? If my trips to the islands of Lanyu and Ludao taught me anything, summer in Taiwan should be spent on one of its offshore islands. These islands in particular came with their own risk.
As a birthday treat, I was taking young Jess to the Matsu Islands, which happened to be in a VERY precarious spot, only a few miles from the coasts of China. With the current political climate what it was, it was interesting to see what would happen.
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Arriving on the Islands
To get to the islands, we had two options: flights or ferries. Initially, the idea of taking a prop plane kinda freaked us out, though the idea of a several-hour ferry for a girl prone to seasickness didn’t appeal either. So we bit the bullet and took our chances in the skies. Thankfully, it only took an hour.
We also needed to figure out which islands we would be visiting. The Matsu Islands are made up of a scattering of land just off the coast of Fuzhou, China. Through our research, we narrowed it down to three that we just had to visit; Nangang, Beigang and Daqiu. Only the first two had airports, so with a flip of a coin, we picked Nangang as our first stop for Matsu.
On China’s Doorstep
When I say that the Matsu Islands really are a stone’s throw away from China’s coastline, there is no exaggeration. The two are so close you could literally make out towns and wind turbines in the distance. The islands find themselves in a very precarious spot for a country which permanently has China’s crosshairs pointed straight at them!
The Matsu Islands also played a significant role in both countries’ tumultuous history. Up until 1949, China was in the midst of a civil war between the Republic of China (R.O.C) and the Communist regime. Towards the end of the war, the R.O.C retreated to Taiwan, where they have remained until today.
The islands, therefore, became the first line of defence for Taiwan against the mainland. As such, there are a significant number of military strongholds with a myriad of forts and bases scattered throughout each of the islands. They were so fiercely protected that the islands only opened to visitors in 1990 following the end of martial law in Taiwan.
Camping in Style
I may not be happy to spend big on a hotel, but at least Jess makes damn sure it’s a place that will blow my tiny mind. And yet again, she did not disappoint!
Our first place would end up being my favourite (shoutout 覓境E19蒙古包露營區). The site was nothing more than a series of yurts lining the cliff faces that overlooked the ocean towards China. Sleeping soundly with the sounds of the ocean and the flapping of the drapes was simply heavenly.
It was also a perfect place to reflect on my past adventures. 3 years ago, I spent a few days living in a ger with nomadic tribes in Central Mongolia, now I’d stay in one in Taiwan. I also got to bid a final farewell to China, the place I had called home for 2 years. A sombre reconnection, and one that I never thought I’d get.
Paying Respect to Mazu
Taiwan is a HIGHLY religious country, as you might be able to tell by the thousands of temples scattered around the country. The Taiwanese people also worship several Gods or deities, one of the most revered being Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea.
Being an island nation, she was highly revered as the protector of sailors and fishermen, thus you’ll find many temples dedicated to her around the coastlines. Legend has it, that she died by drowning (ironically) when she was 16, and her body washed ashore here on the coast of Matsu here on Nangang. The exact spot was marked by building a temple in her honour and placing her grave inside it.
Her grave was marked by a panel that had a Buddhist marking. The question is…what exactly does the marking mean? Nobody really knows. We overheard a nearby guide saying that the symbol is anything you want it to be, like spotting images in the clouds above.
Directly next to the serene Buddhist temple was a very harsh reminder of the role that these islands play in Taiwan’s strategic game. Docked along the sands of a nearby beach were a number of military ships, many of them designed to carry personnel like you would’ve seen in those photos of D-day.
It was a pretty humble reminder that at any second, the bells could ring and the soldiers stationed on the island must jump into action. Thankfully, as I’m writing this now, that didn’t happen while I was there.
Back to Mazu
Close to our campsite was yet another majestic dedication to Mazu, one that could be seen from across the island. It was a monstrously large statue of the deity which overlooked the entirety of Nangang. A pretty useful landmark it was too as I used it to find my way around! It was also the perfect time to wish for a safe voyage for the rest of our journey.
We also stumbled upon a very quirky mystery. Nangang and the Matsu Islands in general are riddled with military installations and an untold number of tunnels, and we just happened to find one! I came across a shrine that had a gap beneath it that led to some sort of back room. I knelt down and crawled through for a sneaky look only to find that it kept going.
The further we ventured in; we came across a legitimate tunnel fully equipped with trippy disco lights. There was zero explanation as to what it was or why it was there, but it definitely was a funky detour.
Discovering New Creatures
Trying new cuisine is a BIG part of travelling. Having been in Taiwan for a while now, I’m familiar with the usual suspects, so I’m always on the hunt for something new. Whether it’s a local speciality or an indigenous delicacy, I’m always on the lookout. This time, we stumbled on something very peculiar.
On the poorly translated menu, they were labelled “fish shaped like fingers”. Once they arrived, I didn’t know what the hell they were. They almost looked like an alligator’s foot, something you never would have guessed was edible. But if my time in Asia has taught me one thing, never doubt an Asian’s ability to find an edible sea creature. I even saw boiled barnacles on the menu…
After a quick Google search, I found out they were called Japanese Goose Barnacles. They were a type of shellfish only found around this part of the world, and turned out to be a delicious one at that! For me, it was somewhere between a regular clam and a softer prawn, but either way, definitely worth trying!
That night, we would get to experience what was Jess’ entire inspiration for coming here in the first place. Luckily, we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The Matsu Islands are placed just in the right conditions on the edge of the Pacific Ocean to witness a very rare sight; something the locals call blue tears.
This is the nickname locals give to the little bioluminescent crustaceans that light up in a bright blue light whenever they’re agitated. Whether it’s the waves of the ocean or simply stepping on the sand, these little creatures light up the beaches for a few seconds at a time.
Sadly, they are incredibly difficult to photograph outside of having a PHD in photography and the necessary equipment, but it certainly was a beautiful sight for as long as it lasted.
The 15 best highlights to see on the tropical paradise of Green Island (Ludao).
Our second day had a very military theme. The first sight of the day was the Baba Tunnel, one of the most popular spots on the island.
It was built specifically to hide military tanks during the height of cross-strait tension. However, since then, the tunnel had been turned over to the Matsu Distillery on Nangang to store their alcohol. This liquor was in fact unique to the island. It’s a type of gaoliang, a Chinese liquor made from sorghum, and it’s fucking vile!
Either way, it’s pretty big in Chinese-speaking cultures, and the tunnel was full to the brim with bottles. Many of the unique dishes served on the island use the liquor as an ingredient. Noodles, drunken shrimp, and even fried rice get mixed with the red yeast taken from the production of the alcohol.
As I mentioned, Matsu is riddled with forts! The entire coastline is filled with hidden bunkers, extensive tunnel systems and many visible strongpoints, many of which are still being used today! The ones not being used have been turned over to the public one way or another. Some have even been turned into hostels and cafés (more on that later).
On this day, we were heading to the Dahan Strongpoint, which was made up of a snaking tunnel system which bore its way through the cliff edges towards bunkers that pointed out to sea.
Evidence of the fort’s significance could be seen on the walls. Each bunker had the same mantra printed on them, “Can’t aim, don’t hit. Can’t hit, don’t hit. Can’t see, don’t hit.” Nearby were also helpful charts which showed exactly what Chinese ships looked like and accurate measurements of distance. Scary stuff.
Exploring a Super Villain’s Lair
From one tunnel to another, but this one came with one hell of a twist. Rather than sheltering men, this tunnel was built to shelter ships! Like something out of a James Bond movie, buried deep beneath the mountain edge was an extensive system of tunnels filled with rivers of seawater. It-was-AWESOME!
The entire system had a walkway that led around the eerie tunnels and wooden boats which silently made their way across the waters. The whole time (as with every other army-related site on this trip) I was in full fantasy mode as I hot-footed my way around with my GoPro handle doubling as a pump-action shotgun while excessively humming the James Bond theme tune. A little boy’s fantasy and a quick way to piss off your girlfriend.
Café With a Twist
Continuing with our military theme, next we visited yet another fort, though this one had been repurposed. Some have been turned into hostels, one of which we’d actually booked. However, the government suddenly reclaimed the hostel just before our visit…which raised a lot of concerns as to why they needed it back…
Anyway, this one had been turned into an adorable little café which overlooked the ocean. Not only that, but the fort also came with its own tunnel which had since been turned into an impromptu art gallery.
The ultimate guide on the most significant monuments and battle sites related to the war on Okinawa.
Once the sun had set, we returned to the Beihai Tunnel, but for a whole new experience. The tunnel was also the prime spot to see the blue tears. Technically the ones we had seen on the beach were a whole different species. Those had a lasting blue shine and were in greater numbers during this time of year. The real blue tears had a quicker brighter flash that died out quickly.
In large numbers, the tour groups were taken around in large rowboats and each given a paddle before the lights were completely shut off. We were then instructed to move them about in the water which quickly lit up in a bright blue mist of little crustaceans.
For about 20 minutes I put all those years of teenage private time to the test as my forearms began to burn from the furious paddling. In the right spots, the paddle looked like a bright wand gently making its way through the water.
Hi There China!
One thing I couldn’t get over during my entire time in Matsu was the fact I could see China the entire time. If you were so inclined, there would be no reason why you couldn’t swim over there. It was eerie, particularly in the current political climate.
On our third day, we headed to the highest peak on Nangang for a better look at the Matsu Islands. As the islands are still militarily significant, Yuntaishan was still home to an active military base with high-powered binoculars pointed towards the enemy.
It also gave us a better chance to survey the area. From the peak on Nangang, we could clearly see the other island chains which made up Matsu, which included our next two stops; Beigang and Daqiu, but we’ll get to those next time.
Visiting the Mediterranean
As the islands were cut off from the rest of the world for many years, they mostly stayed true to their traditional roots. This can be seen in the beautifully authentic architecture of its seaside villages. The simple brick and wooden structures are straight out of the Mediterranean and hit a whole new level of beauty when bathed in the glow of a gorgeous sunset.
Either the locals truly didn’t realise the area’s potential, or they simply resisted the development, either way, there was so much opportunity that was being wasted. The villages truly looked like they belonged on the Amalfi coast or the isles of Greece but don’t receive anywhere near as much attention. There was only ONE restaurant in the entire town and a few basic BnB’s, not even a single souvenir shop.
On a nearby staircase, a prime location with a beautiful view of the beach and the village itself, houses were left completely abandoned and crumbling to their base. Such an unbelievable waste. In a way, maybe it’s a good thing. Too often such beautiful spots are ruined by high-rise hotels and the toxic tourist horde. Maybe resisting change isn’t a bad thing after all.
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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.