Fortress Taiwan and the Outlying Islands of Matsu

Pockmarked by the storms of both politics and nature, the Matsu archipelago is a glorious fortress on the sea. Recent upgrades make it an intriguing place to spend a few days.

KMT Military in Matsu

A visit to the islands of Matsu, what were once described as the KMT's fortress on the sea, is a fascinating journey into Taiwan's recent military history.

One of the key historical themes that still dominates contemporary Taiwan society is the struggle for survival of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KuoMinTang 國民黨), that is the KMT.

A visit to Taiwan’s outlying islands of Matsu, just several kilometers from FuJian (福建) province in China, offers a fairly bleak reminder as to how perilous this struggle was, and in some ways how incredible the achievement has been in enabling the KMT to withdraw from China and set up camp in what was the then Japanese-designed Taiwan.

Romantically described as a string of pearls off the coast of China, Matsu resembles a series of island castles surrounded by a huge moat that is the Taiwan Strait. Like JinMen (金門), the islands were heavily bombed by the Chinese during the 1960s. Although somewhat “decommissioned” in the 1990’s, the islands today still function as part of Taiwan’s national defense system and there are many places where tourists cannot go. How easy it would be to seize (and defend) should China decide to attack again, maybe only time will tell.

WuLingGong Temple, Matsu

Typically dedicated to praying for good seas, Matsu's temples follow distinct architectural styles, including the elongated roof lines of the Fu-Jian style.

Given their location, it should come as no surprise that traders, fishermen, and “pirates” have been using the islands as a base for their operations for centuries. These days the public is now able to see for themselves some of this rich history, with East FuJian-style housing, various temples, and the KMT’s old military infrastructure all within short taxi rides or longer hikes.

There is a lot of natural beauty to enjoy as well. Several government departments, including the Matsu National Scenic Area Administration, have been doing their bit to improve local infrastructure, and preserve and promote Matsu’s multi-layered past.

Generally speaking though, accommodation on the island is fairly basic, choice of restaurants limited, and things to do focused on appreciating the local landscape and exploring Matsu’s military past. If you visit in the off-season (late autumn to spring), not only can the weather be windy and cold, but the number of other visitors will be extremely few. As a result of its military downgrading, the resident military population has dropped from roughly 30,000 to just several thousand today. Which is why the government hopes to attract tourists to boost the local economy.

The Matsu Archipelago

Just 50 mins by plane from Taipei, the islands of Matsu are a great weekend escape, but best enjoyed if you like hiking and Taiwan's military history.

Nevertheless, for its strategic role in Taiwan’s past, the islands add some extra levels of perspective on relations with China. Like many places outside Taiwan’s main cities, the Matsu islands feel like a world away from places like Taipei and are well worth the visit.

Note: due to Matsu’s proximity to China, you may find that your mobile phone will want to access services based there. At times Taiwan reception will drop out and you will be left with Chinese reception only. Remember any access to Chinese services will be based on international roaming!

Weather permitting, you could spend a relaxed 4-5 days visiting all of the islands in the archipelago. However, here is an easy 2.5 day itinerary that starts with a Friday afternoon flight from Taipei (SongShan) International Airport and gets you back by early Sunday night.

It’s worth noting that all accommodation and flights were organized in advance. In busier months and on the weekends, bookings are essential.

QinBi Village includes restored housing

The QinBi village includes guesthouses like ChinBe No. 25, where you will sleep in traditional houses renovated and refitted with a few modern conveniences.

Friday: Taipei to BeiGan
Midday Uni Air flight from Taipei International Airport to BeiGan Airport (50 minutes). Pick up a BeigGan and NanGan tour map and the extremely informative Let’s Go Backpacking in Matsu brochure (English and Chinese versions) from the very friendly people at the Tourist Information Center in the arrival lounge.

Taxi (fixed price of NT$100 per trip) to ChinBe No. 25 Guesthouse for accommodation check-in. Explore the highly photogenic houses of QinBi Village on foot. Hike along the road to QiaoZi Village (橋仔聚落). There is a bus back if you are lucky to catch the schedule. Taxi ride from QinBi Village to eat in the main town at TangQi (which includes the only 7-11 on BeiGan). Drinks back at QinBi Village overlooking the sea facing China.

Saturday: BeiGan
Breakfast at ChinBe No. 25 Guesthouse, including (famous) local bagels, tea and coffee. Taxi ride to the windy lookout on Bi Mountain for a panoramic view of TangQi Village (塘岐村) and the BeiGan Airport. Further ride to the War and Peace Memorial Park Exhibition Hall to learn about the military role of Matsu under the KMT. Walk to the grounds of the War and Peace Memorial Park, which still features old defense ordnance, including guns and tanks.

Tank at the War and Peace Memorial Park

The War and Peace Memorial Park stands on a clearing facing the enemy out to sea. The nearby Exhibition Hall provides English descriptions covering Matsu's historical role in Taiwan's defence against China.

Taxi to the WuSha Harbor (午沙港) for the hike to WuSha Dam and then the BeiHai Tunnel (北海坑道) also called WuSha Tunnel (午沙坑道).

Entrance to the BeiHai Tunnel near WuSha on BeiGan, Matsu

One of the original sea gates leading into the BeiHai Tunnel at WuSha on BeiGan. A walkway along the edge allows pedestrian access during low tides.

It is important to note that you will only be allowed access to the tunnel from 2 hours before and after low tide. So plan carefully. During low tide the entrance is exposed and the floor further into the tunnel is dry.

The tunnel itself was cut with explosives and chipped away with hand tools by the military. There is a walkway along the side of the cavern. The trip takes about 30 minutes and brings you out into the open for another 20 minute walk to the BeiGan Tourist Visitor Center at BanLi Village (坂里聚落).

Sunday: BeiGan to NanGan to Taipei
Early breakfast and check out from ChinBe No. 25 Guesthouse, then a taxi ride down to BaiSha Harbor (白沙港) for the ferry ride across to NanGan, weather permitting (NT$110, leaves for NanGan on the half hour, with a service every hour between 7:30 am and 5:30 pm). Although the journey is about 15 minutes, the ferry is cramped, and the sea can be rocky, so try and get a seat up top.

Taxi ride to NanGan Airport to store luggage in the lockers at the airport terminal.

Entrance to Tunnel 88

A tour of the Matsu Distillery and Tunnel 88 will give you a heady sense of the production process for sorghum wine. Drinking one of their samples helps too.

Taxi to the Matsu Distillery (馬祖酒廠) for an introduction into wine and spirits production plus an early morning sample (clears the sinuses). Stagger up the road to the entrance to Tunnel 88 (88坑道) for a tour inside the converted military tunnels now used for storing and aging alcohol. Suck in the heady scent of fermenting sorghum.

Walk back down the hill and head into the town of NiuJiao Village (牛角聚落) for a delicious lunch at the “Grandma’s Store” (yi-ma-de-dian 依嬤的店) restaurant. Try the yellow wine steamed fish. After lunch, wander around the small NiuJiao Village and check out the bright red WuLingGong temple by the sea.

BeiHai Tunnel on NanGan, Matsu

The BeiHai Tunnel on NanGan is an extremely impressive underground cavern built beneath a headland.

Taxi ride across the steep center of NanGan to the BeiHai Tunnel (tides permitting) and the DaHan Base (大漢據點) near the Matsu National Scenic Area Administration & Visitor Center (on NanGan).

Hike far up the hill to the Coast of the Dawn guesthouse for a drink or light snack (and great view on the veranda) before calling a taxi for the ride back to NanGan Airport to collect your luggage and check in for the afternoon flight back to Taipei (50 mins).

Tip: Uni Air’s online booking system does not allow the booking of split leg schedules such as the one described above. After booking online, if you wish to exit and enter through different airports, you will need to contact the Uni Air customer service center and arrange for them to manually adjust your schedule. Otherwise you will need to catch a ferry back to the same island you entered for the afternoon flight to Taipei.

Key tips for traveling to Matsu:

  • Book your accommodation well in advance.
  • Note that you can book flights to both NanGan and BeiGan. Split leg arrival and departures need to be arranged with the airline’s customer service center.
  • Grab a business card from a taxi driver at the airport when you arrive. You can call them to pick you up from anywhere on each island.
  • Expect cold weather in late autumn, winter and early spring. Check the weather forecast before you go.
  • Bring a torch in case you happen to be walking at night.
  • Pack your own towel for showering, as guesthouse towels tend to be hand-towel size. Water is scarce, so use responsibly.
  • Be mindful of the tides if you want to visit the defense tunnels along the coast.
  • Pack your own medicine and other personal items as shop trading hours and availability of products are not like in other parts of Taiwan.
  • Expect to meet lots of guys serving their military training. They might look at you like they haven’t seen a civilian in months and may want to talk to you. Be nice, it might be the case.

Other sources of information concerning Matsu:

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2 responses to “Fortress Taiwan and the Outlying Islands of Matsu

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Countries for 2012: Taiwan is Number 9 | Syurati-vision the Blog

  2. This evokes strong memories of our weekend stay last November on Matsu. It’s a great description of a very interesting place. I thought the few people was a bonus.

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