Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Getting To Taiwan The Slow Way

My dream is to be able to complete my trip, travelling round the world, without needing to resort to flying. It will be difficult to accomplish, and almost certainly be more expensive and take longer than if flying, but I feel that airplanes have somehow trivialised distances so that we no longer really appreciate how far away places are. And when travelling by plane from point A to point B you do not see what is between them, how the land changes, how cultures, traditions and people connect the two. Furthermore flying is also the most polluting form of transport (per kilometre travelled) out there. (And in one of the world's ironies/hypocrisies, it is also the form of transport that is taxed the least, thereby benefitting the most affluent as well as the most profligate polluters.) The dream may not work out, but I will certainly try.

The fearsome Taiwanese army, ready to fight off any invasion from Commie China ... OK, maybe not. But they did help me cut my way through the bureaucracy of buying a SIM card in a 7-Eleven on Matsu.

From China, luckily, there is a boat connection to Taiwan. Although it is important to be specific. The boat connects mainland China to either of two island groups controlled by Taiwan which are only a few miles off the coast of China: Kinmen in the south, and Matsu in the north. I settled for the northern route. For an international ferry connection the boat was laughably small, only able to hold about 30 passengers. But I wasn't complaining. After a couple of hours we arrived in Matsu and I went about booking my ticket out of there. The lady at the ferry desk wasn't there and I was told to come back after lunch, although the schedule board above the desk, showing sailings every day, did reassure me. The lady, when she got back, however, did not. Apparently the seas were too rough for tomorrow's sailing and I should come back tomorrow at 11am to find out if the next day's boat would be leaving or not. I was not impressed. But then again neither was she as I failed to explain in my broken Chinese why I wasn't flying with one of the six daily flights like most normal people.

Seeing as I now had a significant amount of time on my hands I decided to explore Nangan, the island I was on, and the main one of the Matsu group. Tourist attractions are a bit thin on the ground in Matsu (one of the main ones being giant calligraphy from Chiang Kai Shek (CKS to those in the know) exhorting the soldiers to be vigilant) so I just had a wander. One of the first things any visitor to Matsu will notice is the number of soldiers. They're everywhere. This is the cutting edge of the frozen dispute between China and Taiwan, and as such these frontier islands are heavily militarised, although the tension is nowhere near as high as they once were as I was to find out. The local internet cafe was full of young Taiwanese from the main island, all in camouflage uniform, serving out their obligatory 11-month military service by kicking the crap out of bad guys online in various computer games. I popped into a local convenience store and went in in search of a SIM card (an essential tool when travelling). I wasn't getting very far in expressing what I was after (even after I had pulled the current SIM card out of my phone and waved it at the clerk), but luckily the boys in uniform came to my rescue. There were a couple in the shop, picking up coffee and snacks, who spoke fantastic English, and helped me navigate the myriad bureaucratic steps required to procure a Taiwanese SIM card (far more complex and rigorous than getting past immigration a few hours previously).

My military friends, seeing as they were not overworked, offered to give me a little tour of the vicinity, which included a surprisingly good local museum and the aforementioned CKS memorial. When they asked me where I would be staying I said that I would probably pitch my tent somewhere (I purchased myself a shiny new one in Guangzhou, which only weighs 1.5kg, which is very good for a tent that only cost me some £30). They were horrified, and worried for my health and safety, so they stopped at the local church and asked the lady there if she could help me out. And I am most thankful that they did, because the kind lady and her family (husband and 4 sweet, little kids) took me in and gave me a bed with a roof in their storeroom when I would otherwise have been stuck outside in the cold, windswept island (I was later to find out that Matsu is renowned in Taiwan for being the coldest and windiest place in the country).

Grey day in Matsu - where does the sea end and the sky begin?

Despite the language barrier they helped me out in so many ways, finding out whether the ferry would leave the next day (which it would, so I only spent an extra one day on the island), taking me out for dinner, showing me the island's famous rice wine distillery (obviously there's not much to do on the island and it can get quite cold, so strong alcohol is an obvious by-product - much like Scotland), and the open hospitality of the islanders. It is such a small, tight-knit community that no-one locks their front doors and car keys are often left in the ignition (not that you'd be able to get far if you did decide to steal a car as the island has an area of only 10 square kilometres) - a world away from the hectic cities of China I had just left behind.

Abandoned trenches and bunkers litter Matsu's countryside - built by the retreating Chinese nationalists in the 50's fearing a Communist invasion.

On my free day I just had a stroll along the island, exploring its small fisher communities that now survive more out of servicing the large military community, and traipsing its rugged coastline. The prime draw (or at least it's on all the brochures) is a giant statue of the sea goddess Mazu, built according to the Field of Dreams philosophy of "build it and they shall come", though probably far more aspirational. I even managed to get (a little) lost in a small forest and, literally, fell into some disused trenches that criss-cross the entire island, remnants of the time when a Communist invasion was an imminent likelihood. Now they are being reclaimed by the islands' voracious nature. A calming day before the 9 hour ferry journey to Keelung, Taipei's main port. After a few hours at sea lying on my bunk I decided to head outside to investigate the monster waves that were causing all the pitching and rolling of the 80+m ferry. Once on deck there was little more than a ripple on the ocean. I slunk back down to my comfy spot, hoping never to experience a storm whilst sailing the Pacific.

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