Last weekend, at the scorching-hot tail-end of August, I took my second trip to Kinmen, and, just like after my first (eight years ago), I’m still strangely conflicted about the place, even though I’d recommend a visit to anyone.
Let’s get the bad over with first: much of Kinmen, by Taiwan’s exulted scenic standards, is a pretty bland-looking place. OK, one of the hills is nearly 300 meters high, but the rest of the island is almost as flat as a pancake, with little variety.
Of course being vertically challenged doesn’t make a place unattractive (back home in England, East Anglia is a sublime example of how level can be truly lovely). Broad sweeps of flat land do, however invite the kind of thoughtless and ugly, ramshackle development that blights areas of the main island of Kinmen nowadays.
Now for the good. If those of us spoilt by the glorious scenery all over the main the main island of Taiwan change the focus a little, and concentrate on the details, there are tons of magical places in Kinmen. There are some great panoramas, such as the sunset view atop the highest point in the archipelago, Mt Taiwu (太武山, 253 meters), or the broad, desolate sweep of beach at Beishan (北山) on the northwest tip of the main island. However, the majority of the island’s beauty exists in its small details – a widow’s memorial Gate, a strange, bright blue Fengshiyie statue, the swallowtail eves and stone textures of an old house, or the quiet shores of one of the many reservoirs on the islands.
Getting to Kinmen is a breeze these days, with plenty of daily flights from Taipei and Kaohsiung, plus services from Chiayi, Taichung and Tainan cities, so it’s pretty convenient to get to. There’s no public ferry service to the islands from Taiwan, but there is of course the quick ferry from Shuitou harbour (four kilometers west or a quick bus ride from Jincheng, the largest town on the main island of Kinmen) to Xiamen on the Chinese mainland, which is now open to foreigners (Taiwanese can now go across with no hassles, with just their ID; foreigners should be sure to get a Chinese visa in Taipei first); this trip is high on my list of things to do in 2012! Another ferry from Shuitou Harbor makes the 10-15 minute trip every half hour across the narrow strait to Lesser Kinmen (scooters can be taken on board). This second largest island in the Kinmen group is often missed by tourists, but is well worth exploring if you have time, as it features a couple of very impressive sights.
Organizing a trip to Kinmen is pretty simple, but, as usual be sure to book the flight early if travelling at a busy time (the services get booked up early on summer weekends). Even more important is the weather situation there. Forget romantic ideas of cool island breezes and idyllic days spent beside the beach: Kinmen is relentlessly hot in summer, and the sun is pitiless; plus many beaches are closed because of the danger of unexploded mines. It’s better to travel there in the shoulder seasons, perhaps May or June or September. On the other hand, leave it too late or go too early in the year and Kinmen (like the other main Taiwan Straits island groups of Penghu and Matsu) is famously cold, windy and bleak.
Most visitors base themselves on the main island, in one of its two biggest settlements. The main town on the island is Jincheng (金城; a NT$150 taxi ride from the airport; alternatively buses 1,2, or 3 from the bus stop just outside the airport building all connect with both Jincheng and Shanwai towns). Sitting near the west coast of the main island, about six kilometers west of the airport, Jincheng has the most hotels and homestays, and if you don’t mind something basic but clean, the prices of the cheaper old hotels are among the cheapest in all Taiwan, at NT$600 for a double, weekend rates. The town has an atmospheric old section with narrow alleyways and beautiful old stone structures to wander around. On the minus side, it’s a slightly neglected-looking and often somnambulent place, that these days (it seemed a tadge livelier eight years ago) hardly seems to rouse itself even at the weekend.
A similar distance in the opposite direction from the airport, the island’s second town, Shanwai (山外) is much more lively, due to the large population of soldiers living nearby. Shanwai is also the better place to find good food, with a couple of famous places (including a shop selling fantastic shaved ice with tangyuan). In the end though citizens of Taiwan’s big cities will be cruelly disappointed by the thoroughly
lousy limited selection of edibles on offer in Kinmen. After three days searching (with a notoriously food-loving local in tow) I only found one place (the famous Gaokeng Beef Restaurant, in a secluded spot far from any town, in the heart of the island) that rustled up anything at all exciting. Unless you don’t mind eating Guangdong porridge and oysters with noodles, you may well find yourself heading to 7-Eleven at mealtimes.
My first trip to Kinmen nearly turned into a frustrating disaster, as local scooter rental places in Jincheng, then relatively unused to foreigners, weren’t so keen to hire machines out to Westerners without a proper Taiwanese license. In the end, we got one place to rent us a bike on the strength of David’s 30 year-old (!) local scooter license, which was only valid for bikes up to 50 cc!
Thankfully the situation here has now become a lot easier: international driver’s licenses are accepted at (probably among others) one of the largest rental places in Jincheng, Xinjingyie (新敬業機車行) on Huandao West Road just south of the traffic circle on the east edge of Jincheng Town (follow the main road south from the bus station in Jincheng and it’s on the left in about 200 meters, just after the roundabout). Xingjingyie are used to renting to foreign visitors, and even have an English translation of the rental agreement, so it’s a relatively headache-free job. The bikes are also new and well-maintained – a world away from the old, clapped out and occasionally dangerous monsters for rent on the various islands of Matsu and in Lanyu.
For those that don’t ride a scooter, learn now! Alternatively the bus service around the island is quite good these days, plus there are several tourist bus routes starting at the bus station in Jincheng, each designed for a day’s sightseeing, connecting most of the main sights in a loop, with time at each place to get off and explore before rejoining the bus.
As for sights, there’s loads of them, falling into three neat groups. Kinmen isn’t scenically stunning in the way that most of Taiwan’s outlying islands are, but several places are very lovely. The polished granite slopes of Mt Taiwu are well worth exploring for their historic rock inscriptions and (best of all) the fantastic view at the top. Two newly-opened (dirt) hiking trails on the north side of the ridge finally provide an alternative to the boring slog up the military road from the west, which was once the only route up. The glorious long stretches of beach are also fantastic for walking along, although you probably wouldn’t want to swim there (there’s much more open these days, but be careful here as some areas of the island – particularly along the coast – are still mined). Crews of poor southeast Asians were busy clearing mines from large areas of the coastline of Lesser Kinmen island (the smaller islet to the west) on our visit, so it looks like more of this beautiful coastline will open up soon, but be sure not to cross any ‘Danger: Mines!’ signs: there are still plenty around!
Kinmen is (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say was) a remarkable repository of traditional Fujianese architecture. Many villages around the island (and several on Lesser Kinmen as well) have remnants of lovely houses, although in many places the effect is ruined by insensitive modern development. For my money, Matsu is a much better place to see traditional local architecture, but the village of Shuitou (水頭, a kilometer or so behind the harbor to Xiamen and Lesser Kinmen island) is a rare exception: an absolutely amazing little place with a mind-bending combination of well-preserved Fujianese houses with swallow-tailed roof spines and mansions in a quasi-Western style, with some extraordinary flights of architectural fancy thrown in for good measure. At the opposite (northeastern) corner of the island, the village of Shanhou (山后) is one of the most popular sights on the island, with its ordered rows of Fujianese stone houses which are a paradise for photographers, but possibly due to some over-zealous restoration work, the place looks a bit artificial: more like a museum than a still-living village.
Kinmen is best-known for its military associations, and abandoned army tunnels, forts and underground harbours, plus museums to the horrific battles and bombardments that occurred on the island are the third and certainly most vivid category of places to be explored on the two main islands.
An interest in military history, army paraphernalia and big guns is absolutely not a necessary prerequisite to enjoy some of the tons of military relics left on the island from those three terrifying decades between the late 1940s and the 1970s. If you get to see nothing else from the period in Kinmen be sure to pay a visit to Jhaishan Tunnel (翟山坑道) on the southwest corner of the island, dug out of the rocky cliffs in a couple of years in the 1960s. The cathedral-like two main tunnels, flooded several meters deep at high tide, were used to shelter military boats during aerial bombardment, and pierce three or four hundred meters into the rock, and although the multi-coloured lights inside are a bit out of synch with the sombre majesty of the place, it’s intensely impressive, and a must-see, especially for anyone who hasn’t seen the similar but even more impressive tunnel on Nangan Island in Matsu. There’s a similar tunnel on Lesser Kinmen, Jiugong or Sihwei Tunnel (四維坑道) right next to the ferry terminal, and although this one is less cavernous, and only a part of the network of tunnels is open to visitors, you get to walk right through the tunnel to the opposite side of the little headland, which is very cool.
Quite a few of the old forts and army barracks are now open to the public, the most impressive of which is one of the most recently opened-up. The wonderfully named Mount Lion Howitzer Front (獅山砲陣), just a short walk from the famous old-house village of Shanhou in the northeast corner of the main island. Before entering, check out the wild painting on the rock at the entrance showing a snarling lion chomping down on a missile (another way of reminding the troops stop the complaining and bite the bullet, maybe?); this might just be the finest mascot in the whole Taiwanese army.
The tunnels here were obviously dug to convey some seriously large trucks, as they’re far larger and higher than in any of the other complexes open to the public so far. Again only a portion of the network of tunnels is open, but there’s enough to see here to make it quite a highlight of the island: one tunnel leads to a chamber which screens a vivid multi-media presentation offering info about the tunnel and The Lions, while another leads through to the other side of the hill, and a huge 8 inch Howitzer capable of hurling missiles 32 kilometers (which is ample, considering the Mainland Chinese coast is only about 16 kilometers away from this place…).
Several other tunnel complexes have flung their doors open to tourists (and every single sight on the two islands is free of charge!), but the second standout of the group is probably the Ironman and Warrior Forts (鐵漢堡,勇士堡) , both burrowed into a hillside near the northern coast of Lesser Kinmen. The confusing network of tunnels here are narrow, low and claustrophobic, at times sloping steeply downhill, and it’s easy to get temporarily lost, although they always emerge into daylight sooner or later. The two forts are connected by a much large underground passage, just big enough to drive a small car along, which strikes straight as an arrow for about 400 meters, connecting the two forts.
To get a taste of underground Kinmen, it’s not even necessary to leave the towns. During the early 1970s, networks of tunnels were built for the use of civilians during the relentless aerial bombardment by China (which occurred on alternating days) in twelve towns around Kinmen, several of which are open to visitors today. The largest by far, the Civil Defense Tunnels (金城民防坑道) in Jincheng town, starts, bizarrely, on the second floor of the building housing the Jincheng bus station – go up the wide stairs to the exhibition hall, where tours (every hour, every day) descend the steps into the beginning of the over two kilometer-long tunnels. The tour (a guide is compulsory) takes visitors along 1.4 kilometers of the system (the remaining 600 meters consist of branching side passages connecting with the surface at various places in the town to give citizens quick access to safety in the event of a surprise attack). The twenty-minute walk (the tunnel emerges on the surface at Jincheng High School, on the opposite end of the town!) is strictly not for those suffering from claustrophobia. It’s hot and humid down there, and probably too scary for young kids, especially when sensors at intervals en route are tripped, setting off the special sound and strobe-light effects that are supposed to simulate being down here during an aerial bombardment. On the other hand it’s a unique and vaguely surreal experience, just one of many on Kinmen. The two islands which might disappoint anyone expecting to an unspoilt island oasis like Matsu or Lanyu or a water-sports hotspot like Penghu or Green Island. The attraction of Kinmen is far less obvious, but there’s plenty to amaze, delight and humble here for those that look beyond the rather plain landscapes and seek out the many details of this fascinating, long-suffering island.
Many more photos of Kinmen can be found on my Flickr site at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/29712358@N04/sets/72157627480829187/