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I was standing on top of a cliff looking at a loudspeaker the size of a small block of flats facing out to sea. There was music playing, the woman’s voice so loud it hurt my ears. But this was down to the vastness of the speaker, not the song, which was plaintive and mellifluous and heartbreaking, even though I couldn’t understand a word.
The music stopped. The woman talked, in Mandarin, the recording crackling. “Dear friends in mainland China,” she said, my guide, Chifa Chen, translating. “I am happy to be here in Kinmen. I hope you can share the same freedom. Please, just come here and realise your dreams.”
I turned to face the sea, following the woman’s voice. Across the strait, just six miles away, through the diaphanous smog, I could see the ghostly skyscrapers of Xiamen city in mainland China. The voice, Chen told me, was the late Teresa Teng’s, Taiwanese folk singer and soldiers’ sweetheart, whose patriotic ballads of the 1970s, blasted nightly across the strait, were a potent propaganda tool in the cold war between Taiwan and China. Despite being banned at one point, Teng enjoyed huge popularity in China, where lovestruck fans christened her “Little Deng” (on the mainland, her name was spelt in the same way as China’s then leader). “It is said that Deng Xiaoping ruled China by day,” said Chen. “But Deng the singer ruled China by night.”
I had flown 200 miles west from Taiwan’s capital city Taipei to Kinmen, a bow-tie-shaped lump of granite gneiss, just 58 square miles in all. The Taiwan Strait is studded with tiny islands, familiar to Taiwanese holidaymakers but virtually off the radar of western tourists. I was to spend a week exploring a few of them.
Kinmen was the first place Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces landed and claimed in their 1949 retreat from Mao Zedong’s Communist regime. At its closest point, it is just over a mile from the mainland. For the next 30-odd years Kinmen was shelled remorselessly by China; and the cliff-top sirens did their thing.
But rapprochement eventually followed and, in 1995, Taiwan designated Kinmen a national park, embarking on a massive programme to turn the once off-limits military zone, one of the most heavily fortified places on earth, into a tourist destination – with its cold war history one of the key draws. And the tourists they mainly want to attract? The newly wealthy Chinese, of course: what sweet irony.
We drove through tunnels of horsetail trees, swishing in the breeze, a wave of noise from the cicadas, like squealing car tyres, accompanying us. These trees, very wind resistant, explained Chen, were planted by the military to reforest the island, which had been denuded by shipbuilding dating back to the Ming era. We passed a large granite statue, flowing red cape around its shoulders, incense burning in its lap – a wind lion god, said Chen, one of 70 erected to protect the island from the violent winds that rip through the strait.
We stopped at Maestro Wu’s knife factory. From 1958 to 1978, the Chinese dropped nearly 5m shells on Kinmen. Many of them have ended up at Maestro Wu’s, after it was discovered that the high-grade steel made for superb kitchen knives.
I met the current maestro, Wu Tsong-shan, 56, who had followed his father and grandfather into the business. He selected a shell from the huge pile in the workshop, cut out a section with a blowtorch, then hammered and polished it and hammered it again. Within 20 minutes, he was handing me my very own knife, made from a Chinese bomb.
We walked around Kincheng, Kinmen’s sleepy little main town, along Mofan Street, flanked by 1920s red-brick buildings with arched front doors in the Japanese style. At the Chef Huang restaurant, we drank bitter herbal tea made from the luo han guo gourd, ate beef jerky infused with cumin, and then beef noodle soup, scarlet red and powered by yeast and chillies. Kinmen’s beef is famous throughout Taiwan, the cattle being fed on the brewing leftovers from the potent and equally famous 58 per cent proof sorghum-based kaoliang liquor that is made here.
We drove around the island, along narrow hedgerowed country lanes, where hoopoes, Kinmen’s emblematic striped bird, stood in our way, their feathered crowns defiantly erect. We stopped at a sandbank peppered with nesting holes, and watched the air pulse iridescent blue as hundreds of bee-eaters swooped around us. We drove past mangrove swamps, alive with huge black-and-white common mime butterflies and fiddler crabs, past fields of wild mint and peanuts, and then emerged once more at the coast, where a long, palm-fringed beach could have had you in the Caribbean were it not for the neat rows of steel spikes embedded in concrete that covered its entirety and a giant sign facing the sea reading, “Destroy the Evil Communists.” “There’s a local saying that Kinmen is a garden built upon a fortress,” said Chen, before adding, reassuringly, that they’d finally cleared the last of the mines.
That night we stayed in Qionglin, an old village whose ubiquitous sweeping swallowtail roofs were a symbol of its former wealth and status. Approached from the hillside above, Qionglin had looked like a vast scaled monster. Our B&B was built in the 1850s but modelled on the classic Ming-era vernacular. Wrapped around a small courtyard, it dripped with pendulous lanterns, the gables engraved with vivid peonies and birds and golden dragons. The ancient hardwood doors to my bedroom creaked with age as I opened them.
We went out for a dinner of squid balls and fried sandworms, a Kinmen delicacy, and a few shots of kaoliang, downed in one from thimble-sized glasses, its throat-stripping effects somewhat but not entirely annulled by its traditional accompaniment of dried black beans.
After dinner we walked back through Qionglin, slightly giddy from the kaoliang, along alleyways so narrow I had to turn sideways, the languid, humid night suffused with jasmine, the swallowtail roofs silhouetted against the moonlight. Old men drew water from street wells. Women sat under flickering lamps shucking the wild oysters they’d harvested from the beach.
The next day, we saw more of Kinmen’s cold war legacy. First, we walked through the elaborate network of cramped tunnels the people of Qionglin dug under the village to escape the Chinese shells, and then to Zhaishan where, in the early 1960s, the military dug a 375-metre tunnel out of solid granite, filled it with seawater and used it to shelter its navy from bombardment. Ernst Stavro Blofeld would have felt very much at home.
But Kinmen is about more than war. We drove past more pagodas and lakes brimming with birds – Kinmen has more than 300 species, resident and migratory – and more exquisite old Fujian villages – Shuitou, Jhushan, Shanshou – and then through forests of Madagascar almond and golden flame trees, spotting the wind lions as we went. We passed a vast building, nearing completion. It was, Chen told me, a five-star hotel and shopping mall, due to open at the end of this year. In a sign of ever-increasing closeness between the two countries, it was the first hotel and mall in Taiwan to be funded by a Chinese property developer. It looked terribly out of place.
In the Taipei Times, Li Wo-shi, Kinmen’s county commissioner, was proposing the island become a duty-free destination, integrating travel and shopping, better to detain the Chinese holidaymakers from just across the water, who currently arrived in Kinmen by ferry from Xiamen but flew straight out again to Taipei. The islanders, Wo-Shi had been quoted as saying, should have a hard think about this. Chen already had – about the impact this would have on lovely little Kinmen – and he was worried.
I flew east to Penghu, just 30 miles from the coast of Taiwan. Penghu comprises 90-odd islands – only a quarter of which are inhabited – formed from volcanic eruptions 17 million years ago. On the main archipelago, four islands forming a horseshoe and connected by bridges, I wandered around Makung, the pretty seaside capital, lost in a delicious walking reverie. I watched the locals praying at the Matsu Temple, dating from the late 16th century, with its stunning woodcarvings, sweeping swallowtail roof and a palpable sense of the eternal. Then I continued along Central Street, Makung’s oldest, winding and brick-paved, past Confucian temples and ancestral shrines.
I drove out of town, first south, to Shanshui beach, an expanse of golden sand I had virtually to myself, and then north to Erkan, a township of 50 or so exquisite Fujian-style houses with coral walls dating from the early 20th century. There I drank cold almond tea and ate vivid vermilion-coloured ice-cream made from cactus, a Penghu speciality, and watched the villagers roll the incense sticks they sell to tourists.
The next day I took a ferry to Chipei Island, barely two miles wide, and walked along the Chipei Tail, a great tongue of golden sand jutting out into the water. It was quite deserted on this summer’s day but, come September, when the 50-knot winds blast down the Taiwan Strait from the north, it will be packed with the windsurfers who flock to Penghu, “the Canary Islands of the Orient”, from all corners.
I took a ferry south, a tiny boat in big swells, past Tongpan, barricaded by walls of basalt columns, to Chimei Island, where I hired a scooter and rode along the clifftops, looking down at the churning water and the Two Hearts Stone Weir, an ancient fish trap that forms the backdrop to many a Taiwanese honeymoon photo. And then on to tiny Wang’an, where I rode past abandoned ancient dwellings, more fabulous, deserted beaches and grassy hillsides carpeted with vivid orange and yellow firewheels.
My guidebook directed me to the most famous sight on Wang’an, a “footprint” in a piece of basalt halfway up a hill which, legend has it, was formed when Lu Dongbin, one of China’s eight immortals, squatted here to urinate. It seemed a long way to come to look at the footprint of a god taking a leak but as I sat there and looked across the island – wild, remote, utterly unspoilt – I was glad I had.
On my last day in Penghu, I walked along the Makung harbour front. It was Dragon Boat racing day, and the locals were paddling their craft up and down. It was delightfully restrained, more like a school sports day than the razzmatazz of the same event going on at the same time just across the Taiwan Strait in Hong Kong.
That same day, the China Times had run a story about Penghu. In 2009, the islands had held a referendum on whether to allow the building of casinos – as with Kinmen, better to attract Chinese tourists. There was also talk about building huge beach resorts. The referendum had been narrowly defeated, causing proposed investment in the islands to be slashed. Now, according to the Times, the pro-casino group was gathering signatures again for a second public vote, confident this time it would win.
As I walked back to my hotel, along Makung’s quiet streets, past the old temples with swallows flitting in and out of the eaves, I wondered what Kinmen and Penghu would look like in 10 years’ time. I thought back to those plaintive cliff top exhortations, “Just come here and realise your dreams,” and wondered what Teresa Teng would make of it all.
Mike Carter was a guest of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, EVA Air and Transasia Airways. EVA flies daily from London to Taipei, from £678 return, and from 61 other cities. Transasia flies to Kinmen and Penghu from Taipei and Kaoshiung, returns from £65 per person. Tour operators who can arrange similar itineraries include Bamboo Travel and Cox and Kings