After six years, I finally made it to Kinmen (金門)! Nikki and I decided to break for the border (well, almost) and book a long weekend away from Taipei; our first trip away together.
Kinmen (pronounced ‘Jin-Men’), is a curious historical anomaly, situated as it is a mere 2100m away from the coast of mainland China. Indeed, administratively, its official title is ‘Fujian Province, Republic of China’, demonstrating very clearly the attitude of previous administrations towards the islet; they possessed a small portion of the mainland, and one day they were coming back for the rest.Times change, but a significant military presence still exists on the island; checkpoints peer out from beside the road and the roads themselves I am convinced are as straight and wide as they are to facilitate movement of military aircraft – or at least, convinced by Nikki. Delve a little deeper (literally) and immense military subterranean constructions string together and fortify the strategic centres of the islands.
On the Taiwanese mainland, this recent history – a history that is still playing itself out – stains the public perception of the islands. It’s somewhere to be sent as a young man for military training, a long way away from the bright lights and noise of the night-markets and KTV of Taipei. For most Taiwanese, it remains a remote, underpopulated spec on the map, sporting little more than some rather tasty oyster omelettes.
But here’s the deal; until relatively recently, Taiwan itself was the untamed jungle island that no-one wanted, and it was places like Kinmen that were properly interacting with the juggernaut of ancient China. As a result, historical buildings litter the islands, and there is a true linkage with Old China, untethered by the forces of Communism. In my opinion, the Taiwanese government has every possibility of being able to gain for Kinmen UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
If we were going to visit the history, we also wanted a chance to stay in one of the increasingly popular ‘home stays’, that the locals have renovated into accommodation. We found a lovely guesthouse run by Mr. Lan in the small village of Zhushan on the south of the island. Surrounded by impossibly charming old Chinese houses, it felt like we were stepping onto the set of a period movie, and into what I thought Taiwan would be like before I moved to Asia; sadly, I was slightly off the mark!
Faded script below:
But this was no movie set, people were still living in the buildings. Conversing with the sartorially-dressed Mrs. Xu, it transpired that her family had been living there for several hundred years, sons and daughters of local warlord, General Xu. Meeting history face-to-face is a humbling experience.
But back to recent military history, and more importantly, the dining room table. Master Wu crafts his knives from shells fired at Kinmen by the Communist forces during various stages of conflict. Famously, during The Second Taiwan Straight Crisis, the Peoples’ Liberation Army lobbed 450,000 shells at the islands, beginning in 1958. The aftermath has gone down as one of history’s stranger conflicts, whereby for the next twenty years, in an informal agreement between the two sides, they took in turns to fire shells stuffed with propaganda on alternate days of the week, with a rest stop on Sunday. Some of the world’s most powerful speakers traded insults and it is said the world’s largest neon sign was erected in Xiamen, just across the straight. So, in an amusing twist of history shells supplied by Russia, hewn of extremely high quality steel, were perfect for making knives. History played out on the dining room table.
Subtle cues to the history.
Propaganda station signs on Kinmen. Want T-shirts made.
Some of the warren of tunnels under Kinmen are open for public access. Completely empty of other tourists, and yet with the lights still on, they made for a creepy atmosphere; just imagine rounding a corner after walking underground for ten minutes, and being faced with this; several hundred metres of (professionally lit) tunnel, fading off into infinity. A perfect opportunity for practicing echo sounds, but more than a few minutes of trying to work out where the exit left us anxious to get out. And we did – just in the next village, and completely disorientated!
And this was what it was all about – sights set on Xiamen, a mere couple of kilometres away, and well within shelling range.
Entertainment was as you might expect for a sleepy outcrop, but we did manage to check out a local music festival, featuring a bewildering assortment of local acts, opera, Broadway show rip-offs and American Indian performers. Yes, American Indian.
Shops, check. Food – double check – never have I eaten so many oysters in so little time. Those fried oyster omelettes were wicked.
The local shops were just as fascinating and intricate as the rest of Taiwan, but with the added bonus of having a weight of history soaked into the walls.
A horseshoe crab on the ground of one of the local restaurants – never had I imagined that these would be good to eat; we didn’t actually stop to find out, it must be said.
Stumbling on one of the many villages scattered about the island; immaculately kept (result of 7000 troops keeping the place tidy?) and just aching for more international visitors.
A total of two days were spent on the islands, rattling around on a scooter. In a ‘first’ for me I was lent a car on the final day by Mister Lan and was able to have my first four-wheeled driving experience in Taiwan, since the rain was coming down pretty hard. A little more time would have been nice, to allow more exploration of the old villages and townships, but it was just about enough, and a perfect escape from the rain bowl of Taipei.
One of my favourite aspects of Kinmen was being able to look at Taiwan through a different lens, tinted with aeons of history and within a broader regional context defined mainly by China. It will be interesting to see how the place develops; while the Taiwanese don’t seem to be showing too much interest in the place, droves of Chinese tourists are making the short journey, and there are noises about constructing a road link to the mainland; we’ll see, but there is little doubt that more history will be played out here yet.