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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Penghu

If you are one who prefers to look at photos, and do not wish to read this, you might want to click now on http://outintheworldpenghu.blogspot.com/.

As I think back on me three weekend trips to the islands surrounding Taiwan, I try to differentiate them from each other in as brief a manner as possible. Lanyu, or Orchid Island is the most mountainous of the islands, the one with the most stunning landscape with its jungles and clear, blue waters. It is an island that is as hampered as it is helped by its landscape, with farming difficult and the tourism industry at the mercy of the weather. Green Island (for related photos and stories, go to archives for week of March 27) the island most comfortable with itself. It is established as a tourist destination. The people know the things that visitors are coming to see, and a weekend visit is well worth the time. Kinmen, http://outintheworldkinmen.blogspot.com/, is the most interesting island. It is in the quiet of the storm, peaceful and calm despite its position right between China and Taiwan, and despite a large military presence. The landscape is not visually stunning, but it is gentle and relaxing, and there are much worse things to do than spend a few days wondering from village to village.

How might I describe Penghu then? Penghu is the name given to a string of islands in the Taiwan Strait. There are more than forty flights from Taiwan every day, and there are close to thirty boat companies offering their services on routes between the various islands. Of all the islands, Penghu seems to be the one that is trying the hardest to become a tourist destination, not just for Taiwanese but for international travelers as well. They have several things going for them – nice beaches, water sports, old villages and pleasant landscapes. I found it very easy to make arrangements for various activities, whether it be for boat trips, scooter rentals, or taxi rides. There are also decent maps of the main islands freely available in both English and Chinese (although I think one might have to go to the visitor center to get their hands on the English version). For all of the good things, though, it seemed at times that the people on Penghu are trying too hard to bring people in.

As Natalia and I made our bookings for the trip, we had some worried moments. All of the Saturday morning flights were booked, and the earliest flight we could find out of Taipei was at 2:45 Saturday afternoon, much later than I would have preferred. After checking all of the airlines, I found a 6:45 AM flight on Far East Airlines and was able to book what must have been the final two seats available on the flight (possibly the nicest plane flying to the island, also the most expensive at 1800 + NT, almost $60US one way. We heard that there was a festival being held in Penghu this weekend, and later this was clarified to mean that there was a festival and a fireworks show being held on every odd-numbered day in the month of May. When we heard this, we found phone numbers for several hotels in Makung, and made reservations at a place advertising Japanese-style rooms. The man at the hotel also agreed to pick us up at the airport. The man, a teacher at a school in Makung, proved to be very eager to help us the entire time we were there, again, like Penghu in general, almost too eager at times.

When we were picked up at the airport, a sporadic drizzle was falling. The rain ended shortly thereafter, and for the rest of the morning the sky was a deep blue. It did not rain again until Sunday night. The temperatures for most of our stay hovered around 29, and I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer time. From what I heard, Penghu, like Kinmen, is almost unbearable in July and August. We stopped at the visitor center, which opens at 8, and picked up some maps. The man from the hotel suggested we spend the first day going around Makung and Huhsi, the two counties on the largest island, and BaiSha and XiYu, which are linked to each other and to Makung by bridges. The three islands form something of a triangle with Baisha at the top, with bridges leading to Makung on the right and XiYu on the left. Because I have an irrational fear of riding a motorbike, we were very limited in what we could see that first day, and spent most of our time either waiting for buses to take us around and on XiYu. Our first stop was the aquarium on BaiSha, which I do not suggest going to as the one in Taipei is just as good, if not better. We strolled around a bit and then waited for about an hour for a bus to take us to the southern end of XiYu.

Despite the hassle of waiting for the bus, it did provide an opportunity to see much of BaiSha and XiYu. For the most part the islands are flat and wind-swept with white sand beaches dotting the coast lines. It also provided an insight into the population of the islands. All of the islands have older populations. This is especially true on the small islands that we visited on Monday, where sometimes it seemed as if houses were just closed up and forgotten as people died, and as soon as the last few old men and women died, there would be no one left on the island but for the tourists coming to visit. Even on the larger islands, though, the buses were filled with elderly folks who had come to the morning market in Makung and were returning to the villages they lived in. In the villages and small towns around the larger islands, then, one found aged populations, with a few grandchildren running around as well. The highlight of the day for me was walking around the towns of WaiAn and NeiAn in the southern part of XiYu. There were many old stone houses and a nice stretch of road running between the coast and some grassland being grazed by cows. We also walked through the NeiAn Recreational Area, which is a nice stretch of coast that mixes black rock, white sand, and grassland.

We returned to our hotel in time to take a shower and get a bite to eat before heading to the festival and fireworks show that had brought so many people to Penghu for the weekend. The man at the hotel informed us the show started at 8, and that we should get there by 7:30 to make sure we had a good seat. When we got there, the first thing we saw was a bridge whose top had been lit in various rainbow colors, colors which reflected on the water below. It was quite nice to look at, and as we were engulfed by the sounds of games and laughter and bad pop music, I thought that we were in for a nice night. There was an outdoor beer bar set up, and several snack stands. There were plenty of activities to make children happy, and the crowd grew bigger with each passing moment. By the time eight came, Natalia and I had secured good seats on a wall over the water and we were ready to go. 8:00 passed and 8:30 came, and still there were no fireworks. Then 9:00 arrived and the crowd finally began to grow restless. I got up to use the restroom and to buy a beer and while I was gone, a woman took my seat, which led to a rather angry exchange between her and Natalia (which I was told about upon my return).

At 9:30 the show started. First there was a stream of spark shooting from five pots on the top of the bridge. One by one they stopped, until there was just one on the far left sputtering out sparks every few seconds. Natalia compared it to a small farting boy. While this was going on, fireworks began going off overhead. The problem was they were shot off one by one. One would go up and we would follow its progress as it climbed, waiting to see what would happen. It would explode and then another one would go up. This meant there was at least a two second delay between each explosion, and it quickly became evident that this was not going to be like the fireworks displays I grew up with in Cincinnati. I quickly lost interest in the show, my main focus shifting instead to the reactions of those around me. The woman who had taken my seat uttered a strange “Wa Wa Wa!” sound each time a colorful design filled our eyes above. Her grandson counted fireworks, and would say things like “That was the most beautiful one!” When fireworks exploded into heart shapes, the crowd exploded in cheers and I could hear “Hau ke ai!” (So cute!) all around me. When it was all said and done, and without any sort of finale, people rushed for the exits, Natalia and I included.

After the fireworks, Natalia and I stopped at one of the pubs we had seen while walking through town for a drink. There were three or four we noticed, and this one was not bad, much nicer than I expected. It seemed mostly locals and military personnel drinking there, but we didn’t stay long enough to engage anyone in conversation. Mostly we discussed the fireworks show, and how we felt a little bit sorry for Penghu in general. They obviously wanted to give everyone a good show, and a lot of money has been put into the fireworks. The result, though, was well short of any level of expectation.

We woke up early on Sunday with plans to go to ChiBei, the northernmost main island of Penghu. ChiBei is the island where people go for water sports, with jet skis, tube rides, and para-sailing all available. There are also four-wheelers to be rented and driven across the long spit of beach that forms the southern tip of the island. We were excited about going up there as it has been some time – since Cambodia in February – that we have spent time on the beach. With the weather starting to get hot, and plans being formed to camp out at one of the beaches near Taipei for a coming weekend, a day at the beach on ChiBei seemed a perfect way to begin what summer time beach fun we will get to experience in Taiwan this year.

We took a bus from Makung up to Chikan on BaiSha Island. Chikan is the main port for boats visiting the northern islands and there are several boat companies to choose from. There are several islands that one can visit to the north, but all but ChiBei must be chartered. The most appealing of the islands is called HsienChiao, which is a very small island made almost entirely of white sand.

The ticket up to ChiBei cost about 550 NT, or $17 US and the ride lasted about a half hour. The island is not large, small enough that it could be covered by foot in a three + hours (or maybe less). As we were there for the beach, though, I set aside thoughts of setting out for a wander. While walking from the port to the beach, we passed a small shop renting bikes out for about 30NT (less than $1). The bikes were not great, but I was thrilled. It is very hard to find bikes available for rent on the islands around Taiwan (when they would make such a great way of getting around). In fact, ChiBei was the only island that I saw bikes being rented out on. Even though we didn’t need one to get to the beach (maybe a fifteen minute walk from the port), we rented the bikes and continued on.

When we reached the beach, we had our first disappointment of the day. I had heard the beach was a coral beach, but I was not prepared for how rough it would be. The beach was not easy to walk on, and not much more comfortable to sit on. We found a spot, though, and settled in to read and look for shells. There were not too many people around, and most of them were being pulled around by jet skis while sitting in tubes. Other groups came and went as their tours arrived and departed. The next disappointment came less than an hour after our arrival. The sky, already cloudy, turned gray and it began to rain. We left the beach and stood under a sheltered area containing small souvenir shops, drink stands, and a restaurant. When the rain stopped, we decided to take our bikes for a little ride around the area, and to check what looked like might be a beach on the opposite side of the island.

There was a beach there, but we decided not to go. Instead we spent time walking around the area between the port and the beach. There were several burnt out and abandoned buildings. There were several more buildings in various stages of constructions, as well as several new outdoor restaurants catering to the tourist crowd. The town near the port was much more interesting as there were some old stone houses built on a low hillside which eventually led up to the grasslands that filled most of the island. After strolling around here, we went back to the busier area, where most of the restaurants were located. There were several of them, most serving sea food. There was also an excellent drink shop selling shaved ice with mango, watermelon, and ice cream, as well as frozen drinks with different fruit flavors.

After our lunch we returned to the beach and spent the rest of the afternoon listening to Taiwanese men scream like little girls as they rode four wheelers back and forth on the beach behind us and flying around the water in jet skis and rubber banana-shaped tubes. The rain came again at three and we returned to the port to wait for our 4:00 boat.

We returned to Makung at around 4:30. The man from our hotel had said he would pick us up on his way back from volunteering on Xi Yu. He said he would be there at around 5:20, and arrived closer to 6:00. He asked us how our day was and what we planned to do on Monday. We had told him we would like to see the southern islands, and now he went into overdrive to help us plan for that. He took us to a travel agency to see if we could arrange for a trip that would cover four islands to the south. He also arranged for a driver to pick us up in the morning and to take us back to the hotel after the trip. He wanted to do many other things as well, but by the time Natalia and I finally got back to the hotel near 7, we really just wanted to take showers and find supper. The hotel we stayed at was quite nice, and the man was super helpful, but at this time, and on a few other occasions, he was almost too helpful.

I have mentioned before how hard it is to turn down a drink or a meal offered by someone while traveling, no matter how disgusting said meal or drink might be, and the same goes for turning down the trouble many are willing to go to in order to assure your trip meets your needs, or what they presume to be your needs. This was, perhaps, one of those cases.

Monday came. It had rained all night, but by morning the rain was gone. We were picked up at the hotel just after seven, and went to the port in Makung, the staging area for trips to the south island. There are two main islands to the south, WangAn and ChiMei. The other two islands on our itinerary were TongPan and HuChing.

The first stop was WangAn. It took about forty minutes to get to the island by boat. The ride was pleasant as we passed a number of small islands and the wind felt crisp on my face as I stood at the back of the boat shooting photos. There were a number of people on the boat with us, many from a tour group, and then about ten people like Natalia and myself, either couples or groups of friends. Upon arriving at WangAn, we got on a bus for 150NT to be driven around the island. Usually I do not like doing things like this, but as our time was short, it seemed the prudent option. The bus driver was in good spirits as he informed us that there were about 800 people on the island, 100 of whom were police officers. The school had 16 students and 16 teachers. The firefighters worked two times a year.

We were first taken to TienTai Hill. Atop the hill is a rock with what looks to be a footprint pressed into its smooth surface. Somehow a story got started that the footprint belongs to a fairy and so now it is one of the main places to go on the island. Natalia and I did not go up there right away, choosing instead to walk in the windswept fields of wild grass the filled the island. I mentioned to Natalia that in the U.S. I would be very bored by such a landscape, but now, after having not seen such a thing for more than a year, it was like being in a wonderland. After most of the people who had gone straight to the top of the hill came down to look at souvenirs, Natalia and I went up. The footprint was, in fact footprint-like, but only in Taiwan, or China, maybe, could something like that have become a tourist destination. The views were stunning, though, of sheer coast line, grass fields dotted by yellow-flowered cactus plants, and a strip of white beach.

Following the visit to the hillside, we went to a village famed for its houses. The houses are all more than 300 years old and made from coral. As we walked through the village, staying behind the groups ahead of us, Natalia and I went a bit photo happy. With the only sounds being our footsteps and the wind, and with most of these sounds being absorbed by the buildings, it felt as if we were isolated from the rest of the world. This was the first of a few times we would feel this throughout the day.

We finished our visit to WangAn with a stop at a small white sand beach that, while being rough with coral, was not as bad as that on ChiBei. We left wishing we had more time to stay on the island, or even to stay for an overnight visit in order to experience a fantastically slowed down version of life (there are two hotels on the island).

From WangAn we were on to ChiMei. ChiMei literally means “Seven Beauties” and its name was changed several years ago to honor seven women who are rumored to have killed themselves to avoid being raped by pirates. Our first stop then, was at a small memorial for them, seven trees planted in front of a small pagoda. Again, Natalia and I went away from the group sharing our 150NT bus and explored the coast line across the street. The coast line was quite steep, and the graves that dotted the thin strip of grass between the walk way and the drop off into the ocean enjoyed excellent views.

We next went to see some tourist spots along the coast. The first was a large rock in the water that has been called Little Taiwan because of its resemblance to the main island. Then we went to look at two heart-shaped stone weirs that appeal to the innate sense of ke-ai in the Taiwanese. These weirs are actually very interesting, and Penghu is one of the few places in the world, from what I understand, that makes use of them. Basically, fishermen pile stones up in the water, to form walls and pools. When the tide is in, fish come with the water. When the tide goes out, the fish can not get out of the traps and the fishermen have a much easier time capturing them.

The landscape on ChiMei again featured wide, rolling grasslands and sheer coasts. There were also goats everywhere on the island, which added to the general feeling of peace I had while there. After our drive around the island, we stopped in the town near the port. Here we ate lunch and walked around. Again, a quiet town with an inordinate number of abandoned feeling houses.

The next boat ride took nearly an hour and almost everyone fell asleep. We stopped next at HuChing Island, a small island between WangAn and Makung. HuChing is known mostly for the large chunks of volcanic rock that line the coast line, rising straight up from the main road leading around the island. While these were nice to look at, I enjoyed the view at the top of the island, more windswept grass, this time dotted everywhere by chunks of rock and poles that did not hold anything up, jutting up and cutting into the gray sky beyond. Also of interest here was the way the town had been built on a very narrow strip of land with water on both side. I guess to get a picture of it, imagine a barbell. The town was built in the handle, and on either end were small weights. Or, to get a picture of it, visit http://outintheworldpenghu.blogspot.com/.

The final stop of the day was at TongPan Island, named such because of its resemblance (alleged by some) to a frying pan. I don’t see it. Our visit to TongPan was a real highlight, though. The island’s most famous attraction is a temple which we did not go to. Instead we wandered up some stairs leading up through the small town by the port. We found ourselves eventually amongst a group of abandoned houses, most of which had been overgrown by the leafless, painful looking small trees that covered many of the islands in Penghu. One of the houses in particular captured our attention and our imaginations. It looked as if it had not been abandoned so long ago. The paint on the door was still bright, and a notice of some sort had been tacked up. Littered around the yard and on a low yard running by the path were several small statues of dwarfs – or perhaps gnomes. The feeling we had was that someone had died, maybe a year or two ago, and now the house was on its slow descent into destruction by the elements. Because the area was again windswept and isolated, we now felt not as if we had been isolated from the rest of the world but as if had been dropped into a post-apocalyptic landscape.

The path leading through the houses led on to some stairs leading down to the coast. The stairs had almost been completely swallowed by encroaching trees and cactus plants, meaning that Natalia and I both suffered small cuts. On our way back, we passed an old woman walking her dog and carrying a bucket. Natalia asked her what had happened, if she knew if the people who had lived here had moved away. The woman would not answer any of her questions. Perhaps someone had died, and on such a small island no doubt a friend or a family member.

Down in the main village, an old man selling drinks told us that the houses had been built during the Japanese occupation and had been abandoned long ago. We left TongPan with the feeling that once these few last old people passed away, the whole island would be left abandoned to the whims of nature and tourism.

Natalia and I left the following morning, decided to leave 6 hours earlier than planned because of heavy rain. The trip, on a whole, was worth it. Perhaps better weather and no fear of scooters would have helped matters a bit, but still, no regrets. Would I go there again? I think I would go back to Kinmen first, and then perhaps Lanyu. But yes, I would go back…especially back to the south. Islands like TongPan and WangAn are good places to go to slow down, to clean out your lungs (if you live in Taipei). And on islands like these you have nothing but time to think about what effect time has on us and on everything around us.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Natalia said...

Wow, you described everything better than me. Obviously, I'm too lazy to write something this long.
I don't think i would go back, only to Tongpan.

12:23 PM  

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