馬祖 Matsu Islands: Boats, Beauty and, yes, Blue Tears!

Yes, we even saw the famous Blue Tears (藍眼淚) of Matsu, honest!  And they were AMAZING!

And the only reason we saw them was because of that terrible Typhoon Dujuan that hit us on the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival weekend at the end of September.  Sometimes, y’know, even typhoons have a silver lining!

Every year, the Diocese of Taiwan organizes a trip for a few days to visit somewhere interesting ~ mostly for the older people, but anyone is welcome, and several invite their friends and family, who may or may not be church members, so we have a lovely variety!

And for the first time ever, I got to go too ~ yippee!

Last year the diocesan group went to Kinmen – islands west of Taiwan, very close to Mainland China, and a major military base – but I was in the UK then, so no chance to go. So I was very happy to be able to go on this year’s trip to the Matsu Islands YES YES YES!

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Matsu consists of 5 main islands plus plenty of small ones, part of Taiwan (R.O.C.)’s territory but located 100-120 miles NW of Taiwan and only 5-10 miles from Mainland China – within shouting distance, people say.  Like Kinmen, the Matsu Islands are highly militarized, but you just have to go there to find out what that means in practice. Once upon a time, they were inhabited only by fishermen – and pirates.  But then came the Chinese Civil War, World War II, the retreat of Chiang Kai-Shek with the KMT and all their military to Taiwan in 1949, and then sea and air battles and bombardments throughout the 50’s right up until 1965 – as Mainland China tried to wrestle Matsu out of Taiwan’s control. At its peak, there were 50,000 soldiers stationed on Matsu.   Troops were on alert at all times for long afterwards, and it was only in 1992 that a civilian administration took over the islands from the military.

So much history packed into just a few decades….

Today there are only about 3,000 troops stationed in Matsu, spread over all the islands, but all the military buildings and equipment remain, some of it in use but much of it now either open to tourists, or lying derelict.  Matsu lays claim to being the most ‘tunnel-laden’ island in the world.  Tunnels are everywhere, under every mountain, or so it seems. Tunnel 88, completed on the 88th birthday of Chiang Kai-Shek in 1974, is now used for storing Kaoliang Liquor – which is a main industry of Matsu.  Beihai Tunnel is the biggest, and was used for protecting all the military ships etc in case of invasion….

Anyway that’s a shortened history, there’s plenty more!

Back to Tuesday November 10, and we gathered at Taipei Songshan Airport, a group of 36 of us, including Bishop Lai and his wife, Lily.  18 of the group were from St. John’s Cathedral, 8 of us from Advent Church, and the rest from southern Taiwan. A really lovely group, all so friendly, happy, and helpful.  Our tour guide was one of our church members from St. Mark’s Church, Pingtung, we call her Ju-Zi, and she is the best tour guide in the world, we all love her to bits!

And off we went on a 50-minute flight by Uni Air to the largest of the 5 Matsu Islands, Island #1: Nangan 南竿. Well, it may have been sunny up there above the clouds but by the time we arrived, Matsu was covered in low cloud.  And drizzle. And rain.  And cold.  And guess what, it stayed that way for a whole 3 days ~ but y’know, it kind of added to the atmosphere of the whole place, all the military secrecy, and the clouds of war, fear and suspicion that have hung over the islands for so long….

Nangan is the largest island in Matsu, with a population of about 4,000, 3 elementary schools, 2 junior high schools, and one senior high school.  After that, the students go to Taiwan for college or university.  It’s such a very quiet place and our first question on arrival was to ask where all the people were ~ however we soon found a 7-Eleven, so felt at home immediately ha ha!  And it’s right across from the Matsu Methodist Church…..

We visited a military establishment built into a tunnel, where past presidents would come for official briefings, to stay overnight and to host dinners.  No photos allowed inside, but group photo #1 at the entrance!

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Then up to Nangan’s highest hill, 250m, where the Military Intelligence Unit is based – now open to tourists who are Taiwan citizens, so I couldn’t go in.  But no loss, I think!

Then to the Beihai Tunnel, to Jinsha Village 津沙村, and then to Matsu Village to the famous Matzu Temple 天后宮, where Lin Moniang, who became the goddess Matzu, is buried. We stayed overnight at the Shen-Nung Resort, and that evening we had a very lovely evening prayer service led by Bishop Lai and rector of Advent church, Rev. Lennon Chang.  Oh yes, and followed by tea drinking with Bishop Lai – a wonderful custom!

In the morning, a quick walk around, then we visited Tunnel 88 and the famous Kaoliang Liquor Store for wine tasting and shopping, plus some more military installations and huge great stone Chinese characters so big that the whole world can see them, exhorting everyone to stay alert (literally to keep your weapon under your pillow) and to work hard, overcome, resist the enemy, that kind of theme….

Actually, quite a relief to move on and down to the port for the 40-minute boat ride to Island #2: Dongju, the most southerly of the Matsu Islands.

We called at Xiju 西莒, then to Dongju 東莒, both part of Juguang Township 莒光鄉, and arrived in time for lunch.  Dongju is a tiny tiny island, 150 people, 70 soldiers, an elementary school with 6 children and 9 teachers (yes, nine whole teachers!), and then above the age of 12, all education takes place on Xiju or Nangan.

The Dongguan Lighthouse 東犬燈塔 is the most famous building on Dongju, built in 1872 by the British to protect their ships on the spice route up the Chinese coast….  Group Photo #2!

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There’s also some beautiful stone villages and an old army camp…..

Great place, but after a few hours, it was time to return by boat to Nangan, pick up our luggage, and head on a different boat to Island #3: Beigan 北竿.

Nangan to Beigan is only 15 minutes by boat – and Beigan is even smaller and quieter than Nangan, but we loved it – mainly because nearly all the people live in one village, Tanchi 塘岐村, right next to the airport, where our guest house was too.  And there’s a whole street of shops and they’re open in the evening, so we went shopping, YES!  At the entrance to Tanchi, there is a most creative village wall map, made like a kind of mural, and all in 3D – the buildings are actual models of the real thing stuck on the wall. Incredible, I loved it!

Beigan has about 2,300 people, 2 elementary schools each with about 30 children, and a junior high school with about 60+ children.  There is an RC Church but it no longer has any church services, the building is used as a church nursery school.  It also has a Methodist Church and we were able to meet the lady minister ~ and took a photo of her with Bishop Lai….

On Thursday we visited Chinbi Village 芹壁村, which is perched on the side of the cliffs and is, well, just stunning. Only a few people live there these days, so the government is hard at work preserving the old homes and converting them into guest houses.  We even had fish noodles for a mid-morning snack.  Then to Chiaozai Village 橋仔村 where the noticeboard says that the number of deities worshiped in the temples there outnumbers the number of people who live there… ah, enough said!

We visited the highest point on Beigan, and watched far down below, through the clouds, as the plane to Taipei took off from the airport.  Then to an old military camp and the War and Peace Memorial Park – a really excellent museum all about the military history of Matsu.  Tragic and sad, but quite illuminating.  We also saw the islands not far offshore where the famous Chinese Crested Terns nest in the summer. They are so rare that they were thought to be extinct, but then 4 pairs were discovered in 2000 nesting in amongst other tern species – and now their pictures and photos are everywhere in Matsu….

Mid-afternoon ~ and to collect our luggage and head to Beigan Airport for our flight back to Taipei. There’s only 3 flights a day into and out of Beigan Airport, all to Taipei.  The early morning flight had been cancelled due to fog.  We were ever hopeful that ours would be OK – but turned out to be not so.  At 3:30pm, they announced ours was cancelled too. Aaaaaaaaaaah!

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Fog fog fog. Oh no, no flight. Stranded in Matsu!

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And so it was that on Thursday afternoon at 4:30pm we found ourselves on the boat going back to Nangan.  After all, even if the next day’s flights were to be flying OK, our group of 36 had no way of getting seats. The only way back to Taiwan was by boat.  Big boat.  Tai-Ma (Taiwan-Matsu) Boat, leaving from Nangan on Friday morning.  So we stayed an extra night back in Nangan in the same guest house as the first night, and spent the evening sharing as a group about our visit to Matsu. An extra evening, extra blessing, and more tea-drinking too!  It was fascinating to listen to Mr. Yang, our diocesan secretary, sharing about his visits to Matsu when he was in the military ~ this was his first visit back since those days….  Yes, it was the sharing times that added so much to this trip!

Next morning, Friday, and the sun came out for the first time, and there it was, blue sky and blue sea and it was hot – YES!  And in the distance we could even catch a glimpse of Mainland China, wow, I was so excited!  A walk around the village and off down to the port to wait for our Tai-Ma Boat.  And it was big – in fact it can take up to 500 people – and cars too, though mostly it was full of young men on military service…..

And our boat trip was definitely made all the more exciting when we met an amazing Swiss couple, Thomas and Marianne, who had cycled over 9,000 km since March – from their home in Switzerland all the way to China, and were now on their way by boat to Taiwan (2veloeler.blogspot.com for their blog – it’s in German, but at least you can look at the photos!)  Can you believe it? Incredible!

Ah yes, and so we set sail at 11:30 am and arrived last night at 7:30 pm in Keelung, NE Taiwan, after an 8-hour journey.  And y’know, it was wonderful!  We had blue sky and a calm sea, plenty of time to think, reflect, rest and talk ~ and then it was so exciting to sail along the northern coast of Taiwan in the dark, past my house (yes, honest – well not that I could make it out, but kind of the general area!) and all the way to Keelung.

A great trip, with even an extra day tagged on at the end ~ and with a prayer from Bishop Lai as we arrived at Keelung Port and prepared to go our own separate ways!

Boats, Beauty and Blue Tears. Blue Tears?  Yes, in the Beihai Tunnel, on our first day, we set off in boats into the total darkness. Typhoon Dujuan in September had flooded the tunnels to such a height that all the electric lights had flooded too and were no longer working.  It was pitch black.  When we hit the water with wooden oars, little lights appeared in the water. Like fireflies dancing. ‘Blue tears’ 藍眼淚, at least that’s the Chinese translation.  All shiny and sparkling in the water.  They are some kind of little tiny creatures that give out a blue fluorescence when disturbed, although these were more silvery than blue.  Usually there is no chance to see them at this time of year, but because of the typhoon, and there being no lights, we had the opportunity, and took it.  Incredible. Beautiful.  And so unexpected!  But no photos as it was pitch black, and had to be, otherwise we wouldn’t have seen them.  Ah, the secrets of the deep.  And it’s the same blue tears that feature in the Life of Pi….

And so home last night by about 10:00pm.  And y’know, we all came home with 2 free mini-bottles of Kaoliang Liquor, plus NT$ 300 worth of yummy Matsu goodies – bought with coupons kindly given us by the Matsu government as a welcome present.

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But we also came home with many happy memories of our trip to Matsu – of the beautiful scenery, the rugged mountains and the secluded bays, the quiet villages and the stone houses, the seafood, the blue tears and – of course – the shopping!  But most of all, the lovely people we went with and the people we met.  New friends and old, good fellowship, and lots of fun!  A wonderful blessing.

Indeed, thanks be to Almighty God for so many wonderful blessings!

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