Penghu - The Pescadores
Penghu is Taiwan's island county. There are in all 64 islands. They are located in the Taiwan Strait, not quite half way between Taiwan and the mainland. Penghu has a rich history. The first Chinese settlers probably arrived in about the 7th century and the territory came under the control of China during the Yuan Dynasty (1263-1368) when the Mongols held power. The first Europeans to visit were the Portuguese who named it the Pescadores (fishermen) Islands. The Dutch occupied them in the 17th century and were followed by the French and the Japanese.
I decided to fly to Penghu direct from Tainan as there is no longer a ferry service operating out of Tainan. I picked up some promotional stuff from a counter at the airport and got a taxi into Makung. The first thing I did was hire a scooter. I checked into the Yuh Tarng Hotel (yutang fandian) which was recommended to me by the Scooter hire place. The hotel was a very good standard for a very reasonable price (NT$1000). The room even had an internet connection and the grubby channel on the telly. (In Taiwan you can get the grubby channel with a decoder bought at 7/11 but all the good bits are blurred!). Makung is a reasonable sized place with a population of 60,000 people and is the only city on the islands. My Lonely Planet guide is clearly a little out of date as it says there are as yet no 7/11 stores on the island. They was a good number of them and I even spotted the Golden Arches of McDonalds. I suppose the Colonel won't be far behind!
One of the first things you discover about Makung is that there are no street signs! This makes finding your way around a bit of a challenge at times and I found myself peering at the address plates that are (occasionally) attached to the buildings to try and ascertain where I was at any given moment. It's not a big city though by any means so there was never any threat of getting seriously lost.
I decided to start by heading to the far end of Hsiyu (West Island) and visiting an ancient fort. The Sino-Franco war broke out in 1884 and for a time the French occupied Penghu but didn't manage to take Taiwan. Following the French withdrawal, Fort Hsitai was built by Taiwan's then governor, Liu Ming-chuan (another of Taiwan's great heroes) to Protect Makung on the other side of Penghu Bay. The fort covers a little over 8 hectares. It was armed with four British Armstrong breech-loading Canons, the largest of which had a range of 12 km. It's well worth a look and the views from the ridge, out to sea and across the bay are also very nice. It is said that on a clear day you can see Taiwan and even China. Slightly further around is the Lighthouse and some more military relics. The cliffs at the end of Hsiyu are quite scenic and the sunset over the port (Waian) was most pleasant. I was at severe risk of running out of fuel running back into Makung as I discovered the petrol stations outside of Makung had somewhat idiosyncratic hours of business.
I was hoping to get a look at Chimei Island which is one of the furthest out islands, but the ferry had already left by the time I found my way to the port. There was however a boat going to WangAn so I decided to take a look. I had a bit of time to kill before the boat left so I headed off to have a look at the parts of Penghu Island I hadn't yet explored. Fengkuei is a town directly opposite Fort Hsitai on the other side of Penghu Bay, and is notable for the basalt formations around it's beaches. There were also some bunkers as there are all over Penghu.
It didn't take long! The island is very small with just a couple of villages although it does boast an airport. At a guess I would say about 10km around. As dusk rolled in I returned to the main village to hunt down the hotel. It was basic but clean and reasonably priced (NT$600). I asked them what time they locked the doors and they laughed and told me just to shut the door behind me. I guess there's not a lot of crime on an island that small. I picked up some fish soup for dinner from a restaurant which was coincidentally owned by the old bloke who gave me the scooter. Yep, small island! There wasn't much to see or do on WangAn but it was very tranquil and a welcome break from the frenetic pace of living in Taiwan's cities. There was some interesting columnar jointed basalt formations along the coast which I made the effort to clamber along and some nice coral beaches. That night my mate Colin called to see if I wanted to go out for a beer.
I was horrified to discover that the boat left for PengHu at 7:30 the next day. After some enquiries I was informed that there was in fact a later boat that came in from Chimei at 2:30. In the end I took the early boat knowing full well that if I waited for the later one I would probably sleep in most of the morning. This was a good decision as it turned out as it gave me time to explore another of the islands, Huchingyu. The island is notable for it's bomb shelters which were built during WW2 by the Japanese. There was just one village on the island and I got an hour to poke around before the boat went back to Makung. The name is actually derived from a story about a tiger that had once lived on the island, though fortunately I didn't encounter any tigers during my visit. I quickly began to realize that I could easily spend a week or two exploring these islands and regretted only having four days to do so. There is certainly an incentive to return. One of the passengers on the boat informed me that yes indeed there was a hotel (or at least a place to stay) on the island and I got the impression that you could probably get accommodation on most of the inhabitable islands in the archipelago. Maybe next time.
Back on Penghu I had resolved to visit, if possible one more island before flying back to Tainan the next day. I headed to Paishia (White Sand Island) island where the boats leave for Chipeiyu, but was apparently too late. I was asking a young coast guard fellow for information when I heard a cultured English accent behind me say "So, you want to go to Chipei?" I was a little surprised to discover it was a policeman. In all my time in Taiwan I've only heard cops utter two words in English. "You!" and "Passport!" (with an accusatory finger). He informed me that the boats had already left, but there was another pier. "Go this way, until you reach the highway. Turn right and ....oh look never mind I'll call them if you like". Very helpful, and actually yes he had lived in England for about ten years. As it turned out I wasn't going to visit Chipei on this particular trip. A pity as it is supposed to have some very beautiful coral beaches. I wasn't too disappointed though as it had already been a fairly long day. I headed off to check out the Whale cave on Hsiaomen island which connects to Hsi island by a short bridge. The cave is a natural stone arch of basalt which has been formed by the tidal erosion. Following that I visited the Giant Banyan tree which was said to be 300 years old and then tore off for the southern end of Penghu to catch the sunset which I was expecting to be quite picturesque. (It was). Unfortunately it was time for my regular lone traveller bad luck syndrome to kick in again (I never learn!). The exhaust pipe on my scooter broke off and was hanging down still connected by a bolt and making a horrendous noise. Apparently a bolt had come out and the resulting pressure had caused it to snap. I was determined to catch the sunset however and kept going when sounder logic might have dictated a return to Makung. I jammed a twig into the bolt hole but with limited success. The pipe kept snapping the twigs. All of a sudden I got a flat tyre. I can only assume the tyre got hot from the exhaust fumes and gave way under the pressure of the bike. In any case I was going no further. I called the scooter hire shop and was able to inform them that I had broken down, but unfortunately my language skills were not quite good enough to explain exactly where, or what the problem was. I called Colin in Tainan for his help. The laoban (boss) came to rescue me. They were pretty good about it all and gave me another scooter (which as it turned out was also a piece of shit!). I'm getting a bit of a reputation on these trips. Blowing a piston in Kenting, and last year losing my wallet in Puli. (Again, Colin to the rescue, cheers mate!)
Tian Hou Gong (Matsu Gong)
One thing you notice pretty quickly about Penghu is that there is an awful lot of temples. The guide says the official count is 147, and as you might expect, most of them are dedicated to the Goddess of the sea (Matsu). I decided to check out the Matsu temple in Makung before going back to Tainan. The Matsu temple is actually the oldest in Taiwan (380 years old) and is very nice with some interesting wooden relief carvings. I also visited the Martyr's shrine and Confucius temple before handing my scooter back and catching a taxi to the airport. All in all an immensely enjoyable trip and the Penghu experience comes highly recommended. Some of my friends think it's a bit odd that I like to travel alone but to be honest I like the freedom of acting without a schedule and just seeing what will happen. It also forces me to use Chinese more often and this is a skill which sorely needs further development. The Taiwanese seem to like the package deal and tour groups. Get on the bus...get off the bus....etc., not for this turkey I'm afraid.