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Published: December 12th 2011
Booking a trip from Taipei to the isolated Pescadores Islands (Penghu) is as simple as stepping into one of Taiwan's five thousand+ 7-11s and buying a 4000NTD (130$) return flight. Once a stepping stone between China and Taiwan, and a staging point for various colonial invasions of the latter, the archipelago now receives a sprinkling of primarily domestic tourists.
Leanne and I opted instead for arrival by sea, hopping on a 90-minute bumpy ferry from the tiny port town of Budai, about an hour west of Chiayi in southern Taiwan. Despite their seafaring past, most modern Taiwanese do not fare well with the waves on the sea, and spend the better part of the journey huddled up with painful looks on their faces, or trying to sleep off the urge to vomit.
Upon arrival Penghu's capital, Magong, as with all offshore island ventures in Taiwan, we hired a scooter to get around. Cruising up and down a few of Magong's streets was enough to get oriented. Most intersections were uncontrolled, with no lights or signs, and vehicles simply took turns crossing. To the south was the ferry harbor, to the east Magong's huge network of fishing ports, and to
the west a large seashore park named for its impressive pavilion dedicated to the goddess Kuanyin. On a street neighboring the park stands Mazu Tianhou Gong, the oldest temple in Taiwan. Given my interest in the goddess and my participation in the annual Mazu pilgrimage, I was fairly keen to have a look. More interesting, even, were the small alleyways leading away from the temple, housing some of the oldest houses and teashops in the country.
We checked into a recommended 3-star hotel, with a strong feeling that we were the only guests in the entire place. Next on our itinerary was afternoon drinks on the beach. Cruising out of Magong I noted for the first time that Penghu has a very different feel from Taiwan's other islands, which are primarily tropical and densely forested. The Penghu Archipelago is totally dry and windswept. We struggled to hold on as gusts of wind threatened to blow us off the road.
We almost missed the sign to Zhili Beach, adjacent to a tiny ocean-side community that seemed deserted, save for the squid drying racks placed right in the middle of the empty parking lot, and a few elderly Taiwanese seeking
shade for a game of Chinese Chess under a small pavilion. We parked right beside them to get some shade for the scooter, and then climbed down some beach breakers to find a completely deserted, 1km stretch of golden sand. With the sun almost at its peak, we found about a foot and a half of shade coming off the pile of breakers, just enough to stash our 7-11 bag of Strobes (Smirnoff Ice spiked with Red Bull).
Throughout the afternoon we didn't spot another soul, with the exception of one elderly man who emerged from a house in the village, descended the stairs to bathe in the sea, then returning, without once even looking at us or noting our sole occupation of the beach.
We tried another beach down the coast in the late afternoon, called Shanshui. Here we found a few more people, but past the crowds we ascended a rocky peninsula to find dilapidated army bunkers looking out to sea. Climbing down into one, we were able to enjoy a drink while looking out through a 12-inch by 12-inch hole at the setting sun. Standing next to the bunkers was a tiny little ancestral shrine
surrounded by cacti.
On day 2 we drove the highway that connects four major islands of Penghu with sea bridges, forming a huge horseshoe of land around Penghu Bay. At each turn we found fishing villages, beaches, harbors with blue-green water, and more temples than people I am sure of it. We found various places to hop in for a dip, or to get out and admire ancient courtyard homes with walls and fences made of coral from the sea.
On the third island, we stopped to have a look at Tongliang Temple, where an enormous banyan tree has completed engulfed a temple, forming a huge canopy over the entire complex and square in front of it. Here, I had my first chance to dry cactus ice cream, one of the islands only non-seafood specialties.
Next we crossed Penhu's longest seabridge to Hsiyu Island and popped in to Dayi Temple, where a monk immediately pointed us to the tiny staircase going down to the basement. There, we found a network of connected rooms with dark, gaudy, sea-themed decorations and ponds containing a dozen or more enormous sea turtles.
Our next stop, and easily our favorite, was
Erkan Old Residences
Note wall of coral in front of house
tiny Erkan Village, with its ancient residences that serve as showpieces of Penghu-style architecture, which combines elements of Chinese courtyard homes with Japanese and Western elements, and uses mostly materials from the sea. The villages have done up many of their homes into living museums, with little cafes, craft-shops, and various opportunities to pop into people's homes and have a look. Leanne was able to find many kitties to play with in the village's tiny coral-walled alleyways.
Our final stop and end of the road was the Yuwongdao Lighthouse in Hsiyu Island, where we watched a grand sunset, before cruising back to Magong village in the dark, with salty wind on our faces.
We had no desire to get back on a ferry to any of the offshore islands, especially with all the full day tour options that the local agents seem determined to push, many of which included fishing, or stops on floating seafood snacking platforms. So, we spent our final day checking out Magong's bustling market, cruising some of the fishing harbor docks finding cats and photo ops, and then finishing with another afternoon of drinks and swimming at deserted Zhili beach before our flight back
to Taipei City's domestic Songshan Airport. For more of my photos and travel stories, or to see my book "Taiwan from the Eyes of a Foreigner", visit www.nickkembel.com
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