Kinmen’s rich history of broken landscapes: Once the frontline of Taiwan’s conflict with China, Kinmen is now a lush national park. It also has historical and cultural sites to offer (as well as fiery Kaoliang liquor).
By Trista di Genova / published 2005 in Travel & Culture magazine in its abridged form
For most people, Kinmen may be known more as a remote, wounded outcrop than a tourist destination. But it is a beautiful and mysterious place, with an unexpected wealth of heritage and interesting things to see – especially for the more adventurous traveler. Kinmen is a living museum, telling the fascinating — albeit convoluted – tale of what has been the cold war experience in Asia. Often called “The Gibraltar of Asia,” there is probably no place more symbolic or mythical than Kinmen, but no better place to begin demystifying the complex historical relationship between China and Taiwan.
遠東Far Eastern Air Transport
Reservation and customer hotline: 886-82-379388
Airport hotline: 886-82-327339
Reservation and customer hotline: 886-82-321502
Airport hotline: 886-82-321502
Reservation and customer hotline: (082) 324481
Airport hotline: (082) 324481
Only an hour by domestic flight from Sungshan airport in Taipei for 5500NT (US$165), Kinmen is an excellent weekend trip. It is possible to get a package deal from a travel agent, but the best way to fly to Kinmen’s Shangyi airport is to call Sungshan airport in Taipei directly and make a reservation: (02) 8770-3460. There are three flights daily; don’t forget your passport.
Who goes to Kinmen? Most people going to Kinmen are not tourists, but military folks, businessmen and Kinmenese going home to visit their family. As a lone tourist, the warm Kinmenese hospitality soon kicked in. In the airport lounge, a young university student going home for vacation took me under her wing, her father then gave me a ride to the Kinmen Tourism Bureau, which not only helped me with research, but arranged homestay accommodation, provided an excellent interpreter (Alan Tseng), set up an interview with Professor Chiang Bo-wei (Kinmen County Government’s resident expert), and my guide, a retired soldier named Mr. Huang, who drove us around and took us out to lunch. This may seem like red-carpet treatment. But it shows how Kinmen is going out of its way to develop the island’s tourism industry.
Kinmen has only been decommissioned as a military base and opened to tourism since 1992. In the past, Kinmen has served as a critical, politically strategic military base for both China and then Taiwan, but now there are only around 2,000 young men doing their national service duty, compared to the 100,000 stationed there in the 1990s. Positioned a mere 10km from China, it’s technically under the jurisdiction of Quanzhou prefecture in China’s Fujian Province, but administratively and politically a part of Taiwan.
Before martial law was lifted in 1987, the Kinmenese needed special permission to go to Taiwan, out of fear the island would become depopulated. The population of Kinmen now is around 48,000, and has been gradually increasing, as it holds a strategic interest to the Taiwanese business class, or “taishan,” who have invested more than US$100 billion in China since the 1980s.
So now, the Kinmenese have an ROC (Taiwan) passport, but unlike other Taiwanese, they can apply for a “lujing” or travel pass to take a ferry to China. And they can stay in China – if they want to — from 3 months to an apparently indefinite period of time.
For the Taiwanese, or Chinese, however, it’s not that easy to get to China, or to come from China. There has been a recent move by some Taiwanese politicians to open up the “small three links” of postal, transport and trade services between China and Kinmen — as well the neighboring island of Matsu. Direct travel between Kinmen and China was opened in 2002, but suspended in 2003 as a result of the SARS scare. As recently as September 2005, while returning from a recent trip to China, People First Party Chairman James Soong in September  complained to the media about not being able to take the more direct ferry back to Taiwan and threatened that his party would block the budget of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC).
Visitors to Kinmen are highly recommended to stay in what is called a “homestay” (“te se minshu”), which is a renovated, traditional Fujian style, peaceful, lovely accommodation with your own mosquito net for 800NT/night (US$24). Da Jian Bu homestay was perfect: Kinmen County, Jinchen town, #75 Jushan. Tel: 08 2311452 or 09 11700677. To arrange a homestay, call Kinmen National Park 082-313143. Contact: Miss Lee.
The “homestay” is part of Kinmen’s unique experiment to restore its many historical landmarks. The government effectively goes into business with property owners in Kinmen. Owners give up their lease to the Kinmen government for 30 years, and in exchange the property is restored according to local, traditional building methods. The owner co-manages the site as it becomes a homestay, in conjunction with a business manager who is appointed by the government.
Of course, there are upscale hotels to stay in for around NT$2000 (US$75) a night, such as the River Kinmen (886-82-322-211), and the more central Hai Fu Hotel: (82-332-538).
Getting Around the “Park on the Sea”
You might think Kinmen would be as pockmarked as a battlefield, but from the plane it looks like England, with lush green fields and trees. Great strides have been made in protecting Kinmen’s natural beauty and developing the island’s ecotourism since 1951. The island became Taiwan’s sixth national park in 1995, following Kenting in 1984, then Yushan, Yangmingshan, Taroko and Sheipa.
There’s significantly less traffic and bustle in Kinmen compared to Taiwan, so a great idea would be to rent a scooter or bicycle and take a leisurely ride around the 150 square kilometer, mostly flat island in a few hours. The converted tank roads make excellent bike trails that circle the island.
The best way to see the island is by renting a car at the airport for around 2000NT a day (US$60), or a rented scooter with a helmet NT300 or US$10 a day. The Kinmen County Tourism Development Association (www.kinmen.gov.tw/eng/eng.htm) is a good way to book accommodation, rent a car or find out about other recreational interests, like fishing and birdwatching.
Two of Kinmen’s beaches are open to the public, although these are no ordinary beaches for swimming, surfing or camping. Jhu causeway, for example, would be a nice walk along the beach, if it weren’t for the unnerving “Danger mines!” signs and cordon tape along mine-restricted areas. Instead of sunbathers, black plastic bags collect on the beach, filled with rubbish that washes up on the beach from China. These beaches are still lined by “huan,” or rusty steel stakes sticking out of the beach, ready to stab seaborne invaders for since the early 1960s. Also, throughout the island, there are still tall sticks that once served as anti-paratrooper devices.
To be continued…