After the typhoon moved inland, I had a chance to see some more of Xiamen. I went to Gulangyu, an island just a few minutes from the coast. If you had the place to yourself, it would be stunning with its crumbling colonial architecture, well-kept churches and piano music wafting out of windows. But on the day I went, so did dozens of tour groups led by guides barking into loudhailers. It was about as tranquil and relaxing as a day at Alton Towers, so I got out of there after a cursory look around.
The next day, I left the People’s Republic of China and took the ferry one hour away to Kinmen, an island administered by the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Taiwan, along with Tibet and Tiananmen Square, is one of ‘the 3 Ts’ – taboo topics in mainland China. In the official Chinese narrative, Taiwan is a renegade province that must return to the motherland. Actually, in writing this, I realise how much I’ve internalised these taboos – I’m not sure how to approach the Taiwan subject. In the back of my mind there are jackbooted storm troopers about to take me away and cattle prod my testicles if I say the wrong thing.
Anyway, Kinmen was the frontline of the war between the Kuomintang (国民党) and the Communists after the former retreated from the mainland and took control of Taiwan.
The painting above – from one of several war museums on the island – shows communist troops surrendering after a botched attempt to take back the island. It’s amazing that the communists never succeeded in taking the territory given its size and proximity to the mainland. The military are still a big part of life on Kinmen, and soldiers and current and former military installations are everywhere.
On my first day on the island, I followed the map to a coastal tunnel built to give cover to military vessels. There are few things I can do well, but reading a map is one of them – and this map took me the wrong way. I found myself walking down a dirt path to the fortified gates of an army barracks. I was about to turn away but the sentry looked friendly, so I walked up and asked – in my awful Chinese – for directions. Sensing that I wouldn’t understand his response, he made a phone call, and a couple of minutes later another soldier came running up and gave me directions in English.
I walked down the road for ten minutes and then heard someone running up behind me. It was the English-speaking soldier – he’d written down the name of the tunnel for me in Chinese so I could recognise it when I got there. Everyone I met on Kinmen was friendly – the taxi driver who told me not to take a taxi but to save money by taking the bus, the shopkeeper who gave me a discount after telling me how much he loved England.
The villages on the island are very well-preserved, with one-storey houses with swallow-tail roofs:
Not since Bali have I seen a place with so many temples:
Religion and military history combine in a temple built to commemorate soldiers who died during the war against the communists. A soldier sits beside Buddha on the alter and troops guard the entrance:
The island suffers very strong winds which this Wind Lion God helps to keep at bay:
The year in Taiwan is ‘99’ because it’s ninety-nine years since the founding of the Republic of China. They do use the Western system as well, but the Taiwanese system is used on public buildings like the island’s prison:
I spent just two days on the island and then returned to the mainland.