Needing a vacation from our vacation-lives, Alex and I booked a trip to Penghu. A 40-minute flight later, we were officially on island time, far away from the gray, drizzly Taipei grind.
Penghu is an archipelago in the Taiwan Strait, between Taiwan and China. It’s made up of nearly 100 islands, and the landscape is vastly different than the rest of Taiwan. We are used to seeing mountains and tall trees on the main island of Taiwan, but Penghu is a flat set of islands, full of waving grasses and spiky cactus.
After checking in to hotel and getting to know the friendly and helpful staff, we ventured out to explore the only real city to speak of in Penghu -- Makung. We quickly discovered that we were some of the only tourists in town. The high season ends in September, and we traveled at the beginning of November. The wind had kicked up, the temperatures had dropped, and the sightseers had packed their bags. So, no waiting in line or throwing elbows to force our way in front of gangs of tour groups. Perfect.
|Zhongyang Old Street|
|Cactus Shaved Ice! Cactus ice cream and cactus jelly.|
The next morning, we woke up early and took a day trip to some of the outer islands. The ferry out to Chimei was a puke-fest, but I managed to keep my congee down. Although the tour didn’t make a stop at Tongpan Island, the captain slowed down enough for us to take a few pictures. Tongpan is known for the natural basalt column cliffs surrounding the island.
|Tongpan Island, Penghu|
Our first stop was Chimei Island, at the southern end of the archipelago. Chimei means “Seven Beauties”, which refers to the legend of seven women who threw themselves to a watery death in the ocean rather than give themselves over to Japanese pirates. The adventure began right away, in the parking lot behind the dock. Alex and I had signed up to rent a scooter to ride around the islands, instead of going on the tour bus with the larger group. Neither of us have an international license, but we were just planning on faking it. I mean, millions of people bop around on those scooters everyday; it can’t be THAT difficult. Unfortunately, our complete ignorance of scooter operation was quite obvious to the little old lady who was passing out the keys. We were quickly chased out of the parking lot and forced to join the masses on the tour bus. If we could have just gotten it started.....
The bus took us to the Waiting for Husband Rock. The Taiwanese love to give names to inanimate natural objects, and apparently this one looks like a pregnant woman laying on her back. According to legend, a fisherman went out to sea, and his faithful wife waited for him by the reef. But when a storm brewed up and the husband didn’t return, the wife continued to wait. After several days (weeks?) the villagers became quite concerned for the woman’s health, especially after it was discovered that she was pregnant. But the wife kept waiting, and of course, ended up dying. So, now the reef has taken the form of a pregnant woman, lying in wait. Which came first, the legend or the rock?
Next up was Little Taiwan Rock, which -- you guessed it -- is a rock that looks like Taiwan. But, this one really can’t be argued; it DOES look like Taiwan.
The final stop on Chimei was the most photographed spot on Penghu, Two-Heart Stone Weir. Amazing as it would be if this was a natural weir, it’s not; it’s man-made. No less beautiful, though. Designed to trap fish during low tide, the Stone Weir is just one of hundreds throughout the islands.
Back on the ferry, we climbed up top to ride with the wind in our hair. Once again I was reminded how few safety precautions the rest of the world observes, compared to America. The boat ride was wild, rocketing over waves and flinging us about, causing us to laugh and let our hair fly-- I mean, scream and hold the rails with a death grip.
|Our only safeguard -- a thin railing|
|Alex enjoying the ride|
The ferry docked next on Wang’an Island, where we were once again denied access to scooters. Never discouraged, we joined the tour group on Tientaishan, a mountain (hill) said to be formed from the oldest piece of basalt on Penghu. At the top is yet another strange, legendary rock formation: the Immortal Lu Tungbin’s footprint, which was left behind when he squatted down to pee. Really. That’s the legend. I’d come up with something better myself, but to each his own.
|Lu Tungbin's footprint|
Later, at the Zhongshe Old Residence, we discovered how life used to be on Wang’an Island. The abandoned seaside neighborhood was a bit eerie, but that didn’t stop me from taking approximately one million pictures. Here are just a few.
|Zhongshe Old Residence|
|Inside an abandoned home|
|Door barricaded against strong winds|
|Making myself at home|
Finally, we stopped at Wangankou Beach, which is adjacent to the Green Turtle Conservation Center. We didn’t see any turtles, but we did bask in the glory of the golden sand, crystal blue water, and complete absence of any other people. Gorgeous.
Back on the main Penghu Island, we grabbed some dinner and a handful of beers from 7-11 and headed down to Kuanyin Pavilion Park to watch the sunset. Sitting at the bay watching the windsurfers and recounting the day’s adventures, we watched the sun dip down and the colors of the Rainbow Bridge light up. Life is good.
|Rainbow Pedestrian Bridge, Penghu|
We ended the night with one good decision -- the “Absolutely Drunk” cocktail at Freud Pub -- and a series of bad decisions, which shall remain untold.
|Absolutely Drunk -- I called it a Penghu Island Iced Tea. |
Six kinds of alcohol mixed with cactus juice. Yeah.
|Freud Pub, Penghu|
The next day didn’t really begin until around noon, you know...because it was vacation... We were once again denied scooters. We were also admonished for requesting bicycle rentals, since apparently it’s crazy to ride bikes when it’s windy out. Resourceful as we are, we marched up to the (only) bus station and figured out where we wanted to go and how to get there. Then we missed the bus. Dang you, Absolutely Drunk!
While we waited for the next bus to arrive, we had an hour and a half to kill around town. We walked along the Makung Old Wall and stumbled upon another old deserted neighborhood.
|Makung Old Wall|
|Old Village from water's edge|
|Old Village tree|
|Old Village home|
By the crack of 3pm, we were on our way to see the sights at Fengkuei Cave. According to my Lonely Planet guide, Fengkuei Cave is famous for a fantastic water and sound show during strong winds at high tide. We waited around for a while, hoping for a performance, but nothing ever happened. We tried asking the little old men outside the local shop when high tide was, but they were only interested in commenting on my extreme, freakish height. Ahhh, Taiwan.
|Fishermen at Fengkuei|
People live here and see this everyday?
What am I doing with my life?
That night, famished from our busy day of waiting around, we ordered up some of the local delicacies at Jang Jin Restaurant. We cleaned our plates of fresh fried prawns, pumpkin rice noodles, fresh-caught fish, ginger soup, and sea cucumber salad. Hen haochi.
Our original plan of renting bikes to ride around the main islands was put to rest by the many rental shops that laughed and looked at us crazily when we inquired about pricing and availability, so we opted for a private taxi hire for the day. Mr. E was our faithful driver, and for the low-low price of $1800NT ($60US), we toured Huhsi, Baisha, and Hsiyu in style.
Mr. E pulled over at the Baisha Wind Power Plant, and by “pulled over” I mean “turned off the main highway and drove up the bike path to the shore.” Oh, Taiwan.
|My hair is caught in a windmill.|
Next stop was the famous Tongliang Banyan Tree. The roots of this single, 300-year-old tree have spread their way across nearly 6,500 square feet. Lucky for us, no other tourists were around, so we had the entire area peacefully to ourselves. We did bother the locals for some cactus sorbet at the nearby shop.
|Tongliang Banyan Tree|
|Twisted, tangled roots|
|More cactus food!|
After crossing the Trans-Ocean Bridge, we stopped at Da-Yi Temple. Having seen SO MANY temples in Taiwan, I admit I’m less than impressed with them now. But this temple has a deep dark secret that sounded fascinating in the guide book and did not disappoint in person. Past a sign proclaiming government approval, downstairs in the basement, the temple is transformed into a neon coral freak show. Sneaking through the DayGlo painted sea coral walls, you come to a shallow pond surrounded by floodlights. And there, in the corners hiding beneath the faux habitat, are real live sea turtles! Really! In the basement! Of a temple! In a shallow pond! Surrounded by neon coral! Here’s proof:
|Las Vegas Coral?|
Way out on the western tip of the island, we climbed up to Yuwengdao Lighthouse. British officers used to stand guard here for ten years at a time. Boooooring. But beautiful views!
|View from Yuwengdao Lighthouse|
|Yuwengdao Lighthouse, Penghu|
|Photo by Mr. E|
We soon found ourselves underground again, this time in the bunkers of the West Fortress. Once home to 5,000 soldiers, the grounds are now open to tourists. And surprise! We were alone again!
|West Fortress, Penghu|
Not wanting us to miss a thing, Mr. E stopped at the Daguoye Columnar Basalt. These seaside cliffs were formed by the cooling lava that created the Penghu Archipelago.
|Geology rocks :)|
|Daguoye Columnar Basalt, Penghu|
Our final destination was yet another old village built of coral rock. The Erkan Old Residences are still partially inhabited, which made them quite different from the others we had wandered through. At one home, a young man welcomed us in, showed us historical artifacts, and sold us refreshing cactus drinks.
|Erkan Old Residence|
|Red and white cactus juice with cactus aloe|
Back in Makung that evening, we went on a cactus-flavored food and beverage hunt. We sampled cactus mochi, cactus cakes, cactus wine, and finally settled in at a bar for a few cactus cocktails.
|"Sleeping Beauty" - cactus juice and tequila|
|"Dancing Mary" - cactus juice and vodka|
And Dancing Alex :)
The last day of our island getaway had alas arrived. Refusing to waste one moment, we hopped a bus to the deserted beach at Aimen. We were the only sunbathers, and the only people altogether, aside from the occasional police patrolman or sanitation worker. The beach was gorgeous, and I could see it being a very busy and popular spot in warmer weather.
|Another secluded private beach? Yes, please.|
|Testing the water|
|One last meal|