In addition to sandy beaches, charming Fujianese-style villages, impressive villas, quiet country roads and a fascinating history that comes complete with tales of China's legendary pirate Koxinga, Jinmen is a great visa exit-stamp alternative to Hong Kong and a cheap flight option to Taipei. >>>
Just two kilometers off the coast of China's Fujian province lies the small archipelago of islands formerly known to the west as Quemoy and today called variously Kinmen or Jinmen.
Though just a stone's throw (well a one-hour ferry ride at any rate) from Xiamen, the largest of them, Greater Jinmen Island, makes for a refreshing break from the mainland.
With a 6,000-year long history, one of the island's most recent incarnations was as the front line for the Nationalist/Communist struggle of the 1950s. After decades of bitter fighting, evidenced by a profusion of military sites and bunkers scattered across the island, in the end it was the Nationalists who won out over the little slice of territory and it remains under the administration of Taiwan and the ROC to this day.
Later, in the 17th to 19th centuries, wealthy Overseas Chinese left a notable mark and on the island's heritage when, unable to return home for various reasons, they flocked to Jinmen and used their fortunes to build grandiose houses, characterized by unique East-meets-West architecture. Many of these buildings still stand, towering amongst the low-slung saddle back Fujian-style traditional local architecture. The latter is also found in charming villages throughout the island, often surrounded by lush green national parkland or alongside wide sandy beaches fringing its coastline.
Since the easing of cross-Strait relations, Jinmen has undergone an economic boom with many mainland Taiwanese relocating to take advantage of the huge market that has opened up and, though they're rarely sold out, the ferries from Xiamen are full of Tawainese making the journey back and forth to and from the Mainland.
There are 30 countries that are exempt from needing a visa for Taiwan and, though PRC residents don't need a visa as such, they do need an entry-exit permit to set foot in the country. So, if you're planning a trip out to Jinmen, be sure not to end up on one of the Chinese tourist boats that simply circle the island for a look-see from afar before turning back to Xiamen. Our taxi driver initially took us to a dock for such tours that was not much more than a car park and a ticket booth.
Though the ticket seller there, with his white cap and smoke blackened teeth insistently tried to convince us that we were in the right place, the lack of passport control gave us the sense all was not quite right, so we hopped into another cab and made our way to the international ferry terminal at Dongdu. (Speaking of passport control, anyone who has to regularly leave the country on a visa run should definitely consider Jinmen as a cost-effective alternative to Hong Kong for getting their exit stamp)! You could also use the island as a springboard to a longer Taiwan tour with its small airport offering regular flights to destinations in Taiwan at a snip of the price of a direct China-Taiwan flight (as little as RMB 500 one way to Taipei! See below for list of airlines and contact details).
My recent trip only allowed for an afternoon on the island into which we packed a reasonable tour of the southwestern corner and although brief, it was enough to get a taste of this little pocket of Taiwan, though you could quite easily spend a day or two exploring. Stepping off the boat and through customs, we quickly hooked ourselves up with a scooter (TWD 400 or about RMB 80) and a map thanks to a kindly tourist information booth attendant who let her lunch go cold to help us find some wheels and sketch out a three-hour tour, and off we went to explore.
Here's a little of what we found:
Taking a high speed ferry from Xiamen, we could peer through the dirty windows to see a landscape that brought to mind the islands of Hong Kong with blue green waters and sandy colored rocks.
Renting a scooter is one of the most convenient ways to get around; the roads are wide and in good shape, there's very little traffic and you can cruise around at your leisure. Although the rental agencies are in the nearby town of Jincheng, our lovely tourist information lady at the ferry terminal had them come and pick us up by car and later drop us back with no extra charge.
We headed first to check out the National Park but, as we couldn't take the bike inside and with our time limited by the last ferry departing at 5:30 p.m., we decided to settle for a drive around its outskirts. We came across a small lake to one side of which was this deserted and ramshackle village. Like much of the island, this didn't feel at all like China; instead these clapboard houses made me think of the slave quarters of 19th century cotton plantations across America's southern states.
Heading south, we soon hit the beach. The sky may have been overcast, but the weather was still warm and a lone windsurfer was riding the waves. A small car park and toilet block sit just behind, but its hard to imagine it ever getting very busy here. A small delegation of Taiwanese students were just setting up for a litter pick when we arrived, though in comparison to other beaches I've seen, there wasn't very much litter to pick.
After posing for some photos with them, they kindly gave us a lunch box filled with pastries which we snacked on while watching the waves. We admired the spot's rugged beauty, pondering its potential for development and mentally noting that we should return one day with our kite surfing gear to test out the wind and waters.
Not far from the beach, we came to a local farming village where traditional architecture was on display down every narrow alleyway. Here you can see the rounded saddle-back style houses typical of regional working and farming classes and, in the background, the pointed, swallow tail roofs that were once the reserve of the gentry.
Mandarin and pomelo trees were plentiful around the village but this enterprising farmer seems to be one step ahead of the rest, bagging his fruits while they're still on the the tree!
The area around the base of this simple pagoda was undergoing some renovations into what looked to be a small garden or park. We climbed to the nearby peak hoping for a view and though it wasn't much of a climb (only about twenty steps) we were still disappointed to be looking at a factory below.
The village of Shuitou offers some of the best examples of the East meets West architecture left behind by the wealthy overseas Chinese and the neighboring buildings now house an interesting museum documenting the development of this group of Peranakan or Straits Chinese.
The largest concentration of such buildings on the island, such a concentration of wealth and grandeur needed protecting from marauding pirates--and the Deyue Tower provided just that. Portable wooden stairs connected its four stories and if the village came under attack, residents could take refuge, pulling the stairs up behind them and firing at the enemy from the upper windows. It is connected to the main house by a tunnel which was used both as an escape route and a means to bring in supplies and ammunition. The connecting building is in fact a "false house"; an uninhabited, narrow building with an impressive facade but no interior to speak of, it was intended to fool aggressors into attacking it instead of the real residence.
After returning our scooter, we were dropped back at the ferry and bought our tickets to return to Xiamen. It was only after boarding the boat that we realized something was amiss and, instead of the sleek, high-powered ferry we'd arrived on, we were standing on the lower deck of a two deck behemoth. Checking with the crew, we discovered we would end up in the right place but it would take us twice as long to get there. Initially infuriated, we were soon calmed by the reality of a boat where you could easily move around, order steaming bowls of noodles and cold Tsing Taos from the bar, and enjoy the passing scenery on the open upper deck without a grubby window to spoil the view.
How to get to Jinmen Island:
To travel from Xiamen to Jinmen head to one of Xiamen's two international ferry terminals, Wutong Passengers Port on Huandao Road near to the Xiamen International Airport in Wuyuan Bay, or Xiamen International Ferry Terminal in Dongdu. Fast boats (approx. one hour) depart every hour from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and tickets cost RMB 160 one way--be sure to arrive 20 minutes before boarding for customs formalities.
Flights from Jinmen to other parts of Taiwan are operated by:
TransAsia Airways / Taipei: 02-29724599; Jinmen: 0823-21502
Mandarin Airlines / Taipei: 02-27171230; Jinmen: 0823-28000
Uni Air / Taipei: 02-23583131; Jinmen: 0823-24481
All photos by Aimee Groom