Taiwan is not short of friendly and accommodating people. But living and working in Taipei, you sometimes lose sight of this. Our recent trip to Penghu was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. Bar a couple of sullen sods in Wangan Islet, everyone we met on was incredibly hospitable and kind.
On our second day, we rode scooters across the three main islands from Magong (馬公) to Baisha (白沙), where we stopped at the Penghu Aquarium, then on to Xiyu (西嶼). Making our way out of town we weren’t sure how to get onto the 203 road that would take us to Baisha.
Pulling up at a set of traffic lights a few minutes from the centre of town, we asked a young chap for directions. He guided us to the turnoff and it was only when thanked him and he rather sheepishly smiled and turned tail that I realised he had driven several kilometres out of his way to escort us there.
It had been 10 years since I was last in Penghu. Back then my wife was my girlfriend of a few months and my firstborn was a couple years away from being so much as a glint.
It certainly felt strange to pass some of this familiar scenery – the wind turbines near Baisha’s Jhongtun Village (中屯), for example – with us having gone through so many changes. I may not have been quite as excited as in that teething phase when everything in Taiwan was fresh and challenging, but, with the lads and a pal from Blighty in tow, this was a new, different adventure.
Penghu Aquarium is a nice enough way to pass an hour (max) but certainly a bit of a swizz for the NT$250 entrance. The sharks and rays in the tunnel are probably the highlight or, if you have kids, the chance to manhandle some starfish and soft and squidgy sea cucumbers. (That latter experience sounds like something out of Carry On Snorkeling.) To be honest, I don’t recall it being particularly inspiring the first time round. I suppose I just went back for the nostalgia value.
From the aquarium, which is near the village of Citou (岐頭), you continue north and then west along the main road (still the 203) before crossing the Penghu Cross-Sea Great Bridge (澎湖跨海大橋). Completed in 1970, it is 2.5 km long and was the first bridge in Asia to span such an open stretch of sea. In the mid-90s it was expanded from its original 5-metre-wide, one lane capacity into a 13-meter, two-lane road. It remains Taiwan’s longest bridge.
One sight that I’ve skipped both times I’ve made this journey is the Banyan tree at Tongliang (通梁古榕), a short detour from the start of the bridge. This time round I gave it a miss primarily because I couldn’t stomach yet another one-two combo of the questions “When are we going to the beach” (Herb) and “Do you actually know where we’re going?” (missus)
Safely over the other side, we continued south through Xiyu, heading for the beach at Neian (內垵), a bay on the southwest coast. This had been recommended by Peter, owner of Havana, a bar and pizzeria in Magong, where we’d had some drinks the night before. Funnily enough, Peter is from Beitou and, as a child, attended the local elementary school where my son is soon to start his third year.
The second act of kindness we experienced was when we overshot the beach and came to the local police station at the bottom of the hill. I asked a man outside for directions and he shouted inside for assistance.
A jiffy later, the duty officer has jumped in his car and was leading us back to where we should have turned off. He even insisted on loading my sprogs and their pal into the vehicle. “Too hot for kids out here,” he said. They certainly weren’t complaining.
Neian Recreational Area (內垵遊憩區) is a lovely spot with a fairly large stretch of beach. When we got there around 2 p.m., with the sun high in the sky, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Cue fun and frolics for the next few hours.
As nice as the beach was, I had something else on my mind. I’d noticed several signs on the way down the 203 announcing places of seeming historical interest, so I slipped away for an hour to check out one nearby: Xiyu Eastern Fort (西嶼東薹).
The turning, which is just a few hundred metres back up the road from the beach takes you into Neian Village, and past a residential area based around a pleasant little paved road that starts at the gate of the Neidian Temple (內塹宮) and ends at the temple itself.
I rode down the street and stopped to watch locals buying fish off the back of a truck. Among the produce I espied some baby hammerheads. I’m not sure about the laws, if any, governing size in Taiwan but these fellas were titchy. “How much,” I asked.
“Seventy-five,” replied an old man who already had his hands on a pair. “One-fifty for two.”
Following the road as it softly ascends, you get to a newer path with strips of paving down both sides. This takes you up to the entrance to the fort. There are a couple of small bollard-type obstacles at the final portion of the path to discourage bikes, but with not a soul in sight, I didn’t let them deter me and rode right up to the archway of the fort.
The fort was constructed in 1886 following the Sino-French war of 1884, during which the French occupied Penghu, or the Pescadores as they were then known to the barbarians. Taiwan’s governor Liu Mingchuan (劉銘傳) supposedly inscribed the name of the fort on the plaque at the entrance arch, though there was nothing there when I visited. Perhaps it was being restored.
Back down the path near the bollards are the ruins of a Japanese fort and barracks. Like many sites of cultural interest around the islands, it looked like the restoration work was proceeding at, well, Penghu pace.
Although I don’t think it was mentioned on the signboard, I’m guessing the fort is one of the nine overseen by the German military engineer Lieutenant Max E. Hecht – probably the Penghu West-Islet Fort (澎湖西嶼砲臺), as it was originally called. There’s a Western Fort on Xiyu, too, which I didn’t have time to visit, so I can’t be sure about this.
Hecht, was also responsible for Anping Fort (安平大砲臺) at Tainan and Huwei Fort (滬尾油車口砲臺) at Danshui, where he is buried . I’m sure a certain esteemed, sometime reader of this blog will be able to flesh out the record here. I returned for a couple more hours of suplexes and bodyslams with the boys before we set off on the return journey to Magong. The roundtrip was about 60 k.m. but the trip back into town was tough as we had to ensure the kids weren’t nodding off on the bikes. We failed with my youngest but he was securely sandwiched between mum and cousin.
We grabbed something to eat at a noodle shack, halfway to the Erkan (二崁) – a well-preserved village of traditional stone houses. I’d heard about this place and definitely wanted to make a final stop off here.
My wife, as ever, was initially skeptical, as it was getting late, but we were all glad we had a peek at the lovely old buildings here, especially when we met A-Chou (阿臭), a scion of the Chen clan who founded the village a hundred-odd years ago.
He showed us round the village, told us a little about the history, a taste of which you can find here , and treated us to tea and whisky. The kids he plied with sweets (rather irreverently nicked from an offering at the temple, of which he professed to be the guardian), nuts, juice and some pretty seashells with googly eyes and little party horn-type noisemakers attached underneath. (The ensuing cacophony over the next couple of days meant the adults weren’t quite as enamoured with these as the Penghu Kazoo Youth Ensemble).
As we sat sipping the whisky, a cop pulled up on his scooter. He’d been on the table next to us at the noodle place. Any apprehensiveness we may have had about drinking (admittedly just a shot) of scotch in front of him before getting back on our bikes soon dissipated when he proved as avuncular and unconcerned as his counterparts in Neian. “There can’t be much crime around these parts,” I said. He smiled and shrugged lazily.
“Come back soon,” said A-Chou. I certainly hope to.
If you’d met the likes of A-Chou in parts of Southeast Asia or elsewhere, you’d immediately assume they were on the take. We’re accustomed to assuming someone is after something when they are so insistent on showing you around and treating you. They couldn’t possibly be doing it just to be nice.
But A-Chou had no ulterior motive. Well, perhaps just a small one. “That A-Chou’s been phoning Yuan Yuan every day since we got back,” my wife told me this week, referring to his attentions to her bikini clad cousin. “He keeps asking when she’s coming back.”
The icing on the cake for acts of extraordinary kindness came later that night after we’d settled back at our guesthouse in Magong. A gout sufferer, I’d been indulging in beer and seafood and had forgotten to bring my preventative pills (as well as my wife’s luggage, but we shan’t go into that here) . I roamed the streets of Magong for more than an hour looking for allopurinals. Chemist after chemist. No joy.
It was close to 11 p.m. We were supposed to be catching a boat south to Wangan Islet the next morning and I didn’t want to risk a flare up through another night without medication. People laugh when you say you have gout. I wish it on ’ em. It’s fucking agony.
As a last ditch, I jumped on the scooter and rode around town, tired and directionless. One of the more clued up chemists (i.e. one who actually knew what I was after) had said the area around Beichen Market (北辰市場) would be my best bet but in the morning.
That was out of the question, but by some skew of fate I ended up there. I scooted around the deserted market lanes for a few minutes before coming back onto Beichen St. itself. I was drawn to a dim light and as I approached, I made out the National Health Insurance symbol. It was a small clinic, with the shutters half down. As I got off my bike, I saw someone milling about inside the tiny room; he saw me.
Dr. Zhang was a slight, bespectacled albino. Everything about him whispered “nice guy” and I was immediately hopeful. After reaffirming several times that I was certain I had gout and that I knew what these drugs were for, he went into a backroom and returned a few seconds later with just the thing.
“How much?” I asked.
“No, no. there’s no charge. And here,” he said, handing me a scrap of paper with the word Feburic on it. “Take this to a specialist when you’re back in Taipei. This is the first new gout drug in 40 years. I’ve heard very good things about it.”
I’ve always been a bit of a soppy git when it comes to basic, unexpected acts of human kindness. As I rode back to the guesthouse, not much shy of midnight, tears welled up in my eyes and I tingled all over.
Useful link: http://tour.penghu.gov.tw/en/index.aspx
This is the same site but on the page that contains all the info. on the main islands. For some reason I found it hard to navigate the from the home page: http://tour.penghu.gov.tw/link/tiema/baisha_en.htm