Traveling through old China on Taiwan’s Lesser Kinmen Island.
I had no idea what was on Lesser Kinmen Island. I didn’t even know if it was really inhabited. It would just sort of beckon to me each day, distracting me as I tried to dutifully do my work from my little desk on Xiamen. I can see the place out my window. Finally, the day came for me to take the boat across and see what was there.
Lesser Kinmen Island ended up being a lot larger than what I thought, and my original plan to walk around it met its demise after two hours of trudging under a hot sun with my pack on and not even making it a tenth of the way around. I ended up doing a mixed trip — walking, hitchhiking, bus riding — which is usually how even the best intentioned of walking trips end up playing themselves out.
Making overarching plans in travel is one of the prime amusements of the occupation. It gets the wheels spinning. But actually following these step by step itineraries misses the true allure of travel: wooing the unexpected and adapting to it in order to leverage the most intriguing of outcomes. On Lesser Kinmen Island I found that the most intriguing outcome was to just step out on the side of the road and see who would pick me up.
What I found on that island was remarkable. While there are reasons to go to neighboring Greater Kinmen Island — an airport with cheap flights to Taipei, forest parks, and a kinetic, though diminutive, urban center — there is really no strong pull for anyone to go to its smaller companion. And this was what this place had going for it: it had been left alone.
This may be a strange thing to say about a place that abruptly became the front line of a gruesome civil war and was then bombed to oblivion for two decades, but I mean it: there was hardly anybody on Lesser Kinmen other than the people who lived there. Most of the soldiers had left, and the place socially went back to the way that I imagine it was. I could walk for hours without seeing almost anybody. I could run and swim on completely deserted beaches. I could sit and drink beer in the shade beneath thick stands of pine trees. It was difficult to imagine that I was only 5,000 meters away from one of China’s first Special Economic Zones, the busy, modern, and post-internationalized Xiamen. Lesser Kinmen Island just sort of hovers between two countries, and seems to have been forgotten by them both.
It’s not that anybody there seemed to mind. I walked down the main street of the main village on the island. People said hello as I passed them. I went into a 7-11, the only chain store on the island, ordered a coffee, bought an ice cream, and chatted with the girl behind the counter. She had a poorly done tattoo on her neck. A couple of little kids were drawn to me. They hovered around my legs asking if I was a foreigner over and over again. Apparently, they weren’t satisfied with my response.
I rate places by a singular criteria: when I walk into a room full of locals do people talk to me? If yes, it’s probably a good place; if no, it probably sucks.
I took my coffee and sat down on at the thin bar that all 7-11s in East Asia have. People treat these places like restaurants. They buy microwavable rice or noodle dishes, have the cashier heat them up, and then they eat them right there. This means that 7-11s also, rather oddly, become the social hubs of some of the communities they operate in. On places that are a little remote, like Kinmen, there is often nowhere else to go.
I caught the attention of a cop. He strode up to me in that bull legged cowboy gait that cops just instinctively walk in all over the world. While I got that clutching feeling in my gut that those who are not cops instinctively get when honed in on by an officer of the law. I tried to bury myself in my ice cream. Didn’t work. I cringed as he said hello.
I nodded and smiled dumbly, pretending to be a linguistic punching bag — letting his words bounce right off me without sinking in. “He speaks Chinese,” the cashier helpfully called out. Sunk.
“I saw you walking by the seaside earlier the cop said.”
I saw him too, riding by real slow, eye balling me through dark aviators. I nodded.
“Did you know that you can get a bicycle for free here? You should get one. All over Kinmen you can get bicycles for free. You shouldn’t walk.”
He was smiling, he fully lacked any pretenses — he was just curious and wanted to help.
“Thank you, but I like walking.”
Uttering this statement anywhere is almost an arrest-able offence. The well adjusted and sane of this world don’t walk between towns under a hot summer sun with a pack on their backs when free bicycles and dirt cheap public transportation is readily available. I’d like to say that I was showing stubborn grit, sticking with my plans to tramp Kinmen. The reality was that I knew that I would have to surrender my passport to get the bicycle. I didn’t fear it being lost, but I didn’t wish to be tied to a certain location on the island that I would have to return to to get it back.
“Why don’t you rent a scooter?” the cop then advised. “They are only two or three hundred dollars.”
$6 to $9 US dollars. Not bad, but my previous reasoning still stood. The cop invited me to go with him to the bicycle rental place. I said that I wanted to stay in the 7-11 and finish eating my ice cream.
I walked out onto the road just outside of the village and realized that it would take me at least until after nightfall to make it to the coast. I wanted to camp on the beach that looks out upon where my apartment is on Xiamen. I wanted to go to the place that I stare at each day from my bedroom window and balcony. I stuck out my thumb. One car whooshed by. The next stopped. It was a cargo truck. I told the driver that I wanted to go out to the coast and look across the strait. He opened the back door and I got in, sitting on top of a stack of boxes that he was shipping.
He let me out at an old military base that had been converted into a museum about the civil war. I walked through it and soon found myself in a semi-circular fortified room. There were three sets of giant green binoculars pointed at Xiamen. I grabbed the middle pair and peered across. I had a Chinese university professor once who did his military time on Xiamen. He told me that he spent three years looking through a big pair of binoculars like the ones I was using at soldiers on Kinmen who were looking right back at him. Now I was getting the view they had, the view from the other side. I could see right in through the windows of my apartment.
It was evening, and I still had to find a place to camp and set up my tent. I walked out of the museum and went down a narrow road that ran through a wooded area. I found a small, scantly worn path that cut towards the coast. I walked down it, descended a small hill, and stepped onto the beach. There were people clamming out in the surf. They were silhouetted in the sunset. Nobody would disturb me here. I set up my tent and stared across the narrow band of water that separated me from China.
Above is the video that I shot of my travels on Lesser Kinmen Island. It’s 26 minutes long — the most lengthy video I’ve made yet — and really shows the place as it is. Please take a moment to watch it.
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