Fri, Sep 15, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Off the Beaten Track: Nangan island: Gateway to stunning Matsu

In the second of four travel narratives about Taiwan’s outlying series of islands that make up Matsu, Richard Saunders reveals Nangan’s charms both above and below the surface

By Richard Saunders  /  Contributing Reporter

A statue of Matsu, which is 28m tall, stands atop a hill on Nangan’s northwest coast.

Photo by Richard Saunders

For most of their long history of habitation, the group of islands collectively known as Matsu (馬祖, just off Chinese-controlled Fujian Province) have remained a quiet, largely forgotten backwater. For a brief but turbulent period in the 1950s, Matsu (along with Kinmen) became a potent worldwide symbol of the bitter fight against communism, but even before the cold war finally wound down in the late 1980s, Matsu was forgotten once more, and remained an unknown quantity to outsiders until after the islands were opened to civilians in the mid-1990s.

The fact that Matsu opened to tourism only about 20 years ago is, of course, one of its great attractions for the curious traveler, together with the hilly, richly scenic landscapes, impressive coastal scenery, traditional buildings that blend harmoniously with the landscape and friendly Hoklo-speaking (also known as Taiwanese) islanders.

The beautiful coastline at Dahan Stronghold.

Photo: Richard Saunders

The largest island in the Matsu group, Nangan (南竿), has the best transport connections with Taiwan, with planes from Taipei and a fun overnight ferry service from Keelung. Arriving from either city is quite a surprise, as the island seems to exist in a time-warp, lagging 20 or 30 years behind the rest of the country. In reality, Nangan is by some way the most developed and most densely populated island (take the short ferry ride to neighboring Beigan (北竿), and you’ll immediately feel the difference), but with the widest range of natural, cultural and military sights of the seven accessible Matsu islands, Nangan deserves at least a day of your time.

Beihai Tunnel, Nangan island’s most famous attraction, was built in just a few years, and without the help of heavy equipment.

Photo: Richard Saunders


Nangan is the best-connected of all the Matsu islands. There are several daily flights from Taipei Songshan Airport, and the Taima ferry ( sails from Keelung every night (depending on weather conditions) at about 10pm, taking eight hours (or 10 hours if the ferry stops at Dongyin island.

Most visitors arrive by airplane at the airport on the east coast of the island, close to the island’s main village, Shanlung (山隴), which sprawls downhill from a distillery to the coast and an attractive small bay. Beside the road on the way from the airport to the village is Tunnel 88 (八八坑道), originally cut for military use, but now used by Matsu Liquor Factory to age its kaoliang spirit.

Head west from the airport along the main road crossing the hilly spine of the island, rather grandly known as Central Boulevard (中央大道), and follow the signs to Nangan’s biggest tourist attraction, Beihai Tunnel (北海坑道). This is the largest and most impressive of the three flooded subterranean tunnels in Matsu, and a compulsory stop for all visitors, especially since the other two — on Beigan and Dongyin (東引) islands — are now both closed to visitors.

Matsu Kaoliang Liquor is aged in Tunnel 88 once used by the military.

Photo: Richard Saunders

This series of four crisscrossing tunnels took four battalions nearly three-and-a-half years to dig, are about 18m high, 10m wide and 700m long; the water is eight meters deep at high tide. A raised walkway goes right round the outside edge of the four tunnels (a 20-minute stroll), but a more fun way to explore them is by canoe, which can be rented (NT$300 per person for thirty minutes) from a booth at the tunnel’s entrance.

Nearby is the entrance to Dahan Stronghold (大漢據點), a network of (dry) tunnels emerging as gun turrets in the cliffs that command wonderful views over the ocean. Unfortunately they’re much less atmospheric these days, since some bright spark thought fit to supplement the original dim lighting inside with disco-style light strings that now run the length of each tunnel.

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