Beyond the Battlefields and the Peace Museum on Beigan Island
By Kevin Stoda, Matsu Islands
As many of my readers know by now concerning the Matsu islands, “Unlike Kinmen, which underwent persistent bombardment, the military atmosphere of the Mazu region has less of an undercurrent of sorrow, and more of a feel of mystery. Today, Gaodeng and Liangdao, the only islands where the military remains stationed, are still shrouded in mystery, not having been opened to visitors. In addition to Nangan’s Beihai Tunnel and Beigan’s Wusha (Beihai) and Andong tunnels, which have been opened to visitors, are more hidden tunnels,guard posts and gun muzzles, witnesses to the stories of sweat, toil and tension of the many soldiers who excavated the tunnels and stayed on watch in them.”
Preserving and commemorating this history, “the Peace Memorial Park was established on Beigan’s Mt. Da-ao; Mazu’s wartime atmosphere is reproduced here in miniature, with historical relics and defensive weapons on display as a reminder of the past.” I had visited the museum and the armaments around Mt. Da-ao last autumn when I first moved here. Today, I finally chose to see the islands and hills just south of there.
Starting in the village of Houau, across from the airport at the town of Tang Qi, I hiked up past the few remaining soldiers stationed on the island to the now-unused Stronghold No. 12. One of the guard stations has been turned into a restroom just below the museum.
I turned there at Stronghold No. 12 and headed out on the highest points towards Luo-Shan (Mt. Luo on tiny Lao Island). Walking along the peak of the hills above any tree line, I suddenly felt like I was temporarily in the Andes mountains, i.e. near Machu Picchu (and around Cuzco on one of the Incan Highways). The only contradiction between that memory (of mine) of an earlier global journey and this one reality was the fact that instead of seeing peaks and snow-covered mountains to my right and left, I was observing the windswept seas at low tide–nonetheless striking the largely marble coastline harshly on the Eastern Slopes of the isle where I was perched between two slopes..
At two points as I descended the Luo-Shan trail to the neighboring isle of that same name, I had to hold onto a rope so as to avoid any chance that I would stumble or fall down or near the embankment on either side. The winds from the East or open sea were very strong and chilling while on the western side I felt warm enough to take off my scarf and eventually my coat as the afternoon wore on.
Because of the low tide, I was also able to cross over easily to Luo Island after climbing down a steep edifice. There I came upon a moon-like landscape of boulders and rocks. Among them was the former King of the Sea Rock—now known locally as Confucian Rock. In the days when the rock was known as the King of the Sea, local fisherman and oysterman gathered here to pray for success (and for safety) in their journeys.
Wishing to avoid the chilling winds from the East, I moved to the lower leeward side of Mt. Luo, rested, and ate an apple. On the far distant shore of Beigan Island, I could easily make out Ban Li Beach—the largest and nicest beach in the Matsu Island Chain—and my current home on this island of Beigan.
Next, I felt emboldened to try and scale Mt. Luo, but the wind was too strong and too bone-numbingly-cold, so I determined to circumnavigate the skirt of the island to the West climbing along and amongst the grass, rocks, and small trees above the boulders of the shore in the direction of the final large island of the Beigan Island group, named Bang Island.
As I approached the south side of Luo Island, I realized that the island of Bang was much too far away to approach without being in a boat. So, I turned back. Suddenly, I slipped and fell for the first and only time. I only slid a short distance on my buttocks, but the surprise was enough to awaken me to the fact that I should have not been climbing alone there—and definitely not without a cell phone.
I was soon cautiously heading back to my belongings.
After gathering my things, I proceeded back over the small causeway to retrace the trail back up the long incline in the direction of the Peace Memorial Park and Stronghold No. 12. Suddenly a boat came steaming up from the direction of Ban Li Beach, where I soon discerned that these fisherman had been checking their cages for catches of vertebrates, squid and other creatures of the sea.
Below me now, I could see three rock fishermen. Next, coming down the slope–with some trepidation–was a family of 4 Chinese. I observed them nervously looking down the stairs cut into the side of the hill and then looking in my direction as I proceeded up the slope towards them.
In order to encourage them on their journey, I bounded up the stairs, and then grabbed the rope—telling them to hold onto it on their way down to the path to the shore, i.e. to the point where I had crossed between the two islands. They took my cue and proceeded (holding on to the rope) carefully downward towards Luo-Shan and the Confucian Rock.
Later, on my way back to Tang Qi, I stopped in Houau village and though how nice it would be to live their and help restore the ruins there into new homes.
You see, much of Began island had become depopulated during the Martial Law years (1940s through 1994). Only now has the government of Taiwan offered to repopulate and help rebuild the crumbling ruins of many a village on Beigan (and on the neighboring islands of Matsu). Alas, only a handful of stone masons are now around to help in returning these villages back to their former good state, i.e. pre-1948 condition.
The reconstruction has been slow, but some local initiatives are leading some towns to be restored much more quickly than others. Click on this link for the short story of one Matsu village that has restored itself through local leadership.