Friday, February 19, 2010

Taiwan's island getaway

Welcome to Wang An, a windswept island far from the hustle and bustle of the rest of Taiwan. Except for those bombs.

Global Post, November 23, 2009

WANG AN TOWNSHIP, Taiwan — At his breakfast joint on this sleepy island, the mellow Mr. Hsu absent-mindedly fashioned a shrimp from a drinking straw.

"Only in a place this boring would you learn how to do this," said Hsu, plopping his finished plastic crustacean on the table.

Later, at a nearby village, two elderly women sat on a doorstep, waiting for death or dinner — whichever came first. Their faces were wrapped up in a sort of Taiwanese burka to block out the sun. "The village ends here," they said, directing me back from whence I came.

Welcome to Wang An, a windswept, 5 1/2-square-mile island in the Taiwan Strait, population 4,500. Part of the Taiwan-controlled Penghu archipelago, it's a world away from the crowded, bustling urban sprawl of Taiwan proper.

The island doesn't see too many visitors. It seems to like it that way. In the summer, speedboat-borne Taiwanese tourists pour into the pier and onto scooters for a two-hour whirlwind tour.

By the fall, Wang An reverts to its quiet hermitude. In the morning, the southbound boat arrives; in the afternoon comes the northbound. The ferries bulge with a cargo of humans, cows and pigs, a few scooters, the occasional car — and a plentiful supply of Taiwan Beer and other necessities. Aside from watching the boats load and unload, there's not much action here.

For Taiwanese, the island's claim to fame is that it's a nesting ground for the endangered green sea turtle. Signs posted along the pristine sand beaches warn of an NT$1 million ($30,000) fine and up to five years jail time for anyone who dares interfere with a female green turtle in egg-laying mode.

The mama turtles scamper up these beaches at night, dig themselves a nice hole with their flippers, pop out some 100 eggs and bury them. They check back in a week to see how things went.

Usually it's a massacre — think D-Day for green sea turtle babies. If they manage to break out of their shell and dig themselves out of the sand, a rogue's gallery of predators — fire ants, birds, snakes, you name it — awaits. Only one out of 1,000 survives to adulthood.

In the summer, volunteer college students lead night-time tours in search of egg-laying turtles, though how this qualifies as "not interfering" with them is anyone's guess.

Wang An has a colorful, if obscure, history. Supposedly the island's current name was bestowed by Koxinga (born Zheng Cheng-gong), the half-Japanese, half-Chinese pirate-turned-hero of the Ming resistance. He fought to repel the Manchurian Qing invaders who overran China in the 17th century.

Then he decided it would be far easier to oust the Dutch from their colony in Taiwan instead. While crossing the Taiwan Strait from China with his warships, he espied Wang An from another island to the south and liked its peaceful looks — thus the name, which translates as "hope for peace."

Wang An was also a bathroom break for an immortal. According to a sign at the lookout point at Tiantai Hill, the god Lu Tung-pin was crossing the Taiwan Strait and relieved himself here.

Immortals aren't the only creatures that have passed through. Wang An and nearby islets are a pit stop for all sorts of migratory birds. Most spend the summer in Korea or northeast China, then fly south to the Philippines for the winter.

West of Wang An, the tiny rocks Big and Little Maoyu are an ideal nesting ground for seabirds. They consist of towering, guano-covered basalt cliffs, unsuitable for human habitation.

A local museum said the Taiwan military once used Maoyu for target practice, but stopped amid rising respect for the environment.

Late one morning though, my hotel was rattled by three blasts. The owner said the Taiwan air force still does bombing practice using the tiny islets southeast of Wang An. So much for eco-awareness.

Original site

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