The Matsu islets are tucked away in a corner of the Taiwan Strait, their rocky shores eroded into outlandish formations by the sea. The five major islets – Nangan, Beigan, Dongju, Xijju and Dongyin – are covered with wildflowers and home to fishing villages running down the mountain slopes to the water.
Matsu’s important strategic location at the
mouth of the Min River, just 62 miles from China’s Fujian coast, has lent it a
historic role disproportionate to its size. It was a restricted military post
for almost 40 years during the long conflict between the Communists and the
Chinese Nationalists. Today, abandoned tanks and cannons still adorn the
hilltops, silently awaiting the battle that never arrived. Except for a few
camps, soldiers are no longer found at the various sites. Military tunnels,
built manually by soldiers and once used to transport landing craft, have
become an attraction for strolling tourists.
Military restrictions have helped to
preserve nature in Matsu. Terns and gulls breed on islets unspoiled by human
activities. The most prominent species is the ‘mythical seagull’ – the Chinese
crested tern. Having not been seen for 20 years before it was spotted on the
island a decade ago, ornithologists had long suspected that it was extinct. The
discovery in Matsu brought the islands into the global limelight.
Each May and June, the flocks of seafaring
birds arrive on the islets, clamouring for the best breeding spots. The loud
squabbles and squawks of the punky-haired great crested tern, the black-naped
tern, the bridled tern and the red foot-and-beaked roseate tern, fill the air
during high summer.
For a place formed of granite, and with
minimal annual rainfall, there’s a remarkable profusion of wildflowers blooming
on Matsu too, with the Lycoris sprengeri – ‘the flower of dreams’ – the real
draw. Its pink petals tinged with a slight blush of violet can currently only
be seen on Dongyin – and in bloom, just for two weeks each August.
Chu is a contributor to the Taiwanese edition of Lonely Planet Magazine.