Matsu (馬祖 Mā-cū in Mindong, Mǎzǔ in Mandarin) is the name for a group of islands off China's southern coast, approximately 160 km (100 miles) NW from the island of Taiwan. The island falls under the jurisdiction of the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC), and along with Kinmen, forms the front lines between the ROC and the People's Republic of China (PRC).
The main islands of the Matsu archipelago are, in order of size:
- 1 Nangan (南竿鄉). Administration and population center, one of the two airports is here, and all inter-island ferries stop here. This is the largest of the islands, and includes a number of separate villages located in coastal bays and separated by forested mountains.
- 2 Beigan (北竿鄉). Second largest island, and home of the other airport.
- 3 Jyuguang (莒光鄉). Two islands, Sijyu (Xiju) and Dongjyu (Dongju), at the south end of the chain. Dongju is reputed to be the more beautiful of the two.
- 4 Dongyin (東引鄉). The northernmost and island, located far to the east with less-than-daily ferry access from Nangan. This island has a distinct character of its own, with starker scenery (less forest, more granite cliffs) and only a single village. Dongyin locals do not consider their island to be part of Matsu.
These are small, rural islands, and visitors should prepare accordingly - for example, there is no international ATM at the main harbor (though Google Maps says there's a Bank of Taiwan near the airport), and there are no official money exchange facilities for travelers heading to or arriving from Mainland China. Many shops do accept Chinese renminbi currency, but often at an unfavorable exchange rate.
There is military everywhere. Since each island is essentially a large military fortification with small civilian villages scattered throughout, try not to end up on one of their installations, which they prefer you not take pictures of either. Although controlled by the Taiwan-based Republic of China government, the Matsu islands are officially considered to be part of Fujian province and not part of Taiwan by both the PRC and ROC governments.
The culture of the islands is a mix of modern influences from Taiwan and historical influences from Fujian province. The local language is more similar to Fuzhou dialect than to Taiwanese (though almost everyone is fluent in Mandarin too), and close observers will notice a different combination of deities worshiped in temples here than in Taiwan. Those with a keen eye will also notice that the architecture of temples here is similar to Fuzhou-style temples, in contrast to the South Fujian style temples that dominate on the main island of Taiwan.
Locals generally identify as "Matsunese" or "Chinese" rather than "Taiwanese". Almost all support closer ties with mainland China over formal Taiwanese independence, and vote accordingly. Matsu is even more opposed to Taiwanese independence than the already deep-Blue Kinmen is because Matsu is not a part of the Min Nan cultural region. That does not mean they want to be unified with mainland China — they are generally proud citizens of the Republic of China. When asked if they're worried that pro-China politicians could allow them to be reunified with mainland China under communist rule, a common refrain is "it'll never happen". That being said, the DPP has made inroads among the younger generation.
Unlike the rest of the ROC-controlled territories, where Minnan (also known as "Taiwanese") dominates, residents of Matsu speak Mindong (Eastern Min) or Fuzhou Hua, which is not mutually intelligible with Minnan. However, most residents are bilingual in Mindong and Mandarin.
Regular ferry service used mostly by military personnel runs between Matsu and Keelung daily, except for there are no departures from Keelung on Tuesdays or from Matsu on Wednesdays (Official website / English information). The Tai-Ma Ferry (tel. 02-24246868) takes 10 hours and departs nightly from Keelung at 23:00, calling at Dongyin after eight hours and then arriving two hours later at Nangan every other day, or going to Nangan first then Dongyin on the other days. Normal fares start at NT$1050 one-way for a bunk bed in a dorm, but private rooms are also available at higher prices. (official fare table). Non-sleeper seat tickets for NT$630 each way are ONLY available when all beds have sold out, which normally only happens on long holidays or when flights are canceled. Round-trip discounts are only for groups of 20 people or more. A one-way ticket can be reserved within 7 days before the ferry departure date, though that's usually unnecessary. Tickets can be bought at the terminals, though ticket desks may not open until about 90 minutes before departure. On Dongyin it's common to by a ticket the day before from the ticket office in the village next to the post office, or from the desk of the hotel across the square. Schedules can be found at this link. Bookings can be made at +886 2 2424 6868 or online.
On the day of the week that the ferry doesn't run (Tuesdays from Keelung, Wednesdays from Matsu), there is a military transport that reserves some space for locals, but foreign citizens are not allowed on board (you could give it a shot if you have a Taiwan/ROC passport).
There is also a small daily ferry to mainland China, specifically Mawei, a suburb of Fuzhou. The ferry costs RMB350 from China and NT$1,300 from Matsu, and there is a discount if you buy a round trip ticket. The trip takes two hours. It departs from Mawei in the morning and from Matsu in the afternoon. You can check the Matsu tourism website for updates on the schedule. Tickets can be purchased at the terminals. You will need your passport, and if applicable, a visa for Mainland China or Taiwan (or both). There are no currency exchange desks or international ATMs at the ferry terminals. The new ferry location is here. This is far away from much of the other port infrastructure and a taxi driver is unlikely to know the location, so be prepared. Also, there seems to be a bus to the location, number 201. As Matsu is controlled by the Taiwanese government, leaving the mainland for Matsu is considered to be leaving China, so be sure to have a multiple entry visa should you wish to re-enter the mainland.
There is a cheaper (NT$650) ferry between Matsu's northern island and the nearest point of mainland China, on the Huangqi peninsula, but because of limitations to immigration facilities, it apparently only accepts Taiwan/ROC citizens as passengers at this time (schedules and fares).
Matsu is served by Beigan and Nangan Airport with domestic flights from Taipei and other cities in Taiwan but mainly from Taipei. Nankan has a larger landing strip, so more frequent flights, from Taipei and Taichung touch down here. Beigan is served by only one carrier, few flights daily from Taipei. Fog can often delay flights, particularly between March and May. Ticket prices are set by the government, but travelers are advised to purchase the tickets a few days in advance (particularly over weekends/holidays) as the aircraft are small and the flights are often full on departure.
Purchasing a package is one way to travel to Matsu. Eztravel offers great deals that include hotel, flight, and breakfast. It seems travel agents buy out summer tickets, so it may be the only option to travel there in the summer on a weekend.
Google Maps now includes roads in the Matsu Islands (tested on Nangan and Dongyin) - travelers had reported in 2012 that it they did not. Unlike in Mainland China, the roads are mapped in their correct GPS positions. Additional transportation information can be found here
Nangan's Fuaogang (Fuao Harbour) is the central terminal for all inter-island ferries. Main routes departing from Nangan include:
- Beigan's Baishagang (Baisha Harbour): NT$110. Regular, hourly service starting at 07:00 and ending at 17:10.
- Dongyin (via Taima Ferry, every other day but not Wednesdays): NT$350. There may be smaller ferries going between Nangan and Dongyin on some other other days - if you're on Dongyin looking to go to Nangan, ask locals or the Taima ticket office about the 小白船 (xiao bai chuan) "little white boat".
- Jyuguang: 3 sailings per day, departing from Nangan at 07:00, 11:00, and 14:30. The first stop at from Sijyu (even numbered months) or Dongjyu (odd numbered months) at 07:50, 11:50, and 15:20. The other Jyuguang island is the second stop at 08:10, 12:10, and 15:40, returning to Nangan. NT$200.
- Dongjyu and Sijyu: 4 sailings per day, both directions. NT$80.
"Scooters" (mopeds) are considered the best way of transportation around the islands. On Beigan's FuAo harbour contact 0933933124 for scooter rentals, or ask at any of the shops/hotels a few hundred metres from the docks. On Nangan, there are rental shops within walking distance of both Baisha Harbour and the airport. At the airport you can ask them to order one for you and they will pick you up.
Rent is usually NT$500-600 per day, but you can negotiate for multi-day discounts.
The islands are relatively small, but very hilly. If you are in good shape, it is possible to hike around an island within 6 hours or so (not including stops at attractions), but sunscreen and lots of water are highly recommended during the summer.
Taxi services are available on the larger islands, including Dongyin. Price unknown.
No bicycle rentals exist (as of 2012), but it is possible to bring a bicycle with you on the ferry.
Regular public bus service is provided on Beigan and Nangan by Lienchiang County Bus during daylight hours. http://www.matsu-news.gov.tw/ftp_data/s-bus.htm Schedule for Nangan [dead link]. The fare is NT$15 per boarding, payable by cash or EasyCard.
There is no bus service on Dongyin Island, though this island is smaller than Nangan and Beigan, so walking is even more viable of an option.
There is probably nowhere to rent a car, but it is possible to take one on the ferry from Taiwan if arranged in advance.
The Matsu Islands have been designated an official National Scenic Area by Taiwan's government, and there are extensive interpretive signs and directions posted throughout the islands in Chinese, English, Japanese, and Korean. There is a full list of official sightseeing destinations on the scenic area's official website. Most or all destinations, including former military sites, and be visited completely free of charge.
- The Blue Tears (藍眼淚) - an annual bloom of bio-luminescent algae than makes parts of the coastal seawater glow blue at night. This is the islands' most famous attraction among domestic tourists from Taiwan. It starts in early April and continues at least until July, but depends on the weather (locals say it's best on days with a light wind from the south).
- Iron fort - Built as an outpost manned by special forces near a location vulnerable to water ghosts (Chinese People's Liberation Army frogmen infiltrators), the fort has been decommissioned and opened to tourists. You must travel down a winding road. Few decide to visit this location, and it can be dark going through the bunker.
- Mazu Temple - The religious center of Matsu, goddess of the sea. Matsu was supposedly buried here once, her personal belongings are interred in the center.
- The Huge Statue of Matsu. Near the Matsu Temple in Matsu Village is a huge statue of the goddess. Follow directions for Matsu Park and drive up, up, up. Great views of China on a clear day. A bit far from the harbor, but impossible to miss once you get close.
- Folk Cultural Artifacts Exhibition Hall - Museum sheds light on life and culture on Matsu. Also has AC, so great way to escape the heat.
- Andong and Beihai tunnels on Dongyin Island - Hollowed out tunnels going in for hundreds of metres, almost like an underground rebel base out of a Star wars movie. Previously used by the military, they are now open to the public.
- Suicide cliff - Located near Dongyin's lighthouse, a short stairway down to a viewpoint inside a huge crevasse between two granite cliffs, with the other end open to the sea.
- Dongyong and Dongcyuan lighthouses - Dongyong Lighthouse on Dongyin Island (possibly the other one too?) was built over a hundred years ago by a British architect working for the Qing Dynasty, making it one of the few historic sites that predates the islands' militarization due to the Chinese Civil War.
- Bird Watching - Due to its proximity to Mainland China, Matsu has some different bird species from Taiwan proper (specialties include the Blue Whistling Thrush, common in the forested areas of Nangan). Dongyin Island is known for its colony of Black-tailed Gulls, which due occur in Taiwan but not in such great numbers.
- Fujian architecture - Matsu has distinct traditional architectural styles than the main island of Taiwan, including wooden facades and stone houses. Take a moment to notice the quirky roofs of the traditional houses, where the tiles are not attached, but only held down with stones placed on top.
- Fuxing Village (NiouJiao). Fantastic village with stone houses build against the mountain on the sea. Can spend hours wandering. A highlight is the village's picturesque temple, featuring an unusual bright red facade and views of Beigan Island in the distance.
- Circumnavigate your island of choice in a single day, zipping between small villages, abandoned fortifications, and active military facilities while locals and troops eye you with amusement.
- Visit fortifications dating from the days when the Cold War was hot, and locals and troops hunkered down in bunkers and tunnels to face regular artillery shelling, and the threat of Chinese PLA frogmen infiltrators.
- See authentic stone houses built in the traditional eastern Fujian-style, dating from the 19th century days when the islands were inhabited by fishermen, merchants, and mariners.
- Travel from island to island, imagining what it must have been like for a conscript from Taiwan serving when the slogan "Reconquer the Mainland" was still serious business.
- Meet the 9000 or so locals, who have made these tiny islands their home, where practically everyone knows everyone else.
- Sample the local kaoliang and laojiou liquors. The Matsu Distillery on Nangan, which makes the sorghum-based kaoliang (pinyin: gaoliang) has a showroom that's popular among domestic tour groups from Taiwan.
Matsu is famous for its fantastic seafood. Be sure to try superb authentic northern Fujian cuisine at East Fujuin Pearl (22 Matzu village, Nankan) - the specialty is "Buddha Hand clams".
Fish noodles (ground fish meat combined with potato starch and salt to form a dough, which is then cut into noodles) is a local specialty - best place is Qinbi village on Beigan.
Jiguang pastry - Made from flour and baked in charcoal urns, these pastries resemble bagels in appearance (and slightly so in taste). They were used by General Chi Jiguang in the Ming Dynasty, so that his soldiers could carry their food on strings on their chests during long marches.
Golden dumplings: Made from sweet potatoes, with sweet peanut and sugar filling. Served cold with sweet pea soup.
Matsu distills Tunnel 88 brand kaoliang (38 and 58 proof) sorghum liquor, and aged laojiou rice wine (around 30% alcohol). Free tastings and a video about the process at the Matsu distillery on Nangan Island.
Locals generally prefer to be called "Matsunese" or "Chinese" rather than "Taiwanese". To be safe, you should call the country as whole the "Republic of China", and use "Taiwan" only to refer to the island of Taiwan.
Though actual fighting ended many decades ago, Matsu is still something of a frontline area. Visitors are strongly advised not to wander off paved roads when exploring the island due to the possibility of running across old unmarked minefields. It is also advisible to avoid traveling to certain sensitive areas after dark, such as coastal areas or areas near military installations. Visitors should also obey all orders given by military personnel and avoid entering or photographing sensitive areas.