Kinmen Islands

Beautiful historic islands facing mainland China

Travel due west from central Taiwan and, just before you hit the great wall of the China mainland, you come ashore on great low-topped granite outcrops called the Kinmen Islands. Though small, these tourist-friendly isles have played an outsized role in Taiwan’s history, and today their two main draws, traditional architecture and military facilities/battle sites, attract ever-expanding waves of visitors, who are accommodated with ever-growing and improving tourist facilities.

 

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“Kinmen” means “golden gate.” A stone’s throw from mainland China, just 2km away at the closest point, they are the outermost islands of a granite archipelago, with the great Chinese city of Xiamen located on the innermost side. Of the islands that Taiwan controls, the largest four are Kinmen itself, Lieyu, also called Little Kinmen, Dadan, and Erdan.

Kinmen Island History

It’s said people began coming here about 1,600 years ago, seeking refuge during one of China’s countless turbulent times. The archipelago the islands are a part of is superbly positioned in the Taiwan Strait, perfect for regional trade, and much wealth flowed in during imperial times. Hence, goes one story, the “golden gate” moniker. In modern times the islands have also been called the “Gibraltar of the Far East.” One legacy of this wealthy past: richness in beautiful traditional architecture enjoyed by today’s tourists.

Kinmen Islands 3

When retreating to Taiwan at the end of the 1940s Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists held on to Kinmen, which was heavily fortified thereafter. One legacy of this troubled past: richness in unusual military facilities now open to the public.

Kinmen’s long period of martial law after the Chinese Civil War froze the island’s economic development. An inadvertent benefit was the preservation of its traditional architecture. Its collection of southern Fujianese architectural works is perhaps the finest extant, and there are many still-intact clan villages. Much government-supported fixing up has been undertaken. Let’ visit a few of the most popular locations.

Historical architecture

Shanhou Folk Culture Village is a clan village of 18 densely packed residences built in the late Qing Dynasty using money made in Japan. The Shanhou Folk Culture Village has the look and feel of a museum showcase. Be sure to visit as early as possible; the sun sets directly behind the village, making photo shooting tricky.

 

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Deyue Mansion, which has a distinctive pinkish-stone facade and imposing four-storey gun tower, was for a long period Kinmen’s tallest structure. It was constructed in 1931 by the Huang clan, which settled Shuitou. There is a welcoming courtyard souvenir shop and comfortable balconied café. Beside the mansion complex is the breezy 200-year-old clan school, Youtang Villa.

Kinmen Island fortification

If time allows, spend time meandering Shuitou, Beishan, Nanshan, Qionglin, and Oucuo, “living” clan villages in which life still mosies slowly along much in the manner as in the days of history, with residents busying themselves doing laundry, chatting, spreading farm-field produce in their courtyards to sun-dry, and so on. The 700-year-old Shuitou is home to one of Taiwan’s premier collections of heritage residences, both Western and Chinese.

Many old Kinmen homes are in the traditional southern Fujian three-winged style with a central courtyard. The clan-village architecture is rich in auspicious symbolism.

Many Kinmen residences also feature the distinctive, elegant swallowtail roofs usually restricted to temples; this symbolised the occupants’ wealth and elevated social position. Homes of the wealthy also feature red tiles, a rarity in imperial times because of the then difficult-to-control rapid cooling required to make them. Some rich owners also put iconic Kinmen wind lion figures on rooftops, and incorporated them right into exterior walls.

Clan-village residences are generally fitted tight against each other along narrow lanes, for two primary reasons: protection against attack from such ne’er-do-wells as pirates and other clans, and protection from the often biting winter winds.

Western-Style Colonial Mansions

More than 100 Western-style colonial mansions are also found in Kinmen, most built in the late 1800s and early 1900s by returning local traders after they had made fortunes in Southeast Asia and Japan. Under a government-funded program, many of these mansions now serve as homestays and/or café/souvenir shops. To many, the two most remarkable of these mansions are the Beishan Ancient Western-style House and Shuitou’s Deyue Mansion.

 

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The Beishan residence, a two-storey Western-style building, looks like the backdrop for a war-movie set, ripped apart with bullet holes and blasted-out scars. In 1949 Communist forces came ashore in a massive surprise attack on this area. This residence was commandeered by the Red forces as a command post. Today’s abandoned hulk is demonstration of the intensity of the fighting; after 56 hours of brutal hand-to-hand combat, some 15,000 soldiers lay dead, 3,000 from the National side, and around 6,000 on the Communist side had been taken prisoner.

 

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Best season to visit

Rapeseed is extensively grown on island farms, and in spring bright golden fields of rapeseed flowers will be your photo backdrop. Foodies should consider autumn travel, prime harvest season for two delicious local delicacies, yellow croaker and crabs. Birders will chirp with joy in winter at the great numbers of migratory arrivals.

Budget travellers should visit during the breezier winter months when accomodation prices drop by as much as 40%. A stay in one of the quality government-vetted heritage-residence B&Bs is highly recommended.

Few travellers leave without at least one of the following iconic Kinmen products in their luggage. Peanut candy: a favoured form of Kinmen tribute at the Chinese imperial court. Kinmen knives: made with steel from artillery shells sent over from mainland China during the martial-law era. Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor: sorghum (gaoliang/kaoliang) liquor production was introduced to the islands by a National general.

“Wind Lion God” selfie opps

Travellers come across Wind Lion God statues in picturesque spots all around the islands. Often colourfully painted, the gods are favourite “celebrity” additions in group photos and selfie shots. They’re places in strategic spots to deflect the winds that swoop over the flat islands, protecting homes and farm fields.

 

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In Chinese folklore the auspicious lion can also both ward off evil and attract good fortune. The prosperity of the islands brought deforestation many centuries ago, with land cleared for farms and salt pans. Popular lore, however, says the denudation came from cutting trees to build the massive fleet of Koxinga, the 1600s Ming loyalist who fought the China-invading Manchu Qing and drove the Dutch out of Taiwan.

Drop in at one of the island’s tourist information centres and ask for a Wind Lion tour map. There are over 60 spread around the islands, and many tourists, notably younger, eagerly tackle theme touring, searching them out across villages and the countryside.

 How to Get There

 

By plane

From the main island of Taiwan, the only way to get here is by airplane. A round-trip ticket costs between NT$2,500-4,000.  The cheapest way to buy tickets is directly through the airlines’ websites, where they all also offer “promotional tickets” for each flight. These are only valid for the date and time of the ticket.

  • Taipei: Far Eastern Air Transport (FAT), Mandarin Airlines, UNI Air
  • Kaohsiung: Far Eastern Air Transport (FAT), UNI Air
  • Taichung: Far East Airlines (FAT), Mandarin Airlines, UNI Air
  • Tainan: UNI Air
  • Chiayi: UNI Air
  • Penghu: UNI Air

All the airlines and ferry companies require showing ID such as a passport or Taiwan residency card before boarding.

By ferry

If you’re coming from Mainland China,Little Kinmen (Liehyu) Island is accessible by ferry from Xiamen and Quanzhou. Ferries that depart from the Shuitou ferry terminal opposite from the terminal for ferries bound for Xiamen. Tickets are NT$60 each way and the ferry takes 10 minutes.

The ferry terminal on Kinmen Island is about a 20-min walk from the village of Shuitou, and about a 10-min bus ride from the town of Jincheng.

Where To Stay



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Things to Know

Getting around the island

The small size of the Kinmen Islands, their overall flat terrain, and their wide, primarily straight roads make scooter and bicycle travel a pleasure. There are scooter-rental (and car-rental) outlets at Kinmen Airport and elsewhere, notably by Jincheng bus station. Renting a 150cc scooter for 24H is about NT$550 (car rental about NT$1,300).

Eco-friendly bicycling is actively promoted, with free bike hire offered. Borrow government bikes for three days (park bikes for one day) simply by showing your ID. Helmet use is obligatory, as is returning bikes to their original location. Biking on the quiet public roads is everywhere a pleasure, but specially recommended is large Sun Yat-sen Memorial Forest, free of motor vehicles and with an on-site shop providing free bikes.

Kinmen has four special hop-on, hop-off tourist-shuttle route services, with daily service, each route encompassing a selection of major attractions (1-day pass NT$200, 2-day pass NT$350). They are part of the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle system overseen by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. Two launch from the Jincheng bus station and two from the Shanwai station. These are guided (Chinese) tours. For more details, visit here.



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by TaiwanMe.com | info@taiwanme.com