Lachlan – reflections on Taiwan
Taiwan just keeps throwing more and more cool surprises at me. The weekend of 7-9 June was the Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated in many countries across Asia, and with its heritage stemming from China. On this weekend the Professor for my class ‘Workshop on Sustainability’ takes a handful of students on a trip to Kinmen Island.
Kinmen is a county (state, as we’d call them in OZ) of Taiwan; however its geographical location puts it about 10 km from mainland China with 150km of ocean between it and the rest of Taiwan. The historical significance of this island is huge. It was occupied by Japan during the Second World War then, as a result of the Chinese civil war, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) Government occupied the island as they fled to Taiwan. Claimed by both the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), the island was a place of war and bombing for a long time. In the mid-90s the Taiwanese Government returned control to a local Kinmen government where it has since been a county of Taiwan. There is a lot to see on the island, and the whole weekend was jam-packed with nonstop visits to different forts and museums.
It was an hour’s flight from Taipei and upon landing our Professor met us, quickly ushering us to the bus and to our first stop. We met the Director of Social Services, Tung Shen, who is a Kinmen native, passionate about sharing and promoting the area. He had kindly sponsored our trip by providing one of the night’s accommodation and our transport all weekend. After thanking him we were off to lunch and to explore some old tunnel systems. Our second tunnel visit was the most impressive, Zhaishan Tunnel. It was built for U-boats to enter and since the war has been repurposed for orchestras on a number of occasions due to its acoustics. That night we were invited to join a Dragon Boat Festival dinner hosted by Tung Shen. We had a large spread of local food and got to try the locally brewed, Taiwanese icon, Kaoliang liquor.
The next day was race day and we’d been given some old 2014 Kinmen Marathon merchandise to make us look like a team. Our class was all foreign students and none of us had ever stepped foot in a dragon boat. The Festival started with lots of local performances before getting into the races.
We were entered in our first social race at 11:30. We studied all those who came before us trying to learn how dragon boating was done. Eventually, our time came. We started off hyped but the excitement had dwindled into nervousness in the 25 minutes it took for us to get the boat in position at the starting line. When the race started our focus was consistency and synchronicity; our aim wasn’t to be the fastest, just to stay in a straight line. Halfway there we’d found ourselves picking up quite a bit of speed finishing in second place!
Despite 12 seconds behind first place, not being last gave us a burst of adrenalin and fueled us for round two. We had some lunch and met some cool locals while waiting, and at 3.00pm we boarded the boat, and this time we were able to get the boat in position at the same rate as our contestants. The gun went off and so did we, the world zoned out and all we were thinking was “Row, Row, Row!” We got to the end seemingly at the same time as every other boat. Over the moon, we raced ashore to find our time was the fastest by less than 1 second! (That wasn’t enough to recover the 12 seconds we were behind in the first race). But the idea of winning the heat was awesome and it left our Professor speechless! However, he will now think twice before giving them motivation to students “if you win a race, I will give you 10 extra points towards your overall grade.” Our attendance as foreigners drew a bit of excitement and we starred in a few newspapers which was pretty cool!
That night we caught the ferry over and stayed on little Kinmen (otherwise known as Little K), which is an island about a quarter of the size just next to main Kinmen. Our accommodation was a tiny Airbnb within walking distance of the beach, a perfect place for us to celebrate our win and admire the beautiful sunset. The next day we explored and learned more about the forts and battles that took place on Little K and back on Kinmen until it was time for some to depart. However, I was not one of them. A mate and I stayed on another two nights to do a bit more exploring. Our accommodation was a homestay that our Professor lined up for us. They cooked us an awesome dinner and we exchanged small conversations over Google Translate. Hiring electric scooters (with a top speed of 25kmh) we pottered around the island, visited a folk village, and climbed The Mountain on the island. We also caught up again with some teachers that we met at the Dragon Boat Festival.
Kinmen is such a unique part of the world. The locals have a strong sense of identity, seeing themselves as Kinmenese before being Taiwanese or Chinese. The opportunity to go and have such an immersive experience is something I am truly grateful for. This mini trip inside my much larger adventure is definitely going to stand out as a highlight.