Thursday, March 03, 2011

Nangan--another wonderful island off the East Asian Coast--that you should visit!!!

A Visit To Nangan IslandBy Kevin Stoda, Taiwan

According to one official local website here in Taiwan, “Nangan, formerly known as ‘Xiagan Tang’ and ‘Nangan Tang, ‘ is the largest of Matsu’s four townships and five islands, with a land area of 10.64 kilometers.”
Nangan is also the seat of local Taiwanese government of the Matsu archipelago off the coast of Fukien, China. Nangan also provides the gateway harbor, named Fuao, to all the other islands in the area, including Beigan where I live and work. In addition, it has links by ferry directly to and from Taiwan proper (from Keeling) as well as the largest airport in the area.
“The shape of the main island of Nangan resembles a rhinoceros. The ‘head’ in the east is Fuxing Village (formerly Niujiao Village); while the tail in the west is Siwei Village (formerly Xiwei Village); Mt. Yuntai is the backbone, from which Niujiao Ridge, Niubei Ridge and other ridge formations extend outward into the ocean. The area has numerous villages that look out onto bays with mountains in the other three directions, such as Jieshou, Fuxing, Fuao, Qingshui, Zhenluo, Siwei, Matsu, Jinsha, and Renai and a few others.”
On the Sunday before the national holiday, known as 228 Day, this past weekend, I arose early and took the ferry boat to Fuao from Baisha town (on Beigan).
There I had arranged to meet an American named Jeff, who lives on Nangan and who, similar to me, teaches at 3 schools each week on different parts of his island. Underway, on the local ferry, I took time to read a bit about the history of Taiwan and prayed for good weather—and great weather is what we had. And, good the weather soon proved to be--each to well over 70 degrees for the first time this year.

Jeff had promised me a good tour of the island—and pretty soon I was hiking up and down the hills around the enormous statue of the Goddess Mazu. It was a gorgeous day and we had many great conversations as we hiked from place to place throughout the day.
“Around the statue [of the Goddess Mazu] are 12 sculptures narrating the story of how Matsu came to be deified.” Inside the hill, and passing directly underneath this structure of nearly 30 meters in height, there is also a one of the islands many pedestrian tunnels (which were built during the Cold War era by the ever-present Taiwan military, i.e. in a continuous attempt to fend off any potential major invasion by Mainland Chinese).
From the foot of the huge Goddess Mazu, I could look down at the harbor of Mangan. (The town of Matsu—like most towns on this island has two names—in this case, the place where my friend Jeff lives is called either Mangang or Matsu by the locals.) Interestingly, the beach at Mangang currently has at least 4 large military landing-craft that have not been used in years. Meanwhile, they certainly help one quickly recall the days of the Cold War, when Chiang Kai-Shek dreamt of invading the mainland—and, please note: the mainland is only 12 kilometers away. The harbor at Mangang, by the way, had originally been the major harbor on Nangan Island--and for all of the Matsu Peninsula—until the more recent building of the new port at Fuao, where I had landed earlier that very Sunday morning.
From the hill where the great Mazu Goddess statue stands, Jeff and I proceeded to two more temples before a quick lunch, which was prepared by his wife back at the school dormitory. First, we headed to the north where we came upon the Temple to the Gods on White Horses. This temple was named for both the Gods of Civility and of War. This struck me later as a very contradictory pair, but perhaps the concept is reflective of the Ying-Yang of Daoism. In any case, both gods are on white horses, and it has been claimed by local legend that the temple was built where two bodies (thrown up from the sea) had washed up in the harbor late in the 1870s. (Apparently, in dreams the local citizenry who had buried those two victims of the seas of the Taiwan Straits felt called upon to build a temple on top of the burial location and fully to these two white-horse riding gods.)
Next, Jeff and I headed back to the village of Mangang proper, where under beautiful blue skies the Temple of Mazu awaited us. “The Queen of Heaven (Matsu) Temple, located on the shore in Magang, is devoted to the worship of Mazu, Goddess of the Sea, and is a center of worship in Matsu. Residents of Matsu Village on Nangan believe that when Mazu tried to save her father from a shipwreck, she herself was drowned in the violent waves and her body washed up in the bay here. The local residents, out of respect for her filial behavior, buried her in a coffin carved with phoenix patterns. Because of her good works, Matsu was transformed and ascended to Heaven on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.”
Mazu is the deity that gives the archipelago its name.
According to numerous websites and a variety of retold legends, therefore, “Mazu, or Mat-Su, Chinese Goddess of the Sea, is the story of an extraordinary girl who became a goddess. The Goddess Mazu's stories . . . come to us in an unusual way.”
Normally, one has “to search the works of poets and philosophers, historians and anthropologists, when wishing to explore the myths of the legendary ladies we call goddesses. But ancient [Chinese] government edicts, court documents, Taoist scriptures, and even shipping logs provide the stories of the young girl and the goddess she became.”
This is why Mazu, has been worshipped as “a goddess, even after a millennium has passed . . . [and is] arguably the most worshipped [goddess] in the world with over 1,500 active temples and 100 million devotees.”
Outside the Mazu Temple this past Sunday morning, an unusual site greeted us. In front of the main stairs leading up to the temple, there were nearly two dozen giant life-size doll-heads standing up and drying in the sun--after a week of rains and after several weeks of being carried underway throughout the Matsu islands during the local festival of Baiming. (Elsewhere—
I have described this festival , i.e because Baiming had already been celebrated in the town of Ban Li on Beigan Island three weeks earlier. In contrast, the last part of Matsu festival of Baiming had only been completed on the island of Nangan three days earlier. )
"Baiming is a word in the local dialect referring to the traditional practice of arranging a sumptuous overnight feast in a temple as thanks to the gods for their protection, a custom which originated in rural villages around Fuzhou. During the lantern procession segment of the Lantern Festival, icons representing deities are paraded around the area as people pray for peace and safety.”
Some of those large festival doll-heads--drying in the sun out in front of the Temple of Matsu that February Sunday morning--represented gods, goddesses, or other important characters in tales of local legendary figures and more internationally renowned Daoist deities.
NOTE; Naturally, I should clarify that each island of the Matsu archipelago has at least one Temple to Matsu. However, here in Mangan proper, are held “[m]any county-wide religious festivities . . . and the [Mazu] temple [in Mangan] is the destination of numerous pilgrimages and other cross-straits religions activities.” This means that it is a location where both Taiwanese and mainland Chinese celebrate several festivals annually.

After enjoying a quick lunch with Pak, Jeff’s wife, at their residence in Mangan, we three headed across the isle to Nangan’s famous Beihai Tunnels. We arrived by taxi under a scorching sun, and were soon undertaking the major hike of our day.
Interestingly, one of the schools where Jeff teaches is located only about a quarter of a mile from the entrance to the most famous military tunnel in all of Matsu.
“Beihai”, incidentally, stands for “North Sea”. Therefore, the name Beihai simply indicates that this tunnel is located north of Taiwan Island. (This is one reason why there is also a so-called “Beihai” Tunnel on Beigan, where I live.) Over 100 ships could be held in this mostly hand-dug tunnel on Nangan. Pak, Jeff, and I followed and completed the circular route through the tunnel that Sunday in about 20- minutes, but we would have preferred to have gone kayaking inside instead. Dozens of kayaks were present in the tunnel complex.
However, none of us had any paddles—and there were no paddles to be had in--or near--the tunnel anywhere that beautiful day. (Poor preparation, incidentally, has marked the history of both Beihai Tunnels in Matsu. For example, in both the case of the construction of the Beihai Tunnels on Beigan and the one on Nangan, over 200 soldiers were killed during both major projects. Worse still, it is largely recognized that most of these deaths were totally unnecessary. They resulted from shoddy workmanship leading to collapses as well as from poor-training amongst the soldiers in the usage of explosives during the 3-year periods, in which the tunnels were being constructed back in the late 1960s.)
“Beihai Tunnel runs from the Tieban Coast deep into the heart of the hills in a lattice shape. The tunnel’s water-channel section is 18 meters high, 10 meters wide, and 640 meters long. The depth of the water is eight meters at high tide and four meters at low tide. The tunnel path is 700 meters long and takes about 30 minutes to walk. . . . During the time when the clouds of war enshrouded Matsu, the army tried using Beihai Tunnel as an underground wharf for supply
As we came out of the Beihai Tunnel, to our left we could see a township across the bay. Jeff explained that during the zenith of the Taiwan army’s militarization of the island, this particular village had been the source of the islands notorious nightlife, i.e. the red-light district. Now that those heady days are over, the population in that township has almost disappeared, even though some of the largest buildings on the island were constructed there, e.g. the large Chiang Kai-Shek Center still stands largely empty there.
Not far from the Beihai Tunnel was another lenthy pedestrian tunnel, which made up a large part of what is known locally as the Dahan Stronghold.
Because it had become so warm and because we still had a long hike ahead of us back to Mangang, I suggested we continue quickly onto the village where Jeff works. The village has the same name as his elementary school, Tieban (, which is also called Reihan).
The village of Tieban itself is quaint and has several temples. However, the sights of Tieban Village that I will recall the most are: First, the wooden houses in that ancient town surprised me—as wooden structures are a rarity in the Matsu archipelago. Second, I noticed the remarkable growth of bhodi trees that seemed out of place here in Matsu--and appeared to have been transfered straight from Sri Lanka or India to Tieban--their destination on Nangan, situated at this far eastern edge of Asia. (Legend has it that the Buddha, himself, had sat under the first and oldest bhodi trees in India and Sri Lanka.)
Third, I marveled at the so-called “Iron Fort”—with one section of its many structures appearing to float above the sea—like a Balinese temple. The fort and its setting are certainly a must-see for visitors to Nangan. (Note: “Tiebao Fort, which is also called Iron Fort. It sits atop a rocky promontory that is accessible only by a raised walkway.”)
According to the major website for the Matsu Peninsula, “the Jinren and Magang footpaths were originally ‘rut roads’ for military use. When they were first created, due to a lack of cement and other construction materials, the roads consisted only of two narrow road surfaces, like rails, which tanks and other military vehicles drove along. Today, nearly all such roads on the island have been made into paved roads, … [however] most of these two foot-paths are still rut roads”.
“The Jinren Footpath sets out from Tieban Village, and passes by Iron Fort (Tiebao) before arriving at Jinsha Village.” Jeff, Pak and I chose to take this, the Jinren, footpath along the coast--rather than climb up towards the highlands, i.e. en route back to Magang village.
Along the way, we saw numerous small bays, villages and points to go swimming. We marveled as the normally grey sea turned clear and blue before our eyes as we rounded the coast early that afternoon. We were also informed that several of the locations had art galleries to stop in--if one had time to do so. Meanwhile, as the temperature continued to warm, we lamented the fact that we hadn’t worn shorts for our trek.
Many wildflowers were in bloom—as were some trees, such as the lavender and purple peach blossoms. This and other flora brought beautiful colors to the landscape. Along the way, Jeff noted that most trees on the Matsu islands—if not all trees—had been imported during the last 50 to 70 years from some corner of the world. This was likely necessary because earlier settlers to the island had long-ago clear-cut those trees there were here in Matsu. In addition, extremely strong winds from the Ocean and Chinese coasts had kept most tree and tall vegetation bent like bonsai plants.
NOTE: This very phenomena of extremely bent trees was something I had already witnessed the day before on the Beigan Islands, i.e. when I had noted that aging Juniper trees were, indeed, bent over like bonsai plants in the Japanese tradition. However, those shapes had been formed over generations by the strong north winds—and not by human hands.)
Finally, just before 4pm in the afternoon, I found myself back at Fuoa Harbor on the north side of Nangan, where I caught a packed boat loaded with tourists to Beigan. By that time, I was utterly exhausted from hiking but until that moment the weather had been glorious—and energizing. Disappointingly, in front of me was now Beigan Island, which was already enshrouded in a dense fog as the ferry arrived back in Baisha harbor. Within a few minutes the temperature on both islands seemed to have dropped 20+ degrees (Fahrenheit).
Such, is the turbulent winter weather in this corner of Asia. Meanwhile, I hope to return to Nangan later in April or May, i.e. after the foggy season ends on Matsu and just when the trails of rhododendrons and other plants are in full-bloom. I hope you consider going there this year, too,—there is certainly a lot to see and enjoy there.
Thanks, Jeff and Pak, for showing me around—and I pray that it warms up again (and the seas turn to blue) soon—BBrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr….



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