June 30, 2009
Kinmen

Home to guns, guts and kaoliang, the tiny island of Kinmen conjures images more of a frontier fortress on the battle-line between mainland China and Taiwan than a weekend tourist destination. But don't let its rough exterior fool you. Kinmen is both a relic of Taiwan's military past, a reminder of its tenuous present.

Although off the traditional tourist route, Kinmen has a surprising amount to offer the visitor in a relatively small space, which is why I am breaking this into two posts. Since military hostilities have subsided somewhat, much effort has gone into promoting tourism. These efforts appear to not only be directed at the Taiwanese tourist, of which there are many, but the Western tourist as well, evidenced by the proliferation of English signage.

A word about spelling. The beginning "K" sound is actually pronounced with a "J" sound. You will also see some of the spellings with a "J" instead of a "K" but as the majority seemed to go with a "K" we will too.

There are many flights to Kinmen from Songshan (Taipei Airport), although flights stop in the early afternoon. Call ahead to reserve tickets then pick them up and pay for them at the airport. The flight takes about 45 minutes.

It is also possible to take a ferry, but as time was short, we didn't look into this option. Either way, you will be required to show ID, so bring your passport.

Kinmen Airport (Shangyi Airport) is modern and cosy, situated in the centre of the island. Check with your hotel to see if they will pick you up from the airport. If not, or if you aren't hiring a car, a taxi won't set you back too much to pretty much anywhere on the island. If the taxi doesn't use a meter, make sure you fix the price before you go.

There are buses on Kinmen, but the best way to see the island is under your own transport. You can hire either a car or scooter easily enough. Bring your international license. Credit cards are accepted everywhere and no deposit was necessary. Details on insurance was vague when renting. Basically it boiled down to, "You hit something, you pay for it." The good news is that the roads are quiet, even on a weekend.

If you are going to hire a car, the car hire company will pick you up from the airport and take you to their office. When you return the car, they will run you back to the airport. The company we used didn't charge us until we dropped the car back and there were no hidden extras.

Kinmen is a small island, but the road signs are somewhat confusing. It seems that no matter where you are in the island, there is a sign to Dingbao. Why, we couldn't quite figure out, and in fact we never actually made it to Dingbao.

Kinmen is broken into four townships, Kinchen (SW), Kinning (NW), Kinhu (SE) and Kinsha (NE). Kinchen on the west coast is somewhat built up, comparable perhaps to a small rural town like Miaoli and is a good base from which to explore the island. Many hotels have been built in the countryside, which is fine if you are after complete isolation, but there may be absolutely nothing around it.

In spite of its frontier status, Kinmen is more developed than one might expect. In addition to the aforementioned free broadband access in the hotel, one will find a large number of computer shops, wireless ADSL in the Kohican coffee shop, ATMs are everywhere and cell phones work all over the island.

Restricted areas are clearly marked and considering the amount of mines still buried here, it's highly advisable to heed the warnings. There are some gorgeous beaches on the island, but most of these are still dangerous as they could naturally make good invasion points for mainland troops. The mines are slowly being cleared, but as the shifting sands have moved many mines from their original positions, this might take a while.

I'll list some locations you should visit in the next post, but I want to mention probably the most famous export from Kinmen, kaoliang.

As I mentioned in the Matsu post, kaoliang is colourless firewater made from sorghum (a kind of grain). Kaoliang is the drink you will experience at weddings and banquets and the like. It is usually drunk only as a shot. You won't find many cocktails using kaoliang! Oh, and the "good stuff" is 58% alcohol.

There are two kaoliang factories in Kinmen, the old one and the new one. The old one is, well there isn't much to see, but there is a shop/tasting room. And it must be said they didn't scrimp on letting you taste the stuff. In fact, this is probably the only time I have ever refused a free drink. Mind you, as we were leaving we found out that the chap who was plying us with the stuff didn't actually work there. He was just fitting an ATM machine. There's a real family feel to Kinmen.

Tours are only available in large groups at the old factory. Also, the bottles you see in the cabinets are not actually for sale. The bottle of "Long Life" liquor for example, or the "Taiwan Militia" were quite entertaining. You can buy the standard stuff there or visit the small store just outside the factory for a more elaborate selection (fancy bottles go for NT$3,000 and up).

By choice, visit the newer factory. It's easy to spot as it's on the road to the airport (on the west side). You will be able to smell the kaoliang long before you actually see it. The first thing you will see is an enormous bottle. There is parking inside, and a quick word with the guard should see you in.

There is a lot more information here about kaoliang and you can take a factory tour. At least that's what the guard said, but alas (or thankfully) it was closing time?K

More in the next post, once my head has cleared.


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