There’s always been a veil of secrecy between China and Taiwan. You don’t talk about the rest of your East Asia trip or politics—especially politics—as you travel between the two. But there’s one spot where the relationship between China and its claimed territory isn’t quite as tenuous. Bonus points for it being a picturesque spot to visit.
The Matsu Islands sit off the south coast of China. They lie 180 nautical miles from Taiwan, but only 10 nautical miles from the Chinese mainland. The 19 islands and islets are the smallest county in Taiwan. People from the Chinese mainland first migrated here during the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. The land wasn’t ideal for farming, so the people became fishermen. Pirates, the Qing dynasty, and the British arrived, before the Chinese claimed the islands in 1912. Today they’re known for their military fortifications, bird sanctuary, and traditional villages. While the people speak a dialect understood in Fuzhou, China, but not on Taiwan.
You arrive on Nangan, the largest and most developed of the Matsu Islands, and rent a motor scooter to navigate the narrow roads. Small rice and tea plantations fill the interior. Fog obscures most of the rocky coastline. While Yuntai Mountain stands as the highest point. You’re heading to the northeast coast of the rhinoceros-shaped island to find a traditional Fujian village.
Fuxing Village is even more tranquil and beautiful than you imagined. Granite houses, built by fishermen and mariners in the 19th century, line a steep hillside and look like they’re tumbling toward the water. A temple sits along the harbor. The air is heavy with salt. While rough waves continually pound the coastline.
After wandering through the tight alleyways for hours, stop at Yima’s Kitchen in one of the stone houses, where a large glass window overlooks the water. Local Fujian cuisine includes stir-fried barnacles, mussels, and yellow croaker, a ray-finned fish. As you finish your meal, you’re told not to miss the Matsu Distillery on nearby Wujiao Hill. There, after a short video, you get to taste Kaoliang, a fermented sorghum wine. It’s strong and pungent, but easier to handle after a few liberal pours. If only rice wine could smooth more things over.