In answer to the question I posed at the end of the last blog: VERY EASILY. Yup, just like the globe (thanks to oil companies and climate changer deniers), relations between China and Taiwan are warming. In fact, they’re becoming positively cosy. Just last year it would have been impossible for me, as a Johnny Foreigner, to travel directly from China to Taiwan and back. I may have been able to do it on a cargo ship to Hong Kong, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t holding my breath.
Hurrah then for THE MAN IN SEAT 61 (http://www.seat61.com) one of the best websites in the world for overlanders such as myself, and one I do not hesitate to recommend. When I was in India, I set Odyssey fan Alex Zelenjak in Sydney the task of finding me a route to Taiwan. It didn’t take him too long to find one on the seat61 website: amazingly, there is a ferry that runs direct from the Chinese city for Fuzhou to the Taiwanese island of Matsu. Better still, the trip only takes a couple of hours, if that.
Now, technically speaking, I don’t have to go to Taiwan and it will make no difference to my Guinness World Record. Why is that? Because it’s not a member of the UN. It used to be; but in 1971 Nixon wanted to chummy up to Chairman Mao, and it got ousted by mainland China. Nevertheless, Taiwan (which calls itself The Republic of China in official circles) is a completely autonomous state and unlike Greenland, Galapagos and Bermuda, it doesn’t have another country’s name in brackets after it. Hence why I’ve included it in my journey, along with Vatican City, Kosovo, Western Sahara and Palestine.
So the stage was set, all I needed to do was get my arse on a bus and head down to Matsu, which I promptly did today, leaving Chris and Debbie’s flat key with their friend Matt and waving Shanghai goodbye. I clambered on board the nighty-night bus down and raced south.
On Sunday I arrived at Fuzhou a massive SEVEN hours earlier than it said in the Lonely Planet (not their fault: China is developing so fast it’s hard for anyone to keep up). This was wonderful news for me, as it meant that I could saunter down to the port at my own pace and take the morning ferry to Matsu, returning the same day and therefore winning me an extra day of travel more than I deserve. The ferry was tiny but utterly sufficient, and on the way over I watched the first half of The Ghost Writer on the communal television.
Now Matsu isn’t the island of Taiwan itself, and visiting it and saying I’ve been to Taiwan is a little like going to Jersey (just off the coast of France) and saying you’ve been to the UK. Well, technically you have. You’d get a UK passport stamp if you went to Jersey, just like I got a Republic of China (ROC) stamp by going to Matsu. This is important as I want to set a precedent for when I get to the South Pacific: I may not visit the capital island of each nation, but as long as I step foot on one of the islands within the contiguous boundary of the country, it counts.
The wonderful thing about Matsu is that, unlike Taiwan (a good 12 hours away), it takes less than an hour and a half to get there, and when you’re on a tight schedule and an even tighter budget, things like this are a godsend.
Arriving under slate-grey skies, I had to pinch myself to remember I hadn’t just arrived in the Isle of Wight. The island I was on is called Nangan, one of several islands that make up the Matsu chain. I took a stroll along the waterfront, spying a nice big illuminated sign that advised the mainlanders to ‘sleep on their spears’, a reference to the fact that plucky little Taiwan still has designs to take the whole of China back for itself.
Taiwan used to be part of China, that was until the Communist revolution which took place just after World War II. In a fit of that’s-what-I-would-do, the ousted government, the Kuomintang, nicked all of China’s gold and buggered off to Taiwan, battened down the hatches and stuck a mighty big finger up at Chairman Mao and his daffy regime. Lucky for Taiwan that they did, for although the Kuomintang were a mile away from what any sensible commentator would call a reasonable government, the people of Taiwan were spared the worst of that idiot Mao’s phenomenally stupid policies: mainly the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in which 45,000,000 of his countrymen needlessly died over a period of four years: yes, FORTY FIVE MILLION.
Why that c— is still on China’s money I have no idea.
I know it’s hard to generate empathy for that kind of seemingly improbable figure, I mean forty thousand thousands is a lot to take in; so think of it this way: just imagine for a moment that you woke up tomorrow and EVERYONE IN LONDON WAS DEAD.
Everyone: the Queen, the Prime Minister, all your mates and your family that live down there. All those celebrities you hate (and some that you love), every single cab-driver, every newspaper seller, every hawker in Camden Market, every Aussie pub worker, every Beefeater, every punk on Westminster bridge, the mad Christer on Oxford Street, all the people who used to cram into the tube every day: office workers, policemen, window-cleaners, politicians, actors, ad-men, writers, journalists, musicians, teachers, doctors, plumbers, architects, lawyers, junkies, winos and whores. Every single one. Dead, dead, dead and dead.
Lifeless corpses, twisted and contorted in the last few moments of thrashing pain, scattered bloody and quashed all over the ground. And you have to step over the bodies to get out and the bodies lie on every square of pavement, every blade of grass, every step. You walk for eight hours and you’re still stepping over bodies, your hand over your mouth trying not to vomit from the stench, other people’s blood soaking your socks inside your sodden shoes and the dead in every direction, as far as the eye can see.
That would be less than half of the number who starved to death under Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, the true figure suppressed until this very week, making Mao (yes) the greatest mass murderer of ALL TIME, beating long-time favourites Hitler and Stalin.
Sorry to get all morbid on you, but as Stalin himself said: One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. And I hate statistics. Two million people died of Aids last year. Over two thousand kids are going to die TODAY from diarrhoea (something that you can help prevent by clicking here: http://www.justgiving.com/theodysseyexpedition) and it’s just so damn hard to be as upset and indignant about these faceless masses as everyone seemed to be when Princess Diana’s drunken chauffeur smacked into a wall.
Anyway: Taiwan. Yes. Was part of China, maybe will be again one day, but not today. I had tremendous difficulty finding a cash machine that took my card (as I did in Korea and Japan, for that matter), but at least (unlike Korea and Japan) my phone worked here. I ended up walking from one side of the island to the other (TINY island), but the cash machines there didn’t care that I had just climbed up and down massive hill to get there: they still wouldn’t accept my cards, although the cash machines did have a (somewhat pointless) English text option so at least you knew what was going on. Lucky a lady taxi driver was willing to exchange a ten dollar bill for some local cash so I could buy some food before I fainted.
Over half the island’s population is the Taiwanese army, understandable considering how damn close this place is to China, but they’re friendly enough, although so damn young; it was like when I went to Israel and I was grilled on the border by a IDF chick who was barely out of nappies.
I don’t like it when people in authority are younger than me. Stop it.
With a little more time, I could have done a nice trek around the entire island (why did nobody do that in Lost?), but before I knew what was what I was back on the ferry heading back to China and watching the second half of The Ghost Writer (which was, in the end, crap). Arriving back in Fuzhou, this is where the Chinese visa I procured in Korea came in handy.
I took the local bus back from the port to the main bus station. There was a bus leaving for Guangzhou (south, near Hong Kong) in a couple of hours and the lovely girl from the station accompanied me on a trek to four different cash machines before we found one that worked (could you imagine Greyhound doing that?!). Snapping up the last ticket (just!) I thanked her profusely and headed down the road for some grub. Found a Chinese restaurant that did ‘Western Cuisine’ (no octopus today, I’m afraid) and tucked into a smashing sizzling steak (served with a fried egg, of course) before hopping on the bus for my second overnighter in a row: it was time to head to Country 173: Vietnam.