Matsu (馬祖) is the name for a group of island's off China's southern coast, approximately 100 miles NW from the island of Taiwan. The island falls under the jurisdiction of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and along with Kinmen, forms the front lines between the ROC and PRC.
The main islands of the Matsu archipelago are, in order of size:
There is military everywhere. Since each island is essentially a large military fortification with small civilian villages scattered throughout, try not to end up on one of their installations, which they prefer you not take pictures of either.
Unlike the rest of the ROC-controlled territories, where Minnan or Southern Min dominates, residents of Matsu speak Mindong or Eastern Min, which is not mutually intelligible with Minnan. However, most residents are bilingual in Mindong and Mandarin.
Regular ferry service used mostly by military personnel runs between Matsu and Keelung. The Tai-Ma Ferry (tel. 02-24246868, ) takes ten hours and departs nightly from Keelung at 11pm, calling at Dongyin after eight hours and then arriving two hours later at Nangan. The return journey is an hour later, but only calls at Dongyin on alternate days. Tickets vary between NT$630 and NT$1890, depending on the bed (seat, dorm, quad or twin). One-way ticket can be reserved within 7 days before the ferry departure date.
Matsu is serviced by Beigan and Nangan Airport with domestic flights from Taipei and other cities in Taiwan but mainly from Taipei. Nankan has a larger landing strip, so more frequent flights, from Taipei and Taichung touch down here. Beigan is served by only one carrier, few flights daily from Taipei. Fog can often delay flights, particularly between March and May. Ticket prices are set by the government, but travelers are advised to purchase the tickets a few days in advance (particularly over weekends/holidays) as the aircraft are small and the flights are often full on departure.
Purchasing a package is the best way to travel to Matsu. Eztravel offers great deals that include hotel, flight, and breakfast. It seems travel agents buy out summer tickets, so it may be the only option to travel there in the summer on a weekend.
Uni Air (www.uniair.com.tw / 02-25185166)
Nangan's Fuaogang (Fuao Harbour) is the central terminal for all inter-island ferries. Main routes departing from Nangan include:
Scooters are the best way of transportation around the islands. On Beigan's FuAo harbour contact 0933933124 for scooter rentals, or ask at any of the shops/hotels a few hundred metres from the docks. On Nangan, there are rental shops within walking distance of both Baisha Harbour and the airport. At the airport you can ask them to order one for you and they will pick you up.
Rent is usually 500 - 600 NT per day, but you can negotiate for multi-day discounts.
The islands are relatively small, but very hilly. If you are in good shape, it is possible to hike around the islands within 6 hours or so (not including stops at attractions), but sunscreen and lots of water are highly recommended during the summer. No bicycle rentals currently exist (2012), but it is possible to bring a bicycle with you on the ferry.
The Tourism Bureau provides excellent backpackers maps free of charge at airports and visitor's centers. These are quite helpful, as none of the roads are shown on Google Maps! (2012)
Regular public bus service is provided on Beigan and Nangan by Lienchiang County Bus during daylight hours. Schedule for Nangan at: http://www.matsu-news.gov.tw/ftp_data/s-bus.htm. The fare is NT$15 per boarding, payable by cash or EasyCard.
Additional transportation information: http://www.matsu-nsa.gov.tw/User/Article.aspx?a=130&l=2&pda=1
Matsu is famous for its fantastic seafood. Be sure to try superb authentic northern Fujian cuisine at East Fujuin Pearl (22 Matzu village, Nankan) - the specialty is "Buddha Hand clams".
Fish noodles (ground fish meat combined with potato starch and salt to form a dough, which is then cut into noodles) is a local specialty - best place is Qinbi village on Beigan.
Jiguang pastry - Made from flour and baked in charcoal urns, these pastries resemble bagels in appearance (and slightly so in taste). They were used by General Chi Jiguang in the Ming Dynasty, so that his soldiers could carry their food on strings on their chests during long marches.
Golden dumplings: Made from sweet potatoes, with sweet peanut and sugar filling. Served cold with sweet pea soup.
Matsu distills Tunnel 88 brand kaoliang (38 and 58 proof) sorghum liquor, as well as aged laojiou rice wine (around 30% alcohol). Free tastings and a video about the process at the Matsu distillery on Nangan Island.
Though formal hostilities with the PRC ended by the early 1980s, Matsu is still very much a frontline area. Visitors are strongly advised not to wander off paved roads when exploring the island due to the possibility of running across old unmarked minefields. It is also advisible to avoid traveling to certain sensitive areas after dark, such as coastal areas or areas near military installations. Visitors should also obey all orders given by military personnel and avoid entering or photographing sensitive areas.