This article first appeared in Rickshaw.
GET LOST IN PENGHU
My first week in Tainan, I was lost. I couldn't read Chinese and most streets seemed identical. I was afraid I'd never find the Yellow Submarine until my friend Dan offered his solution to orientation problems: play Get Lost.
To play Get Lost, simply drive away from familiar areas in an attempt to, well, get lost. Then try to find your way back home again. The fun lies in what you discover in the process.
The Penghu Islands are an ideal place to play Get Lost. Wackiness awaits at every turn - plus the air is really clean. And now that the harsh winter winds that rip over the archipelago are subsiding, the 64 islands can provide a nice break from the R.O.C. "mainland."
The first stop is the city of Makung on Penghu Island. The ferry schedule connecting it with Kaohsiung is available from the Taihua Ferry's Taiwan Hangye Company at (07) 561-3866 or from the pier office at 5 Chiehhsing 1st Street. It helps to know the departure time in advance; I was surprised to learn that even in July during the peak season (May-October), the only boat left at 9:30 am. Luckily, reclining seats for the four-hour ride are available, in case you need a little more sleep.
Arriving at the pier in Makung, my boyfriend Bryan and I were greeted by a large steel sculpture of N.B.A. great Michael Jordan. This was our first clue that Penghu would be a fun place to play Get Lost. We rented a 125 cc scooter for 250 NT with a Washington State driver's license ("Of course it's a motorcycle license!") and the game began.
Makung is a mini-version of Taiwan's cities; you won't miss scooter traffic or lu cha. And if you're a fan of peanut candy or seafood, there's no reason to leave. But as a vegetarian who lacks a sweet tooth, looking for beaches was a preferable alternative. Obviously, islands have lots of beaches and places to sip whisky and watch sunsets. Penghu is no exception, though some will contain huge mounds of industrial garbage deposited by currents from Taiwan or China. Chihli Beach has a two-story pagoda from which you can view the sunsets if you feel the need for elevation. You'll know you've found it when you encounter a display of bloated Puffer fish drying in the wind nearby.
Paisha Island connects overland with Penghu Island, providing easy access for scooters and fleets of tour buses. The buses beat us to the Penghu Aquarium, which features classic display captions like, "Maybe we can say it is a ninja fish." The taste and commercial value of exhibited fish and crabs is also occasionally described. A more relaxing stop is the 300-year-old Banyan tree strung with Chinese lanterns that lead to a temple. The presence of elderly locals playing mahjong and drinking tea on picnic tables beneath its benevolent canopy secures the site's mellow vibe.
We sped across "the longest bridge in Taiwan," Kuahai Bridge, to Hsi Island (Our guidebook claimed it's 5 km long but our odometer only clocked 2.5 km. Who can say?). A wrong turn to the right led suddenly to Hsianomen Island and the Whale Cave, a striking black stone arch that bears no resemblance to a whale.
Back on Hsi Island, we tried to go to a lighthouse from which it is sometimes possible to see China, but instead found a military base, a quick reminder of Penghu's location in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, and that relations with China continue to be strained. We also found a huge cement "decoy cannon" built by the Japanese during WWII in an attempt to trick the Allies into bombing an unpopulated area. Though the ruse failed, the cannon does provide a great photo op-it sits in a beautiful stretch of rolling grass.
In the Penghu Islands, you can happen upon fishing villages with brightly painted boats, countless temples devoted to the Taoist goddess of the sea, Matsu, and extremely welcoming locals. With extra time, you can explore outer islands like Wang'an, where fences and even houses are often constructed with coral, and noise comes only from waves and wind. It is impossible to feel claustrophobic in Wang'an's expansive grasslands. There are roads to tourist destinations like fairy footprints and such but the fun, of course, is just driving around.