Tuesday, June 28, 2022

SAIS learning trip to Kinmen Islands

Johns Hopkins SAIS continues to innovate and improve its learning experience for students and this year, considering the ongoing challenges with Covid-19, that came in the form of Experiential Learning trips for student cohorts around the world. This afforded students in Taiwan the opportunity to go to Kinmen Islands, which are a small group of islands administered by Taiwan and located just 10 kilometers from China’s shore. It is a place known for its liquor, gaoliangjiu, peanut brittle snacks, and as a physical representation of the longstanding cross-straits tensions. Jacob Davis reflects on the experience.   

Our trip began with a bit of a bumpy start, as no adventure is complete without its unforeseen hurdles. Our plane ended up having to come back to Taipei after being unable to land, so our first day was unfortunately cut a little short. However, once we finally arrived, we were shown to our traditional-style accommodations complete with a courtyard between a few rooms and tight quarters. It was an intimate space that was a huge contrast to the big city bustle of Taipei. The next morning, our breakfast, which we were assured was a Kinmen specialty, was a seafood porridge, youtiao, and warm soymilk. Our tour guide, 小賴, was eager to get on the road as he promised us that we would see everything there was to see on Kinmen despite our late arrival. 

That morning we took a ferry to Little Kinmen, a small island off the main one, where we got to see the Jiugong Tunnel, an underground tunnel blasted into existence to provide a route for the Taiwanese to ferry supplies without fear of getting hit by artillery. Being able to walk the tunnel gave us an idea of how many parts of the island have been permanently shaped by the conflict between China and Taiwan. After this, something that was a huge hit with the students was the Guninghou Battle Museum. Other than describing the brutal shelling that the island endured for 4 weeks in the 1958 August 23rd artillery battle, the museum also had an observation room where students were able to see the mainland Chinese coast! Our tour guide told us how a general had even jumped shipped and swam to Xiamen! As this was the closest most of us had gotten to China in years, I know more than a few students considered the idea for a moment. 

After having a lunch comprised of many taro-based dishes, a Little Kinmen specialty, we got on a ferry back to the main island. We made our way to the Kinmen Peace Memorial Park, which also commemorates the Guninghou Battle with memorials as well as a large peace bell that many of our students rang. Next, we moved onto Jiangong Islet, a small island that is only accessible during low tide. It had a long walkway with a handful of Oysterman sentinels which, when the tide is high and the island unreachable, look like they are wading through the waters looking for oysters! We wrapped up the day with a meal with way too much food and just enough gaoliang, an earned reward for sure.

Our next day was a bit of a whirlwind, as the weather wasn’t very good, but our tour guide was still adamant on bulldozing through the rain to see what we had planned. We checked out both the Mashan Observatory and the Mt. Lion Howitzer Fort, which included a demonstration of how the Howitzer anti-aircraft artillery was loaded and fired. It was a whole theatrical performance that showed us just how much teamwork and manpower it took to fire off a single shot. Unfortunately, following this the weather continued to get worse so we ended up hanging out in a duty-free store as we awaited our flight back to Taipei. We made it home without a hitch and that brought our Kinmen experience to an end. Despite all the natural obstacles, students had a great time being able to take a break from classes and spend the weekend together as a cohort, all the while experiencing a place that encapsulates the history of the Taiwan-China conflict.