Morning came. It was difficult to leave my cozy bed at JinJiang, yet an unwritten day was ahead.
I placed things out the previous night, had a packing sequence all set, and began in earnest to launch my intention to enter Taiwan by boat first, and god knew what else. Airplane? Another ferry?
Events from the day before left me hopeful that things would unfold to a good conclusion yet travel days mimic life in a microcosm. Sometimes, intentions just don’t pan out.
I told myself to wait and see. First, get there.
Getting on the Bus in Fuzhou
Really, Matsu was a geographical name to me. All I knew was that it was located in the Taiwan Strait, is comprised of a series of islands and the major township where the ferryboat docked was called Nangan.
Fuzhou began to fade from memory as I checked out of my room. I slid that monstrous pack across my back and clasped the straps over my stomach. I felt hyped and bouncy – thirsty for action. I refer to this as the “gunslinger coldness”. Just as the gunslinger suspends his emotions – devoid of empathy or fear – the only goal being his target, the backpacker can succumb to the same affliction. We must get somewhere, so we shut down doubt and steel ourselves for what’s next.
Early morning in Fuzhou was nearly deserted, save for a few signs of life. There was the compact woman in a stained apron handing out doughy sesame balls, her drowsy customers savoring the hot sweetness, jolting them into wakefulness.
An alien figure in a yellow jumpsuit and a pollution mask darted out, shoveling garbage onto a metal plate. The creature’s hands were encased in thick cotton gloves, its motions clumsy. I imagined heavy breathing behind the mask, exaggerated and repulsive like it often is in horror movies. My mind flashed to disease contamination workers, and if this were one he or she was doing a piss poor job of clearing the hot zone or warning me to stay away.
I tried not to get carried away. It’s only a garbage collector, after all.
When I’m in ‘traveler mode’, my brain can work on several different frequencies, so I tuned that out and concentrated on the same route I took the previous night to get to Fuzhou Railway Station.
Wikitravel instructed a few things. Take bus 69 to Wuyilu Street, and then transfer to bus 73, which will cart me into the suburb of Mawei. Once I get to Mawei, bus 73 deposits me at Mawei Harbor Station, where supposedly I can take the ferry out of China.
I patted myself on the back for the background reconnaissance, because bus 69’s lane was chocked full of parked buses, ready for departure.
I felt slightly tense, it was already 7:00 am, and Wikitravel was specific on getting to Mawei Harbor by 8:00 to purchase a ticket. Time started dripping away like clumps of melted wax.
After some slight confusion on which bus to board, early morning commuters piled on single file. I stayed near the handicapped seats, not to initiate a mission to mock disabled people, but this is my methodology on bus rides. I can see all angles, street signs and so on. I showed the driver what I needed via my notebook. Bus 73, dude. Get me there.
He grunted, just like the taxi driver who dropped me at JinJiang Inn. It seemed a trend, when Chinese men don’t speak English, grunting will do.
The bus heaved with passengers boarding and exiting. Bodies pressed against my big pack and all my eyes did was stare at the digital clock supplied on the bus.
I didn’t see Wuyilu Street, despite craning my head to spot it. The bus turned onto a street called Fulu, and just when bus 73 seemed a dim hope, the bus driver pulled to a stop. I noted that each stop had some kind of English name and a list of bus numbers under it. This stop was anointed “Gurrian Lu”, and bus 73 distinctly stood out in bold typeface.
I didn’t need the driver to grunt for me to understand, but he gave me the signal anyway and I dashed out, eager to take the next step in this process.
Ferry or No Ferry?
Bus 73 ‘s route meandered along at a turtle’s pace. The digital clock stared me down, expiring minutes upon minutes. I knew I would get to Mawei Harbor by 8:30.
The bus passed a huge port area, a gate embossed with gold letters had me worried: Mawei Immigration Port. Was that it and I just missed it? I decided to stick with Wikitravel’s instructions. Testing theories can come with a price.
By 8:30, the bus reached its last stop and by last stop, it turned left onto a street where another 73 stood empty. Where I come from, there are definitive “last stops”. A bus loop or something of that nature. Not here.
This was just a normal street with indiscriminate buildings sprawled for blocks ahead.
A guy with a hose and bucket stood at the ready. It must be nice for a tired bus to have its own washer.
There were a few other passengers left besides myself, so I did the next logical thing, followed them. I was sure they, too, were going to Taiwan.
I walked at my own turtle’s pace with two packs to deal with as I tried to appear nonchalant, like I knew where I was going.
The people ahead of me began to filter into buildings. It was clear this was an industrial area, because multiple signs contained the words “shipping company”, yet no sign of a harbor.
The end of the block was ahead and there was nowhere to go except left or right. Dead end.
Real panic caught in my throat. I decided to turn back, noticing my bus 73 still had a human figure in it. When in extreme doubt, ask the bus driver.
I ambled back onto the bus, and the driver started talking excitedly, pointing at the road I just came from. This was not looking good. I attempted to say there was nothing there and I wanted to go to Taiwan, not a shipping container.
I tried to show him my notebook again, but he ignored me, sticking his head out the window to bellow at someone.
This someone materialized before me like a mirage filling in with color and life. A motorcycle driver in a newsboy cap and puffy jacket fired his bike.
I had noticed a couple of these motorcyclists milling around when I exited the bus, but deleted them from my mind as nothing noteworthy.
The man in the puffy jacket parked in front of me and became the centerpiece of my life at that moment.
My stomach lurched, either from the noodle breakfast I ate earlier or relief. The latter seemed appropriate.
I stood inert, instead of moving nimbly as my brain screamed I should. How the hell was I going to get on a 750 cc with a 62 lbs. pack and my laptop bag?
He propped my laptop bag on the gas tank and I sat aloft with the 62 lbs. pack on my back. The entire thing.
I was certain I would fall off, hoping the pack would double as my air bag, but I didn’t. I reveled in that moment. When the impossible is shattered and a 5’1” woman manages to balance herself with a humungous object on a two-wheel vehicle with one cylinder.
We set off and turned right down the street that didn’t reveal a harbor, and the fact it didn’t made sense because the harbor is nowhere near the last stop of bus 73. After a couple of more turns, we zipped into the parking lot of Mawei Harbor.
It was happening. I was bound for Taiwan.
So Long, China
Time blew past, and I paid the motorcycle guy his 10 RMB and sprinted for the ticket office. I tried to ignore the reality that I might be too late. My sweaty body slammed against the ticket counter as I breathlessly asked for a ticket.
A girl and boy at the counter reassured me there was time as it was only 9:00. I then asked about an inclusive deal to Taiwan that included an airline ticket to Taipei.
Quizzical looks shot my way.
“No, ma’am. Only ferry. 300 Yuan.”
Only ferry it is. I had no time to plot, just react and figured I could jig something else on the other side to make it to my Taipei hostel.
I half wondered if this is how contestants on the Amazing Race feel. Racing to get somewhere, fulfill a goal, and the small details can be worked out after.
Again, I was reminded how daily life spirals out of control. We race to tick off tasks, and always forget the small stuff.
I tossed my passport on the desk, got my ticket, and found access to the waiting area.
The waiting area surprised me, why it should, I don’t know. Maybe I was expecting some worn down tugboat and a rotting wood dock with shifty sailors milling about.
Either way, I managed to enjoy the outdoor garden for a few moments and grabbed a snack.
It then occurred to me that I was officially leaving China for the second time – for good.
I know I’m far from done exploring what is part of my heritage and discovering what isn’t. China has that hold on me.
A brief glance at my fellow passengers and it was enough to tell me. Many of these folks had to be Taiwanese shifting out of China by this method or even visiting Matsu for the day. I had no idea the Matsu islands were an appealing holiday getaway.
I was fairly sure I was the only person from a western country. This made me feel slightly outcast, and slightly proud. Like I just gained access to a secret.
The door to exit China had a ‘Quarantine Area’ sign as large as a movie marquee. I get it. Taiwan is worried about Chinese germs. Or probably Chinese invasion of their current freedoms if extreme hardliners every re-emerged in the Chinese Communist Party.
The window to leave China finally gaped open, a swell of passengers pushing luggage carts, and rolling suitcases or boxed goodies to take to family formed a disjointed line.
The usual security measures and exit scrutiny took place. It’s strange that something that was once thrilling is now routine. Although, this time there was a wrinkle in the routine.
“Will you be returning to China today?”
“I can’t return. My visa is finished.”
Such finality to that statement. I hadn’t even thought out Taipei yet. This meant closing the door on China.
I was ready.
No Reservations in Taiwan
The secret to Taiwan grew.
After Chinese immigration spit me out for good, I walked down what can only be described as a modern plank reinforced with steel and a roof. I felt like an honorable pirate, who had arrived to a freedom party, instead of my execution.
There was even a walking escalator for the top-notch pirates.
I finally found the exit door to the dock and slid it open to the outside. Seaweed and salty air made my nose crinkle in discomfort, but the pungent smell soon died to another sensation that hit me: weightlessness.
I glanced back wistfully at the last remnants of China.
Off to the left was the boat, but as soon as I tried to take out my camera to capture this moment, a Chinese official in a booth sprang out and barked at me.
My good-bye to China was short-lived, but my ‘hello’ to Taiwan was still a future tale to be told.
I don’t know a lot about boats, the ferry bound for Taiwan reminded me of a more robust version of the one from Gilligan’s Island, outfitted with a lot more seats.
I attempted to also photograph the outside, but Chinese border control threw me a disapproving look. Stymied again.
I did manage to grab a picture of the interior plans of the boat. What small victories I could grasp, I did with pathetic eagerness.
A small crew loaded bags stern side, while the captain collected our boarding passes at starboard.
He was a slim man with a stern gaze who only smiled by turning up the corners of his mouth. He had the kind of smile that would never be vulnerable, only at certain moments. His face was round, deeply tanned, but not ravaged by time or wind. With kind, but alert eyes it struck me that the crew and passengers would be well taken care of.
The seats on the ferryboat were impressive, it was obvious this operation has been running for several years and there was a system in place. I tried to hold on to that fleeting reassurance, just as a friend’s voice rang in my ear.
“Did you know the most common accidents are on ferry passenger boats?”
I didn’t listen for long, because I spotted seats right by the captain’s station and nabbed them.
More than anything, I was a 10- year old kid in a candy store for the first time. Everything stirred my curiosity; questions filled the spaces in my mind.
And the scenery had me spellbound as the ferryboat pushed away from Fuzhou.
The Taiwan Strait is a series of mountain peaks that would hush even the most talkative person.
Shorelines dotted with trees and sienna skies plunged me into a state of content.
We passed transport ships loaded down with containers full of products. I imagined boxes of dried squid ganged up against ladies razors.
We passed independent fisherman casting nets, hoping for a decent catch to sell at the market later.
A flock of birds danced with Mother Ocean, they plunged close, skimming the surface before gliding towards the big, empty sky.
For a change, the prospect of no reservations didn’t faze me.
“Lady, I Will Help You… “
Things got rocky on the boat. We hit some hard swells, so the silent, but forceful captain couldn’t even finish a cup of coffee.
He had to concentrate. As did I. On my stomach’s contents sloshing back and forth. I can withstand turbulence calmly, but the sea smashing against a tiny ferryboat is quite something all together.
Luckily, the effect left me more sleepy than ill, but I could see how someone who is easily seasick should steer away from this manner of entering Taiwan.
Nobody wants to approach immigration with a filled sick bag in his or her hand.
After the delightful sights of what were officially Taiwanese waters, the port for Nangan approached quickly.
An eventful, lengthy period for me was a total of two hours in boat time.
The efficient crew docked the boat and everyone waddled off. Being on a rocky boat for two hours can scramble balance.
Bags were hauled off and we made our way from the dock towards immigration.
On the way, I noticed an airplane image on some signage for Taipei and grew curious, poking my head into a customer service area.
I asked a lady in uniform behind a counter about tickets to Taipei. Her tone was sweet, informing me I had to go through immigration first.
Entering Taiwan by ferry consists of having your passport stamped without question for a 30-day visa upon arrival and throwing your bags on an x-ray machine. You don’t even have to take off your shoes. This process in total is 15 minutes.
I entered the waiting/reception area; a couple of things struck me immediately. That this had to be the smallest immigration building I’ve ever been in. One building with a few back rooms and that was it. Secondly, there wasn’t a soul at the counter.
This is one small island. At least the sun was shining and I already liked the vibe of the place.
There were few cars in the parking lot, except a beefy man standing in front of a van parked out front. I guessed he was picking someone up.
Since there was nobody to ask, I started walking to seek out this ticket office for airplanes and Taipei, when the uniformed woman from earlier called out.
“Ohhhh, hello? I can help you!”
Poor thing was out of breath trying to catch up with me.
“Oh, thank you. Where is the office for airline tickets to Taipei?”
She wore thick glasses and was stout. Her severe bob bounced against the sun’s glare.
“Yessss… you can buy ticket at 7-11.”
“Seven… eleven?” I said it slowly to be sure I heard correctly.
The place that use to supply this former fat girl with Coke slurpees and sour cream n’onion chips?
The place that only 14 year olds would hang out at, because you weren’t quite 16, nor old enough to go drinking at the bars.
In Taiwan, you can buy airline tickets at 7-11, not just a corndog. And even more.
The kind woman took me to the 7-11 where she presented this magic vending machine. This machine could order taxis; print documents saved on a memory stick, or book bus tickets.
I was floored. This soon became a pattern in Taiwan. Essentially, 7-11 owns Taiwan and it’s not the white trash place I know, but the hangout complete with tables to sit. Actually, sit.
Where I come from you don’t sit at 7-11, you buy your shameful junk food and eat it in the car in a darkened parking lot.
The glitch with the machine was the language, it was in Chinese, so she had to punch the buttons for me. There was a flight for the same day at 12:10.
We got to the seat assignment screen, when she had to give me the bad news.
“All tickets booked.”
I blinked twice rapidly.
“Are you sure,” I asked, not quite believing her.
“Yes, I am sure. The tickets are booked. Nothing until tomorrow.”
My hope sank. What next?
We gave up on the magic vending machine and headed back to the terminal.
I asked what my options were, but first, I needed to change Yuan into Taiwan Dollars.
“Oh yes, we go to man at the van.”
Okay, let’s go to a random man standing in front of a van.
It soon became apparent it was the same beefy one I noticed earlier. He wasn’t a driver after all, but a businessman who ran a hotel and travel agency. We did the transaction in front of his van, the side door open with people waiting to be transported to the hotel. I traded 600 Yuan for 2,600 TWD.
After the exchange, we shook hands and I flashed him a crazy grin.
Sure there was an ATM in a separate ticket office less than six feet away, but what would be the adventure in that?
We went back to my options, my new companion suggested the ferry to Keelung, a port city in the northeastern part of Taiwan. That sounded alright, but how long would it take?
“Oh, ten hours.”
“And when does it leave?”
“Uhhh, I must check, please wait here.”
She came back, her perky face tightened with tension. She seemed more upset than I was.
“Oh, I am so sorry, the ferry for Keelung does not run today. Only tomorrow.”
This was starting to sink in. No ferry or flight until tomorrow.
“Okay, is there a hotel near here where I could stay?”
“Oh yes, the Matsu Hotel. It is 800 per night.”
That proved well above my budget. Just as I was about to resign myself to staying the night, she brightened again.
“Wait.. wait! Let me check flight at airport.”
“Wonderful! Thank you!”
She dashed away again for a few minutes and returned running, nearly tripping over her feet.
“Good, very good, there is flight at airport. You just have to go there.”
My eyes narrowed with suspicion.
“Go to the airport? How long?”
“Not long, I call cab for you?”
I sighed. What choice did I have? Forfeit my stay at Taipei Taipei Hostel and pay 800 for a mediocre hotel room?
“Okay, call cab.”
I stood in the still deserted Nangan terminal waiting. Meanwhile, a man from border control approached me. He launched into the usual questions. Where are you from? How long will you stay? Except this time, there was a ray of warmth in his demeanor.
He declared an intimacy with Vancouver, because he visited there once. It was a lovely way to pass the time.
Not long meant 10 minutes and not long to the airport also literally meant 10 minutes of going up a hill until we reached the small airport terminal.
I was delighted, and part of it was that my cab driver was a woman, something I’ve rarely encountered.
By this time it was going on 11:00 and my hope to make a 12:10 flight came to fruition as I approached the Uni Air ticket counter.
“Oh hello, I need a flight to Taipei.”
“For what time? Next one is 12:10.”
“Yes, that one.”
“Please give me your passport and the total is 1,869.”
That’s $63 CDN.
As I sunk into a chair after going through security, I felt the weight of this latest adventure.
I missed this kind of rough and tumble travel when you don’t know what will happen next. Satisfaction settled in my bones. The secret of the Taiwan ferry was now unearthed. It was tempting to keep it to myself.
The plane rumbled over the Taiwan Strait. I peered down at the frothy white peaks, its tumultuous power even evident at thousands of feet above the water.
I faintly pictured the airplane tumbling, crashing.. fire shooting from its wings.. ending my breath. And I was more than okay with that prospect.
India nearly killed me. It really did. I can’t believe its significance sometimes, nor do I acknowledge it enough. I had physical pains, emotional lows, highs and heartache. I don’t know what it quite means yet, but maybe being there forced me to see the simplicity in things. The simplicity I never saw before.
I saw things. I did things. I was lucky. More than most people. I also made it happen all by myself.
I pushed back my seat and felt an impenetrable peace surrounding me, protecting me.
In unraveling the secret of taking the ferry to Taiwan, I may have also unraveled myself.
How to Enter Taiwan by Ferry (What Wikitravel Doesn’t Tell You)
- If you are in Fuzhou, the easiest way to find the buses you need is by catching them by the Fuzhou Railway Station. It’s a known landmark and easy to get to.
- The bus station is not attached to Fuzhou Railway Station, so when you approach the station, steer to the left and you will see a large parking lot full of buses (and a bus station). If you’re checking things out at night, the big parking lot has painted lines on the pavement and each “lane” shows what bus number parks there.
- Get to the bus station by 6:00 am, the latest. I went at 7:00 and that was cutting it close. Show the bus driver a translation of which bus you want to transfer on and what your intention is. I showed the driver a sentence in Chinese: “I wish to enter Taiwan by ferry. I need to get to Mawei Harbor on bus 73.” That seemed to do the trick and he understood where I needed to go. Cost of the bus is 2 to 3 RMB.
- When on bus 69, you will transfer to bus 73 at some point. You’ll have to pay 2 to 3 RMB again when you board bus 73. This ride takes quite a while, because Mawei Harbor is in a suburb of Fuzhou.
- The last stop of bus 73 is not well marked, the bus just turns onto a street where a makeshift resting station is set up to clean the buses and let the driver take a break.
- You will be deposited in an industrial area, but don’t panic. There will be motorcycle taxis you can take to Mawei Harbor. Cost of a motorcycle taxi is 10 RMB.
- Once you arrive at the harbor, the ticket counter is on the left hand side of the entrance (inside). You can buy a ferry ticket on the spot, ticket costs 300 RMB.
- The ferryboat leaves at 9:30 am so definitely leave enough time to get there so you can relax. You will be officially leaving China, so the normal exit procedures take place (filling out a departure card).
- The boat ride in total is 2 hours, bring your camera and a steady stomach. The views are stunning and the ride can be a little rocky.
- Once you get to Nangan, you will be required to also go through standard immigration procedures (filling out an arrival card).
- At this point, you have a few options:
- Plan to take a ferry to Keelung, which is 10 hours and costs 700 to 800 TWD. The ferry only runs every other day, so prepare to stay a night to depart the next day or coordinate the timing right.
- Second option is booking a flight ticket at the 7-11 vending machine. The 7-11 is easy to spot when you exit the Nangan ferry terminal (off to the right). Note that the 7-11 machine is only in Chinese, which can be challenging if you don’t read the language.
- Third option is to get a taxi to the airport and book a flight to Taipei on the same day. Uni Air offers flights at about 1,869 TWD/$69 CDN. The taxi ride to the airport took 10 minutes and I paid 100 TWD/$3 CDN (I probably paid a little too much!). The airplane ride is one hour, so in terms of time, this is the best option.
I hope you enjoyed my tale of entering Taiwan by ferry and if you do the same, leave a comment and tell me how the journey was!
*I added this how-to section because the Wikitravel description on entering Taiwan by ferry is slightly vague.