Thursday, July 12, 2012

Havens Apart: Taiwan's Green Island and Lanyu (Unity)

Green Island and Lanyu are similar in some ways – and utterly different in others. Both lie off Taiwan's southeast coast, and both are nubs of solidified magma pushed up by ocean-bottom volcanic eruptions. Also, both are thinly populated. Lanyu has an official population of 4,700, while Green Island has just 3,400 registered residents.

Neither has any industry nor even much farming. This is bad news for the inhabitants – most adults spend several months each year working on Taiwan proper – but it also means the islands are unpolluted. There are no traffic jams, and visitors can find secluded coastal spots where they need not share the sea and sky with others.

Lanyu is unique among the ROC's islands in having an aboriginal Austronesian culture. Green Island's people are of Han Chinese descent, but its history and character have been influenced by those who stayed here unwillingly. Between 1951 and 1990, it was a place of imprisonment for those found guilty of political crimes.

No one can dispute the aptness of Green Island's name. Hilly and verdant, it covers just 15km2 at high tide. At low tide this expands to a little over 17km2 as coral platforms rich in fish, crabs and other creatures are revealed. Snorkeling is the best way to explore this tidal zone, and local tour operators have things set up so even non-swimmers can catch glimpses of what lives in the shallows.

Green Island can be visited as a day trip, although staying at least one night is recommended. Superb scuba diving can be had, especially in the winter when underwater visibility is often 20m. For non-divers, April and May are better months. Temperatures and humidity levels are comfortable, while the strong winds that can make winter ferry crossings unpleasant are seldom a problem.

Most tourists explore the island by motorcycle...

This is part of the article that appears in the July/August edition of Unity, the inflight magazine of UNI Air.