Actually, it’s already here. Can you hear it? The incessant howling, shrieking vortex? The slamming of doors, the clatter of debris slamming against walls? The North East Wind has arrived, fellow Islanders. Winter has entered the building.
Penghu doesn’t mess around with lengthy segways between seasons. No gentle Autumn graces these islands, no picturesque kaleidoscope of greens turning to orange and red, of leaves spiralling to the ground as the days cool and the nights lengthen. Penghu wakes up one morning and decides it’s going to do winter now, announcing the change with hurricane strength winds that come from nowhere, the airline pilot that was heading for the Bahamas has suddenly changing his mind and set a course for Siberia instead. Deal with it.
For about five months, between October and March, monsoon winds slam the island chain mercilessly. Imagine day after day of relentless wind, ranging from a ‘calm’ day of 25mph to a gale of 50mph or even 60mph. It etches itself into your consciousness, a constant background noise when you’re indoors and a hazardous force of nature when you venture out. Every day activities like walking the dog or riding a scooter or bike become a challenge. The latter actually becomes downright dangerous, forcing you to lean constantly into the wind, at the mercy of a sudden gust or drop which leaves you swerving helplessly across the road. Dust and sand fly into your eyes leaving them feeling scratched and gritty. If you’re brave enough to step foot on a beach, you’ll be treated to a ‘sandblasting’ as the sand is whipped into your exposed skin with a vicious stinging. Worse, the wind is actually corrosive, blowing salt spray straight off the sea which combines with other air pollutants to form a grimy film on windows and surfaces. It turns exposed metal to rust with astonishing speed. The Islander’s once gleaming motorbike is now encrusted so deeply with iron oxide it is beyond saving. It invades your house, eating away at everything from your window frames to the USB ports on your computer. Nothing is safe from it.
So, just like that, a summer beach paradise is transformed into a swirling, other-worldy wind-tunnel, painted in various shades of grey, none of which are very erotic. The winter wind defines Penghu’s character, producing a Jekyll and Hyde complex that you’re only aware of if you visit in both seasons. It is responsible for the island’s topography, its lack of trees and stunted, bristly vegetation and colour palate of brown and faded green. Only the hardiest of plants can thrive in the loamy, crumbling, soil, their stems bent and leaves blasted with salt spray. The observant visitor will notice the villages are criss-crossed with coral walls enclosing vegetable patches. Without those windbreakers, growing anything here would be impossible.
Economically, the islands go into hibernation when the wind arrives. Tourism dries up, understandably. Penghu’s sizable fishing fleet returns to harbour where it largely remains sequestered, with only the biggest boats venturing out into the churning ocean, and at considerable risk to life and vessel. The tourist boats from the mainland cease their services, leaving Penghu feeling isolated and cut-off from the world. It’s not, of course. Planes still land throughout the winter months, although they’re far fewer and further between. The mighty Tai Hua Lun, a car ferry which runs between Magong and Kaohsiung also braves the sea in all but the worst of the wind. Still, the change in atmosphere is palpable. Zhong Zheng Road, the main tourist boulevard in the city becomes a shuttered, ghost street. The beaches empty, the roads clear (mercifully) of the scooter convoys of pink-helmeted weekenders. The locals stay indoors, at home or huddled in hotpot restaurants. As the temperature drops, everyone, even hardy Englishmen such as the Islander, starts to feel the chill. Sure, 13C isn’t exactly arctic. But combined with a 40 knot wind? You’re going to be needing another sweater under that windstopper. The simple fact that Penghu becomes such an undesirable place to visit in winter defines it, because it means everyone who relies on tourism needs a Plan B for half the year. Many up-sticks and head to the mainland. Some make enough money in the summer months to get by. Others ply a second trade, waiting patiently for the advent of spring.
Socially, things change, too. People see less of each other. Well, maybe not everyone, but for this Islander and his beachbum friends, the long days of hanging out on the beach and swigging Taiwan Beer outside the Beach Break are over. Evenings spent popping oysters at open-air at barbecue restaurants are soon a distant memory. In Penghu, if you’re going to survive the winter, you need a project. DIY, painting, writing, it doesn’t matter, as long as you can do it indoors. Sun-bronzed skin turns pallid white. Surfing induced six-packs become beer-bellies. Facial hair sprouts and spreads like fungus across clean-shaven cheeks. Some people can’t hack it. One of the classic, oft-repeated pieces of proscribed wisdom, handed down from veteran Penghu expats, as we smile patiently as fresh-faced new arrivals express their disbelief at having found such an earthly paradise, is:
“Wait until winter, and then see how you feel.”
Penghu winter is a right of passage, a proving ground. If you make it until April and you still want to stay another year, you’ve made it. We’ll throw you a party, and welcome you into the inner-sanctum. You’ve earned the right to sneer condescendingly at the next batch of starry-eyed newcomers. But if you arrived in June, and by September are proclaiming to anyone who will listen that you’ve found your place in the world and explaining your plans to settle here and open a craft-beer-brewery-cum-beach yoga workshop, expect to notice a few suppressed smirks and knowing winks from the old-timers. Oh, child of summer. We’ve been saying “Winter is coming” since long before Game of Thrones memes started appearing on your news feed.
It’s not all bad. Excuse me while I rack my brains and think of some silver-linings. Umm… there are fewer mosquitoes. You’ll smell better. You can break out your collection of snazzy jumpers and bundle up in a nice winter coat. After months of endless heat you’ll probably welcome the grey skies and cool wind. You can now exercise without risking heat exhaustion. Surfing doesn’t dry up completely, but the sun-soaked, south-facing breaks are swapped out for the rocky, northern coves and board shorts abandoned in favour of wetsuits and booties. And, if you happen to be a windsurfer or kitesurfer, well, your season is just getting started. Penghu is Mecca for your breed. Athletic, muscled adrenaline junkies descend on the island from all over the world, to pit their skills against Penghu’s ferocious gusts. Visit Guanyinting or Longmen today, and you’ll see them, flashing across the water, sinew and high-end carbon fiber straining together, flying into the air, twisting and pirouetting like giant neon seabirds. Winter is reserved for the pros, the advanced storm-chasers. Olympic teams train here, alongside brave, talented locals. If you’re new to the sport, you’re probably going to want to start in the summer. No, you’re definitely going to want to start in the summer.
For everyone else, now is the time to hunker down, to mothball your bicycle and your surfboard (unless you have a wetsuit and enjoy winter waves), to stock up on hot chocolate and whisky, to renew your Netflix subscription and dust off your game console. Your stoicism will be rewarded when the wind occasionally and mysteriously dies away for the odd weekend in December or February and you find yourself alone on a glorious beach in 24 degree sunshine. Until then, batten down those hatches. Winter is here, islanders. Stay safe.