Banging That Zigong (by Nathan)
There are countless ways to explore the Sichuan Province. We considered going west into the foothills of Tibet or to see the turquoise pools of Jiuzhaigou, but to maximize seeing sights and minimize the long bus rides we decided to go South and West. Our fingers roamed around a map and settled on Zigong, a city of tea houses, dinosaurs, salt mines and light shows. How could we go wrong?
Going off the beaten track in China is an excellent way to lose the comforts of the English language. And, although there is plenty to do in Zigong, we quickly determined that little to no western tourists seem to visit this city. We knew we were in for a treat when we arrived at the hotel and the receptionist kept pointing at the receipt demanding that we pay an extra $25. We could not understand her or the English translation that was written “kqpdfg mzfbxq” so we refused. She eventually gave up and we later looked up the Chinese character and found out she just wanted a deposit. To her benefit, we were nice to the squatty potty.
I believe Carmen and I must have been the most interesting people to ever step foot in Zigong. After six weeks in China we were starting to feel accustomed to the stares and hyper-analyzing we received from many Chinese people. In Zigong, we turned heads and whole crowds turned to watch the lao wei. No one had ever seen a foreigner in Zigong? We would walk along the sidewalks and families would stop eating in the restaurants, babies would stop crying and even at the cemetery the dead briefly stopped dying to watch us. Maybe that is a bit too drastic, but it is extremely awkward to feel like such a rarity. I gained immense respect for the real first visitors to China in the eighties when Chinese borders finally opened up after forty years of closure. We too enjoyed some staring when we found these men cleaning (or buying?) a huge pot. They wondered around blindly and we giggled on the sideline.
Our first tourist destination was the Zigong Salt Museum. The beautiful building was originally a guild hall for craftsmen in Southern Sichuan. Zigong was the center of the salt mining industry for the last two thousand years. All of Sichuan is situated in an enormous floodplain at the base of western Himalayas. Millions of years of runoff concentrated into brine aquifers that still supply salt to present day China. There were some great exhibits showing how drilling techniques originated in China with some nerdy inventions that only an engineer like me would enjoy.
Further outside of town is one of the actual salt mines. This derrick was the first mine in the world to exceed 1000m in depth. The drilling and pumping was once all done with ox power, but now they utilize diesel engines. We walked our way into the boiling room to see huge caldrons boiling off the brine water and crystalizing the salt.
Sipping tea is an essential activity all across Sichuan. The Sichuanese are known throughout China as tea drinkers and Zigong is the Paris with some of the most beautiful and picturesque tea houses in the world. The Wángyé Temple is one of these tea houses. We strolled along the river walk looking at this beautiful building in the distance. To our great surprise and delight, we discovered that it was our planned destination. Inside we were surrounded by rustic woodwork and arched windows. Our fellow tea drinkers played mahjong or cards with thick clouds of cigarette smoke clouded around them. We found a seat next to the window and a waitress brought us a menu. Of course we could not read it, but could get an idea of price so we pointed at two items in a game of “Chinese roulette.” Lucky us, chrysanthemum and jasmine were just what we wanted. We watched the Fuxi river amazed that this same building was still here eighty years ago. The tea house was an excellent place to relax, think and plan more of our adventures across Zigong.
Hell yeah we went to the dinosaur museum! I really like dinosaurs and I enjoy running around like a crazed little kid. I went to this museum with very low expectations, China’s exhibitions about the natural world have not been impressive, but I was quickly surprised to find an elaborate display of prehistoric bones and archeological landscapes. That same floodplain for salt was also collected the flash floods and rivers from the mountains. Dinosaurs would be swept away into the Sichuan basin and buried in the mud. Archeological sites surrounding Zigong have found some of the most elaborate collections of dinosaurs on earth.
There were displays of enormous long-necked beasts and tiny high-speed runners. They even built the museum around an excavation site that contained fifty or so dinosaur skeletons encased in the mud. Huge stegosaurus bones lay next to szechanosaurus and various other creatures. I do have to point out that Chinese tourists approached the museum a little different from Carmen and me. We watched a group of thirty rush into the show room from a tour bus. The rock barricades were but a small obstacle for the group to touch and poke at the dinosaur bones. I watched one woman grab onto a 10ft long rib of a brontosaurus and shake it back and forth as if to test its legitimacy of being bone. I secretly hoped that it was in fact plaster and that the real skeletons were locked away somewhere. The skull collection was exciting and Carmen and I particularly liked the bronze one at the back of the park.
We left the museum and quickly decided to walk along a small market street. We were on the edge of Zigong and again we were the object of many stares. We were two-legged travelosaurs walking and looking for some dumplings. Unfortunately we were unlucky, we boarded the bus unsatisfied, but we with a better destination in mind- another tea house
Huánhóu Palace is a beautiful courtyard of overhanging trees and a small pond. We pulled up bamboo chairs into the sunlight and ordered two cups of tea. She delivered the ceramic cups and an enormous jug of boiling water. The tea immediately put us at ease; we relaxed in the warm air and sipped on our tea until late in the afternoon.
Our food in Zigong was out of this world amazing. We stumbled upon a handful of busy restaurants and market-side stalls, but unfortunately forgot to take any photos. One favorite was a dumpling and noodle shop that served us pork dumplings in a spicy oil, but our real favorite was yibin kindling noodles- a cold noodle dish doctored with picked cabbage, spicy sauce and peanuts. One hawker enticed us into her dimply lit vegetable bar. We filled up a bowls with mushrooms, cabbage, onions, tofu, eggplant, river weed and numerous other things I cannot name. They stuffed the lot into a bubbling broth and served us the soup stacked with our selection.
We did not intend on exploring the lantern festival, but it was definitely a highlight of the entire trip to Zigong. Huge metal structures created new each year and wrapped with florescent cloth. Zigong positions the lanterns throughout a mountain top park for all the community and tourists to enjoy. We bought tickets for ¥20 which was an amazing deal for what is usually tourist rip-off China.
The lanterns were phenomenal. The colors were bright and the glowing light emanated in all directions. We wondered through the park enjoying the towers, dragons, dinosaurs, salt derricks, Sichuan masks and even tiny children lanterns with bottomless pants.
Zigong was an exciting city for us. We had been getting used to a China that spoke some English with enough expats that we could get by. Zigong opened our eyes to further challenges with living in China and a harsh reality that we would always be a lao wei (foreigner) here. The tea houses of Zigong are a magical escape where a hot drink soothes the soul and the surroundings are pleasing everywhere we looked. Dinosaurs and light shows were just added experiences that added to our fun and enjoyment of the city. We explored all that we could, and I drank a couple gallons of tea by myself. It was time to move on…it was time to have a moment with the “Big Guy.”