What Chongqing lacked in charm, Zigong more than made up for. We made the 215 km trip by car with Driver Extraordinaire Bill still at the helm, and sat back for a long, hilly drive punctuated by a very long tunnel through a mountain and an entertaining pit stop to refuel.
By entertaining I mean that we were the entertainment. It seems that two blondes, a Canadian dude and a cute boy attract attention. Thankfully John, our guide, was available for translation services and we managed rough facsimiles of conversations. Smiling from both sides always helps.
Driving through mountainous terrain tested my stomach, but the scenery was worth it. As soon as we were away from the megalopolis of Chongqing the landscape and locales were once again rural. We arrived in Zigong in time for lunch and John was excited to introduce us to a favourite restaurant of his.
The restaurant served Zigong cuisine in a traditional salt restaurant setting. These are made up of multiple, private banquet rooms. Once seated in a small banquet room, dish after dish was brought in for us to taste. We did our valiant best to taste and eat as much as possible, but there was easily enough food for 12 hungry adults on that table so we eventually waved the white flag. D and I still dream about the smoked shredded beef and white fish dishes we tasted.
Zigong flourished as the principal center for salt trade in the Sichuan Province for over 2000 years. The salt is mined from deep wells where brine is drawn up and then boiled, allowing the liquid to evaporate and leaving the salt. It’s because of the abundance of salt, the merchants and their wealth that the cooking in this region became distinctive and rich with spices.
Following our lunch, John and Bill dropped us off at the hotel and we headed out on foot to discover what the area had to offer. While a non-Chinese family wandering the streets of Zigong stuck out, and we were often asked to pose for photos, people we met were generally just curious about why we were visiting. And unlike in Chongqing, the police didn’t tail us.
D and I were struck by the contrast of shops selling Gucci bags next to makeshift restaurants where we could see the cooking being done in large cauldrons over open flames on the back steps. Even here, in a relatively small city, the infrastructure had a lot of catching up to do to match the pace of population growth. Piles of debris from demolished buildings were left standing behind newer construction in many places.
We wandered through a market, visited the Zigong Lantern Park, sadly the Lantern museum was closed for renovations, before heading back to our hotel for the night. There were no thoughts of dinner on any of our minds since there was no way we could manage another bite after the lunchtime feast. The next morning John and Bill brought us to the Zigong Dinosaur Museum. Built in the 1980s, it houses an impressive collection of Jurassic remains found in the region, including a covered area where visitors can view partially excavated fossils.
Bou and PG had a blast posing in the jaws of giant carnivores and next to femurs the height of transport trucks. The grounds around the museum were a great way for us to stretch our legs and, truthfully, let the kids expend some energy. A highlight for D and I, as simple as it seems, was catching glimpses of exchanged smiles, giggles and eye rolls during the educational portions between our children and a group of local kids there for a field trip. Some things transcend borders and language barriers.
The day ended with a visit to the Salt Industry Museum and a tour of a functioning salt well. The museum is partly housed in the former guildhall of local salt merchants and a beautiful example of 17th century architecture that pays homage to earlier styles as well. The exhibits depicting the history of salt mining in Zigong were well explained and interesting and the kids got up close to many displays, though never close enough to cause damage, thankfully.
The kids enjoyed the museum as much as two young children could so when John proposed seeing a working salt well, the Xinthai Drilling Well, they were all over it. Although the well is largely obsolete now, the work these people did, and do, every day is tough. There were employees standing over hot, smelly vats of evaporating brine constantly stirring and scooping, while others carried huge bags of salt down rickety stairs once the process was complete. I felt slightly out of place and, well, touristy, standing there getting a guided visit with my camera in hand.
Our visit ended witnessing a collision between an old woman driving a tuk-tuk and a delivery driver clearly in the wrong. No one was injured, but the driver got an earful. The moral is that you don’t mess with tuk-tuks. Also the kids wanted to bring one home.
We’d go back to Zigong in a heartbeat. It’s not overwhelming and there are a ton of places to visit in the city and close by. Early the next day we drove back to Chongqing and the airport, said our goodbyes to John and Bill and hightailed it back to Hong Kong.
Stick around to find out what we got up to in Hong Kong. It’s always something.
Kat @ jackstrawlane
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