As you approach Zigong, sculptures and posters of dinosaurs announce that you’re arriving in “Dinosaur City”, as the city is known by the Chinese.
Zigong is a pleasant modern city, built along the banks of the Fuxi River that has so far managed to maintain large areas of traditional and interesting architecture, despite its recent development and prosperity.
Besides Dinosaurs, Zigong has an abundance of sites, and is definitely worth spending a couple of days. The city owes its prosperity not so much to dinosaurs, as to salt and, in particular, the important role this product played during Imperial times.
The salt mining techniques developed at Zigong were among the most sophisticated in the ancient world. They included building precision drills, which could perforate more than 300 meters, and the use of cables, made of bamboo fibre, to take out the brine from the bowels of the earth.
An offshoot of the drilling was the discovery of large deposits of natural gas, which was then tapped and used to boil the brine in large vats.
Even nowadays, a visit to the fascinating Xinhai Drilling Well, which was inaugurated in 1835, is a must. This well reaches a depth of more than 1.000 meters and is the deepest in the world, made by the use of traditional methods. Even though the well has almost become obsolete these days, visitors can still observe a couple of employees at work, stirring huge vats of boiling brine in very much the same way it has been done for centuries.
Another sight not to be missed in Zigong is the Xiqin Guild Hall, perhaps one of the most stunning buildings in China.
The Hall was first built in 1736 during the Qing dynasty, but owes most of its current splendour to a more recent renovation in 1872, under the supervision of master craftsman Yang Xuesan.
It is a fine example of traditional Chinese architecture, combining elements of symmetry, grace and attention to detail, to create an exuberantly attractive building.
Apart from the magnificent entrance with its multi-layered eaves, the Guild Hall boasts some exquisite wooden carvings illustrating people’s daily lives, as well as showing merchants, animals, deities and various images of Confucius.
Moreover, the Hall also holds a small museum dedicated to the history and production of salt with some interesting old photos.
The small shop next to the ticket booth also sells various products derived from salt, including some pretty good bath salts.
Apart from the Guild Hall, Zigong still preserves a couple of other architectural gems from the Qing dynasty, a former theatre and a temple, now converted into two great teahouses where you can relax and take a break from the sights.
The first one of these, the theatre, now the Huanhou Gong Teahouse, is situated behind the massive Shawan hotel, right by the junction of Jiefang Lu and Zhonghua Lu. A sculpted stone doorway leads into a shady intimate courtyard, full of potted plants and fish bowls. The stage and wooden galleries have been incorporated into the teahouse and are now taken up by the tea sipping, Mah-jong playing patrons.
The ancient converted Wangye Miao temple has a superb location, overlooking the Fuxi river, right opposite the colourful Fazang Nunnery, whose spectacular roofs in green and yellow may well remind you of the Royal Palaces in Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Besides tea, the Wangye Miao also serves snacks and (lukewarm) beer.
A visit to the Fazang nunnery takes you through the most traditional areas of Zigong. The way over there follows the old ‘Salt Route’, where thousands of coolies used to carry their back-breaking loads, past white-washed plaster houses, held up by dark wooden beams and covered with slate roofs, typical of this region of Sichuan.
Various engravings, memorial arches and small temples testify to the historical importance of both the salt industry and this place.
Finally, there is the Dinosaur museum; a palaeontologists paradise. Some of the most important remains of dinosaurs in China have been found in the region of Zigong. The museum, whose excavations and research have been carried out with the aid of experts from the British Museum, boasts a large collection of skeletons. Some of the examples on display are said to be among the best preserved in the world, such as the Yangchuanosaurus, a small velociraptor, native to Sichuan.
You can easily while away a couple of hours at the museum. Moreover, if you decide to travel there and back by bus, you will have the opportunity to explore some other traditional neighbourhoods of Zigong, where the traditional architecture still abounds and street markets and ancient crafts still thrive. Here you can sample ‘dinosaur cakes’, listen to blind street musicians, or buy a paper ‘spirit house’.
Those who wish to spend a few more days in this great little city could take some scenic trips on the Fuxi river, or visit some of the nearby villages, where there are plenty more examples of traditional architecture, as well as atmospheric teahouses.
Getting Around: The brand-new and modern bus station is situated on the outskirts of town. To get to the centre of town, near the Shawan Hotel, you can either take Bus Number 1, or get a taxi for 10-12 Yuan. Overall, local buses are cheap, comfortable and frequent and they can take you to all the places of interest. Buses 3 and 35 leave from near the Shawan Hotel and run past the Xinhai Well, terminating near the Dinosaur Museum.
Coming and Going: From the bus station frequent buses leave for Chengdu, Yibin, Leshan, Luzhou (for Chishui) and other destinations around Sichuan.
Where to Stay and Eat: We stayed at the Shawan Binguan, where they charged us 150 Yuan (after some friendly bargaining) for a big and immaculate room, with great views over the river. Moreover, the buffet breakfast was one of the best we have had in a mid-range hotel in China.
The pedestrian areas around Dongfang Guanchang and Tanmulin Jie offer a wide range of food, ranging from fancy restaurants to simple and delicious street snacks. In front of the Guild Hall there is a narrow lane with some more, tasty and cheap restaurants; the dumpling (jiao zi) restaurant is particularly recommended.