A Chinese New Year Resolution – from Zigong

If my writing can’t keep you here, maybe this Panda cub will help:

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There’s more where that came from, too.

As most of you know, for years I’ve muttered some mutterings here and there about starting a blog. I’m not usually one for New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve never tried a Chinese New Year’s resolution and seeing as it is Chinese New Year’s Day and I am in China, I’m going to give it a shot. You heard it first, then. Resolution: blog stuff.

新年快乐!(Xi nian kuai le!) ((Happy New Year!))

That said, I’m not sure what my goal with this whole thing is, so bear with me. I imagine it will end up being part travelogue, part inner-monologue, but either way I hope it’s interesting enough to keep you around from time to time. If not, well, you all know how much I like to run my mouth, so I’m sure I’ll be fine talking to myself. Plus I’ll lead you along with Panda pictures.

As these sort of things go, I’ve got to start somewhere, so I’ll start here, where I am now, sitting in a tea house in Zigong, Sichuan Province, the People’s Republic of China, sipping on a bitter, bitter cup of bamboo leaf tea, breathing in acrid breath of a few dozen cheap Chinese cigarettes and looking across the green waters of the river at an unknown Tibetan Buddhist temple. (Ok, fine. That was yesterday.)

Ah, Zigong. City of salt, dinosaurs and lantern festivals. City of few foreigners. City of smells and stares. City of strangers paying for taxis and giving you used cups. ZiGong.

Despite its inclusion in the Lonely Planet China guidebook, I get a sense that the city of salt, dinosaurs and lantern festivals doesn’t oft make the itinerary of Sichuan travelers, and that’s why Jordyn and I decided we had to come.

The New Year didn’t start out as auspiciously as I’d like. After celebrating Beijing’s mostly soulless but firework-filled New Year’s extravaganza last year, Jordyn and I hoped to see how the small cities partied for the start of Spring Festival. We spent yesterday a couple of hours away in Leshan meditating on the size of the world’s largest Buddha statute (I’ll revisit this in a later post) and returned just in time to see all the restaurants in the city shut in our faces. There were dumplings to be made, hacked up meat dishes to share, and television countdowns to watch after all.

Being dumplingless, meatless, and dishless ourselves, we bought a couple paper bowls of instant noodles and settled into our 7-days Inn room to at least catch the television countdown and wait for the fireworks to start. The show – which is a mix of singing, comedy, famous people, and the like – has been a New Year’s Eve staple in China since the arrival of mass-scale television viewing. Although I haven’t got the numbers to back it up, I’d bet all the Renmingbi in my wallet that it’s far and away the most watched television event in the world. I’ve yet to meet a Chinese whose family doesn’t tune in after the dumplings are finished off. They never watch the whole thing, I’m told; mahjiang, card-playing, and the like take center stage, but the CCTV New Year’s Event is always droning away in the background to be crowded around when someone popular takes their turn on the stage. It’s as much a part of the holiday as all the rest.

Jordyn and I made it through half of the four hours, passed out and missed the fireworks. So it was not the best of admittedly well-rested moods to which we awoke.

Thankfully outside the door, the city of salt, dinosaurs, and lantern festivals awaited.

Zigong – City of Salt

Geographically, there’s nothing much remarkable about Zigong at first glance. Like most third-tier Chinese river cities it’s grey, dirty, and crowded with decaying, blocky high rises whose lowest stories are lined with small shops. But geologically, Zigong is a different story.

Brine formations leftover from the Triassic Period made Zigong a lynchpin of the Chinese salt economy, and therefore the economy at large, for nearly 2000 years, contributing a significant – sometimes more than half – of salt tax revenue to the reigning dynasties over China’s history. It was the site of the invention of the percussion drilling method discovered during the Song Dynasty (400 years before the Europeans) and the site of the first well drilled to 1,000 meters in depth. Despite the discovery in the 20th century of better drilling and pumping methods, the Shenhai well continues to operate today.

The courtyard of the Zigong Salt History Museum.

The courtyard of the Zigong Salt History Museum.

All of this and more we learned at the Zigong Salt History Museum, housed in the former Xiqin Guild Hall built in 1736 as a meeting hall for Shanxi salt merchants. Aside from the detailed history of salt production since the Han Dynasty (1st century), the museum also features the guild hall architecture – a courtyard lined with intricate carvings and roofs capped with swooping flying eaves.

It wasn’t the only salt guild hall we visited, either.

After touring the museum, we spent a couple of hours wandering the hilly alleyways around our hotel, snacking on street food and pushing through crowded market streets where the various shoes and meat and pets on sale shelter under giant drooping tarps. But the rest of the afternoon we spent on an old Sichuan pastime: whiling away the time at a teahouse. In our case two of them.

Daily life at the Zigong teahouse.

Daily life at the Zigong teahouse.

The first of them – Huanhoe Palace – was formerly a butcher’s guild hall. Now, it feels somewhat more like a temple than either a guild hall or a teahouse, starting with the grand façade featuring the same flying eaves as the salt museum. Inside, things get more solemn. The door took us into a cool, dark and humid courtyard, where the bamboo tables and chairs, various ferns and a small fish pool sat shaded by lofty trees. On the lowest floor of the wooden walls surrounding the courtyard little antique shops plied their wares, while up above more tea tables sat on a balcony. As the afternoon went on, more and more of the creaky bamboo chairs filled with patrons drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, and reading, chatting, gambling, or napping, just like the tabby cat in the corner.

There really isn’t a good reason to leave. For between 10 and 20 yuan, a Sichuan teahouse will give you a tea cup filled with tea leaves and flower petals, as well as a giant thermos of hot water. The rule is simple: One cup, one chair. The rest is up to you.

Following a lazy couple of hours, we hit our thirdguild hall of the day, this one the former Sichuan salt merchant guild hall. Less impressive in scale than the salt history museum and perhaps a little less atmospheric than theHuanhoe Palace, the Wangye Miao Teahouse makes up for it with location. Perched on the wall lining a bend of the Fuxi River that runs through the center ofZigong, the view from the swung-open windows of the Wangye match the view of it from without. Inside is more of the same – smoking, laughing, reading, sleeping, and drinking – but the ability to watch a hand-paddled boat ferry locals back and forth across the Fuxi in between book pages of makes for a hard-to-beat teahouse experience.

The Wangye Miao teahouse on the Fuxi river bend. The boat pictured ferries locals back and forth across the river underneath the teahouse windows.

The Wangye Miao teahouse on the Fuxi river bend. The boat pictured ferries locals back and forth across the river underneath the teahouse windows.

Sichuan, especially the capital Chengdu, is famed for its teahouses, but it’s hard for me to imagine any that can top Zigong’s.

So add one to the list: Zigong – city of teahouses.

Zigong – City of Dinosaurs and Lantern Festivals

Zigong has another geological surprise to go with its salt: Dinosaurs.

In the early 1980s, paleontologists discovered an huge number of dinosaur fossils concentrated just outside of Zigong, then in 1987 the city opened the first dinosaur museum in Asia. It remains one of the largest such museums in the world. Sadly, Jordyn and I didn’t have the time to make the trip to the museum, but we got the next best thing: Glowing sauropods and animatronic T-Rexes ridden by orcs.

Zigong is the birthplace of the folk Chinese lantern festival. In the last two decades, the city stoked it’s annual festival into one of the world’s largest. We didn’t know either of those facts when we started planning our trip, but by happenstance the 21st Zigong International Dinosaur Lantern Festival got moving just as we were rolling into town.

Lantern isn’t really the right word. The festival is made up of mutlicolored cloth creations ranging from dog sized to office-building sized ablaze with light. Add Christmas lights to all the trees, some carnival rides, a zipline, and some faux-classical instrumental music on repeat, and so many domestic tourists you can hardly walk and you’re starting to get the idea. Until you come across the orc on a T-Rex, that is. There are scenes from Chinese children’s stories, giant red lanterns, fish, flower people, dragons and of course lots and lots of goats/sheep, all of them aglow. Its sensory overload taken to the highest level, and it was also a lot of fun.

Dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs! And an orc. All that an more at the Zigong International Dinosaur Lantern Festival.

Dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs! And an orc. All that an more at the Zigong International Dinosaur Lantern Festival.

To cap it all off, we rode the zipline through the middle of the red lantern spires.

Zigong – City of Cups

But my favorite part of our Zigong stop was the drunk man who helped us out and the gift he gave us.

We arrived in the city about 11 p.m. and thought to walk to our hotel before realizing just how far it was. We stopped at a bus stop and after waiting a few minutes, started to wonder if the buses had stopped running. Next to us stood a drunk-looking 20-something Chinese man who stared unceasingly at the side Jordyn’s face. In his hands he clutched an empty, dirty glass cup.

After a few more minutes unable to stand the staring anymore, Jordyn finally turned and said hello.

“You are too pretty,” he said. “Is that your boyfriend?”

After a short conversation, he decided to accompany us to our hotel, hailing a cab and getting us across the city. He and I then fought a hand battle over the cab fare that ended when I accidentally slapped the cabbies hand. The driver took the other guy’s money.

After we got out in front of our short-term home, our new friend told us to call him “friend”, gave us his phone number, then one more time turned to Jordyn and said:

“You’re so pretty.”

After an awkward pause he added, “I will give you this cup.”

He gave her the cup. Now we just have to get it back to Beijing intact.

Ah, Zigong.

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