Behind Chengdu and Mianyang, Zigong is Sichuan's third-largest city and is known mostly for its large dinosaur museum and its importance in Chinese history as a salt-mining center. Today, Zigong is home to over 3 million people. One part old and sleepy Sichuanese river city, another part dusty, developing small-town Chinese city, yet another part dinosaur theme park, Zigong is far from having it all, and yet the city is a bona fide Sichuanese tourist destination.
This status is in no small part thanks to the dinosaurs of Dashanpu, a town a few kilometers north of Zigong where, starting in the early 1970s, previously-unknown dinosaur remains have been excavated en masse. After years of hearing about the city and having read the Zigong Dinosaur Museum's claim as one of the world's top three dinosaur museums, we caught a late bus into the city to see it for ourselves.
Despite the abundance of respectable-looking hotels in the downtown area, we found ourselves dropped off with a knowing chuckle issued forth by our cabbie in front of a scummy love motel attached to a KTV parlor (thank you, Wikitravel guy). It was cheap and apart from the molding walls and barely-functioning door, it had a bed and [squat] toilet and disposable toothbrushes, so we ponied up our 80 yuan and checked in, and then went straight back out to explore. Along this hilly street the night-food vendors and diners were keeping—and no doubt still are keeping—the oil-slicked sidewalks lively, and KTV houses are lined up for a kilometer, one after the other, with patrons of all ages loitering by their doors. The food is fresh and spicy and surprisingly not identical to Sichuanese fare in Chengdu, and the local accent, with its distinct "sh"s, turn simple transactions into guessing games.
The Fuxi River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, cuts through the urban district, and in the mornings, fishermen dot the walkways along the water, their lines strung across the river, buckets ready at their feet to take in the day's small catches. At night, tourist boats ferry spectators up and down this waterway to see the sites of ancient salt wells.
A block away from the river is the Salt History Museum (自贡盐业历史博物馆/Zìgòng yányè lìshì bówùguǎn), housed in a distinct, eighteenth-century building that was originally a guild hall and meeting space for salt merchants, who, in centuries past, fueled the local economy and made Zigong one of the country's most prosperous cities.
Next door to the museum is the famed Wangye Miao teahouse, in a similarly historic building. Apart from the architecture of the buildings, the museum itself is nothing extravagant—here we split our time between looking at the rundown displays of salt-mining machinery and utensils and learning a few interesting facts (for instance: salt drilling in Zigong dates back 2,000 years and the region is the birthplace of some important salt-mining innovations) and dodging the ticket-sales attendant, who followed the foreign guests (all two of us) around the grounds, stiffly trying out English phrases. Those less keen on the scientific and historic aspects of the region's salt mining might be more interested in heading just downriver of the city into the ancient salt town of Xianshi (仙市古镇/Xiānshì gǔzhèn).
All of these attractions are officially part of the Zigong Global Geopark, an initiative that extends as far as Rongxian County in order to boost tourism in the region. The key point of interest in the geopark, of course, is the Zigong Dinosaur Museum (自贡恐龙博物馆/Zìgòng kǒnglóng bówùguǎn), which opened in 1987 and houses some pretty big and pretty intact dinosaur skeletons from the Middle Jurassic period. The 25,000 sqm plot of land that the museums stands on is mostly outdoor space; the two-story building itself houses—in addition to a "4D" cinema, a gift shop hawking dinosaur figurines, toys, cardboard cut-out models, and puzzles to giddy young dinosaur enthusiasts—3,600 sqm of display space.
The halls include the Dinosaur Fossil Site, an archaeological-dig reproduction the style of which can be seen at the Jinsha Museum in Chengdu; Fauna and Flora of the Mesozoic; a brief history and explanation of dinosaur paleontology called "How Could Dinosaurs Stand Up?"; and the Treasure Hall, which contains rare finds such as the first bony tail club from a sauropod ever discovered, a very well-preserved sauropod skull, and stegosaur spines. The main attraction, though, is Dinosaur World, a two-story high room featuring "characteristic thematic displays" of 18 fully assembled dinosaur skeletons, posed in supposedly typical dinosaur behaviors. The placards might be a little silly or at least romanticized ("Parental Love" reads one; "Heading Out Together" reads another), but the display is genuinely impressive in its size and scope, and, while we're far from experts on dinosaur history, it seems that these finds must have contributed in some way to the world's knowledge and understanding of dinosaurs.
The best part of the visit (apart from watching two grown men politely argue over a just-purchased-and-then-broken dinosaur toy near the entrance of the museum) had to be reading the genus names of the Zigong dinosaurs. Once we returned home, we looked up (on a children's learning Web site) how dinosaurs are named: After a body feature, after the paleontologist who discovered it, or after a place. Most of the dinosaurs at the Zigong Dinosaur Museum fall into the latter category, with names such as Szechuanosaurus, Zigongosaurus, Chungkingosaurus (relative of the Stegosaurus), Omeisaurus (one of the large herbivores, named after the holy mountain E'mei Shan), Huayangosaurus, Dashanpusaurus Dongi, in honor of both the Dashanpu site and paleontologist Dong Zhimin. But there's also the Xiaosaurus, of which only a few small teeth and bones have been unearthed, and the Gasosaurus, named in honor of the gas company that unearthed it—the first fossil at the Dashanpu site in 1972.
A visit to the city is most worthwhile, or so we hear, during the Lantern Festival each Spring Festival. Zigong claims to have created the original Lantern Festival, which has been widely reproduced in Chinese communities around the world, and the city goes to great lengths to put on increasingly elaborate lantern displays that beckon tourists to the region.
From Chengdu's Beimen Bus Station, buses run to Zigong frequently from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Another eight buses depart daily from the Wugui Qiao Bus Station. By bus, the journey takes around three hours. Five trains depart daily from the North Train Station and take between four-and-a-half and five-and-a-half hours. Official Zigong Dinosaur website.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 38 ("bad taste").