One of the special things about Chinese New Year is the stunning lantern festivals. One of the most famous is in a town about an hour south of us – 自贡 (Zìgòng). We had heard of it as a famous dinosaur site, so decided to go the weekend after Chinese New Year to kill two birds with one stone.
With our new relaxed approach to travel in China, we did not purchase tickets ahead of time. I researched the right station from which to catch the bus and early Saturday morning we set off. We went by metro, then hopped on some shared bikes and cycled to the bus station – except we couldn’t find it. I brought up Dù, the Chinese equivalent of Google maps that I now use, checked, and we cycled back to where the pin was. Oh, it is a public bus stop with a similar name, not the large intercity bus station. Hazards of a novice Chinese reader!
A bit later we arrived at the hard-to-miss-if you-get-anywhere-near-it bus station, bought tickets and got on the bus. The driver agitatedly came down to tell us to put on our seat belts, given that we were obviously ignoring his clear instructions. I heard him ask if there was an English speaker, but to no avail. However miming worked fine, and we were off. A couple of hours later, we arrived at the 自贡 (Zìgòng) bus station. We picked up a Dìdì (Chinese equivalent of Uber) which has become our transport option of choice since they made an English version. It is so convenient. We can make it clear exactly where we want to go without having to say it accurately, and it is automatically paid through our mobile payment app 支付宝 (Alipay).
We checked in to our hotel and caught the bus to the dinosaur museum – a bit later than we planned, but not having a proper lunch caught up the time we lost detouring to public bus stations.
There were lots of families at the museum – interesting for adults and good for children. The museum is on one of the 40 sites in 自贡 (Zìgòng) where dinosaur fossils have been found. It seems that they have so many they can leave a space with untouched fossils to show visitors what it was like. We learned about (and I have now forgotten) the location of dinosaur fossil discoveries across China and the world, and the reason the region has so many well-preserved fossils in many sites. We also went on the 360 degree virtual tour through ancient dinosaur worlds – scary with a bit of nausea thrown in – amazing given that we were all sitting in an auditorium looking at a screen and hardly moving.
We then went to the lantern festival. It was SO crowded. We are getting used to crowds but this took being crowded to a whole new level. (As an aside, we are becoming Chinese in that if we are the only people somewhere, we think we must be in the wrong place, and we decide routes based on the number of others doing the same thing). But it was stunning – I felt like I was gorging on visual brilliance. With the crowds, we had to walk slowly at everyone else’s pace, and take it all in. The photos do not do it justice.
Something we noticed all around 自贡 (Zìgòng) were leaves out drying wherever it was possible to put them. When we got back to work, Raymond asked his colleague, who is from 自贡 (Zìgòng), what these leaves were and why they were out drying. She said they are dried and then used for local ‘sauerkraut’. Interesting!
Sunday morning, we visited the Salt Museum. This was one of those experiences where the place you had not heard of turns out to be the highlight of the trip. I think Raymond read every single English word there. It is a beautiful old building (built in 1736) used by salt merchants during the hey day of salt production in the region.
It turns out there are three methods of salt extraction. Sea salt accounts for most of China’s salt production (70%), with well salt contributing 20%, and lake salt 10% (estimated at a paltry 1,000 salt lakes!). The first method has been being used for 5,000-6,000 years, but is not so useful for inland regions like 四川 (Sìchuān). A few thousand years ago the other two methods were developed. The 自贡 (Zìgòng) museum focuses on the evolution of well salt production – a fascinating story of technological innovation.
Part of the 自贡 (Zìgòng) geology that means dinosaur fossils last so well, is ‘abundant salt brines’, a legacy from a change of sea level. This seems strange for a part of the country so far inland, but it was 200 million years ago.
Much more recently, during the Warring States Period in China (just over 2,000 years ago), people started drilling wells to get brine, building on other well drilling techniques dating back 4,000 years. 李冰 (Lĭ Bīng), who built the Dūjiāngyàn irrigation project I have already written about, is credited as being the ‘father of well salt production’. He was obviously quite an innovator.
During the 宋代 (Sòng Dynasty) – 960-1279 AD, salt drilling gave the world percussion (cable) drilling, which is now used worldwide in oil drilling. In the 明代 (Míng Dynasty) – 1368-1644 AD, they developed ways to maintain and repair the wells, and fish out fallen objects. Many of the bamboo items on display in the museum were different versions of technologies to achieve these – evolving as each person was able to build on the ideas of those who had gone before them. The local geology means that natural gas, coal, oil and other minerals are often found near the salt deposits. During the 清代 (Qīng Dynasty) – 1644-1911, as technological advances enabled deeper wells, new innovators devised techniques to use the natural gas they found to concentrate and purify the brine. They also applied principles of hydrodynamics to transport the brine using interconnected pipes and pumps.
And, of course, salt was taxed, from as far back as the 唐代 (Táng Dynasty) 618-907 AD. Because the region was so rich in salt, the salt tax, which was much higher than the land tax, made this region quite wealthy.
Even though I am terrible at remembering the details, I am fascinated by the interplay between geology driving innovation and then this driving economics – especially here in China where it has happened over such a long period of time, and I haven’t learned about it in history at school, or while reading Eurocentric books.