Lanterns, dinosaurs and salt

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.




端午节 Dragon Boat Festival

It is now four weeks since Dragon Boat Festival and I finally have a chance to blog about it, before the memories fade completely.

端午节 means ‘double fifth festival’ and is so called because it falls on the fifth day of the fifth month. However, the date follows the moon driven Chinese calendar so this year it fell on 30 May. Raymond had four days off school – Sat 27 May to Tues 30 May.

Saturday we blobbed as for any weekend, went out for dinner with a couple of kiwis from one of  Brightsparks’ partner schools, and packed for our first ever camping expedition.

Raymond is on holiday in New Zealand as I write, but has promised to blog next week, before we both go to Vietnam, about his work experiences in China. However (spoiler alert), I can tell you that he is finding new opportunities for professional development stimulating and enjoyable. One of those new things is being part of the team introducing the Duke of Edinburgh (D of E) award to Lemàn.

Raymond and the other two members of the D of E team had organised this camping trip to check out a possible location to which to take the students. I along with sundry other camping-interested staff and various significant others tagged along for the experience.  As always, not speaking the language introduces challenges and the teachers need to go with a local guide for ease and safety, so she also was being checked out. This is about taking 20 students away overnight, with the aim of stretching and developing but still bringing them back alive.

So we got up early Sunday morning and headed in on the metro to where we were all meeting the van, setting off from town about 8am, aiming to stop for lunch on the way and, based on it being a four hour trip, arrive early afternoon. Lesson #1, do not travel during a national holiday. Our 4+1 hour trip doubled to ten hours.

Initially, we made good progress, but the first clue things would take longer was when the off ramp we wanted to take was closed because of work being done in a tunnel on that road. So, we, along with all the other people who would have preferred to go that way, inched forward, eventually coming to a stand still. We played cards, talked, joked together, and people watched. Some people got out and stretched their legs, or took their children for a stroll. One elderly woman found the wait too long, and climbed over the metal railing beside the road to relieve herself behind her daughter’s strategically held umbrella. It turned out we were merging from one lane to two, to go through another tunnel which was also being worked on – not while we were going through, but the big earth moving equipment sat there meaning no vehicles could go in the right hand lane.

After we were through the tunnel, the traffic moved well. Our next delay, close to our final destination was when a couple of guards stopped us to check our tickets for the tourist area we were heading into. Our guide, a petite young woman, who much of the way had been snoozing up the front by our driver, was very impressive the way she stood up to the three men in uniform. She insisted that we were not going as far as the area for which you need tickets, so should not pay for them. The stand off continued for a while, ending with a compromise where she bought some tickets that we did not need, and they did not insist that we purchase the full number.


So, we arrived about 6pm. We explored down by the river, then all chose flattish spaces without rocks to put up our tents, and gathered firewood for our campfire. We drove in the van back to the nearby village to eat dinner in a small local restaurant, with meat hanging overhead and the warmth of the big wood oven heating the room. Back to our campsite and toasting marshmallows over the fire, before all heading to our tents to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable with just a thin bed roll between us and the ground. The grassish plant was quite spongy and added softness, and we managed to avoid the stones – and snakes! Coming from a country without snakes, Raymond was a bit startled when a student found, and shared, a massive snake at school. It made him rethink camping in China – but so far so good.


Raymond and I were first up (mainly because he felt a bit nauseous and started the day throwing up – we never did work out why, as everyone else was ok), and we enjoyed a brisk morning walk along the road before the others got up. Then we all packed up our overnight homes and returned to the village for breakfast. Afterwards, our hosts brought our horses and we set off up the mountain, some walking and some riding. Raymond still wasn’t feeling 100%, so he walked the whole way, and I was feeling lazy so I rode the whole way. At the top, I still got enough opportunity to exercise to enjoy the stunning views of the valley and snow covered mountains. We relaxed up the top for a while, then meandered down the hill before rejoining the horses for the final flat section, and back to the village.


Lunch was Sìchuān Hotpot – a mild version for we westerners at one table and a spicier version for locals at the other table. Hotpot is very popular over here in the south west, and the ultimate in Sìchuān food. It is like a spicy fondue. You have hot oil and chillies in a large centrally heated container on the table. The restaurant brings finely sliced meat and vegetables, which you pick up with your chopsticks and put in the shared vat until they are cooked, then pick them out and eat them. As you might imagine, we novice chopstick users sometimes lose our treasures or cook them for longer than we need to while we fish around for where they might have gone. One of our group does not like any spiciness. Our guide said that she could do what locals do with children – have a bowl of hot water by her plate and wash the spicy oil off the meat and vegetables. She did this until her water turned red, replacing it with clear water as required. I asked when locals introduce their children to the hot spicy food. “At least by four years old, because they need to eat in the cafeteria when they start school.” When eating with locals, we have learned to say that we don’t like hot food. If we say, as we did at the beginning, that we like a bit of heat, they provide food that we think is really hot. If we say, we don’t like it hot, we get food that we think has a nice kick to it.

(To give an idea of hotpot’s popularity, I recently took a kiwi visitor to the Tibetan Quarter. We wanted to try Tibetan food for dinner. However, all we could find were hotpot restaurants full of people. We finally found a Tibetan restaurant with a couple of customers but nobody appeared to serve us. Eventually, we made do with steak, and fish and chips, in a restaurant that turned out to be less Tibetan than it looked from the outside.)

Back in the van and a six hour trip back. The same tunnel was a bit of a bottle neck and we slowed down as we got near the city, but it was not nearly as long as our journey there.

Tuesday was the official holiday. Like me, you might have thought that this festival would include seeing dragon boating. Possibly there was some happening, but we never heard of it. Our only festival specific activity was eating 粽子(zòngzi) – pyramid-shaped dumplings made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. We had both been given them from our workplaces, in their not so traditional vacuum sealed plastic wrapping. We looked on the internet to see how to cook them, using our steamer that we bought for making steamed dumplings with the dumpling casings we see at our local market. Zòngzi were okay – glad we tried them, but won’t rush to buy them. I did wonder if little children remember them fondly because they are little parcels tied up with string and have different fillings so you don’t know what will be inside them – like my memory of my grandmother’s Christmas pudding.


Raymond’s school also gave us a salted duck egg, another festival delicacy. Our egg was salted by being packed in damp, salted charcoal, which we had to chip off. We read online that salting it not only preserves it, but is a way to disguise the strong duck egg smell – not in our experience! I nearly threw up when I breathed just after the charcoal came off, and Raymond, who is usually more willing to give things a go, rejected it immediately.


So, our first dragon boat festival was interesting and pleasant, but did not remotely resemble the images, based on our daughter’s dragon boating in New Zealand, that my mind conjured up when I read the words on Raymond’s school calendar.

We have been here almost a year. It has gone so quickly. We have experienced the full cycle of festivals, seasons, and events. So much seems normal, so much still to learn. What surprises are in store for us in our second year?


Our first Spring Festival

Spring Festival or Chinese New Year is the nearest thing China has to Christmas. It is the longest national holiday, everyone goes home to spend time together as a family, and there is special food and gift giving. However, it is very different too.

Spring Festival traditions stem from the belief that Nián, a scary monster or dragon, (and the Chinese word for year) appeared at the end of each year and could be scared away by bright lights, such as red and gold and the lights of fireworks, and by loud noises, such as firecrackers.

We chose to travel to Laos, for the ten day holiday, as we had heard that over a billion people travelling to be with family puts quite a strain on internal travel systems, and can be overwhelming for people from less densely populated countries.

As a neighbouring country, with shared ethnicity at the border, Laos has some cultural overlap with China. We saw groups of young men dressed up as Nián and wandering the streets or riding on the back of trucks. One evening a group came into our restaurant, several young men holding the dragon costume winding between the tables, and a greater number tagging along behind hoping to benefit from patrons who gave them money. We heard that restaurant owners like them to come in as they bring luck for the next year.

In Chéngdū, special Spring Festival red and gold decorations and landscaping sprang up everywhere. For example, our apartment gardeners, who have still not removed the reindeer and Santa Claus with his parasol, hung up red lanterns with gold tassels, and draped the bottom of the large trees in gold. In the central garden bed, they planted red tulips, timing their full bloom for New Years day (28 January), circled by light yellow plants. In the walkway to the convenience store, they placed pots with yellow orchids surrounded by pots with deep pink cyclamen. And around the fountains, they also continued the red and yellow flowers in pots theme. My Chinese language company offered a free deal for a red and gold door decoration, which I said yes to, but it never turned up. (Or if it did, I couldn’t read the text saying it was here.)

Firecrackers are an important part of Spring Festival. There did not seem to be just one time that they are lit, but different times through the season. Some were let off before we left Chéngdū. In Laos, firecrackers were being let off on New Years Eve and into the wee hours of New Years Day. Then, we were treated to a nice fireworks display out our window soon after we returned nearly a week later. And my Chinese teacher explained that the first Monday when people return to work they light firecrackers for a lucky start to the work year. During my lesson that day, I could hear them going off in the background in Guăngzhōu and she could hear them going off in the background in Chéngdū, over 1,000 km apart.

And Spring Festival is the time to sell anything and everything. The Exhibition Centre near us had a Spring Festival sale, where crowds of people thronged to pick up bargains to give to family, friends, work colleagues, and anyone else you feel obliged to give to. We did not go, but saw the crowds lugging, or, in some cases, wheeling, their many purchases. Our supermarket, that we view as very busy on an ordinary day, was chaotic. More people navigating extra stock piled up in any spare space between aisles. (We picked up some bargains in the post Spring Festival sales, which don’t seem holiday specific to us.)

Like most workplaces, Raymond’s school had an annual dinner before the holiday. We both wore red, because we understood that was appropriate and we try to fit in. I sat next to the school’s Chinese teacher, who commented on the effort we had put in, even though most locals did not bother. All red outfits belonged to ex-pats.

Two traditional things happened – a performance and a lottery. The lottery process was giving  a ‘red packet’ with money in (NZD20) to those whose names were drawn out of a hat – Raymond included in the lucky ones. I told my Chinese teacher, who is becoming a regular source of information on Chinese culture now that we have moved beyond ‘hello, my name is …’, that we had been to his school dinner. The first question she asked was if they had had a lottery. And when I helped my Chinese colleague translate her speech for my business partners’ other company’s dinner into English, it included introducing the lottery. So, it is obviously standard. As well as this, the teachers gave their bus driver a red packet, and we gave one to our regular driver when he drove us to the airport for our holiday.

And parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles give children red packets. But only children. My work colleague in her mid twenties is too old for red packets or presents from her parents, even though she went back to her village to celebrate with them.  Whereas, Hazel, our brand new granddaughter, got red packets from her Chinese grandmother and great-aunt before she turned a month old. She was not due until after Chinese New Year, but arrived three weeks early – obviously very smart.

The teachers union gave Raymond a parcel. Some things were easy to spot like wine , nuts, rice and red date honey. Other things, less so. We filled in an evening, photographing characters and translating them to work out what they were. Now we have to work out how to cook with them. We gave the jars of dried fungi – (super sized) log, and ordinary – to Raymond’s colleague.

The fifteenth day of the first lunar month of the new year, is Lantern Festival day. Our local Egypt-themed Lantern Festival, set up in the grounds of one of Chéngdū‘s museums, ran for a few weeks leading up to the 12 Feb. We were back in time to be able to visit during last weekend. The Festival was stunning, during the day and then as night fell lighting up the dark.

We snacked on savoury and sweet dumplings, listening to a recorded voice trying to sell what we were eating – to our ears it sounded like ‘Go Billy Bowser’. So, then I wanted to understand what she was saying. I recognised enough of the characters over the stall to know translating those would give the answer, much to the amusement of the woman wiping down the tables. She stood for quite a while behind me, studying my laborious attempts to work it out on my phone. Once Raymond had pointed her out, I invited her to write the final character which had been proving a challenge for me. ‘Heavenly saliva dog ignore dumplings’. Later, my Chinese teacher pointed out the inadequacy of direct translations, which was quite reassuring given that we ate before translating.

As we walked back to the metro, through the crowds and beautiful lights, we commented on how these  fragile silk-encased frames would never work in a windy environment. We were both quite amused picturing them slowly disintegrating in the Wellington winds before the three weeks was up, parts floating in the Wellington harbour and the rest strewn all over the city .

So, we feel that we caught intermittent glimpses of what Spring Festival or Chinese New Year means to everyone in our adopted home, but that we did not experience it fully. However, I am not sure how realistic full experience will ever be, given its deep significance and associated tradition for locals.

Anyway, it is over now – let’s see what this year of the rooster brings!



Food is such a reminder that one is in a different country.

On Saturday mornings we head over to the local market, a five to ten minute walk over a footbridge, to buy eggs, meat, vegetables and fruit. These are all fresh and reasonably priced. Pointing works well for communication and we use a mixture of looking at the weighing machine, my understanding of Chinese numbers, and trust, for the payment process.


The range of fruit and vegetables is similar to New Zealand, with some things we don’t recognise. We have set ourselves the challenge of buying something that we can’t recognise each week. Examples are relatively flavourless chive like vegetable, small apple like fruit, and couscous like grain. We also bought what we think are Sichuan peppercorn outsides – the numbing bit. We have only used these once, so nervously that they had no effect, so our NZD2 probably gives us enough to last until we leave. The produce has all been great quality and seems to last better than in New Zealand – maybe because it has not sat in a cool store before purchase. Eggplant is a pleasant surprise. Neither of us liked that much before we arrived, but I was charmed by the blended purple green skin so we bought one and it was delicious – firmer and tastier than in New Zealand, and now a weekly purchase for us. There seems to be some seasonal variation. Last weekend was the first time we had seen the small apple like things, and they were everywhere. So I am looking forward to what will pop up next.

Our first visit, we were nervous of buying the meat which sits or hangs in the warm air as below – disconcerting for those of us used to meat cooled in plastic. But we have suffered no ill effects, so now purchase freely. Another kiwi who goes to the market with us, said that a meat inspector friend of his assessed local meat handling practices and concluded that anything purchased before 10am should be fine. The main difference between us and locals is that we buy chicken breasts and chunks of pork without bones, rather than whole chickens, ducks, rabbits, or pork with bones. We also choose to walk past containers with cow stomach, chicken feet, and other parts we are not even sure of, and the live turtles, squid, eels, fowl etc. And we do not ask for our meat to be chopped up into little pieces including bones. Our kiwi friend bought pork spare ribs, and had to stop the vendor chopping them up.

Each week at the market, we also try a local cooked delicacy, with mixed results. The least popular was a ginger fudge look alike that turned out to be cough lolly flavoured. (Small aside, our new toothpaste is bubble gum flavoured with a lingering cough-lolly aftertaste.) My favourite, from our first week, was a ‘birds nest’ type snack, grated deep fried starchy thing with unknown green vegetable and corn threaded through it, but we have not managed to find that vendor again.

The next level of ease are things we can buy within walking distance. We use the local convenience store, right next to where we live, for milk and yoghurt (drink). Last weekend we discovered a supermarket on the way to the market. This has some of what we need – washing powder, butter, chocolate, brie and camembert.

A 30 minute bus ride away is the supermarket we know best. Here we have bought teabags and coffee, bread (sweet), bacon, German sausages, peanut butter, honey, vinegar, salt, pepper, oregano, pasta, cleaning products, and, once we could find them, glad wrap and toiletries. Cereals are limited compared to western countries, but we are both low demand, creatures of habit for breakfast. Raymond is spoilt for choice for rolled oats which locals obviously consume, and I found a nice muesli in the foreign foods section.

For baking, it has been more difficult. I could find many different brands of flour, eventually opting for the one that said multiple purpose in English. I could have bought special dumpling flour. But we have relied on a Chengdu-based foreign foods website that offers same day delivery of foreign foods to purchase other baking ingredients – baking powder, cocoa, sugar and powdered sugar. We haven’t baked anything yet, but wanted to feel we could.

In New Zealand, stir fry and omelettes were our standard evening meals and they are easy to do here. It is hard to cook if I want to follow an online recipe. I decided to try spare ribs given our friend’s positive experience, but struggled to find the required sauce ingredients within walking distance. I selected a recipe with beer in because I knew we had that, replaced barbecue sauce with tomato sauce, paprika with ‘red hot pepper powder’ (similar looking, different tasting), and threw in a random five spice packet that seemed the only western type flavouring in the super market. And then I burnt them anyway.

Then, there are many other supermarkets, each with some things but not others. Each westerner we meet recommends a speciality from another place. We are yet to build a picture of which supermarket has what and is easy to get to and then get into a routine of where to shop for what. I found paprika yesterday in yet another supermarket, along with a cake tin. I have invited several other non-working wives for morning tea next week – let’s hope the cake is better than the ribs.

We have eaten out a bit, but still have much to explore. There are many restaurants near us, but we have tended to socialise with others further afield (often for a kiwi or Australian get-together). So our only nearby experience has been a wonderful dumpling place, where my fledgling Chinese proved useful. Generally, the Chinese food has been delicious. We are already finding favourites – kung pao chicken for Raymond. We rely on pictures to select, which works well most of the time. I was fooled by the intestines looking lovely dotted between vegetables. We tried one of the local delicacies – Sichuan hot pot. You order meat and vegetables to dip into heated spicy oil or broth, and then have a blend of garlic, coriander, sesame oil to dip it into for extra flavour once cooked. Yummy, and fun in that fondue, cook your own meal, kind of way. The local who was with us, was surprised at our limited tastes – no to intestines, stomach and testes – and said she therefore can’t introduce us to her favourite local delicacy.

I feel like our food journey has just begun, so I am sure I will come back to this topic.