Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Detour — Cultural sights ahead

Watch out for temples

A statue

And so it was, on Wednesday, April 3, we were about to hit the road for our most spontaneous road trip to date. We were looking forward to bumming around in a new city for a couple of days, and, having been underwhelmed by much of the tourist must-dos in China, we were giving ourselves a break on the culture stuff. Basically, the idea was to find a Zigong beer and 火锅 place and relax.

We lucked into a ride when we asked our boss Sarah for help making hotel reservations, because she’s from Zigong, and Qingming is a major holiday and of course she was going home. When we met her at the car on Wednesday afternoon, she had an idea that she was really excited about. On the way to Zigong, she and Mr. Wang — her husband — could show us a couple of sights. And we could stop in her hometown Fushun County for dinner. And … we could stay the night and she’d take us to Zigong the next morning!

And I said, “Why not! Let’s see what will happen.”

What happened was we kind of got stuck in a loop of hospitality and politeness. But we definitely saw things that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Longchang Ancient Town

Longchang Ancient TownCandy with a hammer

This was our on-the-way stop, a recreated ancient city of Ming- and Qing-style architecture, much like Chengdu’s wide and narrow alleys. At it’s center, however, were 18 original stone gates built in 1696-1887. Each archway commemorated a different thing: A man who lived to be 100 (at a time when the average life span was 40), filial piety, chastity, and so on.

After viewing the gates, Sarah stopped to buy us a snack. The man chiseled off some bits from a big beige pillow covered in sesame seeds and bagged it up for us. We each sampled a small piece — it was sticky and chewy and way better than it looked. “Do you have this in America?” Sarah asked. Peter explained about taffy: that you twist and you pull and pull and twist, demonstrating the action with his hands. Sarah said that was how this was made, with sticky rice. We each took another piece. And another.

Confucius Museum and Buddhist Temple, Fushun County

Outside the Confucius MuseumThe great Kong FuA Buddhist temple in Fushun CountyThe Buddha

Fushun is about a half hour outside Zigong, and “county” in the Chinese sense refers to an area that is smaller than a city, but larger than a village.

In the old part of the county, there is a Confucius museum, that at one time was a real working temple. Faded English placards gave information about the various buildings and halls, some of which were built as early as 1291. It was all very Chinese looking.

The highlight of the museum is the small statue of a naked boy perched atop the Chongsheng Hall. A telescope is set up for viewing, next to a card explaining that the statue was discovered during restoration in 1986, this sort of thing is not traditional and no one really knows why he’s there. Archeological mystery!

Outside the museum, Sarah gave us a quiz: “This building is painted red. Do you know what that means?” We didn’t. “Power,” she said.

We took a taxi over to the Fushun Buddhist temple, which was under construction. We bought tickets and went inside.

This temple evidently receives a lot more love and care. The painting and woodwork are in much better condition than they were at the Confucius museum. The main temple was at the top of the hill — closer to heaven — and housed a Buddha with a thousand arms. There were many monks scuttling around, and there was some significant bell tolling and drumming while we were there. Sarah said that the county’s Buddhists fill the courtyard on holy days.

Zigong Dinosaur Museum

Dinosaur museumThe robot dinos outside the museum

We continued our very thorough tour the next morning. Zigong’s main claim to fame is that it has a ground full of dinosaur fossils. The Zigong Dinosaur Museum is listed in the guidebooks as the thing to do. We had planned on skipping it, but Sarah thought we should go. She and Mr. Wang waited for us outside; they’d seen it many, many times.

The museum is actually a small compound, with a few buildings — one of them itself shaped like a dinosaur — and some outdoor garden spots. One of the latter is filled with large, animatronic dinosaur replicas. They jerk and sway and roar in an endless loop.

All of the most museummy stuff is in one building that also offers dinosaur rides. The coolest thing, however, is the basement replica of an actual fossil excavation.

Sarah was a little surprised that we finished up so quickly — meanwhile, the fact that she and Mr. Wang were sitting outside by the highway never left our minds. “We think it might be for kids,” was Peter’s diplomatic answer when she asked why we were so fast. She smiled and nodded.

Sanghai Salt Well, Zigong

Mining for salt

Zigong’s other big deal is salt. From ancient times, the traders traveled from all over to get some of this valuable mineral. And these days, there are not one but two different institutions wherein one may learn about its production.

Mercifully, we only stopped at the Sanghai Well, which is still in operation. It’s old and it’s deep, and while we were there we watched two sweaty guys shoveling crude salt into boiling tanks and pulling it back out. That has to be the worst job in all museum-dom.

If you like, you can buy some Zigong salt on your way out. We didn’t.