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Stegosaurs, Salt and Spice

Home to lanterns and fossils, the Sichuan city of Zigong gets a roar of approval for its unusual sites and spicy cuisine

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

The curved eaves of the black roofs at Zigong Salt Industry Museum are reaching for the sky

How does one end up in Zigong? I am not entirely sure, to be honest, but I feel quite lucky I did. It takes at least one missed train - and those are way too easy to miss in China, given all the safety and bureaucratic corridors you have to navigate between entering the train station and sitting down in your seat - followed by scrolling through many sold-out trains on your phone while seated outside of the pleasantly warm Kunming railway station. After all, missed trains can bring surprisingly creative solutions for a trip. 

While Dali, the dreamy mountain city in Yunnan, was my original destination, it seems like it was so for many other travelers, since efforts to find same-day tickets were fruitless. Since I didn’t want to waste a day of my trip in southern China, I turned to Baidu maps and a thick Lonely Planet guidebook to inspect where had railway connections to Kunming, and Zigong, in the neighboring province of Sichuan to the north of Yunnan, was one of the ones that had a good half-chapter dedicated to it. Plus a couple of available tickets for the train leaving in half an hour, which was of the utmost importance. 

Zigong, as one might expect of Sichuan, gets scorching hot and humid in summer. To the extent that it might cloud your judgment and lead to extreme sweating and dizziness when eating Sichuanese food.  

Traveling around China might leave you feeling like you know what to expect in a new town - a Drum Tower, old town street with local nibbles, a temple, and probably a central square with sculptures and some square dancing when the weather allows. Zigong is a rebel town in this equation and while you could unearth a temple, it is certainly not at the top of the list of attractions.  

Dinosaur Museum 
The dinosaur museum is simply the calling card of Zigong. While admittedly not for everyone, when it claims to be “one of a kind”- you just have to go. Zigong Dinosaur Museum was the first such establishment in China and is built upon an excavation site that has one of the largest dinosaur fossil concentrations in the world. Some parts of the site have been left uncovered so you can see the exhibits where they were originally discovered. Zigong shows an example of shaping the city’s message around unique and even slightly quirky concepts. Where else would you be able to visit a dinosaur museum that is shaped like an actual stegosaurus? 

The visit can take up anywhere between a few hours and the majority of the day, depending on how interested in paleontology you are. Highlights include the most complete skull of a carnivorous dinosaur in the world and the most complete stegosaurus skeleton ever discovered on display, which is likely to impress even those who have no clue about paleontology. And if not, the outdoor area with towering mechanic dinosaurs or 3D movie screenings will make for a decent giggle. Just stroll around and play out your version of Jurassic Park. Just do not leave out the snacks which will come in handy while relaxing on one of the outside benches in the shade of a T-Rex. 

After the dinosaur museum, the second point of interest is a salt museum. While it may not sound like an afternoon-well-spent, Zigong Salt Industry Museum is housed in a 280-year-old guildhall for salt merchants that will leave one in awe. The black roofs with arching eaves and dark colors that dominate the interior mixed with the lush greenery of the courtyard maze make the site a fantastic architectural monument even if you choose to miss almost every single salt-related exhibit.  

The salt industry in Zigong dates as far back as 25CE during the Han Dynasty and satisfied the needs of salt for the whole of Sichuan Province.  

With the first two most popular attractions in Zigong being as unusual as they are, I had to add a third one to the mix. While this certainly hints closer to the traditional Chinese culture, it is yet another unique spot in the country.  

Zigong is where the Lantern Festival originated. Nowadays you can also visit lantern festivals and exhibitions in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and other cities in January or February each year.  

Naturally, Zigong had to commemorate this local festival with the presence of Zigong Colored Lantern Park. The park is at its most active during the Lantern Festival -C as well as more expensive to visit ¨C but is open all year round. Colorful lanterns depicting anything from monkeys to palaces and phoenixes can be seen on display depending on the year and season. It goes without saying, definitely save the visit to the lantern park for after sunset. Lantern Park is again one of the must-see spots in China, even if it does not feel like your cup of tea. After all, the rest of the lantern parks you get to see later can only try and keep up with the original. 

Zigong Dinosaur Museum is a protected UNESCO site

Spice Trail 
Locals claim that Zigong’s food is unique even for Sichuan and is crowned the spiciest in the whole province. I would argue with that after indulging in a good Chongqing hotpot, but let me just say that scorching heat paired with Zigong street snacks certainly brings the heat on, so it is best paired with a cold local soda.  

One of my favorites is Langya potatoes, popular all around the streets of Sichuan but is named for a district in a city in Anhui province. Go figure. It is just like the spicy version of curly fries, without the crispiness. The potatoes are lightly stir-fried and then tossed with spring onion, spicy Sichuan chili oil, and sesame. A real treat for carb lovers! 

Other Zigong specialties include dumplings , that are also served in the bed of fiery red oil, or fish dishes. To calm the fire in your mouth after all the chili oil, get a plate of Zigong pickled vegetables, just beware of the pickled chili. And the heat did not stop me from slurping as many bowls of the local spicy noodles as I could.

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