Located in the southern part of Sichuan Basin, about 200 kilometres southeast of Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, Zigong is not yet a popular tour destination, even for the Chinese.
This may in part be the result of the city's reputation as "the salt capital of China.''
Compared with "the capital of kites'' " Weifang, in East China's Shandong Province, or "the capital of flowers'' " Kunming, in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, "salt'' definitely sounds a bit industrial, especially when you add in the fact that Zigong is one of the major industrial cities in Sichuan.
However, Zigong offers visitors more than just salt.
With a history of salt production stretching back more than 2,000 years, Zigong had one of the country's earliest salt wells.
The Dagong Well was opened during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-589). The Shenhai Well, which was more than 1,000 metres deep, was said to be the deepest well in the world at one time, before it caved in in 1835.
At present, the towering timber derricks of some salt wells opened during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) can still be seen near the city from the expressway running between Chengdu and Chongqing.
A two-day stay in Zigong will give visitors an opportunity to grasp something of the city's rich history, which intertwines both salt production and trade.
All of the glories of the city's salt industry are displayed in the Zigong Salt Industry Historical Museum.
The museum is not only the country's only museum concerned with salt production; it is also housed in one of the best-preserved guild hall complexes in western China.
Known as the Xiqing Guild Hall, it is located next to the densely forested Longfeng Hills. The complex of traditional buildings stands in stately contrast to the uninspiring modern cement structures near it.
The architectural complex is also known as the Guandi Temple, because Guandi (the God of Wealth) was the major deity enshrined and worshipped in the guild hall. Local people also call it the Shaanxi Temple, because it was built by business people from Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
In the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), businessmen from Shaanxi came to Zigong and made their fortunes in the salt trade.
They donated money to build the guild hall in 1736. The construction took 16 years. The complex was renovated and extended in 1827 and 1828.
The complex of traditional buildings has maintained its original layout. Covering an area of nearly 4,000 square metres, it has halls, pavilions, two-storey side buildings and corridors surrounding five courtyards, which are located along a north-south axis in three architectural units.
The first unit is the front courtyard encircled by the entrance, the front hall, two towers and two side buildings.
The entrance, featuring a four-tiered multi-eaved tiled roof and four wooden columns on stone elephant bases, is the most distinctive structure in the compound. A drum tower and a bell tower stand at the east and west sides of the entrance.
The second unit is a group of buildings centred around the towering Cantian Pavilion, which features a beautifully painted wooden ceiling.
The third unit is made up of a main hall, two side halls and three parallel courtyards separated by whitewashed walls.
There are two fish ponds and stone bridges and groves of bamboo in the two side courtyards. The walls feature dragon-head-shaped water drains. The vividly-shaped heads and black scars left by the rain create the effect of a series of unique Chinese ink-and-wash paintings on the walls.
The three units are constructed on gradually rising terraces moving from the entrance to the main hall. So an impressive view of arching roofs and flying eaves stretching in layers can be seen from the centre of the front courtyard.
Aside from the spectacular entrance and the unique water drains, the guild hall is also known for its large collection of exquisite stone and wood carvings.
Stone carved animals can be seen as ridge-end ornaments on the roofs, column bases in the halls and on the lofty gables and stone railings of the buildings.
Delicate wood carvings can be found everywhere in the compound. The wooden beam connecting the entrance with the drum and bell towers is completely covered with exquisite carving. With a length of 22.3 metres and a width of 6.7 centimetres, it contains 350 vivid figures.
Because the guild hall was used as the local government's headquarters after the founding of New China in 1949 and has since 1959 housed a local museum, it is well preserved and has been put under first-level State protection since 1988.
In addition to the architecture itself, the exhibits of the museum also warrant a closer look.
There visitors can see paintings and pictures about salt production in ancient China, unique ancient well-drilling and repair tools, rebuilt models of the wooden derricks used in different dynasties, and a rebuilt model of the Shenhai Well, giving them an overview of the ancient methods of salt production in the country.
Xianshi Town, on the outskirts of Zigong, also offers testimony to the prosperity of the ancient salt trade.
About 11 kilometres southeast of the city of Zigong, Xianshi is an old town with a history of about 1,400 years. Lying on the eastern bank of the curving Fuxi River, the once important water transport route for well salt produced in Zigong, Xianshi was a booming transportation centre for the salt trade.
In its heyday, the town was packed with salt stores and known for its "four streets, four guesthouses, five temples and three wharves.''
Though the wharves have been long defunct and the prosperity of the town remains only a memory, a few well-preserved residential buildings and temple structures scattered around the town still reveal the former glory of the town.
Passing through a stone archway and entering into the town along a slab-stone paved road, one can easily get a feeling for the old days.
Most of buildings in the town are of traditional wooden structure, with black-tiled roofs, wide eaves, lofty and round gables and white walls framed by black timber columns. Along the road are old-fashion groceries, wine stores, barber shops, snack stands and tea houses. Women from the countryside sell fresh vegetables and fruit from big bamboo baskets and elderly men play cards and mahjong or chat in the teahouses.
The main road of the town passes through a distinctive roofed exit leading to the clear Fuxi River. Along the stream are the remains of the three wharfs.
Visitors might chance upon some women burning "paper (fake) money'' in front of some relief sculptures of Buddha on a rock overlooking the river.
The road leads quickly to three temples of the town, all of which open towards the river.
All that is left of the Chuanzhu (Master of Sichuan) Temple is a courtyard overgrown with weeds. There are still two of the halls of Tianshanggong (Heavenly Palace) Temple left, but they have been turned into a teahouse.
The Jinqiao Temple is the only one of the three still intact.
The layout of the temple is quite different from that of most temples in the country.
It does not have a closed courtyard. Instead, there is a stone lane crossing the central courtyard and passing between the two side buildings of the temple that connects it with nearby residential buildings.
So the temple serves as an open park or centre for the residents who live near it. Children returning home from school pass through the temple ground. Peddlers pass through it carrying bamboo baskets on their shoulders. Elderly women from the neighbourhood chat sitting in the chairs at the side entrances of the temple.
Smoke from joss sticks and candles burning at the temple floats through the neighbourhood.
Sitting in a teahouse outside the temple and beside the lane, one can see the sunset peeking through the side entrance and feel the town's strong atmosphere of religion.
Besides its legacy in salt, Zigong has also one of the largest dinosaur museums in the country. Hundreds of complete dinosaur skeletons and the remains of many prehistoric mammals found in the city over the past 70 years are on exhibit.
With the Chinese Lunar Spring Festival arriving on January 22, the annual Zigong International Lantern Show will open soon.
The festival, held during Spring Festival and featuring colourful lanterns in various shapes, is the largest of its kind in the country.
With lanterns, fireworks, singing and dancing, and a collection of various local snacks, it is actually a carnival.
(China Daily January 9, 2004)