We got up very early to catch one of the first buses to Zigong. When we arrived, we took a taxi to the train station, bought sleeper tickets for Kunming and looked for the left luggage, but couldn’t find it anywhere. The station was very small. A guard saw us wandering round and beckoned for us to follow him. He led us out of the station to a public toilet, where a stooped, toothless old lady had living quarters between the two blocks. She shuffled up and gestured to her bedroom, where we deposited our bags, paid her and received a small wooden token in exchange. I am not quite sure why, but we had the feeling this might be the safest left luggage deposit of our trip so far.
We spotted a street-side hotpot café that was packed with locals and decided to stop for lunch. The menu consisted of a tick sheet of a list of ingredients written in Chinese. We had no clue, so a waitress led me into the kitchen so I could point at things! The staff were very excited to see us and one girl took a photo of me! I avoided the suspicious looking innards and chose beef slices, pea leaves, other types of greenery and dumplings. Our broth already contained barley and red dates and was soon bubbling away with the additional ingredients. We were in charge of the spiciness this time, so we could be easy on ourselves in preparation for the night on a train! Each table was supplied with a dish of gwadzerr (sunflower seeds), but being slow westerners, we didn’t manage to finish them. The lady thought it funny we hadn’t got through them and emptied them into a bag for us, adding an extra handful for good measure to send us on our way.
We then had to make a difficult decision. Dinosaur museum, or the deepest salt well in the world? I think my six year old self would have been very disappointed in me, but we opted for Shenhai well, as we had never seen a salt well before and we needed to satisfy our curiosity! It was a tiny museum, but fascinating. It was constructed in 1835 by traditional percussion drilling and is the deepest such well to have been made using this technique. It is over 1001.42m deep! I love how they have to put ‘over’ in there, as if the .42 isn’t accurate enough already! There was a huge tower made of bamboo and branches bound with twine, which resembled the scaffolding of a giant wigwam. The tower housed a pulley system that stretched across the yard to where an electric motor drove a wheel which lowered the rope into the well. Adjacent to the motor was the original set up – a huge wooden wheel set horizontally which used to be driven by two teams of men jumping on and off a treadle, and later was driven by buffalo. They mechanised the action in recent years to increase efficiency. The well itself was tiny to look at – a mere 22cm in diameter. The mine is still used to produce salt, and at intervals during our visit, a bell would ring and we were able to watch the process. In true Chinese style, one visitor walked up to the well, peered down it and then spat, just in front of it, so that everyone else who came to look at the well was confronted by his little pile of gob. Nice! We have visited several Chinese tourist attractions with signs that say, ‘please do not spit everywhere’, and this was a little lesson in why this is necessary.
To draw brine from the well, a metal pipe is lowered by rope. As it has to travel 2km, it takes quite a long time to reach the bottom and then surface again! Now the process is electric, it is a matter of minutes; before this it used to take half an hour! There is a valve inside the pipe and a metal hook is used to release the brine into a bucket. It gushes out and is funnelled via tubes (which used to be made of bamboo) into another barn where the salt is extracted. They obtain three types of brine from the well – black brine, yellow brine and rock brine. I never knew it came in different types anyway! Natural gas is a useful by-product and is used as fuel in the extraction barn. They had a selection of tools that were used to perform various tasks at the bottom of the well; for instance, one that is used to grasp objects that have fallen down. It reminded me a bit of endoscopy, only without the camera! There were also the tools that were used to drill the well. As the rocks were broken up by the drill, fresh water would be added to make the debris into mud, which could be siphoned off.
Lastly, we visited the salt extraction room. This was in a beautiful wooden barn, with a high ceiling. Before us were numerous squat vats of bubbling brine, each heated by natural gas fires, from which rose a curtain of steam. The edges of each container were encrusted with salt crystals. It felt a little like we had stepped into a potions lesson at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, although the atmosphere was somewhat more laid back than a class with Professor Snape; the men in charge of the process were relaxing in deckchairs in the middle of the room. Behind us there was a stack of salt sacks; the salt from this well is highly prized and renowned for its flavour. In order to ensure the salt is of the best possible quality, pure water and crushed soy beans are added to the brine. The soy absorbs any impurities, leaving a yellow layer on the surface, which can then be skimmed off. All in all, it was an enjoyable, but rather unconventional tourist attraction, and we left feeling like well-seasoned travellers.
Our final stop of the day was the Wangye Temple teahouse, an amazing 100 year old building on the banks of the Fuxi River and a wonderful place to pass the time. Sichuan is famed for its teahouse culture, and Wangye is thought by many to be the best of the best. The tables both indoors and in the courtyard were full of people, young and old, playing cards, mah-jong and Chinese chess. The rooftop was embellished with beautiful Confucian stone statues, and inside, dark wooden beams, creaking staircases and picturesque balconies enhanced the sense of history. On the opposite bank, there was another temple. The pair had been built to ensure the safe passage of boats carrying salt along the river. We selected a reasonably priced tea (some were really expensive!) and settled ourselves down with our china cups and thermos of hot water to make like the locals and play cards. A quick glance around confirmed that we were the only ones playing the ancient and venerated game of Uno. Luke got a little grumpy because I won nearly every single round, so I had to give him some pro tips.
The tables gradually emptied, and eventually we were the only ones left, so we took our cue to leave and went for a stroll along the river. We were stopped halfway over the bridge by a strange man who spoke good English. He had the strained friendliness of someone who is either trying to sell something or swindle you. The conversation went a little like this:
‘Hello! Where are you from?’
‘Oh! England! You are so beautiful and so handsome! What do you do for a job?’
‘Computer programming.’ – ‘I am a vet – an animal doctor.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I am a doctor for animals. When animals are sick, I try to help them.’
‘This doesn’t make sense.’ ….I tried my best to explain more.
‘Oh. You should learn to communicate better. You SHOULD say you are a doctor for treating animals!’
‘???’ I gave a weak, slightly exasperated smile.
‘You are very beautiful, and you are very handsome.’
‘Er, thanks.’ We shuffled sideways.
‘Do you know god damn? What it means?’
‘It means the Jews betrayed Jesú.’
‘Ah. We don’t say that anyway, it is more of an American phrase.’
‘I know a little about Christianity.’
‘Oh.’ We twiddled our thumbs and glanced about for an escape route.
‘I have an American friend called Michael. Do you know Michael?’
‘No…’ At this point there was an awkward pause.
‘…Okay! Let’s go to the church! The church is just over there; do you want to go for some tea?’
‘Thanks, but no, we just drank a lot of tea and we have a train to catch!’ (It is wonderful when you don’t even have to think of a lie).
‘But you need food first. A café, a burger!’
‘No, we are not hungry.’ Then he turned to Luke:
‘Are you sad?’
‘No, I am happy. Are YOU sad?’
‘Michael is sad.’
‘Oh dear. We really need to catch a taxi so we don’t miss our train!’
He kept trying to restart the conversation, whilst I was waving to cabs and Luke was shaking his hand and pointedly saying it was nice to meet him. Eventually he wandered off and we got into a cab. I think he was probably harmless, but he was very full on and intense and it was a little scary! Thankfully, we were in a public place and I think we didn’t make him cross or upset. Wherever Michael is now, I hope he is happier.
We returned to the toilet block as night was closing in and collected our bags from the elderly lady. We gave her a tip and half a bag full of red dates; she was very pleased with them! Our walk had been cut a little short by having to escape in the taxi, so when we saw a group of women line dancing by the station, we decided to join in. We stood at the back and tried our best to follow the moves. It was good fun, similar to step aerobics minus the step, and predictably, I was terrible at it! I can move in time, but I cannot make my limbs do the things other people want them to do. They are just not disciplined enough, they have their own ideas about how things should be done.
An hour later, we were perched precariously on top bunks of the sleeper train to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in the south of China. We were looking forward to warmer temperatures and being able to shed a few layers.