Chengjiang Fossil Site
Chengjiang Fossil Site holds marine fossils from the early Cambrian period, 530 million years ago, when life on Earth rapidly diversified.
A rich number of species has been found within the remains of a complex marine ecosystem. Most of the fossils are that of soft-bodied organisms.
Community Perspective: It’s fairly easily accessible from Kunming, though you have to get a taxi for the last 20km to “Maotianshan”. The surroundings are appreciated more by our reviewers than the site itself, which boasts a basic museum, with a showcase area of the cliffside where the first fossils were discovered but overall without much interpretation.
Map of Chengjiang Fossil SiteLoad map
The Chengjiang Fossil Site comprises preserved fossils of sea creatures that lived in a shallow sea some 530 million years ago. Although it was a shoo-in at the 2012 WHC and IUCN regarded it “an emblematic site for the record of life in the Cambrian period”, it has the questionable honour to be among the 10 lowest-rated WHS on this website. Unfortunately, I could not raise that score. I visited it right after Zuojiang Huashan, which meant two disappointing WHS in a row with a lot of hard travelling in between. It makes one sometimes wonder what the point is of ticking off this kind of sites.
I visited Chengjiang from Kunming. Although the distance is only about 60km, from door to door it took me 3 hours by metro, bus and taxi. And the same amount of time back of course, which turns even the quickest visit into almost a full-day trip. The local taxi driver at Chengjiang bus station knew exactly where to go when I uttered ‘Maotianshan’. He offered to wait as well, obviously knowing that people do not spend lots of time there. The return trip cost me 180 yuan.
It’s a pleasant drive out into the countryside and into the hills. After some 20 minutes, you arrive at the gate of the Geopark. Here the driver had to enter his car details into a list (and probably his personal info as well, as IDs are checked in China all day anywhere). Somewhat further uphill lies the impressive gateway to the fossil site. There even is a parking lot and there are public toilets and a souvenir shop. The people here are obviously ready to receive the high numbers of visitors that come with a WH designation!
From the parking it’s an uphill walk to the area where the first fossils were discovered; it was only as recently as 1984. There is a ticket office as well so they may ask for an entry fee, but it was unmanned when I passed by. Along the way, there are information panels in Chinese and English about the creatures that lived in this sea. The first building you come across is the one that holds the 'first dig site'. It’s an odd semi-circular construction built around a bare cliff. The cliff is just what it is, nothing shows the impact of what was discovered here.
In this area, you walk on a glass floor and below your feet there seem to be many fossils just laying around. After having a closer look at them I believe they are fakes (too white, like gypsum). They do have a few exhibition panels though with real fossils found at the site. They were all tiny animals, much in contrast with the plastic displays also present in the building of how the ancient sea creatures looked like. Apparently, some animals could grow to 2m in length, I wonder if they’ve found complete fossils of these too.
After this building, the path continues uphill to another one, the pretty construction that features in many photos of the site. It is/was the research institute. I found it locked and believe it may not be in use anymore.
Before leaving, my taxi driver suggested taking a look inside the souvenir shop as well. It is remarkably well-stocked with books about the Chengjiang fossils. And to my surprise, I found that they also sell small fossils found in the area. I was tempted to buy one (a real piece of a WHS in my house!), but somehow it did not feel right.
Back in Chengjiang town I directly took the bus back to Kunming. There apparently is a fossil museum in Chengjiang but I did not see it right away and did not have the stamina anymore to go and look for it.
Read more from Els Slots here.
Fossil sites generally mean museum. I see how there is a difference between the fossils and the Earth has a long history, but they are still boring to me. I also don't find them worthy of their inclusion for specific reasons or superlatives. They should be studied, protected, but they are definitely not a tourist attraction. You would have to specialize in this topic to really get into it like a real science geek. What I saw in Canada was kind of interesting. Joggins did the tour, made you search for fossils, told you about it. In Switzerland you get an interactive museum and it kind of tries to suck you into liking what is pretty much just a book in 3D with pictures. Chengjiang does nothing of the sorts. You have to hire a taxi for great costs to get there and even local drivers don't know where it is. I asked for Maotianshan and the driver kind of knew it. Eventually we found a parking lot with an attendant. Entrance is free. Walking up the hill still feels kind of exciting but once you get to the run-down museum you quickly feel like this was not worth it. I did not even take any pictures from the fossil site but instead a video of the nice view from the mountain, and this being a few years ago the phone camera was rather shitty.
So the museum is a few panels and a pile of fossil rocks. I have a feeling this was only built for the ICOMOS visit and they never expect any tourists, or at least they never got this going. I am not surprised the tourists don't bite. Would I visit this knowing all that? Unlikely, very unlikely. Obviously it's not THAT far from Kunming and the day tour included the Stone Forest but it would have to be much cheaper to get a car for the day.
[Visited Chengjiang Fossil Site on Apr. 5, 2018]
Chengjiang Fossil Site was somewhat an easy day trip from Kunming. The metro connectivity from the airport took an hour to Kunming South Passenger Coach Station. There were hourly buses for 18 RMB to Chengjiang County taking another hour via an expressway. And the ease of visiting this WHS stopped upon arriving at bus station. After almost three years from the last review, the situation of going to and of the site itself had not change - still no public transport except hiring a car, taxi or Didi (Chinese Uber for those with no Mandarin knowledge).
There’s Chengjiang Fossil Land Exhibition Hall in front of the bus station but that’s not the main reason to visit. Scrolling at the Didi app, there’s Chengjiang Fossil Site Museum which seemed somewhere near or at the inscribed area - a logical choice to see. The drive would have cost 35 RMB and took about 30 minutes but the driver missed the right turn so we ended up cruising along the banks of Fuxing lake, a nice diversion that I did not mind paying twice the amount.
To my surprise Chengjiang Fossil Site Museum, about 2 km uphill from the resorts construction boom of the Fuxian Lake Scenic Area, was still under construction and likely NOT inside the inscribed area. There’s no return transport from there either. Luckily, the driver was still around and knowing I was a captive market with limited Mandarin skills and no other mode of transport, he asked for a steep 200 RMB price to the dig site. We drove through Maotianshan for 45 minutes and met many dirt-carrying trucks along the way, enough to conclude that phosphate mining is still active outside of the WHS area.
The site to get into the core zone is Chengjiang Fossil Specimen Exhibition (Chinese Academy of Sciences Nanjing Geology and Biology Institute). It had not been manned for ages but it’s still open with free entry. There were other visitors during my visit with around 10 or so families with kids. Major draw for the kids was trying to find some fossil remains on small rocks scattered by the roadside.
Only the “Location of the 1st Chengjiang Fossil Discovered” building was open. It’s a showcase area of the cliffside where first fossils were discovered. Behind a railing but within an arm-reach were visible shale strata and if you look closely see some fossils. Down the glass floor were upturned rocks with trilobite remains, giving an indication of the Cambrian Explosion biota. A diorama on the Cambrian fauna at the opposite wall with information boards mostly in Chinese and some English provided more explanation.
The second building, the trilobite shaped Chinese Academy of Sciences Building, was closed and had not been used for ages. There’s also a stairway to climb up the hill and see more of the surrounding landscape. It seemed to be no more active paleontological digs on the site. One might have wondered that if not for the UNESCO listing, this place might have suffered same fate as its surrounding landscape - a quarry or a mining site.
The area where you might get a sense of the OUV to some degree was small and can be covered in less than an hour. The best thing about it was it’s so unlike most China WHS where they had made a theme park-like experience. As most of the finds where already moved somewhere else, it’s difficult to see any value add on the site visit aside from ticking a WHS site - or unless you carry an axe and start looking for fossils! Apart from the few easily distinguishable trilobite remains, I was not able to see the variety of well-preserved soft bodied specimens that made the area a universal interest.
This was one of those travels where the journey was more memorable than the destination. It has one of the highest cost to pay-off ratio in my WHS travel so far too. All in all, I paid over 400 RMB for local logistics including another 150 RMB for the car ride back to the bus station with the same driver whom I asked to wait for 30 mins.
If you're planning a visit to the core zone, go directly to Chengjiang Fossil Specimen Exhibition (Chinese Academy of Sciences Nanjing Geology and Biology Institute) [in photo] and NOT to the museum. I did wonder why they built the museum far away from dig site. It might be due to WHS regulation or maybe they just wanted it closer to the tourist resorts.
I just visited the site yesterday from Kunming. Due to road works had to take another route which took 2 hours by car. The parking was deserted, with 2 people there, one from a shop and the other for cleaning? No entrance fee to be paid and the entrance office looked like it was not manned in a long time. The building of the first dig was open to see. with background information. The signs on the road to main building had great information. Main building closed and looking through some windows it looked like it hadn't been open for a long time. everything very deserted. The person from the shop guaranteed had no key (offered money). with my best Chinese understood something parts had moved to Nanjing? but i cannot confirm this.
HOwever, i do not regret going. after went to Fuxian lake for a nice lunch.
on my site see photo's, GPS map and little more info.
Read more from Chris here.
Thanks Thomas, your review was extremaly helpful to reach the site from Kunming. Currently (November-December 2012) the situation changed a bit as there is an entry fee to visit the museum - exhibition (20 Yuan, which is not bad comparing to other places in China). Once you are there insist on opening the place of initial fossil's finding, photo attached (it is in the separate pavilion, usually closed, so you should ask the girls in the museum to open it for you, no additional fee required as this is part of exhibition).
Of course as a not-at-all Chinese speaking person I did not manage to get as good price for a motorbike as it was stated (For me that was 100 Yuan, I guess normal price for a 3-4 hours journey, that's the time you'll probably devote in the site).
The whole place is interesting, not well known by people in Chengjiang town (there are no signs of the site in the town)
Thomas Derek Hudgins
I'm currently living in Kunming, so was able to make this a relatively easily day trip (June 27, 2012). I took a cab to Kunming's Southern Bus Station (Nanbu qiche keyun zhan) and from there purchased a bus ticket to Chengjiang (17 kuai). I was the only Westerner on the small bus, though some teenagers on it knew some relatively advanced English and were thrilled to have an opportunity to speak it. Upon arrival at the Chengjiang bus station, three small tri-wheeled taxis argued over getting to take me to Maotianshan (Hat Sky Mountain), the central area of the Chenjiang Fossil Site. I was able to negotiate the initial quote of 100 kuai down to 75 kuai for the 22 kilometer trip with ease. My Chinese is only intermediate, but I think the taxi I took was the only one of the three who knew where Maotianshan was. This may change if Chengjiang receives World Heritage status next week.
The ride up to Maotianshan was beautiful, passing through two farmland areas and two parts of Chengjiang city. The taxi, which, like the others, was an open-doored box with two benches facing each other, had some difficulties getting up Maotianshan, and I had to shift benches to help balance my weight. My taxi driver was incredibly friendly and (unprompted) stopped at a streetside vendor to get me lunch. As we went up the mountain and into the protected area, I could see some phosphate mining and signs of old, now reforested mines.
Upon reaching Maotianshan, the taxi pulled into an empty parking lot beside the road. I quickly asked him to wait, and he agreed to stay for three hours. In the back of the parking lot are some high-quality Western-style bathrooms, as well as some picnic benches and a few signs in both Chinese and English. Next to the parking lot is what appears to be a gate. No one was manning it when I went, and I did not have to pay an entrance fee. However, there may be one if someone is manning the gate. On the other side of the gate is a flat, winding, paved trail of about a third of a mile that ends at the main museum. Lining the path are a variety of signs, all but one of which are in Chinese and English. Pay close attention to these signs, as there are no English translations in the museum. Also, the pyramid-shaped signs have information on all four sides, even if the back side seems difficult to access. Before the main museum, the trail passes a building marking the site of the discovery of the first fossil at Chengjiang (Misszhouia longicaudata, a trilobite). The building was locked and curtained, but from what I could see it may have an exhibit on the history of Maotianshan itself. The trail also passed several exposed cliffs, which, based on the building marking the first discovery, probably show the Chengjiang lagerstätte, though they were unmarked other than a warning to stay on the path.
At the end of the trail is a truly fascinating building, apparently designed to look like one of the Cambrian creatures. It has a nice garden outside, which includes a nice view of the surrounding area, including some terraces and, in the distance, Fuxian Lake. The museum was open, though the girls working there had to turn on the lights in the display room. Though small, it was obvious some money had been spent to make it a state-of-the-art museum. About a hundred fossils from Chengjiang are on display, with labels including the scientific names. There is a lot of information above each display, but other than one news article (worth reading) it is all in Chinese. I would recommend researching what creatures have been found at Chengjiang to maximize the value of the experience. Highlights include Fuxianhuia, one of the earliest insects, Yunnanozoon, likely a very early chordate, and Anomalocalis, an early predator. The display cases are well-made, with magnifying glass inserts in most of them. There also is a tunnel decorated with images of Cambrian life, a giant model of Anomalocalis, and a large section of rock with fossils highlighted by spotlights. There were also two televisions, but they were turned off.
As you leave the museum, there is a cement staircase on your right. This leads up the hill and above the museum, providing good views. However, it is unclear if this is actually open to the public. After my cabbie returned me to the Chengjiang bus station, my total bill for travel to and fro Maotianshan and him waiting for three hours was 80 kuai. However, I think he may have given me a deal, and it may cost more for others; my RA thought having the driver wait would cost between 150 and 300 kuai.
Altogether, the museum was very good and easily worth the three-hour trip (from getting a cab near Cuihu Park for the bus station to arriving at Maotianshan). While the site itself is not as impressive as, say, Joggins, I was unable to go into the building marking the first discovery, so my impression may be incomplete. I also could see some of the lagerstätte; however, like most fossil sites, it is what it contains that is more significant and magnificent than actually looking at it. No other tourists were present throughout my three hours, so it was nice to have the place to myself. The surrounding countryside, though recently replanted, was gorgeous, as was the view of the surrounding mountains and Fuxian Lake. Well worth a day trip, and if you get there early enough you may be able to tie in a trip to the lake itself.
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