A guidebook writer who was on assignment in China when the 2008 Sichuan earthquake struck, Carolyn B. Heller tries to take comfort in the sights and sounds of daily life.
At 2:28pm on the 12th of May, I'm bumping and winding through the hills of southwest China. I've traveled from the megalopolis of Chongqing to see the intricate giant Buddhas carved into the stone cliffs outside the town of Dazu, just east of Sichuan province. On the rough road back to Dazu, I don't feel anything more than the standard bone–jarring, seat–thumping thuds as the bus rattles over the potholes.
As we pull into Dazu, though, the streets are lined with people, milling around as if they're waiting for something to happen. I'm puzzled. It's the middle of the afternoon, and the whole town seems to be outside. No one looks unhappy, so it doesn't occur to me to worry. Although it later seems absurd, at the time I wonder if it's a festival day. Perhaps everyone is waiting for a parade?
Not until that night, when I return to my hotel in Chongqing and pick up an e–mail message from my mother back in the U.S., do I learn what has happened. "ARE YOU OK?" she worries across the wires. "ARE YOU ANYWHERE NEAR WHERE THE EARTHQUAKE STRUCK?"
I try to get news online, but I can't get any information from inside China. When I attempt to access foreign news sites—the New York Times, the BBC—the articles themselves won't load, so I can see only the headlines. MASSIVE EARTHQUAKE. VILLAGES CRUSHED. THOUSANDS DEAD.
Finally I give up, lie down on the bed, and close my eyes. Then suddenly, it feels as if the room is shaking. I sit up with a start, but everything is still.
Is it too much time riding around on buses that's making me feel like I'm moving? Or is it being alone and far from home as the scale of the disaster begins to sink in? Perhaps it's a kind of mental aftershock, a jittery mix of fear and relief. In the morning, there are reports of real aftershocks across Sichuan but none here in Chongqing.
Definitely Not a Festival
You'd think the sun would know not to shine today, but even at 8am, it's getting steamy. The sidewalk near my hotel is crumbled, littered with piles of stones. I try to remember if it was cracked before the quake, but I'm not sure. Girls in high–heeled sandals step daintily around the shards of tile and rock.
Crowds gather in front of TVs that have been set up along the sidewalks, broadcasting scenes from the quake zone. A woman lies unconscious on a stretcher. Soldiers frantically dig toward a man buried in rubble, only his hand protruding from beneath the rocks. Screaming parents, crazed with panic, are trying to find out if their children are alive. No matter what time I pass by, people are clustered together, mesmerized by the images of destruction.
Volunteers fan out across Chongqing's main plaza, setting up clear plastic donation boxes from the Red Cross. As people line up to contribute bills and coins, you can see piles of currency growing inside. When one woman stuffs a wad of 100 yuan notes into a box, the crowd applauds and whoops.
A huge map of Sichuan province is hung across the plaza. In the center, surrounded by reverberating circles, is "Wenchuan," the town at the epicenter of the quake. A platoon of young nurses, all in crisp white dresses with starched white caps, mill around in front of the banner, snapping photos of each other with their cell phones, before marching off military–style, in a two–by–two line.
When I get online again, acquaintances across China are flooding my in–box: Are you OK? My building was shaking. Where are you? We all ran outside. Is there damage where you are? How bad?
At times like these, no one wants to be alone. We travelers cluster together electronically, just as the people in the street crowd around the TV screens.
I'm supposed to leave Chongqing and travel to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, closer to the epicenter of the quake. But the reports that trickle in from Chengdu aren't good—continuing aftershocks, power cuts, water outages. The trains aren't running; the airport is closed. Thousands of people— terrified that their buildings could collapse—are sleeping outside in the streets and in the parks.
So I wait.
Here in Chongqing, less than 250 miles from Chengdu, everything seems oddly normal. I walk up to the park on Pipa Mountain, where I find a group of men in sleeveless white T–shirts, carrying songbirds in cages. They hang the cages from the trees, and the birds chirp and call, while their owners lounge on benches nearby, sipping green tea from glass thermos bottles.
From folding tables set up in rare shady patches along the sidewalks, the click of mah jong tiles competes with the grinding of bus gears as vehicles labor up Chongqing's hills. The city's bangbang men labor, too, balancing bamboo poles across their shoulders with huge boxes dangling from each end. They run–walk through the streets making their deliveries, knees bent from the weight across their backs.
And in the evening, when the sun goes down and the air loses its sticky daytime heat, older couples still dance in the square outside my hotel, disco–waltzing to the scratchy sounds of an amplified boom box. Life goes on.
Visions of Hell
To escape the city for a day, I take a series of buses to the village of Songji, on the Yangzi River south of Chongqing. I wander the narrow streets, peeking into open doors of the orderly wood–front homes. In one, a housewife is pickling cabbage; in another, an elderly basket weaver is slicing long reeds with a cleaver.
I meet a cheerful older man with surprisingly robust–looking muscles rippling under his turquoise T–shirt. He tells me he's a retired riverboat captain. When I ask about the earthquake, he says it was strong here, but everyone came through OK.
I hike up to the Dongyu Temple, a pale pink concrete complex perched above the river on the edge of town. Inside, a painter is putting the finishing brush strokes on a vividly–hued Buddha statue that stands two stories high. At the Buddha's feet are 12 dioramas, each illustrating, in equally vibrant colors, some vision of hell.
In one, there's impaling. In another, burning alive. In a third, elephants tied to an unfortunate soul's arms and legs are ripping him apart.
Yet none depict this week's hell—the one that crushed and swallowed thousands of men, women, and children. The hell that was the shaking earth.
One Week Later
At 2:28pm on the 19th of May, exactly one week after the earthquake struck, all of China holds a moment of remembrance.
It's not a moment of silence, at least not here in Chongqing. While uniformed department–store employees line up in neat rows on the sidewalk, bowing their heads at a makeshift altar lit with candles, and young people crowd around to capture the moment on their mobile phones, the air–raid sirens begin to blare.
The city buses come to a halt in a long line along Xinyi Street. Then, as the blast of the sirens bouncing off the buildings escalates into a shriek so piercing that the spectators clap their hands over their ears, the bus drivers lay on their horns.
For a full minute, the sirens' wails reverberate in deafening harmony with one long, continuous honk—shaking the city again, but this time only with sound.
Carolyn B. Heller, a contributing author of Lonely Planet's China guide, was on assignment in southwest China when the May 2008 earthquake struck. A freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, she's the author of the new book, Living Abroad in Canada, and has contributed to nearly 50 travel and restaurant guides covering destinations from Asia to New England to the Pacific Northwest. Her travel and food articles have appeared in publications ranging from the Boston Globe to FamilyFun magazine to Travelers' Tales Paris.