12 May 2008, 02:28:01 PM. Wenchuan County (汶川), Sichuan Province (四川), China. A date and time that will be forever etched into the memories of many, especially its survivors. This is the moment when the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake struck. The earthquake can be felt as far as Beijing and Shanghai (both >1,500km away). It will eventually claim the lives of over 69,000 victims and be recorded as the deadliest to hit China since the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake.
The epicenter of the earthquake is in YingXiu (映秀) (map), a small town in the mountainous region of Wenchuan County (汶川). Located approximately 90km from the provincial capital of Chengdu, this small town suffered horrendously. 80% of the town was destroyed, and it lost more than 50% of its populace.
Within the devastated county and barely 30 minutes’ drive away, ShuiMoZhen (水磨镇) (map) also suffered badly, with numerous casualties and much damage to the town’s buildings and infrastructures.
One simply cannot imagine the horror, heartache and suffering that the victims had endured.
Rebuilding from ground zero
On our March-2017 visit to these two towns, much of the damage from the deadly earthquake could no longer be seen, a testament to the reconstruction efforts and the unyielding character of the residents. Since the earthquake, the residents and authority have been re-planning and rebuilding the towns, with a strong focus on improving tourism.
Wenchuan County has long been famous for being home to a few minority ethnic groups (e.g Qiang 羌 and Zang 藏) in Sichuan. Coupled with its often-scenic mountainous backdrop, the region is a renowned tourist magnet, especially for the weekend crowd from nearby cities.
Nowadays, with the reconstruction efforts coming to its tail end, beautiful streets filled both town centres. Buildings bearing the architectural roots of the local populace lined the streets, housing restaurants, hotels, shops and other tourism-centric establishments.
Consequently, tourist started returning, and in numbers too.
Losing a generation
In all the rebuilding, there was one exception.
During the reconstruction planning of YingXiu, it was decided to preserve the post-quake state of a particularly poignant institution, that of the XuanKou Middle School. A ground where the town lost much of its youth.
The earthquake had tragically struck during school time. Thus, as with most other schools in the region, XuanKou Middle School was filled with students and staffs when the ground started moving. The magnitude of the earthquake and the general built of the campuses meant that the students and staffs didn’t have much chance. Most of the campuses in the region were devastated in short time.
XuanKou Middle School, being near to the epicenter, bore the brunt of the force. In no time, all its buildings had either toppled or had their lower floors crashed, except for one. A 5-storey stairway crowned with a lone flagpole flying the nation’s flag was the only structure standing unscathed.
Nature had unleashed its wrath, and with it, YingXiu had lost much of its younger generation.
Remembering the past
These days, the new XuanKou Middle School was rebuilt at another location within town. The former site, Earthquake Relics Site of Xuankou Middle School (映秀镇漩口中学遗址) (map) as it is now known, is converted into a memorial to remember those lost in the tragedy. Most of the campus buildings were left in their post-quake state, to let visitors understanding the sheer destruction of the earthquake and offer a glimpse into the horror that must had been felt by those affected.
A short distance away, atop a gentle hill, is the Memorial Hall of Wenchuan Earthquake Epicenter (汶川特大地震震中纪念馆). The museum host a number of exhibits showing the devastation of the earthquake and information on the subsequent rescue efforts and rebuilding works. A cemetery lies adjacent, serving as the final resting place for many of the town’s victims.
Getting back on its feet
A relatively short drive away, the rebuilt ShuiMoZhen (Shuimo Ancient Town)(map) exhibits less physical memories of the earthquake.
Before the earthquake, the small tourist town was famous for being a cultural and architectural showcase of the Qiang (羌) and Zang (藏) minority ethnic groups. After the rebuilding, it continues to attract many visitors to its tastefully restored old streets.
A river cuts thru the heart of ShuiMoZhen, and most tourism related sites are located west of the river. Here, two stretch of streets (restored in their pre-earthquake splendor) let visitors soak in the atmosphere of traditional Qiang and Zang arts, crafts and cuisines.
Most of the restored buildings in town continue to exhibit the architecture influences of the Qiang and Zang ethnic group, offering plenty of photographic opportunities for the enthusiast. Specifically, the White Tower (of Tibetan Buddhism origin) and Spring Breeze Pavilion (Qiang origin) stands prominently in the middle of the town.
Lost but never forgotten
The decision to refocus towards tourism has to great extent helped both ravaged towns to get back on its feet.
Still, though the atmospheres in the towns nowadays are more tranquil with the influx of tourist, one could still easily sense the presence of grief and bereavement beneath. For towns can be reconstructed and economies rebuilt, but the tragic experience of going thru such calamity and losing those dearest to us is something that one might never fully recover from.
Getting to YingXiu and ShuiMoZhen
By public transport from Chadianzi Passenger (Bus) Station (Chengdu):
– Bus departs daily 07:00, 07:20 and 13:30. ~RMB 26 per pax/way. Approximately 70 minutes.
– Bus departs daily 07:00, 07:20 and 13:30. ~RMB 26-40 per pax/way. Approximately 90 minutes.
*Based on this website. Alternatively, call up a local hotel and enquire about the latest travel info.
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