SAVING CULTURE: Jia Dehua (middle), a master of Qiang embroidery in Beichuan, Sichuan Province, instructs a local woman to do the traditional embroidery on May 10 (CHEN JIANLI)
Mixed feelings of grief and hope ran through my mind as I took part in a four-day tour of the most devastated areas hit by the great earthquake in Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008.
The first stop on our tour was the original site of Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County, which was completely relocated to a new development area about a 20-minute drive away.
The old county was in a deep valley, with mountains on all sides. The force of the earthquake sheared off the sides of those mountains, and the landslides roared straight down onto the county.
The earthquake-hit area has been completely transformed into a museum as well as a memorial for the May 12 victims. However, according to a local official, few of the original residents come to visit the museum, since they are still too stricken with grief.
Local people told us the specific location of a building can have as much to do with its chances of surviving an earthquake as its structural integrity. For example, we viewed two identical residential buildings just across the street from each other. One had collapsed and was completely reduced to rubble, while the other one stood perfectly adjacent to the street, with only minor damage.
This premise was one of the factors that went into deciding the spot to rebuild the new Beichuan. The new spot is in a much more geographically favorable location, which will improve the new county's earthquake-resistance capability. According to our guide, buildings in new Beichuan are built to fully withstand an 8.0-magnitude quake.
Now on flatter, safer ground, new Beichuan boasts wide, newly paved roads and four distinct districts, a new hospital, a commercial and cultural area and, most impressively, a massive new education complex. It also includes a memorial area.
It was evident how much thought and planning had been put into the construction of the new county, from the thoughtful landscaping surrounding the property to the interior design, from large classrooms providing ample room for students to energy-conserving natural lighting, which was prevalent as we toured the school halls.
In the commercial center of the new county, you could see new signs of retail development starting to creep in. However, as the county's population starts to fill in even more, I expect that the ample space given for commercial development will see results very quickly.
The Dongfang Turbine Co. Ltd., the largest factory of this kind in Asia which had been destroyed by the quake and was deemed irreparable, was also relocated in a less-earthquake prone area closer to Deyang City.
In Jinhua Town in Mianzhu City, as we sampled some of the locally grown food, town officials explained how with the help of the Jiangsu Government, the town had been completely rebuilt in less than two years. In addition, noting the superb mountain location of the town, officials had also developed significant tourism facilities, including inns, restaurants, and even a mountain biking course now frequented by enthusiasts as well as professional athletes.
We also visited the earthquake site and memorial of Shifang City—located in Chuanxindian Town. One of the most staggering images in the town was of a chemical plant, which instantly collapsed following the massive quake three years ago. The heavy emotion surrounding the site brought to mind the extreme hardship that the people of Shifang, as well as dozens of other locations, have had to endure during the last three years.
A brighter note was the Hongbai New Town in Shifang City, not far from Chuanxindian Town. Here, residents were showing off their newly reconstructed homes, which had previously completely collapsed during the earthquake. As was explained by one resident we interviewed, residents were responsible for approximately one third of the rebuilding costs, with the other two thirds provided by the central and local government.
Most residents we talked to were extremely pleased about their new houses, and many unemployed workers were also enlisted to help with the construction, allowing them to gain extra income. The question remains, however, whether these villages and towns will return to their former economic position. Many, if not all, industrial bases in the quake zone have left the area and only some have returned.
We moved on to the Dujiangyan Dam area. Built more than 1,000 years ago, the dam itself only incurred minor damage. But the nearby temple in the accompanying Dujiangyan Scenic Area was devastated. As of our trip, about 85 percent of the temple had been restored, with close attention to detail taken to preserve its historic significance. Teams of workers were busy rebuilding one of the temple building's facades, brick by brick.
The author is an American living in Beijing and working for China Internet Information Center