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Quake zone is reborn as a tourism hub
The towns of Beichuan, Yingxiu and Shuimo were almost unknown outside Sichuan before the magnitude 8 earthquake that rocked the province three years ago today.
It tore open the earth, flattened buildings and claimed tens of thousands of lives, but the three towns have risen from the ruins to become booming tourism destinations.
Their residents have climbed back to their feet to find themselves thrown into the new way of life.
Tour buses pull over at the car park next to what was Beichuan's county seat. It's now a memorial park, the toppled buildings preserved to remember the quake and the deceased. Nearly 20,000 people died when the quake hit Beichuan.
Individuals and tour groups wander in silence among the debris and tilted buildings, More than 1,000 people have visited the Beichuan park every day since it opened a year ago, a park guide says.
Just a few minutes away, Maoershi village, where most residents were members of the Qiang ethnic minority, has been rebuilt with almost identical Qiang-style villas, their ground floors modified to become souvenir shops or restaurants.
And 23 kilometres away, in Anchang township, the new centre of Beichuan county, a 70,000 square metre pedestrianised market street with three-storey Qiang-style buildings opened last month. More than 200 shops, from food outlets to jewellery stores, have set up there and 4,000 jobs are expected to be created.
Government funds, donations and projects supported by Shandong province, which was chosen to help rebuild Beichuan, have sparked rapid urbanisation of the old Qiang autonomous county, with urban planning advice from the mainland's top experts.
Tourism has been named the county's pillar industry in its five-year plan, and it's a business that is changing residents' lives.
Wang Chengyi used to do odd jobs in Jiangsu, but he returned to Maoershi two years ago to open a Qiang-style restaurant with his brother. It takes up the entire ground floor of their three-storey home and can easily accommodate tour groups of more than 60 people.
'Honestly life is easier after the quake,' Wang said. 'I don't need to go out working for others.'
Wang said he earned 6,000 to 8,000 yuan (HK$7,176 to HK$9,568) a month and that was about average for the more than 20 restaurants now run by villagers.
In Yingxiu, the epicentre of the quake, about half the 18,000 residents were killed.
Rows of villas have now been built, with shops on the ground floor. The rubble has been cleared from the old town centre and the area turned into a riverside park, with just a flagpole and the main entrance of the old primary school preserved.
The rebuilding of the Baihua Bridge, Yingxiu's only overland link to the outside world, which was destroyed in the quake, means the provincial capital Chengdu is just 90 minutes drive away.
Chilangcuo, a Tibetan woman who used to work as a tour guide on nearby Mount Qingcheng, returned to Yingxiu and opened a souvenir shop on the ground floor of her 100 square metre house. She paid 16,000 yuan of her own money for the 300,000 yuan house and borrowed another 20,000 yuan from a bank, with the rest coming from various levels of government and donations.
She said she also used to pick caterpillar fungus, a valuable traditional medicine, on the mountain but sometimes she would return empty handed.
'Now we don't need to pay rent and we have 40 to 50 customers a day,' she said. 'I live in the house with my husband and my 11-year-old daughter. Life is good and stable now.
'But those who lost their families still feel bitterness in their hearts, even though life has improved.'
In the small town of Shuimo, 10 kilometres from Yingxiu, visitors are met with wooden Qiang-style buildings with exquisitely tiled roofs and stores selling various Qiang handicrafts along its winding stone alleys.
An investment of 130 million yuan saw 170 homes erected for more than 300 families, and Shuimo turned into a tourism town.
Dong Lingzhi, 20, returned to Shuimo to become a tour guide after studying e-commerce in Mianyang. She dresses in traditional Qiang costume and high heels, answering tourist's questions and offering her services for guided tours.
Dong spends her evenings enjoying traditional Qiang music and dancing with friends.
'Whenever I see pictures of the earthquake I still feel sadness and sorrow in my heart,' she said. 'More than 300 people died in this small town. But we also need to move on.
'The town has never been so beautiful. It used to be full of shabby, small buildings. It's a good start.'
Tang Dahui, 50, has given up farming to run a shop in Leigu township, close to the old Beichuan county seat, selling Qiang-style embroidery, scarves and silver jewellery.
'Farming is hard,' she said. 'Now that tourists keep coming in I can make money more easily. Sometimes business is good, sometimes bad, but I can make at least 500 yuan a month.'
However, some farms have had to make way for reconstruction work.
Tang Chunmei's family were given a new 140 square metre apartment in Beichuan as compensation for the loss of their land, plus 120,000 yuan in cash. But with two children, one aged two and the other 12, she says she feels huge pressure.
'I will find a boarding school for my children in September and we will go to find jobs in the south,' she said. 'I will probably work as a waitress. We don't have land now so we have to earn our own wages.'
A villager in Shuimo township, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, said villagers had not received promised compensation for giving up land for a new highway.
'We had more than [6,000 square metres] of land in my family and I'm counting on the money to pay back the money we borrowed for rebuilding our house,' he said. 'It has been delayed since August 2008. I know the whole village has yet to be awarded the compensation.'
Living far from the busy streets, he does not benefit from tourism.
'We live in new houses but life is still not easy,' he said.
Those who lost their families still feel bitterness in their hearts, even though life has improved Chilangcuo, a former mountain guide who now runs a souvenir shop
This many new homes have been built in the quake zone, the National Development and Reform Commission said this week: 2.1m