Sichuan earthquake

Tourist town eerily quiet as locals assess quake damage

Many in Zhangzha are sleeping in tents, fearing aftershocks

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 August, 2017, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 10:42am

The town of Zhangzha, close to the epicentre of Tuesday night’s earthquake, is usually bustling with tourists, but now the streets are empty.

Most of the tens of thousands of tourists staying in the town when the magnitude 7 quake hit had been evacuated by Thursday, and an eerie quiet had descended.

Security staff restricted entry to the town, while hotels and homes damaged in the quake were deserted, and fish floated belly-up in tanks outside restaurants.

The earthquake struck close to the popular Jiuzhaigou National Park, killing 20 people and injuring 431. Rescue workers are still searching for missing people and rescuing those stranded, local authorities said.

One of Zhangzha’s main tourist attractions, the Jiuzhai Songcheng Romance Park, was sealed off on Thursday, a badly damaged Goddess of Mercy statue seen among the debris.

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Thousands of tourists were at a theatre in the theme park when the earthquake hit – watching a show that told the story of the massive Sichuan quake in 2008.

Many of the audience members said afterwards that they initially thought the shaking was part of the show. The company that stages the show said on Wednesday that one of its employees had died, her body pulled from rubble in an alley just outside the theatre.

For locals in this remote, mountainous region, many of whom are Tibetans, the long road to recovery will be crucial to bringing back the tourists – their lifeline.

Most of them, fearing aftershocks, are sleeping outside for now, somewhere in a sea of blue tents provided by the town authorities. With little access to fresh produce, instant noodles and snacks are staples.

According to Chinese state media, satellite images show no major building collapses or damage near the epicentre of the quake.

But many locals told the South China Morning Post that their homes had been partially or completely destroyed. They include 51-year-old Tibetan Liumeijie, who is staying in a makeshift tent put up near what’s left of his home.

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Liumeijie’s two-storey wood and brick house is missing most of its walls after they collapsed in the quake. He ran from the building barefoot, along with his family, when the tremors started. Now, they’re staying put.

“We need to keep an eye on our home, in case people try to steal from us,” he said.

The family relies on rent of around 2,000 to 3,000 yuan per year paid by taxi drivers who stay at their home when they’re taking tourists around the national park. But with no tourists around, and no drivers, the family’s sole source of income has been cut off.

Another Tibetan, Jie, 44, said it would take a long time to pick up the pieces after the disaster – the most devastating the town had experienced since 1976. The massive magnitude 7.9 earthquake in 2008 hit Wenchuan, about 9 hours’ drive from Zhangzha, inflicting only minor damage on the town.

After Tuesday’s quake, Jie can barely recognise his home – the back walls came down and his car is partially buried under the rubble.

He said he was with his teenage sons in the living room, looking at his mobile phone, when the ground started shaking on Tuesday night and they fled.

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Jie makes a living by collecting rubbish, while his wife is a tour guide in the nearby national park. She was on a bus near the InterContinental hotel when rocks came tumbling down from the mountains, blocking the main road. She survived unscathed, as did the rest of the family, but now – like many others in the area – they are struggling to work out what to do next. “We don’t know how to support the family,” Jie said, as he surveyed the ruins of his home.