The farmers in Xinkai village were lucky: they were safely in the fields collecting the harvest when the earthquake struck. But when they returned home there was nothing left - just an enormous pile of rubble, five metres deep, incongruously decorated with a wardrobe here, a refrigerator there and clusters of wooden beams sticking out at improbable angles. Since the earthquake struck last Monday, the authorities have understandably focused their rescue efforts on the major towns devastated by the biggest natural disaster to hit China in more than 30 years. Major towns near the epicentre like Beichuan and Hanwang have received a daily convoy of PLA trucks, ambulances, and heavy lifting equipment - all targeted at saving as many lives as possible. Yet locals say that, in the desperate scramble to save urban victims, the vast majority of small towns and villages have been overlooked. 'We didn't receive any food or clean water for two days after the earthquake,' Gao Tianfeng, who lost her newly built home in Xinkai, said. 'We had to send some strong lads to the city to escort a food truck all the way back to the village. That was the only way to get hold of any aid during the first three days.' Between Mianzhu and Hanwang, two of the worst-hit towns, dozens of villages lie totally flattened. 'Our house was levelled. We are too old to rebuild our houses by ourselves, so we will have to rely on the government to bail us out,' 70 year-old Xu Jiaoxiu said. A few Xinkai residents pick at the debris of their former homes, searching for possessions or anything useful to turn into a shelter. Mrs Xu said she had dug a few pillows out of the rubble and was determined to recover a mud-caked television set, the most expensive thing she owned. But most people in the hundreds of villages hit by the quake - too scared to return with the risk of aftershocks - lie huddled by the roadside or in fields under makeshift tents tethered to the beams that once supported their homes. In the lower-lying areas, a handful of nurses bandage wounds - but little help has reached the villages further into the hills. This part of central Sichuan still appears a rural idyll. Butterflies flutter through fresh crops of wheat, dragonflies buzz overhead and villages are criss-crossed by neat, green paddy fields. In Wudu town, a 15-minute walk down the road from Xinkai, birds sing in the trees beside a lake - only last week the beautiful setting enjoyed by Wudu Middle School's 200 pupils. One hundred of those students have been buried or cremated in the past few days, after their school collapsed on top of them. A whiff of disinfectant still hangs over the broken slabs of concrete and twisted metal, three days after the rescue operation at the school was abandoned. School bags, shoes and exercise books filled with neat rows of characters lie abandoned on the ground. Children's clothes are piled in front of what's left of the local temple. In a now common refrain, locals blame corruption for allowing this shoddy 'tofu' building to house their children. At the entrance to Xinkai village, residents have set up a roadblock with a bamboo pole and plastic stools to prevent rotting corpses from being carried into their village. 'We have to check every car because we can't let anything that could pollute our village slip in,' Mrs Gao said. In Beiguocun, another flattened village a few kilometres north, families cook vegetables in their tents, creating a bizarre sense of normalcy against the backdrop of rubble. 'I think I'll have to wait several months to go back to school. All the schools in the town were totally destroyed,' Wang Shan, a 15 year-old pupil at a school in Hanwang, said. Only two children were killed in the small village primary school, which she used to attend. 'We have no idea what to do now,' said her father, smiling stoically. 'It's just too terrible to comprehend.'