He Donghong knows the chances of finding his parents alive are slim to none. But five days after the massive mudslides ravaged Zhouqu town in Gansu, he is still digging with shovel, hoe and sticks to clear the avalanche of mud and rocks that buried his parents and their house. 'I know it may be too late to rescue them, but I must find their bodies instead,' the 25-year-old resident of Yueyuan village said. It is not an easy task. Mud as deep as four or five metres, peppered with rocks and debris, seems an impossible obstacle. Even with the help of several friends and relatives from other villages, he has not made much progress in his search. 'But I can't simply leave the bodies of my parents there, deep in the mud like that. Retrieving their bodies will be a great consolation to me,' he said. He, a teacher of Putonghua at a Tibetan middle school in Maqu county a few dozen kilometres away, was lucky to escape the disaster, which buried the entire village of Yueyuan and killed at least 600 people early on Sunday. Only a few dozen people in the village, sitting at the foot of a landslide-prone valley, survived the tragedy. Entire families were buried under their collapsed houses, including many of He's childhood friends. 'When I heard about the mudslides on Sunday shortly after midnight, I made dozens of calls to my parents and everyone I knew in the village, but got hold of only three,' he said. 'They told me the entire village was already gone just minutes after the disaster struck. It was like a bolt from the blue, and I felt a sharp pain and began to worry about my parents,' he said, adding that the houses in the impoverished village were built mostly out of bricks and clay. Like He, survivors of Yueyuan and their relatives, heedless of the danger, rushed back to their demolished homes just hours after the mudslides and began to dig in the deep muck in the hopes of finding their loved ones alive, or at least their bodies. 'It will be the seventh day soon after the disaster struck, and we hope we can find our loved ones, because it is a tradition to hold ceremonies for remembrance and prayer,' another villager said. He noted that many survivors, including himself, could not even find time to obtain basic supplies, such as tents, quilts, food and water, in the first few days after the tragedy. He and dozens of others are living in temporary shelters atop a small hill overlooking the devastated village. 'We don't want to stop searching, and we don't have time to fetch supplies delivered at a government aid centre some 21/2 kilometres away,' He said. But hopes are fading fast, with searing heat and frequent downpours. Not many machines such as bulldozers and excavators are available at the scene to help the desperate searchers because of the poor road and weather conditions. Residents of Sanyangou village, upstream of Yueyuan, said they had been evacuated by authorities early yesterday evening due to concerns about another mudslide. 'It rained heavily at around 5pm today and officials using loudspeakers came to ask us to evacuate to the top of the mountain tonight,' villager Liu Qingping said. Residents of his village, where 20 out of 450 were killed in Sunday's tragedy, had lived in panic for a few nights before finally taking shelter in a small temple on a mountaintop, he said. Five days after the tragedy, the smell of rotting flesh and rubbish mixed with disinfectant was still everywhere in the small town of about 50,000 residents, about one-third of whom are ethnic Tibetans. People burned paper and incense and lit candles at the ruins across the town to mark the deaths of their loved ones. Local people said there had been heavy casualties among Tibetan pupils at several primary boarding schools, but authorities have yet to release figures. There was no news of any extraordinary rescues yesterday, as authorities admitted the chances of finding more survivors were extremely slim and began to warn of the risk of disease outbreaks. Many of the bodies recently retrieved have been barely recognisable, having been buried in the mud and rubble for days. Residents have also begun to worry about their future. 'I heard the central government has promised to give us 20,000 yuan [HK$22,900] per household to rebuild our homes,' said Feng Haijun , another Yueyuan villager whose parents were killed in the mudslides. 'But we've lost everything in the disaster, from our house to clothes. How could that be enough for us?' But He Donghong was more optimistic. 'We will carry on,' he said. 'I've talked with a dozen young people in my village, and we all want to rebuild our homes together right here. We don't want to move to other places, as some experts have suggested, because of concerns over geological hazards. 'We were born and raised here, and we feel we belong here because our parents died here and our ancestors have lived here for generations.'