Sichuan earthquake, 10 years on

Struggling to cope in a quake-hit tourist town

Locals in Zhangzha are camped out in tents and worried about how to rebuild their lives

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 7:12pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 8:39pm

Hotel worker Yong Dayu was reading a book in his dormitory when the quake hit on Tuesday night.

He immediately got under the bed and when the tremors stopped he did his best to keep his roommates calm. And then he ran – straight over to the hotel where he works in the tourist town of Zhangzha, to check on his colleagues.

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The town is near the epicentre of the magnitude 7 quake that struck mountainous Jiuzhaigou county, killing at least 23 people and injuring some 431.

Yong said he was much calmer this time compared to nine years ago, when the big one hit. The magnitude 7.9 quake in Wenchuan caused widespread destruction in his Mao county hometown and Yong, like everyone, was panic-stricken.

“I’m more experienced now,” Yong said. “We need to be tough in the face of these natural disasters.”

Sichuan province is particularly prone to earthquakes, including the 2008 calamity that killed at least 69,000 people.

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Back then, Yong recalls spending 20 days camped out in a makeshift tent made of thin plastic on soggy farmland with his family of four, waiting for emergency supplies to arrive.

This week, after moving to Zhangzha just two weeks earlier, it was his colleagues he was worried about. After the quake, they took pillows and blankets from the hotel and put up a makeshift tent on the riverbank, where they spent the night.

It’s now Friday, and the situation is not much better. Many locals are camping in tents. Electricity and water supplies cut out intermittently and sanitation is an issue, with few public toilets available.

Many people are using drinking water to wash their hands and cook. They are surviving on food given to them by restaurant owners before they left town.

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The tourists who normally fill the streets of this town near the popular Jiuzhaigou National Park are gone – tens of thousands of them were evacuated after the quake.

Without them, many of the locals who rely on tourism for their livelihoods are concerned about how they will make ends meet.

One of them is Selangzeren, a 51-year-old Tibetan who owns a guest house in the town. Sitting quietly on the grass near his tent, his eyes bloodshot from a lack of sleep, Selangzeren is consumed with worry.

He borrowed 1 million yuan (US$150,200) in 2015 from a rural cooperative and relatives so that he could build a four-storey home, renting out the first three floors to a guest house operator who split them into 15 rooms. He lived on the top floor with his family.

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Selangzeren estimated he could earn 100,000 yuan in rent in a good year. But the building is badly damaged, and it’s unclear when the tourists will start returning – and he has no idea how he will repay his loan or pay for the rebuilding work.

“Someone asked me, ‘Why don’t you go somewhere else?’” he said. “The fact is, I have nowhere to go. This is my home.”

Not far away, a group of women are making lunch near their tents by the river for anyone who’s hungry. Zeding, a Tibetan woman with a teenage son, pours four big bottles of water into a large pot set over a wood-fired stove, fanning the flames to get it boiling before she adds the noodles.

Nearby, children do their homework on fold-out tables, while a young mother tells a story to the younger ones using plush Peppa Pigs as props.

They are all still catching their breath after the quake. Zeding recalls her narrow escape from the popular theme park in town, Jiuzhai Songcheng Romance Park. Although she works at the local water factory, she was looking after her sister-in-law’s souvenir shop on Tuesday night.

The shop is adjacent to a theatre for tourists where a re-enactment of the 2008 earthquake that uses smoke and sound effects was under way. “When the earthquake happened, I thought someone had pushed the wrong button,” Zeding said. Others watching the performance at the time said they also initially thought the tremors were part of the show.

Tourists watching re-enactment of 2008 Sichuan quake when latest disaster struck

Zeding ran from the shop and was trying to climb over the park wall when a stranger found her. He calmed her down and they took shelter together, eventually finding their way out through a side door. They were some of the first to get out of the park, which was badly damaged in the earthquake. “I couldn’t stop crying and trembling,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.