The following report from a South China Morning Post journalist describes how a bunch of people got together and made it to the cut-off town Yingxiu, at the epicenter of the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in the Sichuan province.
These people trekked to the town despite dangers and against warnings, for different reasons, showing human’s compassion and perseverance in the face of calamity and difficulties.
Journey into the quake’s heart of darkness
May 17, 2008
Choi Chi-yuk was among the first journalists to reach Yingxiu at the epicentre of the Sichuan earthquake. In his second report, he describes the 49km trek to ground zero
As the group I am travelling with makes its way towards the heart of the disaster, fleeing refugees warn us of the conditions ahead and urge us to turn back.
“Please listen to me. Give up this idea of going there. It’s too dangerous,” a young man in his 20s yelled at us. “Rocks of all sizes are falling from the mountains. On the other side of the road is the cliff. You would have no place to hide if there is a landslide. Stop this madness now and turn back.”
Another man, his head still bandaged, chimed in. “The place has been running out of food and water since Monday. People are fighting for everything. It is a complete chaos. You’d have no place to sleep even if you do get there,” he warned.
My heart sank and my mouth ran dry. A young woman, whom we met on the road and was trying desperately to reach her family who lived at the epicentre at Wenchuan in Sichuan, turned pale and sat down on the ground in despair. She buried her face in her hands and wept quietly.
A long silence followed but when the woman looked up again, there was renewed resolution in her eyes.
“I will go! Even if this is a rush to death, I want to die together with my family,” she said.
Her brave words lifted our hearts, and nodding to each other, the five of us pushed on.
We were strangers coming from different parts of China and from all walks of life, but all eager to reach Wenchuan.
No news had come out from the epicentre since the quake struck on Monday. All roads leading to the county were destroyed or blocked by rocks.
To find out what was happening to the tens of thousands of people living there, I hiked 49km through the mountains to reach them.
My march began in Dujiangyan , midway between Wenchuan and Chengdu , at 3.30pm on Wednesday. Knowing that food and water would be scarce at the scene, I packed 2 litres of bottled water, two packs of biscuits, a notebook computer and a camera in my bag – more than 6kg in total.
Once on the road, I was joined by others also trying to head to Wenchuan – all of us driven by a different purpose to reach the disaster zone.
Yu Jianjan, a migrant worker in Qingdao , Shandong , rushed back to Sichuan after learning of the quake.
He said his parents, uncle, elder brother and sister-in-law were all living in Wenchuan.
“I have not heard a word from them since the quake. I’m sick of worrying. I must go and find out what happened to them,” Mr Yu said as tears welled in his eyes.
Zhong, a broad-shouldered man with a big bag on his back, told us that he was from Huangshi in the central province of Hubei . He packed up and came to Sichuan once he heard the news.
“I have no friends or relatives here. But I want to do my part to help people in the disaster area. I want to do my bit to help out,” he said. “This bag is full of food and water. I guess this is what is most needed in the area.”
Two girls, both in their 20s, were also members of our team. Liu Jianqin, the less shy of the two, said they were rushing back to see their classmates in Wenchuan.
The girls went to Chengdu with their teacher on Monday, narrowly escaping the disaster. But their fellow schoolmates were all trapped in Yingxiu.
We soon became friends as we helped each other to hike through the rough mountains. We followed the destroyed road linking Dujiangyan to Yingxiu.
Along the way, rocks tumbled down from the mountain on my right-hand side and crashed into the turgid Min River, sending loud booming echoes across the valley like ominous warnings.
At some sections we saw huge rocks the size of a house blocking our way. Fearing the worst, we quickened our pace despite the fatigue setting in after hours of hard walking.
The road was filled with cracks big enough to swallow up an adult. After sunset, the path would become practically impassable. We were also racing against time to reach Wenchuan before nightfall.
The fatigue, worry and anxiety soon clouded my senses. My mind went blank and I could only focus on the next step.
To keep myself up, I had to tell myself silently that I must make it to Yingxiu as soon as possible.
But I was jolted awake by the first scenes of disaster: bridges broken and scattered across fields; vehicles lying smashed and twisted at the foot of a nearby hill, the dead trapped inside.
The odour of the bodies mixed with the smell of the rotten food spilling from the car. We were so overwhelmed with terror none of us could speak.
Night fell. But to my relief, a bright moon lit our road. Looking up, I offered a silent prayer to the sky.
We came upon a steep slope, with Yingxiu lying just behind. The path was slippery with mud after days of rainfall. Soon we were covered in dirt and sweat, forced to crawl uphill with bare hands.
At 12.30am on Thursday, after nine hours and 45km, I finally reached the outskirt of Yingxiu.
Exhausted but exited, we collapsed on the ground and could not move anymore. With the temperature only a few degrees above zero, we fell into sleep soon.
The rest was tense and brief. At about 1.30am, the ground suddenly shook and everyone jumped up in fear and wonder. At least five more aftershocks followed that night. When dawn arrived, we again set off towards the town centre – which was still 5km ahead.
Carefully navigating the broken rocks, we had to measure each of our steps, while remembering to look up for falling rocks from the hills above.
It was not until 8.30am that I reached downtown Yingxiu. My clothes were soaked with sweat, my legs felt burned by blisters, but I had made it. I was moved by what I saw on the road, and by the care and love my travel companions showed to their family and to each other.