Danger & Heartache in China

In a few weeks the latest “Indiana Jones” movie will open at theaters. One of my memories of that series is the big, round boulders that keep careening out of some passageway at the hero, along with his nick-of-time escapes from being crushed. But how about boulders the size of the kitchen table, or your car, coming at you in real life?! Our cousin, John Graham, was in south central China the afternoon of the 7.9 earthquake, and he has an amazing story to tell:

All went well with the 3 night and 4 day trek to Tiger Leaping Gorge in northern Yunnan Province–spectacular with all the beauty of Red River Gorge (except for the deciduous forest’s mossy rocks) in KY and with three times the verticular expanse. The climb out of Tiger Leaping Gorge, with the 3 50-100 step ladders, was breathtaking and sometimes scary.

After returning to Li Jiang from the gorge, we flew to Chengdu in Sichuan Province and met our Chinese friend and guide, Shirley Y****. On Friday May 9, Jim, Shirley, and I went in her little qq mini-compact to the Panda Preserve in Wolong, about 80 km. north of Shirley’s home in Dujiangyan. Dujiangyan is about 60 km. north of Chengdu.

We had a good time taking photos of the pandas in captivity and took the rough road back to Wenchuan where we spent the night in a hotel. The next day we drove west to a Qiang Minority village where we hiked and spent the night in a Qiang B and B. On Monday we drove about 30 km. to Banbao, a Tibetan village. We hiked for several hours, mainly in the higher regions of the mountains. We could see the snow easily from where we were. We had lunch with a Tibetan family in a remote village. On the way down the mountain, the earth quaked and boulders began cascading down on us. This event is what is now known as the Wenchuan Earthquake, the quake’s epicenter. We were all terrified but had the forbearance to take cover under a large, stable rock outcropping. I suffered minor cuts on my left leg. When the main tremors stopped, we ran down the mountain to where we saw a group of Tibetan villagers gathered together. We joined them. They gave me some rice liquer to cleanse my wounds. One gentleman told us that it had been 72 years since an earthquake struck that village.

As evening approached and tremors continued, we made our way to the safest place in the community, the flat area where we and other people had parked our vehicles. Most of the families in that area were gathered there because their homes were damaged and it was the only spot in the area safe from landslides and falling rock. We were given fleece-lined Tibetan robes to keep us warn. There were about 400 villagers there that night along with 100 children from the local elementary school. Some of the men constructed temporary housing with bamboo poles and canvass tarps. No one felt safe in a building because the tremors continued all night. About every 30 minutes we could feel the earth shake. The villagers kept a fire going all night and enough rice was cooked for all of us to have a large bowl.

Jim, Shirley (our Chinese guide and Jim’s old friend from Tarim U.) and I spent the night in Shirley’s mini-compact, a Chinese built QQ. It started raining about 4 Am and kept raining all the next day. The villagers put up enough temporary shelters that everyone was dry. The mood was somber because some of the villagers had been crushed in the quake and we did not know how much longer the aftershocks would last.

About 1 pm police came from a neighboring town to take the foreigners(us) to a safer place. This trip was a bit terrifying because a bulldozer went in front of the police cars opening up the road where people had been killed by landslides the day before. We passed a bus and were told the driver had both legs crushed by a boulder came down on the bus. There was a vehicle where the people had been buried alive. We passed a house where there was a 5 foot diameter hole in the front of the house. A boulder had come down the mountain, passed into the back of the house and out of the front.

After about 45 minutes, we came to LiXian, a small city which had much less destruction because it was further from the epicenter in Wenchuan. All the people had moved out of their apartments and houses here because they feared the aftershocks might collapse them. We spent the night in the QQ. Our guide, Shirley, made arrangements that night with some other people to caravan away from the aftershock zone the next day.

On Wednesday morning after a noodle breakfast in the only restaurant open in Li Xian, we waited for the road to open. The Chinese army was coming in in large caravans from the north with bulldozers and graders opening the road in front of them. When the army convoys got through, we headed north and west on the only road. It was frightening because of the steep precipices of unstable mountains all around us. We drove all day and got out of the earthquake perimeter. We entered into Aba County, Sichuan which is the protected area for the wild panda.

There are dozens of Tibetan villages here which blend organically into the mountains with their brownstone houses, stone towers, and temples. Their fields of corn and wheat are neatly terraced. Their only connection with the main road are narrow foot bridges over the Min He River. We passed below many snow-capped peaks.

At a police check-point, the police, one with an automatic machine gun, asked to see my camera. They did not like my pictures of earthquake damage and asked me to delete my pictures. I accidentally pushed multi-delete and believed I had lost all my great pictures including Tiger Leaping Gorge. I have been told I can retrieve the pictures if I do not take any photos over them. Anyway, the police were satisfied after checking our passports and assigning us to a hotel in Maerkang.

Maerkang is a beautiful mountain town with lots of bicycling and people in native Tibetan clothing. We even had internet and cell phone access here so our families found out for the first time 2 days after the quake that we were still alive. Maerkang was our furthest point north, about 31 degrees. Yesterday, the caravan of 4 cars drove south all day along the Lan Jiang River over rugged mountain roads–most of it was one lane and some of it was mud and gravel. However, the earthquake did not reach here.

Shirley’s QQ had failed before we got to Maerkang so the 3 of us were put in different cars in the caravan which Shirley had organized on Tuesday in Li Xian. We stopped for lunch and had the usual Sichuan hot pot and multi-course meal with lots of rice, noodles, spicy vegetables with bits of beef and pork. We met Shirley’s fiancee and her mother about 4 Pm on the road going south toward Kangding. Shirley’s family lived in Dujiangyan, a small city which had lots of earthquake deaths. Shirley lost 10 close friends. Her parents had to move out of their condo and were camping. Everyone in Dujiangyan is still afraid to return to their homes as of this moment. It was very emotional when Shirley and her mother had a tearful embrace at this wide spot in the road yesterday.

Shirley’s father organized a banquet for us last night in Ya’an at 10 Pm on the last leg of our journey back to Chengdu. Even though we had only met the other people in our caravan 2 days earlier and probably will not ever see them again,

it seemed like all 16 of us at the round table last night were long-time friends. Do you get the picture? Shirley’s parents who were living in a tent, were putting on a feast 200 km.away from their home for people who they didn’t know but who had helped out their daughter. This is the Chinese way-I see it every day.

Shirley’s brother arranged for Jim and me to stay in a 3 star hotel last night in Chengdu. We are at the internet cafe near the hotel. Just 10 minutes ago, people screamed in the cafe and ran outside because they thought they felt a tremor. It was a false scare. Chengdu is on the very outside edge of the earthquake zone and has no major damage. People are still in their homes here.

But of course, everyone is still on edge.

It is with sadness that I send this message since 20,000 people have died in this earthquake and several thousand more are missing. As foreigners, we are not allowed to help with the rescue operations.

For 2 days John’s family here in KY worried and prayed for him; as you can imagine, it was a joyous phone call when he finally got through. If John permits, we will post some of his pictures here later this summer.

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