Reflections from China: Visiting earthquake-wracked Chengdu

'Reflections from China' series

Michelle in ChinaReporter Michelle Baran recently returned from a trip to China to discover how the country was faring with the Summer Olympics approaching. The fourth of her five reports follows.

How does one visit a region where more than 69,000 people have perished in a devastating earthquake? That was the question I had to ask myself on the plane from Beijing to Chengdu.

Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province, where on May 12 an 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck in the northeastern area. Chengdu was relatively unharmed by the earthquake, so I knew I shouldn’t expect to see toppled buildings or rescue workers. But heading to the region, I imagine it felt similar for people visiting New York just after 9/11.

Chinese travelers and what looked like several Western businessmen were on the plane. No tourists.

It’s odd going somewhere for vacation that has just been struck by such incomprehensible devastation. In the 9/11 attacks, 2,752 people died. In the earthquake, 69,195 people (possibly more, as many are still missing) perished, more than 25 times that of 9/11. How does one even begin to wrap her head around that?

ChinaDispatchQuakeIn Chengdu, that realization hit me at the most unexpected moments. I would be going about by business, trying to get a sense of how badly the tourism industry was affected, visiting otherwise uplifting sites like the Chengdu panda research center or the Leshan Giant Buddha. And then I would see a billboard commemorating victims of the earthquake or a line of people waiting to donate blood.

With the language barrier it was difficult to get a sense of how the earthquake had affected people in Sichuan personally, emotionally, psychologically. I asked a hotel worker at the Shangri-La Hotel in Chengdu, where I was staying, if it was safe to visit Mount Emei Shan, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China and a popular tourism destination not far from Chengdu. He laughed and told me it wasn’t a good idea because of the earthquake.

Why was he laughing? Why was that funny? I don’t think he thought it was funny. Maybe he was nervous speaking in English. But it was these odd moments that shaped my limited understanding of what had taken place in these people’s lives.

I thought I should ask someone else about Mount Emei Shan. Somehow, I didn’t trust the information from the laugher. I asked the hotel concierge, one of the most helpful concierges I have ever encountered. He told me it was possible to go, but that it was tricky. He called around and arranged for a private day tour, with driver and tour guide.

My tour guide told me that her salary had been reduced by 40% since the earthquake, and that many of her colleagues in the tourism industry had been let go. She said she had donated all of her savings to quake relief efforts and that she had already been to some of the worst-affected areas three times to volunteer. And even though she was kind of rude and condescending, I gave her and the driver all the cash I had when it came time to say goodbye. It wasn’t much, and I felt guilty about it.

ChinaDispatchPandasBefore coming to the Sichuan region, friends and family asked if I was worried about aftershocks. I jokingly reassured them that I’m from California and know all my “duck-and-cover” drills by heart. But looking out my window on the 21st floor of the lavish Shangri-La, I wasn’t worried about any aftershocks. (I didn’t feel a single one in the two days I was there.) Outside, people traumatized by the earthquake were sleeping in tents.

No, it isn’t easy visiting an area that has seen such devastation. It’s hard to take it all in.

Perhaps ironically, the highlight of my entire trip to China was in Chengdu: the panda research center. The giant panda is considered one of China’s national treasures and after visiting the center I know why.

Watching 10-month-old cubs to full-grown adults munch on bamboo, wrestle and nap in the trees was so much fun, and seeing the locals laughing and enjoying the animals provided a sense of reassurance that the region would recover from this terrible disaster.

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