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Sichuan Earthquake Memorial

November 18, 2011

On the 13 May 2008, at 14:28, for one hundred and eighty seconds, the ground shook and the mountains came down.   Sichuan Province, China, experienced the 21st most devastating earthquake in all of history; an 8.0 magnitude quake in a densely populated area the size of England.  69,195 people died; 18,392 are still reported as missing.  374,643 were injured and over 4 million made homeless.  The impact stretched for hundreds of kilometres; many of the roads at my university are still cracked and splintered from the event; one concrete set of steps has been cracked in half from beginning to end.

The town of Beichuan, most heavily damaged during the quake, has been preserved by the Chinese government as a memorial to the departed.  All the buildings have been left exactly as they were; none of the bodies beneath the rubble have been exhumed.  On Wednesday this week, we went to visit this museum / mausoleum.

The town is located high in the mountains that surround Sichuan Province, and is a two-hour drive from Mianyang by coach.  An uneventful journey, and another grey day.  Mile after mile of featureless, dirty green farmland gradually gave way to foothills, then mountains, their summits lost in the dark clouds so heavy and thick with the threat of rain they gave the impression night was falling, although it was not yet two in the afternoon.

The coach weaved and wound its way through the weirdly steep, grassy peaks that reached out of sight above the roofline of the bus.  We passed enormous water treatment works with bright, red roofs on hangars the size of football pitches, and a small towns make of the same plain, simple buildings seen all over China; their white, tiled surfaces and sharp corners giving the impression of small lego houses jutting out of a pretend landscape.  And then, after cresting one last peak we began to descend and, gazing out of the window at the valley before me I saw the town.

I don’t want to trivialise my experience, or the cold unavoidable reality of what I saw that day, but the only thing in my experience that I can draw comparisons to is an epic, big budget, Hollywood disaster movie.  Entire buildings lay on their sides, at angles, leant up against each other.  Still more lay shattered, or torn in half.  Roads were split and warped; one now pushed up in a hump more than ten feet high, so much so that at first I thought it was a bridge.

To the left of the town was a tunnel cutting through the mountain, with a bridge coming out of it and spanning the fast flowing river towards the town.  Except the bridge was now gone, and the quake had clearly changed the course of a river somewhere behind the mountain as instead of a road, a new river spewed from the tunnel exit and came over the remains of the bridge like a waterfall.  On the other side of the town, the entire side of the mountain had given way and collapsed down in to the town.  Boulders the size of houses lay scattered in a pile like a dropped bag of pebbles.

Everywhere you looked, nature was gradually returning to the mountain and taking back what was once hers.  Birds flew in and out of the broken windows, moss grew on the boulders so they looked like they had been there for centuries, not torn from the mountain but three years ago.  Trees and bushes sprang from the cracks in the ruins and were slowly breaking apart the once smooth road surface beyond the allocated walkways.

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The thing that I remember was the silence, and the emptiness.  Silence and emptiness like nowhere else I’ve seen in China, occupying every space and hanging over the dereliction like a physical force; screaming from the empty, broken windows, with chairs and tables hanging out, the stained curtains still draped across them; or the rickshaws and flattened cars lying strewn across the ground and under the buildings, of  what once was.

Except it wasn’t empty.  The unavoidable facts were that everyone who lay under these piles of rubble and dust were still there, would always be there.  Frozen in time and remembered for the sake of all those who aren’t; nameless and faceless numbers on the news, on the television, who lose their lives to natural disasters every year, all over the world.

Having seen what I saw that day, never again will I watch events such as this on the news with the feeling of detachment so many of us are guilty of.  This mausoleum is not nice, not a fun place to visit; it is difficult and hard, and controversial.  But that is exactly why it’s important.

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From → China, Personal, Travel

2 Comments
  1. I discovered your blog site site on the search engines and check several of your early posts. Always maintain up the very good operate. I recently additional increase Rss to my MSN News Reader. Looking for toward reading much more on your part later on!

  2. Marc Moor permalink

    Beautifully observed & recorded.

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