The city of Chengdu is both deflated and energized
at the same time. Hours of tremors, the lack of a clear picture of the situation,
and nights out on the streets in sleeping bags and tents have left the population
of the city slightly jittery.
On a walk through Chengdu, many residents were eating sunflower seeds and
drinking tea in small groups huddled around a radio. There was a lot of joking
and storytelling going on, but the slightest tremor would make everyone pause
and stare into each others' eyes.
Yesterday when the quake hit, I was in the middle of a shave for a meeting
with the director of sales at Kempinski.
I was supposed to head over there and sell advertisements for the upcoming
Odyssey travel guide for Sichuan. While I sat with my eyes closed and enjoyed
the feel of the straight razor on my neck, the chair began to shake. I looked
askance at the barber; she scowled at me. Both our expressions changed to astonishment
when we realized that the whole building was shaking. I ran out under the entrance
and watched as thousands of people poured screaming into the streets – many
of them in underwear and nighties, having probably just laid down for an afternoon
At the Kempinski, the mood was light but cautious. General manager Fritz Schenkel
addressed his staff, telling them all to go home and asking a few questions
about the government's possible response to the earthquake.
"Will they send an expert over to our building to check out the structural
damage that may have happened?" he asked one of his staff. The man said
he didn't know.
Such a question seemed ludicrous to me at the time, and it turned out to be
tragically so as the day wore on. At first we heard that five kids had died
in Chongqing. Many were surprised at this, as Chongqing is four hours to the
east, much farther away from the epicenter than Chengdu is. Then the news started
Dujiangyan, just an hour north, had a school collapse, and 900
kids were buried beneath the rubble. Deyang
followed. Thousands more dead. School buildings collapsing left and right.
Across the blogosphere and
in the city people began wondering why it was always schools that fell. Then
two ammonia plants collapsed in Shifang
town, burying hundreds and killing dozens more. As the night wore on, the
tremors made us loopy.
The BBC was online with me all night, chatting about the situation and eventually
interviewing me for the radio. I felt silly telling them what I had heard –
all of it secondhand from sources outside of the city or from Xinhua,
the oft-maligned Chinese state media outlet that is doing an admirable job
of reporting the earthquake.
Phones were down all night and messages were not getting through. I had an
easier time speaking with my friends in Portland, Ore., about the quake than
with my good friend Charles Moseley, who had left that day for a motorbike
trip to Dujiangyan. I called him all night, but no answer.
This morning at 7 a.m. I heard from him in an SMS:
"Trapped on Qing Cheng Mountain [near Dujiangyan] during the quake. All
good. Close call."
The damage is extensive. Rail lines across the country are damaged, with
one freight train exploding in Gansu and at least 149 more stranded or blocked
on their way to Chengdu. Wenchuan, the epicenter of the quake, is in the
Tibetan region of Aba. This mountainous region is not easy to travel in under
the best of conditions. Now after the quake and with the rains that have been
falling all night, getting to the epicenter has been very difficult for domestic
Rumors and superstition start creeping into the discourse about now. The fact
that many schools were hit is a premonition of the blame game that will be
played in later weeks. Then there's the proximity to Aba and other Tibetan
areas where protests were held in March and the fact that the two tectonic
plates form a geological shadow of the ethnic borders that separate Han and
Tibetan in the area. Yesterday
was Buddha's birthday. The Olympics are around the corner. There was a
freak snowstorm in February. The cyclone in Myanmar…
I am now sitting with all of my best friends in the Sultan Restaurant run
by Xi'an native Maggie. The quake has brought the residents out into the streets
to discuss their reactions to what happened, what they are doing now, and what
they plan on doing later. They discuss the government's response and listen
to the radio. The foreign community here is doing the same.
There are already politically and economically charged reports hitting the
Net, but for those of us here in Chengdu and I am sure for those who faced
the worst of the quake farther north, it was a terrifying and bonding affair
that we somehow had all "felt coming."
The last few months here have been very strange and divisive. Our friends
in the Chinese community have been tense around us, and the visa lockdown that
began right after the protests has us all on pins and needles. Walking through
the streets of Chengdu today, I put on my thickest Sichuan dialect and chewed
the fat with everyone I saw. It was the strongest feeling of togetherness I
have ever felt in this city. Sometimes it takes divine intervention to remind
us of our own humanity.