Six months ago today I was sitting at my desk in Time’s Beijing bureau when the pictures on the walls began to slide eerily. The staff walked down 10 flights of stairs, thinking that even though the earthquake we felt had been mild, there was no sense risking the elevator. I walked to a nearby café, ordered a cup of coffee and asked the cashier if he had felt anything. No, he said, but his father called to say they felt strong tremors in his hometown outside Xi’an. That town is over 500 miles away from Beijing. If they felt it there too, then somewhere in China was badly hit. We soon learned the epicenter was in Sichuan, north of Chengdu. I wrote a short story that afternoon quoting a death toll of 100. Within an hour it had risen to 1,000. Eventually the death toll would reach 87,000.
My colleague Lin Yang and I were on the first plane we could get out. We flew to Chongqing, because the Chengdu airport was closed, then took a terrifying cab ride for several hours to the town of Dujiangyan. It was pouring cold rain, the roads were tangled with rescue vehicles and debris, and in some places it seemed as if every other building had collapsed. An old man appeared in a third-floor window, waiting to be rescued by a crane. Family stood around the collapsed Chinese medicine hospital. One woman had heard calls from her trapped father the night before, she said as workers pried at a slab of concrete with a metal bar, but now she heard nothing. As night fell a bulldozer violently scrapped debris from a toppled apartment building. The workers stopped when it became impossible to see what they were doing in the darkness, but surviving neighbors screamed at them to continue.
We spent the next eight days in the disaster zone witnessing both the tragic—collapsed schools, bodies in the streets, shocked families trudging out of destroyed villages on foot—and the inspiring, like kids, some with fresh stitches, playing in the camps where the homeless were gathered.
Last month we went back to Sichuan to document the recovery. Our full report will be out next week, but today I want to offer some brief observations. A few things stand out when you travel through the area hit by the earthquake. First, there are political slogans everywhere. In May homemade signs with rallying cries like “Fight the earthquake, provide disaster relief” were ubiquitous. Now billboards and buildings are filled with messages thanking the Communist Party, the army and unaffected provinces that provided aid. “Sweat today for a beautiful home tomorrow” is one popular sign.
And people are sweating. The amount of building surpasses anything I’ve seen in this construction-crazed country. Piles of rubble still abound, but piles of new brick are more common. Outside the town of Ya’an we met Luo Guohong, a farmer who moved into a newly rebuilt house on Sept. 16. His village was one of the region’s fastest to rebuild. Luo still seemed worried about the future. The tea farmer received 16,000RMB ($2,350) in government aid, but his costs will be more than 100,000RMB ($14,650). It’s not clear how he will pay it all back. He has a quarter of a hectare in tea trees, which normally brings in 10,000RMB ($1,465) each year. But “we suffered a two-thirds loss in income due to the earthquake,” he says.
Unlike many of his neighbors, Luo has an additional source of money: orchids. He still has a few laminated photos that show him with a little more hair and a big smile standing in front of a lush garden. Behind his house a padlocked greenhouse holds several dozen plants, some which can fetch hundreds of dollars. The greenhouse collapsed in the quake, burying his flowers. But Luo rebuilt the structure, and with care the orchids are now recovering, the green shoots pushing up the ragged brown edges.