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Earthquake tourism lures the curious, the callous and the genuinely concerned

A CLOSE but callous friend called last October to invite me to join an "earthquake tourist group" to Sichuan Province, rocked by a devastating magnitude-8.0 earthquake just five months previous.

For the first time in our 10-year friendship, I hung up on him.

"How could you think of having fun in the ruins where people have lost their families and friends?" I later rebuked him through SMS.

To me, disaster tourism is taking one's pleasure and satisfying morbid curiosity at the expense of others, gawking at their misery and loss and at Mother Nature's cruelty.

I couldn't believe that these insensitive people were just getting together for a fun "self-organized" trip to the area where around 70,000 people died in the May 12 quake.

But on May 4, I was sent to the area to report during the first anniversary of the temblor. I was awed and moved - this is important for people to see - but I still don't like the idea of aftermath tourists.

We visited heavily damaged Dujiangyan City, totally devastated Beichuan County and remote Qingchuan County.

We only missed the epicenter Wenchuan County because the road to the area had been closed at midnight on May 10 for fear the wave of tourists would actually crush the narrow road rebuilt and reinforced after the earthquake.

As soon as I returned to Shanghai 10 days later, I called up the friend who had invited me on the jaunt to the ravaged land.

"You were right. Everyone should visit these ruins and relics. It's not just another natural disaster that we will forget down the road," I apologized (sort of). Still, I did found it distasteful that people would rush there so soon after the quake to satisfy what seemed like invasive and unseemly curiosity about the horror.

Over the 10 days I spent there, I couldn't help thinking about how it must have been for the people at 2:28pm on May 12 last year. I couldn't possibly imagine.

Beichuan County (a Qiang minority area) became a national household name overnight - the entire county town was reduced to rubble, one-third of the Beichuan High School students died, many survivors were handicapped.

The entire county seat will be relocated because the site is too dangerous to permit rebuilding. The new town is 20 minutes' drive away.

The area was open for four days around May 12 for Beichuan locals to mourn. That was the first time that more than 200,000 outsiders - tourists - visited. I visited twice in that period.

New museum

On the day before it officially opened, I hiked there with a volunteer friend who carried food and medicine from Mianyang to Beichuan. It took us more than three hours on difficult mountain roads. After the quake roads were blocked by landslides, volunteers hiked a whole night to reach the county town, while rocks tumbled toward them.

Seen from the hills about, it's a shattered ghost town, with fewer than 10 buildings standing in the rubble.

All of Beichuan County in the epicenter is expected to become an "earthquake museum," and there won't be much renovation or building outside the town because the ground is so unstable.

Another large bricks-and-mortar museum, a private one, opened on May 11 at 2:28pm in Dayi County, an hour's drive from Chengdu. It was built in Anren Town by Sichuan native Fan Jianchuan, whose specialty is museums of all kinds, from antique furniture to memorabilia of soldiers.

The earthquake museum is his 20th and latest. It's the only one of his museums that is free. It can handle around 2,000 visitors a day, and by 9am on May 11 all 2,000 tickets had been claimed.

The idea of the museum is to present a visual diary of the earthquake covering one month from May 12 to June 12.

It's effective and shocking.

A large old-fashioned standing clock retrieved from the ruins is stopped at exactly 2:28pm. It's next to the replica of a collapsed house that Fan's museum team photographed on its expedition to collect exhibition materials and information on May 13.

Their exploration lasted a month. Their first exhibition of around 5,000 items opened on June 12.

The museum contains more than 30 exhibition halls devoted to personal diaries, photographs, "relics" like children's shoes, the science of earthquakes, commissioned earthquake artworks, art by survivors and many other issues.

The most popular exhibition is a miracle quake survivor pig, now living in a small pigsty outside the museum. He lived for 36 days under farm rubble. His weight had dropped to under 50 kilograms when he was rescued, but he's now up to a healthy 200 kilograms.

Celebrity swine

The pig is the only living exhibit. He's called Zhu Jiangqiang, zhu meaning pig and jianqiang strong will.

He was renowned nationwide and online, voted first by Internet users (in jest) among the "Ten Most Touching Animals in China" in 2008. A gold medal hangs outside his "room."

The celebrity swine is accustomed by now to fanfare and only shifts occasionally as tourists surround him and pat his back.

I came away from my quake visit with a view of Sichuan that was not the positive pictures on TV and in newspapers every day, with smiling faces and headlines such as "New and better life for quake victims."

But it also was not as negative as the dark picture that's painted online about problems and shady deals to cash in on the quake and the rebuilding.

An old Chinese saying goes: "Taking the road up to Sichuan is even more difficult than the road to the sky." The message: be prepared.

Sichuan is hard going in the best of times. It's rocky, mountainous and dangerous and people have to be rugged to live there; they have had a reputation for toughness since ancient times.

That saying is true today and my earthquake visit was rough, but more mentally and emotionally than physically.

When I landed at the capital airport in Chengdu, I worried what I should say when I met a quake survivor. Would they feel offended if I asked how they felt or would it be too painful for them if I asked what those horrible days were like?

Most people in quake-hit areas have gone back to "normal" life, at least on the surface - they go about their business. But life without loved ones or friends can never be normal.

They live in temporary communities before the government-financed housing is completed. Middle-aged workers get together for a drink or tea after work. Students play basketball after doing homework. Older people sit in the communities or in tea houses chatting and playing mahjong, which is very popular throughout the province.

Every now and then the emotional aftershocks are visible. It's quite obvious that most people, especially those who have suffered deeply, are sensitive to and wary of outsiders - tourists and media.

We were also spotted by locals as we entered a village or tea house; many people asked if we were earthquake tourists. Our speech set us apart - Sichuan is full of dialects.

A volunteer told me that all the survivors have undergone too many interviews and questions over the past year.

"For you, it's the first time, but it could be the 100th time they answer the same old question that brings back painful memories."

But he also encouraged me to chat with locals "to show sincere concern because that's what they really need - care, not naive curiosity."

I stopped worrying and just chatted naturally, expressing my sympathy and regret that I hadn't gone as a volunteer last year. They returned my concern and in some cases the survivors even comforted me when I couldn't stop crying.


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