Field Notes

Hiking Into the Heart of China's Quake Zone

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 20, 2008; Page A14

XIAOBA, China, May 20 -- The path began in a cornfield here, then headed straight up the mountain. After spending two days interviewing refugees from Chaping in Beichuan county, in a valley on the mountain's back side, my assistant and I packed five bottles of water each into our day packs, threw in a few snacks and set out on a hike to see the quake-ravaged town for ourselves.

We had tried this two days before but had been blocked by Red Cross volunteers and armed police. But at 6:30 a.m. Monday morning, there was no one here to say no.

The Red Cross had evacuated Saturday night, after their team leader got an emergency warning on his pager that a nearby dam was about to burst and ordered an immediate pullout.

"Run for your lives!" one volunteer yelled that night as he grabbed his gear and ran to the road. Uncertain what was happening, but, frankly, a little rattled, we packed our tent and bugged out, too. The road to Xiaoba runs through a narrow valley. If the dam did collapse, we would have no way to escape.

Our intrepid driver took along some Red Cross volunteers, and we headed to a military field hospital about 90 minutes away, where quake survivors were being treated in tents. After a few minutes there, I was told that having a foreigner on the grounds was making the army nervous, so we left and spent the night sleeping in our car.

The dam warning proved to be a false alarm, so we headed back to Xiaoba on Sunday, arriving too late to start a hike we were told would take anywhere from 12 to 20 hours round-trip. That kind of imprecision has been the norm for reporting here, where it's often unclear who is in charge and where people are getting their information. We were told that bodies were lying everywhere in Chaping, that nothing was left of the town, that two volunteer rescue workers had been killed in a landslide. To get the story, we had to see for ourselves.

My assistant, Liu Liu, and I worked Sunday interviewing refugees and volunteers in Xiaoba and spent the night in our tent in a local refugee camp, along with thousands of others. People were friendly, and the camp was well-organized. Volunteers worked into the night erecting tents for new arrivals and passing out supplies, while scratchy loudspeakers blared the latest news and announcements.

On Monday morning at the mountain's base, there were just four of us: me, Liu Liu, a villager from the outskirts of Chaping and a little white dog. We set off together. The villager and the dog -- whom I nicknamed Jia You, a standard Chinese cheer, roughly meaning "Go, go, go!" -- were much more adept at scaling the mountain than Liu Liu and I were, but somehow we were able to keep up. The trail was mostly either straight up or straight down, and at a few points people had affixed ropes to help pull hikers across landslide areas or up particularly tricky ascents.

Along the path, we met dozens of villagers coming from Chaping, some carrying loved ones on their backs and others hunched under what looked to be impossibly heavy loads in large bamboo baskets. One man carried two live chickens, tied by their feet and hanging upside down from a long pole resting on his shoulder. My own shoulders ached from just the weight of the water bottles. As the people of Chaping passed, I was awed at their stamina and sure-footedness, even with the weights they were carrying, the tragic losses they had suffered and the uncertainty of their future.

We reached Chaping in about 5 1/2 hours and were eager to interview whomever we could, document the devastation and head back over the mountain before nightfall. The dog stuck with us all the way, and we began to rely on him as a guide. He seemed to know how to get everywhere we wanted to go.

We left town around 3:30 p.m. and after an hour or so met up with some soldiers who had also hiked up the mountain Monday morning. They had each carried more than 60 pounds of food supplies to Chaping and were now headed back. We tagged along with them for a while and soon were met by other soldiers, police and volunteers. In normal times, Chinese soldiers and Washington Post reporters hang in very different crowds. But we helped each other now. We had the only flashlight in the group; they had extra water.

The dog led us to shortcuts, and we made it down as night fell, around 9 p.m. We couldn't take Jia You with us, so we said goodbye and left him to guide the next day's travelers over the mountain.

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