Ghostly ruins are reminder of life that is no longer

Updated: 2011-05-13 07:52

By Erik Nilsson (China Daily)

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Ghostly ruins are reminder of life that is no longer

Hanwang's old town is a ghost town in every sense of the word.

It's not just that the barricaded Wenchuan quake ruins are devoid of human life but not of human bodies. It's also that its post-apocalyptic semblance endows it with a netherworld feel. Hanwang's old town is a place where the silence screams that something evil happened here.

While Sichuan's former provincial tourism officials had announced plans to open the ruins as a tourist attraction, they remain sealed off. The entrance is guarded by police, who man a booth next to slabs of Hanwang's old police headquarters.

Passing the sign outside the iron gate that reads, "Please speak quietly and walk softly out of respect for the dead", is like entering the borderlands of the afterworld.

Hundreds of bodies remain interred in old Hanwang's mutilated buildings, more than 90 percent of which were mauled by the quake, government figures show.

Debris ranges in size and shape from the husks of empty apartments, which loom like giant concrete filing cabinets, to crumbs of concrete that crashed in waves over the centerlines of the streets.

Disembodied stairs spill out of many buildings, dangling from strands of rebar. They jut in various directions like M.C. Escher's impossible staircase illusion paintings. Some sway in the wind.

The top floors of many buildings are now the bottom floors. The bottom floors of others are now the top floors.

Rotting socks draped over the windowsills of the dorms near Dongqi Primary School are among the many artifacts that bear testimony to the lives once lived here.

A banner spanning the entrance of the shattered primary school reads in English, "Time is money. Time is life." Whoever slung the banner likely had little inkling of how directly minutes would translate into survival when rescuers raced against the clock to save students pinned beneath rubble.

Eerier yet is the preschool, where evidence of sudden escape covers everything.

The playground is sprinkled with tiny shoes that flew off little feet running as fast as they could.

Uncapped markers are scattered across half-finished drawings of pandas in an art room. A stack of coloring books cascades down a staircase clogged by a tangle of furniture. Hunks of concrete ceiling are nestled in some cribs of nap rooms in place of the children who escaped their bludgeoning.

Classrooms are strewn with school supplies suddenly abandoned and then rattled by the earthquake like dice in a cup only to remain perfectly still for the three years since. Everything is tinted gray by thick dust that casts it in a faintly Pompeii-like matte.

Cracks stretch like angry spider legs across the walls, yet the building remains mostly intact.

But all that stands of the high school down the street is a single doorway, ironically adorned with the character for good luck (fu). The rest of the structure is a jumble of bricks that vines have started to colonize. No official death toll was released for the high school, but it is known to be high.

While Hanwang's old town has been sealed off since rescue work ended, there are fleeting clues of human activity.

A commemorative wreath hangs from a rack above a heart traced in yellow flowers on the ground next to the high school.

Taped to a lamppost across the street is a 2009 wanted poster, with the mug shots and descriptions of four men allegedly responsible for fatal shootings.

The occasional scrap collector burrows into the jumble to forage for sellable recyclables. An elderly man with a conical straw hat slogs across remnants, hunched beneath a burlap sack made lumpy with shoes.

Chickens and ducks scuttle over a mound of corn poured in the middle of the main street.

A human figure flashes in the doorway of a shack near the fowl, disappearing as suddenly as it emerged - perhaps Hanwang old town's last living resident, appearing as if the ghost of one of its many dead.

China Daily


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