When the 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit southwest China on May 12, 2008, Beichuan county was among the hardest hit. Twenty thousand people died in that county alone. In the county seat, it's believed half the population perished.
Thousands of bodies remain entombed in the rubble of Beichuan. The city is in a deep valley, with mountains on all sides. The force of the earthquake sheared off the sides of those mountains, and the landslides roared straight down onto the city.
The city of Beichuan is abandoned. A fence topped with concertina wire prevents entry. But the ruined city has become a tourist attraction anyway.
When I visited recently, I walked by vendors who line the mountain road, selling earthquake memorabilia. Visitors can buy DVDs of disaster footage taken in the immediate aftermath of the quake: aerial before-and-after photographs of the city, and photo books that the vendors make sure to leave open to the most ghastly image of a half-dozen broken, gray young bodies, buried in the rubble.
I walked away from the haggling and the cameras on tripods, up a narrow dirt path. I climbed past altars where visitors burn incense and candles, past plaques to honor the earthquake dead. Just before I reached the barrier fence, I found Mu Zhenxian, sitting at a low table behind her earthquake wares.
'I Cry Several Times A Day'
Mu Zhenxian trades in images of the earthquake that wiped out much of her family. She lists the casualties.
"My mother, my brother, my daughter, my niece, my grandson: They didn't come out," she says, meaning they're still somewhere down below her overlook, buried in the debris.
All told, she lost 16 extended-family members.
She pulls out one of the laminated photographs she is selling — an aerial view of the ruined city — and points to one spot.
"My daughter is buried here, underneath this building," she tells me. She points to another spot. "My niece was in the elementary school right here."
Mu's granddaughter survived, but she is still hospitalized a year later.
"The government pays the medical bills," Mu explains. "But we have to pay for our living expenses. So I have no choice. That's why I'm here, with this tiny business."
When I ask her if she's bothered by all the noise and the tourists taking photographs of her family's crude burial ground, she nods.
"I cry several times a day," she says. "People ask me to talk about what happened, and whenever I try to tell them, I cry."
Build Safe And Build Fast
The plan is for the old, abandoned Beichuan to be turned into a memorial site and attraction. Tourists will be able to visit a quake museum and walk through the city wreckage.
Old Beichuan is surrounded on all sides by high mountains — beautiful, but lethal in the end.
The new Beichuan will be built on an absolutely flat river plain, 15 miles south. Right now the new site is just a broad, open field stretching away toward the distant mountains.
They cleared away eight villages on this spot to make way for the new city. There is no construction under way. But local officials promise that by the end of 2010, the new Beichuan will be complete: A new city will have risen, with homes for 30,000 people.
From China's top leaders on down, the message to local planners has been clear — build safe, and build fast. Local officials such as Beichuan's deputy county chief, He Wang, are feeling the pressure, both from the government and from locals who are tired of a year spent in temporary housing and are anxious to get into their new homes.
'We Do Feel The Burden Is Heavy'
He, 31, is an architect and urban planner, a graduate of China's top university, Tsinghua. He is charged with designing the new Beichuan.
"All of these expectations have landed on us city planners," he says. "We do feel the burden is heavy and the pressure is quite high."
It says something about the central government's commitment to this project that He has been sent to Beichuan, all the way from Beijing, 1,000 miles away.
He's helping to fill a dramatic leadership vacuum: 400 Beichuan officials were killed in the earthquake, one-quarter of its leaders.
He lists the six qualities that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has insisted must be included in the new Beichuan: safety, livability, the character of the ethnic Qiang people, prosperity, a modern civilization and harmony.
"That's a tall order!" I tell him. "And, do it fast. Do you think you can do it? Are you optimistic?"
He answers with a smile, "Optimistic — and confident."