There have been at least 1,000 aftershocks since Monday afternoon’s earthquake. These aftershocks alone are the equivalent in strength of the only two other earthquakes I’ve experienced, both of which were in Portland, Oregon. When they occur, the whole apartment building shakes and sways slightly. Sometimes a glass will need to be grabbed to prevent it from toppling, sometimes the windows rattle, sometimes they are strong enough to get us up and out the front door to escape the building. Mostly though, they are a kind of background noise, a natural hiccup you grow accustomed to. They pale in comparison to the real thing. Monday’s 7.9 magnitude quake, the epicenter of which was only 55 miles north of here, shook all of China and down to Thailand and Vietnam.
When the earthquake struck, I was in the middle of a martial arts class, practicing Xing Yi Quan (Mind Intent Boxing) at the Qingyang Daoist Temple near the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) school. My teacher, Yang, and friend, fellow student, and translator Zhang Hui, were in the middle of working on the finer points of the various Five Element Fists of Xing Yi. Teacher Yang was instructing me to better coordinate my arms and legs as I move forward, to keep my weight predominantly in my back leg, and to remain relaxed until the last instant, when I should “release (my) power,” or Jing.
There I was, practicing the punch/block combination associated with the Earth Element, when suddenly something changed. At first I thought a jet was flying overhead. Both Teacher Yang and Zhang Hui had puzzled and concerned looks on their faces, and I noticed plaster falling down upon us. We practice in one of the temples, and all at once all three of us beat a hasty path out from under the roof of the temple into the courtyard. There we joined a couple of Chinese and foreign tourists who had a strange combination of happy and perplexed looks on their faces.
We quickly realized we were experiencing an earthquake, as the ground shook back and forth and the temples trembled and swayed. The earth, which we take for granted as being stable and solid, suddenly felt elastic and loose, almost liquid. This was like no other earthquake I’ve ever experienced. It went on for four or five minutes. I thought it was pretty cool, exhilarating really, but also felt right on the line of it becoming less playful and more dangerous. It felt right on the verge of getting really serious, wherein the earth might open up, or the temples might start crashing down upon themselves. We all kind of stood there, riding it out, not sure how it was going to turn out. Cautiously enjoying it. Then, it was over.
Yang is in charge of part of the temple, so he had to go off and check about damages. Zhang Hui and I went and sat down. I sent a text message to Lara to make sure she was alright. Sometimes the magnitude of what you experience is not immediately clear, as Zhang Hui and I sat and waited to see if we would continue class. Soon enough, Yang told us we would continue next time, and we headed out of the temple. I went and retrieved my bike.
Riding home through the streets of Chengdu, the first thing I came across was the hospital across the street, which had been evacuated, and thousands of people were in the parking lot, including patients holding their own IVs. The next major intersection I came to was filled with hundreds of people, simply standing around, having escaped from the surrounding buildings, and wanting to stand far enough away from them in case they collapsed. I rode by the TCM school, and it looked like everything there was alright, with the exception of a lot of people walking around in various states of shock, confusion, and glee.
I rode down one of the tourist streets, which features high priced souvenirs, jewelry, and art works in newly built, old fashioned Chinese buildings. Several had some minor damage, with one in particular having dumped most of its tiled roof onto the street below.
As I rode home, the cities streets were filled with people. Everyone had scrambled outside, and now were standing in the streets and parks, staring back at the buildings they had just fled, in a kind of anticipation and disbelief. All the major intersections were filled with thousands of people.
When I arrived at the gates of our compound at Sichuan Normal University, I ran into some friends, and we traded stories of where we were when the quake hit. One friend, a Peace Corp volunteer who teaches English, was on his way into Wanda Plaza, site of our gym. He said he was on his way in, when hundreds of people came running out, screaming.
I soon received a call from Lara. She told me she was with her students out on the sports field which, following the lead of our Chinese students, we refer to as “the playground.” I rode my bike through the throngs of students milling about campus, arriving at the playground to see thousands of people there. Lara was right at the gate, a welcome sight. We went and joined her students on the field. Lara was giving a Pragmatics lecture when the earthquake hit, on the fourth floor of a rickety old classroom building. They fled out the door as the ceiling began to crumble and fall to the floor and the walls began to crack.
The students on the field were a little spooked, but overall in good spirits. People were sitting in little groups talking, or playing cards. Occasionally an aftershock would rattle the bleacher seats where some students were sitting, and they would run down to the field screaming. Chinese students are prone to screaming.
After spending an hour or so with the students, we decided to venture back to our apartment, get some work, books, and a change of clothes, and to assess the damage. On our way in, Mr. Yang, our boss, warned us to go in and come out very quickly, that it wasn’t safe to be indoors. We took his advice and headed in. Our kitchen was trashed, with broken spice bottles, a smashed press pot, and utensils all over the floor. The ten gallon water dispenser had shifted over two feet on the counter and was on the verge of tipping over. The cabinet was jostled forward, and all the cooking bottles on the fridge had shifted forward a couple of feet. In the living room the book shelf had come about two feet away from the wall, and the pictures and Tibetan artifacts that were on top of it were on the floor. The cabinets in the bedroom had also shifted several feet. All-in-all, not bad. We lost a press pot and a new lamp, but otherwise everything was alright.
We rejoined the people out on the playground, saying hello and checking in with our students and relaxing. I had a Cubs game on my computer I watched, and Lara helped a student who had some questions about her class. We eventually got word that the students were being asked not to return to their dorm rooms, and to sleep on the sports field. Students began walking by with grass mats and blankets.
Upon returning to our apartment, we were told we had a first floor room in the hotel across from our apartment that we should stay in. It was felt this was a safer place for the night than our third floor apartment. We shared the room with our Peace Corp teacher friend and his Chinese girlfriend. We set about sending emails letting people know we were ok. We didn’t get much sleep that night.
It had begun raining around four in the morning. Students scrambled back to the shelter of their dorms, only to turn around and head back to the field when the next aftershock struck. A friend of ours described the waves of students going back and forth between the playground and the dorms, trapped between the rattling of the aftershocks and the downpour of the rain.
The next morning we went back to our apartment and cleaned up. The aftershocks continued throughout the day. Students were being asked to remain outside. We walked around campus, and saw people camped out everywhere: little parks, the playing field, classroom building lobbies, under ping pong tables.
Our building shook pretty fiercely during the quake, but as far as we could tell was not structurally compromised. The outside of the building, the hallway, and our apartment had no apparent cracks. Lara had an over-the-phone job interview to prepare for. I started packing. We are leaving Chengdu in less than a month, and I thought it’d be therapeutic to prepare to leave. That night we slept at home. The aftershocks continued, and for the second night in a row, we didn’t sleep very well.
In the days that followed, the devastation of the earthquake became clear. We now know at least 19,500 have been killed, a number that will surely rise, with 26,000 people still buried and another 14,000 missing. Hundreds of thousands are homeless. Some 400 dams in the region may have been damaged, and could collapse in the coming weeks. In the cities of Guangyuan and Mianyang, located close to the epicenter which was in Wenchuan County, plants which produce nuclear weapons and process plutonium for weapons may have been damaged.
Today for the first time we are starting to feel normal again, less strung out and edgy. We slept twelve hours last night. Three days after the quake I’m still awoken by aftershocks. But as this day has progressed the frequency of the rumblings has decreased. Tonight we are bringing spare blankets, clothes, and non-perishable food to a local establishment which will deliver supplies to the most affected area. It seems the worst is behind us now.