Cracks Wide Open: China’s Chengdu, a disaster tourism destination

Curated memories of the 2008 earthquake come alive in the Chinese town of Chengdu, a disaster tourism destination

Updated: March 23, 2014 11:09:55 am
In Memoriam: The Xuankou Secondary School in Chengdu. (Express Photo: Ritu Sarin) In Memoriam: The Xuankou Secondary School in Chengdu. (Express Photo: Ritu Sarin)

The air in Chengdu is fresh and the cherry blossoms are in full bloom in this city of spicy gastronomy, which is also famous as the land of  the Giant Panda, and now, disaster tourism. Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province, which was struck by the 2008 earthquake that left almost 70,000 people dead. Five years on, the Chinese government has made the area a showpiece of restoration and reconstruction with over five million homes being either fully or partially rebuilt. Chinese tour operators also run packed two-hour “earthquake trips” daily from Chengdu to the epicenter of the Sichuan earthquake, a town called Yingxiu.

Surrounded by rolling hills, Yingxiu town resembles a bustling tourist spot with visitors walking through a maze of newly-built homes, and villagers hawking handicrafts and shawls. The marketplace leads to the Wenchuan earthquake memorial and the Xuankou Secondary School, where memories of the disaster come alive.The school was among the hundreds in the province flattened by the earthquake but, perhaps, because of its picturesque topography, was left as a reinforced collapsed structure — complete with pancaked classrooms — to merge with the sombre memorial section of the town. The school lost 55 students and teachers in the 8.0-magnitude earthquake and several bodies of children remain buried under the debris.

There is impressive post-earthquake development even in the rural suburbs of Chengdu. For instance, there is a tiny village called Wugui in Cuiyuehu town, where surrounded by mustard fields, blocks of new multi-storeyed residences have sprung up for the rehabilitated farmers.
For almost a week after the May 2008 earthquake, the people of  Dujiangyan had no communication with the outside world. Now, we spot Shao Bin busy tending to his fields with his wife, Liu Yunxia. The couple was among those whose homes were completely destroyed.

In the courtyard of the next farmhouse, we find elderly couples busy playing Mahjong, a favorite pastime of the Chinese. A short distance from the village are markets dotted with the famous Chengdu tea houses and restaurants, which serve the Sichuan “hot pot”, a signature dish of the region in which uncooked meats, and vegetables are dipped into a bowl of bobbing chilly peppers and chilly peppers and left on boil for a few minutes. It is advisable to check the meats on the table — for they could be frog legs or a platter of duck tongues or a simple shrimp paste.

The Sichuan province and Chengdu, in particular, is being projected as the new Chinese hub for innovation and software development. Chengdu is described as the new Silicon Valley and not without reason — of the 500 Fortune companies, over 150 have their offices here. IBM, Maersk, Cisco and Alibaba, among others, have either set up a research or production unit in Chengdu’s Tianfu Software Park. As Li Wan Peng, the founder of a software company located in the Tianfu Sortware Park, says, the companies which had moved from Chengdu to Beijing and Shanghai are all returning home.

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