Primary school students take a Chinese class in a tent in Tashkurgan Tajik autonomous county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. (Zou Hong / China Daily)
Although it is the middle of summer, Baygenmu Hanjar is already being awakened by the cold at least once a night as the temperature begins to fall on the Pamir Plateau in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Baygenmu, 68, has been living in a disaster relief tent since her house in the village of Waerxidie collapsed on May 11 during a magnitude-5.5 earthquake that rocked Tashkurgan Tajik autonomous county in Kashar prefecture, the home of people from the Tajik ethnic group.
The temblor struck at 5:58 am, when most people were asleep. Eight people died and 31 were injured, according to the local government. More than 4,750 houses were destroyed, and about 80 percent of the county's population of more than 33,000 has been affected.
About 800 livestock perished, and the county government estimates that the direct economic loss amounts to 800 million yuan (US$118 million). Last year, the county, officially designated as poverty-stricken, generated GDP of just 670 million yuan.
"Winter will come soon on the Pamir Plateau. It has already started snowing in the mountainous areas," Baygenmu said as she leaned on the wooden door frame of her old house in Waerxidie, near Tashkurgan, the county seat. The door frame is the only visible sign of the stone-and-mud house that took the family years to build. Even the low stone wall that is traditional around Tajik dwellings has disappeared.
At a June 6 meeting to discuss reconstruction projects for Tashkurgan, the Xinjiang government pledged to build new, earthquake-resistant houses for all the families that lost their homes, and to ensure that they can move in by the end of August, before the harshest cold starts to arrive.
Sitting at an altitude of 3,090 meters, Tashkurgan, close to China's borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, is also known as "the town of stones". Large and small stones are scattered across the nearby Gobi Desert and buried in the grassland. The locals have been using the stones, which they believe can actually grow, to build houses for thousands of years.
The county landmark is the remains of a Puli Kingdom fortress, initially built with the stones during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220). The ruins, which stand on a small hill, escaped damage in the earthquake.
Baygenmu's tent is situated in a temporary settlement for Waerxidie residents, established the day after the quake. Although no one from the village was badly injured, 14 families lost their homes and are now living in the tent village. It's one of 12 such sites across Tashkurgan, all equipped with kitchens and medical centers.
Baygenmu said that it was lucky her family was staying away from home when the quake struck: "Thankfully, I spent the night at a relative's house not far away. The house shook so badly that I was very frightened. However, there wasn't a single crack in the walls because it's one of those earthquake-resistant houses."
As a quake-prone region, Xinjiang introduced a project to construct earthquake-resistant houses in 2004, aiming to make all rural dwellings stronger and safer.
Children play outside tents which serve as classrooms in a temporary settlement in Quzgun village, Tashkurgan Tajik autonomous county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. (Zou Hong / China Daily)
The project, funded by the central and regional governments, has significantly reduced casualty numbers during severe quakes, according to Hu Weihua, an expert with the Xinjiang Seismological Bureau.
In Tashkurgan, some villagers have already moved into the new dwellings, made of masonry and concrete, while others, such as Baygenmu, are on the waiting list.
When she rushed back to her house the morning after the quake, the first things Baygenmu dug from the rubble were quilts decorated with traditional Tajik embroidery.
"The embroidery is all done by hand. The quilts and embroidery techniques are passed down through the generations. They are very precious to Tajiks," said Baygenmu, who is using the quilts to decorate her tent and keep the family warm at night.
Even though relief workers have provided extra blankets, Baygenmu and the other displaced villagers were worried that they may have to spend the winter in unheated tents.
The winter deadline means construction work is in full swing. Everyone knows it is a battle against time, bad weather and the altitude, because it is impossible for the work to continue during the long, cold months on the Pamir Plateau.
The People's Liberation Army unit based in the county has been called in to help, deploying military trucks to transport bricks from Kashgar city, about 300 kilometers away, to different construction sites where uneven surfaces have been leveled and the stones have been removed.
Although Baygenmu wanted her new house to be built in the same place as her old one, the local government has chosen to relocate Waerxidie to ensure the villagers' safety. What is left of the old village now sits on a seismic fracture created by the earthquake.
Baygenmu Hanjar takes a break from searching through the rubble of her house in Waerxidie village, Tashkurgan. (Photo provided to China Daily)
"The damage caused by the quake was quite severe because of the new fracture line, which resulted in the collapse of the old stone houses which had no earthquake-proof features," said Hu, from the seismological bureau.
The biggest reconstruction project is being undertaken in Quzgun village, the epicenter of the earthquake. All the casualties were residents of Quzgun, 15 km from Tashkurgan, the county seat. Now, about 220 households need new, safer homes.
The local kindergarten is one of the few buildings still standing, despite the large cracks in its walls. A 6-year-old boy who attended the kindergarten was killed in the quake.
"Alimjan was found buried under a wall that collapsed on him as he slept. There was a large section across his back," said Azmugul Abdulayim, one of the teachers.
The kindergarten reopened the day after the quake in two tents situated in a temporary settlement for Quzgun residents. The teachers brought the children's favorite slide from the damaged kindergarten.
"The smiles and laughter of our 20 children definitely lifted the spirits of many people who were still in shock, including me," Azmugul said.
At first, she and other teachers didn't want to break the bad news to the other children, but many asked why Alimjan wasn't with them anymore.
"We decided to tell them that Alimjan has become a star in the sky and he will look out for them from above," Azmugul said, her voice trembling with emotion.
'A special therapist'
The kindergarten has recently welcomed a "special therapist", said Azmugul, pointing at a dog with thick brown fur who was sitting at the entrance of a tent while children played inside.
Two women carry a traditional embroidered Tajik quilt at the temporary settlement in Quzgun. (Photo provided to China Daily)
The dog belongs to the family of Zandik Magulik. Every morning he accompanies the 5-year-old student to the kindergarten and then waits quietly outside the tent until the afternoon, when Zandik returns to his temporary home, according to Alimjan, who has been surprised by the dog's behavior.
"The children love to pat and even ride him during breaks, and he just lets them," she said. "It's as though he wants to do something to comfort them. He's a very good therapist," she said.
In addition to tents, the local government has also set up a number of yurts in the temporary settlements. Tajiks are familiar with the circular structures because they live in them when they move to their summer pastures in the mountains to herd sheep and yaks.
Baygenmu is eager to move into her new house, and she has already started embroidering more quilts to decorate the family's new home.
"I will still build a stone wall, though. Some habits are hard to change," she said.
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