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Chinese County in Sorrow: the Bereaved Mourn in Beichuan on Quake Anniversary

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Sitting on a rock in the ruins of Beichuan, the hardest-hit place in last May's deadly earthquake, Wang Qingmei, 32, choked back tears in front of her daughter's photo, murmuring her regret again and again.

Characters reading "Xiang Yazi, you are always my darling daughter" were written on the photo. A plate of biscuits, cakes and oranges lay next to the photo, an offering to the dead.

Little Xiang, then a 5-year-old, had begged not to go to kindergarten on May 12 last year so she could stay home and play with a new toy.

"But I sent her to school anyway," Wang said, sobbing. She had promised to bring her daughter back home at noon, but then she and her husband got busy at their clothing store.

At 2:28 p.m., the massive quake struck, triggering landslides that shoved the kindergarten's buildings 50 to 60 meters from their original locations. Most of the school's buildings were buried so deep in the rubble that only parts of their red roofs could be seen.

Wang set off firecrackers Tuesday. Some in China believe the noise of these explosions can summon back the spirits of the dead. But Wang was never able to fulfill her promise to bring her daughter home.

"I was wrong, and I regret it," Wang said.

A rest for mother

A seemingly endless stream of vehicles, carrying tens of thousands of people, lined the narrow road leading to the quake-flattened county seat, the closest major town to the quake's epicenter, on Tuesday. Traffic was so heavy that many had to park by the roadside and proceed on foot.

Xiong Ying, 23, a student at the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, set out from Jiangyou City, another quake-stricken area, before dawn. She drove for four hours, walked for two hours, took a 20-minute bus ride and walked another 90 minutes before reaching the ruins of Beichuan.

"My hometown Jiangyou was also destroyed, so I always feel that I share the feelings of Beichuan residents," Xiong said. "I must come to express my condolences."

People carried bundles of chrysanthemums and paper money to burn for the dead. Some, shocked by the ruins, took photos of twisted buildings and smashed cars.

Burning candles, sticks of incense and the debris of firecrackers were scattered among dilapidated walls and stones.

Wu Youde carefully chose a piece of flat ground, drew a circle with white lime powder and put a yellow, two-story paper house inside it.

The mini house, a meter high, was named Jiuquan Mansion, meaning "house in the nether world." Wu Youde burned it for his wife, who was a doctor in Beichuan before the earthquake.

"Mom worked hard all her life. She deserves a good rest," said son Wu Tao, who followed his mother into medicine.

Wu tearfully hoped his mother would receive the house in heaven and live a relaxed life. Every time Beichuan was opened for public memorials, he came to burn paper items that he thought might be useful to his mother in the afterlife.

The ruins of the county have been reopened four times since the quake: 100 days after the disaster, at Spring Festival in January and again for Tomb-sweeping Festival on April 4. It was reopened on Sunday afternoon as the first anniversary approached.

More than 80 percent of the buildings in Beichuan collapsed during the quake and only 4,000 out of more than 10,000 then living in the county seat survived, according to local authorities.

More than half the county was buried by landslides and declared "unnecessary to be reconstructed", so the local government decided to transform this area into a "quake ruin museum." Some survivors have found business opportunities from it. Stalls selling quake-related videos, photos and embroidery, opened by Beichuan residents, stretched hundreds of meters outside the old county seat.

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