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Winding mountain road becomes China lifeline

The road leading to the epicenter of Monday's massive Chinese earthquake still wasn't clear of obstacles, but stretches of it have been transformed into major staging areas.
Image: Survivors carry an injured man
Survivors carry an injured man past a billboard reading "Welcome to Wenchuan" displayed along a badly damaged mountain road in Wenchuan County as they leave the earthquake's epicenter on Wednesday.Teh Eng Koon / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The road leading to the epicenter of Monday's massive earthquake still wasn't clear of obstacles, but stretches of it had been transformed into major staging areas. As workers arrived to check the safety of an ancient dam, soldiers and rescue teams massed before heading to remote mountain villages where thousands are believed to be trapped.

Trucks, ambulances and buses full of people and supplies jammed the winding mountain road, which is cracked or cratered in some places and narrows to half a lane in others because of rockslides. Some of the vehicles inching back down the road Wednesday were loaded with dazed passengers -- those who had been strong enough to walk for hours on wooded paths from otherwise inaccessible mountain towns, carrying a few possessions and memories of devastation unlike anything they had ever seen.

"I was able to dig out three people, but there were so many more, calling for help, crying," said Tan Jun Hua of Wenchuan village near the center of the quake, steadying himself on a bus headed down the mountain and glad to be riding after uncounted hours of walking. "It was really horrifying."

As the weather cleared Wednesday, following heavy rains that began Monday, helicopters clattered overhead, delivering aid to places still unreachable by road. State media reported that another 50 miles or so of roadway needed to be cleared before traffic could resume between Wenchuan and Dujiangyan, a city of about 500,000.

'We lost everything'
Still, buses inched down the road, passing lines of makeshift tents hugging the curb. This was the only shelter available for thousands of people whose homes had been demolished by the quake and its aftershocks. Wang Hong, preparing to spend her third night under a tarp on one of a dozen beds arranged in three neat rows, said she did not mind that the rescue workers moving up the road paid little heed to her and her family.

"We were able to rescue ourselves," she said, as she watched a relative trudge down the road with a large kettle full of water from a nearby mountain stream, the only convenient source. Wang said she expected that government aid would arrive soon, after rescuers had been able to aid the seriously injured and recover the thousands of bodies believed to be buried under collapsed buildings in towns all over the mountains.

Others were not so sanguine. Yuan Ming Qiang and his family have been living under a tarp with two other families with no electricity and little food since the quake leveled their homes. "Nobody cares about us," Yuan said. "We lost everything."

The road also snakes past Zipingpu Reservoir, part of an irrigation system that includes a 2,000-year-old dike as well as modern structures. The Ministry of Water Resources said Wednesday that there was minor damage from the quake and that a levee downstream had surface cracks. If the dam system failed, Dujiangyan, which lies below it, "would be swamped," according to a statement posted on the ministry's Web site.

Workers opened the floodgates to reduce water volume and ease pressure on the structure. The heavy rains earlier in the week had swollen the reservoir and contributed to mudslides throughout the region, hampering rescue efforts.

Personal tragedies, false alarms
Up and down the road, one could witness personal tragedies and false alarms.

Soldiers use explosives to clear a road leading to an earthquake-hit village in Dujiangyan, Sichuan province, May 14, 2008. The death toll from China's deadliest earthquake in decades climbed to nearly 15,000 on Wednesday, as officials warned of calamities downstream from broken rivers and dams strained to bursting point. REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA)Aly Song / X01793

Early in the morning, the road was clogged in Dujiangyan when hundreds of people on foot, bicycles and motorbikes wrapped towels over their mouths and headed south after a rumor circulated that a local chemical plant had exploded and released toxic fumes.

Zhou Dexiu, 45, was sitting at one of the many closed gas stations on the road with her husband and 22-year-old daughter, trying to decide whether to return home after being assured by government media that the rumor of fumes was unfounded. She and her daughter each carried two plastic bags full of their most precious possessions. Still shaky after being caught in the quake, Zhou acknowledged being terrified.

Pan Yong, 27, was riding up the road on the back of a friend's motorcycle after having hiked for six hours down the mountain from his village of Shengxi to see if he could get medicine to take home. "No rescue team has reached us yet," he said.

By late afternoon, he decided to head back, even though he had not found any medicine in town. He said he was too anxious to wait and was hopeful that a medical team had arrived in his village.

On the outskirts of Dujiangyan, two women were grieving over a body that had been recovered from the rubble of a strip of shops. The body was wrapped in a white quilt and lay on the sidewalk, the women kneeling on either side, crying. Passersby did not stop.

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.