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Mountain paradise of forests, waterfalls is now a mass grave

May 20, 2008|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

LONGMEN SHAN, CHINA — This mountainside was long a slice of paradise, where city dwellers escaped the summer heat and wedding parties posed for photos against the backdrop of primal forests and romantic waterfalls.

Now, Longmen Shan, or Dragon's Gate Mountain, is just another mass grave.

A week after China's worst natural disaster in 30 years, no one knows for sure how many people died here in this mountain resort town -- or where their bodies are.

In one scenic section of a winding road once dotted with country inns and hillside restaurants, nothing is left but a fresh mount of giant rocks that had crashed down.

Buried underneath, locals say, are residents, tourists and members of a wedding banquet with hundreds of guests.

"There are no survivors here," said Zhang Zhongliang, pointing at the huge swath of earth where there is no sign of life.

Chen Zhongchun had walked for hours on this treacherous road, between precipices and unstable boulders.

His 23-year-old son had traveled here on May 12 with co-workers from a Chengdu computer company on a two-day holiday. They had just gotten out of the tour bus when the earth began to shake and the hillsides came roaring down to swallow everything in their path.

"There were 15 of them, all of them are gone," said the father as he strained to hold back tears. With the rest of the road impassible, he had no choice but to turn back without finding his son's body.

The few residents looking for missing relatives and lost belongings waited on the side of the road as Chinese soldiers cleared boulders with giant bulldozers.

In a week of relentless search and rescue, the military has relocated thousands of people and dug out hundreds of bodies here. Most of the bodies had to be buried on the spot because of the difficulty of transporting them.

Chen Bangyue, 34, said her family put all its savings into constructing a row of four-story inns five years ago. When the quake hit, her father and two employees were taking naps. They were buried by the avalanche.

"This place has a spectacular view, great weather and feels like a natural oxygen spa," she said. "But in a split second we lost everything."

Cao Yun, 19, said the tourism business was booming in the area and her family had just bought 50 chickens, four pigs and a horse.

"We had to leave them behind and let fate take care of them," Cao said.

Along the route down from the mountain, hundreds of businesses with names such as Forest Dream and Nine Peaks of Heaven lay crumbled through the valley.

At the foot of the hills, a wedding photographer begged soldiers to go back into the tourist area. She believed that two dozen of her colleagues and a group of newlyweds who went to have their pictures taken near a temple were still trapped, though she didn't know whether they were alive.

"An air force officer told me he had just searched through that area and buried all the bodies they could find," said Wu Yi, a colleague. "He doesn't think there is anyone else up there alive."

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chingching.ni@latimes.com

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