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Race against time to save relics
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Soldiers carry a stone monument out of Bao'en Temple yesterday.

Captain Wu Hongyu's mission yesterday was to move thousands of historical relics out of the "Forbidden City Deep In The Mountains" - another appellation for the 600-year-old Bao'en Temple, which was devastated by the earthquake on May 12.

The mission took the team of 45 soldiers from a Jinan-based cannon battalion more than three hours to accomplish.

Wu was carefully counting removed relics in a tent lying in the open square by the temple.

"We moved more than 3,200 historical relics out of the small hall today," Wu told China Daily.

Tianwangdian (Hall of the Heavenly King) is one of Bao'en Temple's six halls.

Located behind the Daxiongbaodian - the "Grand Hall", or "Hall of Mahavira" - Tianwangdian's structure was severely damaged in the disaster.

Wu's team had to act quickly to remove the precious artifacts from the building, which was in danger of collapse.

"Nobody knows if or when the small hall will collapse, because the aftershocks never stopped; they are especially bad between 2 pm and 5 pm every day," he said, adding he held his breath every time he saw his colleagues rush into the building.

The heaviness of many of the relics made the task more difficult. In addition to nearly 3,000 books and written works, the temple contained more than 200 large, heavy artifacts, such as Buddha josses, stone sculptures and monuments.

The soldiers had to exercise extreme care when handling these items. They couldn't use tools in the removals, because they might damage the rare relics.

On several occasions, Wu had to send four or more soldiers to carry a single monument. However, he was happy the Grand Hall survived the quake.

The "Forbidden City Deep In The Mountains'" moniker came from the fact that the Ming Dynasty temple, completed in 1440, was built as a small-scale replica of Beijing's Forbidden City.

The temple has endured many mighty earthquakes over the years, but the May 12 quake was the first to severely damage it, causing up to 80 million yuan ($11 million) in damage, a local authority estimated.

But it was only one among many historical sites and relics in Sichuan damaged by the quake.

According to the State Administration of Cultural Relics, the disaster damaged or destroyed 45 national-level and 59 provincial-level cultural relics.

Erwang Temple, a wooden Qing Dynasty complex constructed to honor the builder of the Dujiangyan irrigation system - a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Dujiangyan city - was almost flattened.

Set against incredible mountain scenery, the irrigation system was on nearly every tourist's itinerary before the disaster.

Restoring these cultural relics like Bao'en Temple will be an arduous and expensive task, authorities said.

"This is the worst damage the temple has incurred," Ren Yin, director-general of Pingwu county's historic relics administration, said.

"The State Administration of Cultural Heritage recently decided to send an expert team here to assess the losses."

He also said restoring the temple to its pre-quake glory would cost nearly 100 million yuan and take nearly two years.

The damage deals a major blow to local tourism, he added.

But it's perhaps worse for the local community, which has long viewed the iconic temple as a source of hometown pride.

"It's a great waste! My family has lived here for generations, but we never thought the temple would be damaged so severely so quickly," 61-year-old Xie Zeyou said.

Xie is currently living in a tent in the temple's outer square, where he said 10,000 of his fellow townsmen are also finding temporary shelter.

(China Daily May 30, 2008)

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