People carry belongings retrieved from the ruins of their Beichuan homes yesterday.
For more than a month, 67-year-old Sichuan villager Gao Mingfeng chose to stay in Shanxi province where he worked. He dared not return home to Beichuan, where 20,000 people have been reported dead or missing since the May 12 earthquake.
But on Sunday, the Qiang ethnic was among a group of people that returned home for the first time since the quake, after officials reopened the mountainous county to allow them to collect what was left of their belongings.
"I didn't want to cause trouble for the authorities, rescuers or myself. I just wanted to be here again to see if there is any hope of finding my son's body," Gao said.
His 19-year-old son, who Gao believes is dead, is one of more than 1,000 people listed as missing in the county.
Thousands of people every day have been flooding back to Beichuan, via the town of Leigu. After undergoing a brief identity check with police from Liaoning province, they walk the final 7 km to their former homes.
Eighty percent of all buildings in Beichuan, located about 100 km east of the quake's epicenter, are now nothing more than rubble.
However, people have been keen to return; to retrieve valuables, search for the bodies of family and friends, or simply to pay tribute to those who died.
Ravaged by the disaster and flooded with water drained from the Tangjiashan quake lake, most of Beichuan has been left untouched so it can be developed into an earthquake museum, local officials said earlier.
The new site for Beichuan, which sources have said will likely be near Bandengqiao, in adjacent Anxian county, is still under discussion.
Although quarantined and disinfected over the month it was closed to the outside world, a significant number of people are still buried in the remains of Beichuan, and a sharp, unpleasant odor remains in the air.
Many people who returned home to retrieve belongings - mostly furniture and electronic equipment - had friends to help them, others recruited nearby villagers for 600 yuan ($87) a time.
A family surnamed Zheng hired a peasant who lived nearby to carry two wardrobes, a television and a washing machine from the debris of their apartment. Others did the work themselves.
Some people tried to build a makeshift road out of tree branches so they could drive their recovered vehicles out of the county. But as of yesterday, none had succeeded.
Chen Gui, who was buried under but later rescued from the store she owned at a Beichuan shopping mall, said she has no idea how she will get her valuables out.
"I'm not sure how I'm going to do it. Maybe I'll just take a couple of bricks or something," she said.
Chen's husband's family all died in the quake, but their bodies have not bee found, she said.
She said there have been rumors in the town there are still people alive under the debris.
On Monday, dark smoke was seen rising from the debris of a collapsed supermarket. Many people thought it might be a signal from someone trapped in the rubble.
After more than 10 hours of digging, rescuers found nothing, although when four of them collapsed due to the stench and had to be carried out, some people watching thought they were quake survivors.
As of noon yesterday, the death toll from the quake was 69,185, the State Council Information Office said.
The number of injured remained unchanged from Sunday's 374,171, while the number of people reported missing fell nine from Tuesday's figure to 18,458.
Some 96,207 people have been admitted to hospital, of whom 83,078 have been discharged, the office said.
As of Tuesday, 1.47 million people had been evacuated from areas hit by the quake, it said.
(China Daily June 26, 2008)