CHENGDU: Middle-aged taxi-driver Yuan Huafu gets up early every day and waits for his turn at the Dujiangyan long-haul bus station, the booming tourism destination of the past that now resembles a ghost city after the devastating May 12 earthquake.
Yuan's taxi number is 0512, something that works in his favor, as he is able to get more passengers. "I am superstitiously linked with the quake," said Yuan, who is not only a skilled driver but also a guide who can schedule quake journeys, tell stories of the quakes and also arrange meetings with the survivors.
Tourists and journalists are Yuan's main customers, often seeking to explore the epicenter of the quake, some 50 km away, through the high and dense mountain ranges along the torrential Minjiang River, a tributary of Yangtze River.
"This is how I earn my livelihood while my family stays in a temporary settlement," said Yuan. Luckily, every two or three days, Yuan is able to get a passenger and often he earns 600 yuan for a one-day return journey.
Yuan is not the only one who is struggling against all odds to make a livelihood. More than half of the city's taxi divers are earning their daily bread by crisis-crossing the mountains, afraid even to honk for fear that it may dislodge the sand and stones from the mountains.
"There are not many left in the city who can afford a taxi ride these days," lamented Yuan, who worked as volunteer last May and June. "So we often rely on long-haul trips."
Before the quake, Yuan used to drive along the 1,000-km semi-circular scenic route from the northeast and northwest paths leading to the Jiuzhaigou World Heritage site in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. It is a region dotted with varied holiday destinations rich in indigenous culture and local crop specialties as well as idyllic resorts.
The bow-shaped road and its backdrop of picturesque mountains, meandering rivers and fascinating historical relics attract millions of domestic and international tourists annually. It has also been a source of supplementary subsistence for the poverty stricken residents of mountain villages.
At the western side of the bow is Dujiangyan, a famous tourism destination that figures on the world heritage list. Because of its proximity to the quake epicenter, most of the urban residents have since moved to temporary shelters.
"Parts of the city are in darkness even now while night life is virtually non-existent," said Yuan. "Prior to the quake, the city of mountains and rivers beckoned you with a cozy life that was the cynosure of all eyes."
Nine months ago, the dreams crumbled in the Sichuan quake. With aid pouring in from home and across the globe, life and business is slowly returning to normalcy. Most of the broken roads have been widened and flattened, children are moving into new schools, while farmers are rebuilding their homes in many places. But in many other areas the terrible damage is still visible.
Yingxiu town was one of the towns devastated in the quake. Today, local residents have started picking up the threads again by doing small business or planting crops after subsisting on government subsidy for over six months.
Zeng Xiaohong is one such person. The 27-year old Zeng hails from a Tibetan minority and opened a tiny restaurant in the temporary shelter community three months ago. It is called the "Reunion Restaurant" as three of her five family members reunited with her after being seriously injured in the quake.
During the daytime Zeng lays three tables in a 9-sq-m room in the lines of temporary shelters while the kitchen is between two lines of shelters. And at night, she puts tables together, sparing room for a mattress on which her husband, four-year-old son and she can sleep.
In the restaurant, her husband is the cook while the mother-in-law doubles up as the waitress. Her father-in-law is the baby-sitter.
"Business is bleak and sometimes we can earn 200 yuan a day but sometimes, no one comes at all," said Zeng, whose husband used to be a truck driver in a local factory but became jobless after the medicine factory was reduced to a rubble in the quake.
As Zeng's town is the epicenter of the quake, visitors come in hordes often driving their own cars. Before fallen school buildings, scarred mountains and long broken or dangerous one-way road sections, they take pictures, sigh and offer condolences.
The Sichuan provincial tourism office said tourism in Southwest China's quake-hit province is now showing signs of revival. It attracted 16.5 million tourists during the Spring Festival holiday, up 21.9 percent from the same period last year. Earthquake tours in the county attracted more than 100,000 visitors during the holidays and helped revive small businesses.
"But I still think they are hesitant about spending money here," said Zeng. "Most of them come to my restaurant but politely walk away after seeing the simple settings." After the travails and the trauma of the quake, Zeng and her family find happiness in just being together even though business is still weak.
Around the epicenter Yingxiu town, there are three temporary community shelters housing thousands of families whose homes disappeared or were destroyed. Zhou Kaihua's Yuzixi community lives in the second shelter alongside a mountain near which are piled the rubble and the debris of the quake.
The 37-year old Zhou and her villagers are busy planting tea trees. Her husband is working as road safety checker at dangerous points to stop vehicles and passers-by when stones and mud fall from the mountains.
Zhou's husband earns 50 yuan a day, the main income for the four-member family. Their elder son has been sent to Shanxi province to continue schooling, while the daughter is in a local primary school in the temporary shelter.
"Life is tough and even we don't know where the money to build a new home will come from," said Zhou. But her family feels happy. "We survived and that's enough."
What makes Zhou even happier is that she had managed to meet Premier Wen Jiabao when he spent Lunar New Year eve here three weeks ago. "I joined the drum team and, luckily, shook hands with the Premier," said Zhou. "From our heart, we felt the State leaders are with us and they have made painstaking efforts for us in post-recovery."
But different from Zhou is the 24-year-old Yang Ying, a heroine who gave birth to a son on the night of May 12 in Sanjiang town, and is well prepared to earn her living alongside her husband by constructing homes for villagers.
"Many of those who lost their homes are prepared to rebuild this year and I think there are enough jobs ahead," said Yang, whose Sanjiang town is a forty-minute ride through the mountains.
The post-quake recovery is expected to involve 1-trillion-yuan investment over three years and is progressing smoothly. All the quake-hit farmers will move into new homes by this September and about 70 percent of key post-recovery projects are likely to be completed by the year-end.
The road to Beichuan, an autonomous county of the Qiang minority, was totally ruined by the quake. Along the route one can spot the innumerable construction sites flanked by resettlement communities.
The debris piled up along the route is a grim reminder of the quake.
The town has since been abandoned but attracts flocks of visitors keen on taking one final glance at their destroyed homes. Since last October, 18-year old Qiu Minqiong has joined a team of locals selling souvenirs, photos and books on the quake and the city.
"Business is not bad and our family can eke out a living this way," said Qiu, whose parents are still living in the temporary shelter in the high mountain miles away from Beichuan.
Near the new location of the Beichuan Township, a new community for the Qiang minority has been set up. The 58-year old Jiang Jiufa and her family are one of the 71 members of the "model community". Jiang had never thought of earning a living by opening a shop. His parents died when he was a kid and he has worked his way up by doing tooling jobs in various provinces.
With visitors thronging to see his community, Jiang has opened two grocery shops and a small souvenir shop enabling him to earn at least 500 yuan.
"I never dreamt of being a shopkeeper," said Jiang, whose two daughters also work in the shops. "As a Chinese saying goes, out of the depth of misfortune comes bliss, isn't it?"