Stone Chair Village Revisited

NPR's Beijing Correspondent Anthony Kuhn joined Melissa and Andrea in Sichuan this week to offer his analysis one year after the earthquake.

This week, I came back to the old country town of Beichuan, revisiting some of the sites where I had witnessed death and devastation last year, just three days after the earthquake. It was calming to see life go on — albeit with great difficulty — for some of the survivors.

I wouldn't think of returning to Beichuan without a trip to Stone Chair Village, an enclave of the ethnic Qiang minority, halfway up the side of a mountain on the approach to Beichuan. The Qiang are an ancient people culturally and ethnically close to both Tibetans and Han, China's majority. Most of the Qiang live in Beichuan.

I was curious to hear what impact the earthquake had had on the Qiang's efforts to preserve their culture, and their efforts to generate income from tourism. Many of the families run country inns, which struck me as a great getaway for weary urbanites.

My host last year and this time was Chen Yan, whose father and grandfather were both Duangong, the Shamans that serve as the Qiang's priests, healers and historians. Ms. Chen told me that some of the remaining Duangong, now in their 70s and 80s, were indeed killed in the quake, but many survived. Luckily, many chose not to move out of the mountains and into nearby towns, where they would likely be cut off from their cultural roots and assimilated among the local population.

Everywhere in Stone Chair Village, the sound of saws and hammers reverberated, as residents rebuilt their architecturally distinct buildings, with stone exteriors and sheep's head decorative motifs.

Mrs. Chen told me that her country inn had gone empty last year, as visitors were too afraid of aftershocks to venture up the narrow road that winds up the steep mountain. This year, she reckons she's had about 100 guests — better than last year, but still far from normal. Luckily, they still have income from their fruit orchards, where the first plums of the year were emerging — still green and tiny — on the trees.

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This time, Mrs. Chen put on a delicious feast of down-home Qiang cooking for Melissa Block, our assistant Xiaoyu Xie, our driver and myself. It included al dente ribbons of potato flour pasta, home-made bean curd stewed with pork, mountain greens in soy sauce, vinegar and spices, pork sausage cured for a year and — my favorite - three kinds of "la rou," or smoke-cured pork, some of which was left over from the half-ton batch (that's about three big pigs) she made in 2007. We also tasted the family's excellent home-made wine and liquor. Mrs. Chen then showed us her smokehouse out back next to the kitchen, proudly noting that this yielded tastier meat than her neighbors down the hill, who just air-dry their pork.

After my lunch at Mrs. Chen's inn last year, a powerful aftershock hit the area. We all bolted into the village square, where the villagers huddled around me in a circle, as the mountain shook and rumbled. I'll always be thankful to the residents of Stone Chair Village, whose hospitality included protecting a visitor from far away.

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