The Day the Mountains Walked

The Day the Mountains Walked

Although Japan would seem to be the most earthquake—devastated country in the world, that tragic distinction really goes to China.

A great earthquake, magnitude 8.5 on the Richter scale, struck Gansu Province on December 16, 1920. The huge tremor took 180,000 to 200,000 human lives. Most deaths were caused by gigantic landslides that buried entire villages, damming rivers and turning valleys into instant lakes. The people still talk about the quake as Shan tso—liao, meaning "the mountains walked."

The nickname is apt, since the gigantic slides covered an area of over 30,000 square miles. In one section alone, at least 17 immense landslides occurred within a 20—mile semicircle. Millions upon millions of cubic miles of soil and rock cascaded into adjacent valleys and plains. The scars left by some of the slides were so clean that they appear to have been scooped out by a gigantic trawl.

The monstrous avalanche of soil and rock was the real destroyer of life and property. Some villages were blotted out entirely: men, women, children, livestock, and dwellings were buried forever under immense blankets of earth. Only handfuls of people who lived in the outskirts of inhabited areas opposite the source of the slide managed to survive.

Into one three—mile area, now rightly called Valley of the Dead, poured seven landslides, wiping out the entire population except a man and his two sons. They were inside their house located high on the mountain's side when the quake began. Their home, almost instantly caught up, rode on the crest of the rockslide for at least a half—mile. These three slides met, whirling the house and its inhabitants as if in a giant maelstrom and carrying them for another half—mile to the valley floor. Somehow the house and its inhabitants survived; although the interior of the building was a shambles, the frame was intact. When the man and his sons stepped out through the doorway, they saw they were on the valley floor and wondered where the village was. It did not take them long to realize that the entire village lay buried beneath them, a large cemetery.

In another part of the Valley of the Dead two sections of an ancient, well—packed highway including the bordering trees were swept across a stream and set completely intact on top of a mass of loose earth. In a neighboring area one colossal slide plowed deep beneath a mountain roadway and carried a quarter—mile section for a considerable distance. When it finally came to rest, the road was virtually intact, complete with bordering trees with birds' nests in their branches. Some still contained eggs, quickly claimed by the parent birds who had followed the slide almost a mile from its point of origin.

In yet another valley, a man slept through the entire earthquake. Looking out of his window in the morning, he was astonished to find a large hill almost within arm's length of his home. A relatively large neighboring hill had slid intact onto his homestead and stopped just a few feet from his house.

In one area of Gansu Province a rockslide completely buried a large village and appeared to have marked the site of the buried village symbolically. A newly constructed temple from the mountaintop was deposited, almost gently and nearly intact, on top of the village site. The building is now regarded as a holy marker, a tombstone for the citizens of the village buried beneath. Annually on the anniversary of the catastrophic event, services are held inside the repaired shrine, and priests pray for the souls who rest beneath this temple.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning