For the numerous residents in the earthquake-affected areas of Sichuan Province, this year's Spring Festival on January 26 meant more than just firecrackers and family reunions. It marked a new milestone on the way back to normal lives and heralded a fresh year full of peace and happiness.
On January 25, Chinese lunar New Year's Eve, the family of 76-year-old Wu Zhiyuan welcomed a special guest for dinner at their home in Yuzixi Village, Wenchuan County--Premier Wen Jiabao.
HAPPY DINNER: Premier Wen Jiabao shares the dish he cooked at the dinner on January 25, Chinese New Year's Eve, with three families in the temporary housing area of Yingxiu, the epicenter of the May 12 earthquake (YAO DAWEI)
After visiting students, villagers, workers and policemen in the nearby towns of Beichuan and Deyang, Wen ate New Year's Eve dinner with Wu and two other families in the village's temporary housing area in Yingxiu Town in the county that was the epicenter of the May 12 earthquake.
Wen went into the kitchen shared by the three families and helped them prepare hui guo rou (sauteed sliced pork with pepper) for the meal. It was his seventh visit to the quake-hit area since last May.
"We are so lucky to have the premier here having the most important dinner [of the year] with us," Wu said.
With red lanterns hanging high from the roofs of the temporary houses, and cured meat and clusters of peppers tacked up just outside their doors, every family enjoyed the festival's lively atmosphere.
Signs of the village's recovery were all around. One resident, Dong Yitao, has opened a convenience store in the temporary housing area.
JUMPING VACATION: Kids skip rope in the temporary housing area of Dujiangyan City (WANG XIANG)
"Although the store is very small, it can both meet the demands of people living here and make some money," he said. "There are five stores like this in this area."
An open market in the area was selling fruits, vegetables and other food around lunchtime. Business had picked up just before the Spring Festival holiday. Wu Chunrong, who owns a barber shop in the area, also saw an influx of customers before the holiday.
"The villagers all come here to get a new haircut and a blessing for a new start in the Year of the Ox," said Wu, who cuts hair every day from 7 a.m. until midnight.
Tang Xingyue, a 10-year-old fifth grader at Yingxiu Primary School, celebrated Spring Festival with 10 classmates who visited the families of other classmates killed in the earthquake.
"We originally had 44 students in the class, but only 11 survived the earthquake, so we frequently visit families who have lost their children and give them some relief from their pain," Tang said. Some of the students who survived the quake and were sent to Shanxi Province to continue their studies returned to Yingxiu for the holiday.
In the meantime, reconstruction projects in the town are proceeding full steam ahead. Five construction projects got under way in January, including an earthquake memorial hall, permanent houses for villagers and a new Yingxiu Central Hospital. This is the first group of reconstruction projects in Yingxiu Town, which is supposed to become a new tourist destination and ecological base in Wenchuan County.
Another quake-hit area that is regaining vitality is Dujiangyan, 50 km from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province. The once-thriving boomtown has acted swiftly to restore its lost prosperity.
With building debris and rubble all cleared away, the city appeared cleaner and more serene after a long drizzle. Shoppers packed into supermarkets to snap up fruits and candy for the festival. Neat, temporary housing communities, complete with electricity and public facilities, have also sprouted up across the town, replacing flimsy tents.
But a journey through the downtown still shows the amount of destruction that the deadly quake wrought. Many of the damaged buildings, which will eventually be repaired or torn down, seemed out of place among the new structures and festive atmosphere. They are the evidence of how suddenly the quake hit and caught people off guard.
Wandering through the Frugal Household Community, the city's largest temporary resettlement site, an air of festive joy seemed to be everywhere. On a sunny afternoon during the festival, some elderly men played an intense game of Chinese chess in an alley, while several naughty boys set off firecrackers to scare passersby.
The local governments have been giving those affected by the earthquake food, household and personal supplies, and money to help them get through the tough times.