YINGXIU, China—An aftershock jolted me awake with the thuds of collapsing buildings. We were sleeping in a tent far from the tottering remains of Yingxiu but still, it was a long time before my heart stopped racing.
A stream of dirty, red-eyed refugees had staggered along the river bank the previous evening as, after more than eight hours of walking and hitch-hiking along a buckled, broken road, we made it to the epicentre of China's deadliest quake in decades.
Someone who was leaving handed me a spare gauze square as a face mask: I gratefully tied it over my mouth and nose.
It was meant as a barrier against disease, asbestos from collapsed buildings and the smell of rotting corpses, in a city where officials say nearly 80 percent of residents may have died.
Helicopters roared in and out, flinging dust over the wounded who waited under dirty quilts with mangled arms and legs, to be carried away from the wreckage of their lives and families.
Behind them all, where Yingxiu once stood, were snarled piles of concrete and metal, rows of the dead lying in the streets just metres from makeshift refugee camps, and what looked like a grotesque experiment in engineering.
Fewer than half the town's buildings were standing and almost none was upright. Some leaned forward or back, others tipped at 45 degrees to the ground, supported by piles of rubble, their doors and windows opening to the sky.
I went looking for the primary school, which residents said collapsed like tens of other schools in the quake zone.
Finding anything is difficult in a town stripped of its buildings and with streets buried in rubble. When survivors pointed vaguely “over there”, it left me no clearer but with no landmarks, I wasn't sure what more to ask.
Eventually I found someone to guide me, who–without my asking–pointed out trapped corpses in ruins along the way. I wondered if he had led other journalists there.
Did he find us ghoulish, flocking to the scene to unearth tragedies while others uncovered survivors?
In the school courtyard, bodies were lined up in untidy rows beside the national flagpole. What was left of Yingxiu's government had decided there was nowhere safe to bury the bodies and banned parents from taking them away.
Most were covered, but two small feet were left sticking out from beneath one tarpaulin.
I tried to count the dead. Two soldiers arrived with the spraying kits that small-scale Chinese farmers use to apply pesticide to their crops and started walking up and down, showering the small bodies with disinfectant.
As it dripped slowly down the soles of the young boy's feet, I found I was crying and turned away in shame from the grieving mothers nearby.
My normal world was less than 40 km (25 miles) away, but it seemed impossibly distant.
A bowl of noodles
I had come with three Chinese photographers from Dujiangyan. It had been badly hit but was still accessible by road and was bustling with rescue efforts as cash, aid and experts poured in.
Still, the scale of the disaster was so vast that even there I had watched desperate searchers, unable to find firefighters or soldiers to help, bury a neighbour's family deeper in debris as they tried to reach their own loved ones.
So I wanted to know what help was reaching those at the mountainous, remote epicentre. But as the damaged road to Yingxiu snaked out of mobile phone coverage, through tunnels and over precipitous landslides, I wondered if I was wise to come.
We walked for hours under a harsh sun while injured and shaken refugees streamed in the opposite direction, towards shelter and safety. The only glimmer of comfort was the generosity and courage of the survivors.
Some ferried the weak and injured on motorbikes down still-passable stretches of road; one farmer spent her day boiling clean water for anyone who needed it.
In Yingxiu, people who had lost everything kept trying to press food and water on me. One old woman mourning her foster daughter had–unbeknown to me–told her husband to prepare me a bowl of noodles while I was interviewing her.
When he brought it over, I tried hard to refuse. Guilt about eating refugees' food was the last emotion I wanted to add to the mix that often threatened to engulf me.
But they were so insistent–and worried I was rejecting the food because I thought it was dirty–I felt I had no choice.
I wolfed the noodles down, embarrassed but grateful after 24 hours of biscuits and peanuts. I gave them some money in return, although there was nothing to buy and no one to buy it from.