In Chengdu, many have friends and family buried beneath the rubble. Kieran Dodds/ CP Photo
Chengdu, Sichuan Province - When my friend Yin Xinjie told me you could get over 100 flavours of cure-all Jell-O in China, my mouth watered with thoughts of rich orange mango and purple plum.
Instead, I'm clutching a small bucket of quivering black sludge that doesn't just smell like tar but tastes like it, too. I sputter and choke, my eyes streaming.
"You're supposed to savour the bitterness," my Chinese friend urges. "Herbal Jell-O cures everything!"
Savour the bitterness - that's so apropos, I think, shaking my head. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people would hold "remember the bitterness" meals, where they'd eat bowls of gravelly rice and wild roots to remind them of the days before the revolution. (Never mind that many people were still starving under Communist rule.)
"It'll help your swollen throat," she says. "You'll be able to talk again."
The worst place to get strep throat is in a foreign country. In Beijing, where everything from the signs to the cab drivers has been Chinglified, even the wheeziest English will get you by. But in the isolated southern province of Sichuan, where Westerners are still gawked at, communicating is hopeless.
And gawk they do. Eyes and talk of the "laowai" (foreigner) follow me everywhere in a city where the only other white people I see are in billboard ads.
Many of the capital's surrounding villages have become ghost towns; this is ground zero of the deadly May 16 earthquake. There have been more than 200,000 aftershocks since, enough to scare away the last of the straggler tourists and foreign journalists.
A few days ago, a 6.4 Richter tremor shook a nearby village, toppling still more buildings to the ground. We felt it in the basement of a grocery store in Chengdu, the shelves rocking back and forth.
Sichuan's become a black hole. Almost all of the affected cities and villages have been completely sealed off. "Police patrol all the roads, making sure no one gets in," said Yin.
Getting information out is extremely difficult. Few people in the province have Internet access. No one has wireless. Internet cafés are some of the shadiest hangouts in Sichuan.
There's no drinking age in China, but to use the Net you need an ID card that proves you're a Chinese citizen, over 18 and you've passed a test to show you're "responsible" enough. The woman at the counter flatly refuses to let me in.
You really don't want to get sick in China. All health care is private, and hospitals are marketed as aggressively as soft drinks. Corruption is so rampant, people don't feel safe unless they bribe their doctors. It's dog-eat-dog. Ambulances don't even get the right of way. I see more than a few, sirens blaring, stuck at a crawl behind a line of taxis.
Sichuan itself is one of China's richest regions, a major agricultural basin known as "the province of abundance." But it's also an example of the country's growing income gap problem.
A half-hour's drive from China's most expensive shopping street in Chengdu, skyscrapers give way to one-room shacks whose pell-mell bricks and patchy roofs would collapse like matchsticks in a quake.
Although virtually unknown to foreigners, Sichuan's a quietly simmering cultural and ecological gem, its mountains, temples, tea houses and panda sanctuaries regularly drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors from neighbouring provinces.
Not to mention the world-famous spicy Sichuan cuisine. Food trends are followed like a second religion - if salad is in one week, every single restaurant will be stocked to the brim, but once it's out you can't find it anywhere.
But the quake did in Sichuan's tourism industry. At Mt. Emei, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, I find all the monks have gone on holiday because there are no more tourists. I picture them in sunglasses sipping pina coladas on a beach in Jamaica.
"No one wants to come here any more," says Xie Zengzhou, a teacher from Chengdu who volunteered in some of the worst-hit areas. "They're all afraid."
Xie is at Mt. Emei with his younger cousins, taking advantage of the lack of visitors. The girl has never seen a Westerner before and asks to take a picture with me. They freak out at Listerine pocket packs, wide-eyed the way I am at their chicken feet snacks.
Chengdu's invisibility to outsiders is part of its charm. The place steals into your heart like a secret whispered in your ear. "If you don't know the name of this place, "said Yin, "you'll never find it."
I spend my last night in the capital navigating through the narrow cobblestone alleyways filled with the smell of smoke and grilled snacks and the music of local merchants and street performers, all lit up by the soft red blush of thousands of paper lanterns.
The city still aches. Workers haul away fallen trees and other debris from the latest aftershock. We pass temples strung with countless paper prayers for the earthquake victims.
A favourite pastime in China is ballroom dancing. At night, hundreds of couples come to Chengdu's city square to twirl and curtsy in the glow of the neon city lights near a giant Mao statue.
A famous poem by Australian Judith Wright advises the reader to "dance among poisoned swords." That's exactly what the people of Chengdu have learned to do.
Swirling skirts and kicking feet reflected in the slick pavement, they dance on shaky ground. Many have friends and family buried forever underneath the rubble, and all of them know they, too, could be victims of the next aftershock.
But they dance with smiles on their faces.