By John Ruwitch
BEIJING (Reuters) - "If you ask me how many people have been injured, I can only use the word 'countless' at the moment," a Chinese official said wearily down the phone from the country's remote west.
Han Chubai was speaking from the arid desert plateau which is bisected by the old Silk Road after a killer earthquake there on Monday killed over 250 people and injured more than 1,000.
Around him, sirens wailed as ambulances rushed victims to hospitals.
Just hours after the worst earthquake to hit China's western region of Xinjiang in decades, relatives scurried to bury loved ones, following the religious custom of the Muslim Uighur area.
Harried officials struggled to cope with the chaos unfolding in Bachu county and other communities in the region, devastated in the morning by a quake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale.
Qiongkuer Qiake was among the most devasted villages in the county of 370,000, Han said.
"Hospitals in the village and the county have been full. I can hear ambulances driving by all the time outside the window," he said.
Survivors in Bachu braced against frequent aftershocks and picked through the rubble of more than 1,000 buildings toppled by the quake in the arid region abutting Central Asia.
The local government, fearful more structures could fall, warned everyone to spend the night outdoors forcing survivors to brave near-freezing temperatures. Power outages swept the area.
Survivors shrouded bodies in white cloth for burial, following the practice of burying the dead the day they die.
"I don't think there are enough Imams around for this," one official said by telephone from Bachu, referring to the Muslim priests who officiate at funerals.
An army of more than 1,000 police, paramilitary police and People's Liberation Army soldiers were sent to the hardest-hit areas, armed with food, another official from Bachu said.
"We have sent all the bread, water and instant noodles we could collect to the scene," he said.
A doctor surnamed Liu at the People's Hospital in Bachu said all the beds were full.
"The injured are being admitted to the hospital one after another. We are still counting the numbers," he said.
Uighur villages like Qiongkuer Qiake dot the barren landscape outside Kashgar, the fabled oasis on the Silk Road. Popping out of the desert, these villages appear centuries old, their homes built of brown mud bricks dried in the sun and bisected by dirt or cobblestone paths.
Locals scrabble a living from sparse fields of cotton, wheat, corn, sweet Hami melons and herds of goats and cows.
The area is familiar turf for more adventurous tourists who have made the rough desert trek from Xinjiang's capital Urumqi to Kashgar, more than 3,000 km (1,900 miles) west of Beijing.
Kashgar, some 150 km (100 miles) west of the epicentre of Monday's quake, is renouned as a trading town and for its legendary Sunday market.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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