QIONGKUER QIAKE, China, Feb 26 (Reuters) - It's bitterly cold and the only safe place to shelter is outside huddled under thick coats and quilts.
For thousands of survivors of Monday's earthquake in western China, the thought of taking refuge in one of the few remaining buildings still standing is too terrifying.
One more aftershock and they, too, could be entombed like hundreds of others.
All along roads in northwest China's Bachu County on Wednesday thousands of people, many of them homeless and with few possessions wait for help after Monday's 6.8 magnitude earthquake.
The official toll is 266 dead and 4,000 injured.
But residents of Qiongkuer Qiake township -- ground zero -- whisper quietly of a far steeper toll.
Tian Wanggui, 25, a Han Chinese shop owner, and his family escaped their home a minute before it collapsed. They have been sleeping outside since then, waiting for whatever help the government could provide.
"We had just begun to wake up and everything started to shake. We ran as fast as we could outside to the road. Within one minute, the walls had collapsed," he said.
Many dare not venture into any other standing structure.
"It's hard but there is no other way," he said of living outside.
Other survivors curled up on padding on the cold ground or on beds moved on to roadsides of villages along the route to Qiongkuer Qiake from the Silk Road oasis of Kashgar.
Rubble and the frames of low, concrete buildings lay where many homes, schools and restaurants once thrived in this predominantly Muslim region on China's Central Asian border populated mainly by ethnic Uighurs.
"That was a store," said one Uighur in heavily accented Mandarin Chinese, as he pointed to former landmarks in the early morning darkness. "Those were homes."
VILLAGE WIPED OUT
The elementary school principal, donning a leather bowler, gestured towards the remains of his school, where he said 12 of his students had died.
Tusun, a Uighur and a postman who has been helping fix severed telephone lines in Qiongkuer Qiake, said one village he saw was virtually wiped out.
"There are not any houses left, almost all of them collapsed. Some homes had all their family members die in the quake."
All along the road to Kashgar, thousands of Turkic-speaking Uighurs braved the near-zero temperatures, fearful another earthquake could bring down their homes.
Hundreds of aftershocks -- one as big as 5.5 on the Richter scale -- have shaken the area Monday's earthquake, the deadliest to strike the Xinjiang region since China's Communists took power in 1949.
Convoys of military trucks and rescue vehicles with blue flashing lights swept by from Kashgar ferrying food, blankets, tents and the injured along the sometimes potholed road.
In the surrounding countryside, parched fields stood empty ahead of the planting season, in March or April, when villagers sow cotton, watermelon, wheat and corn.
Rescue work has been going non-stop since the disaster, as soldiers and police joined locals to help some retrieve valuables from their shattered or damaged homes, Tusun said.
People's Liberation Army soldiers stationed on one of China's most militarised zones were quick to arrive, bringing supplies from nearby Shule County bordering Kashgar. Security is tight in the region, where some Uighurs harbour independence leanings.
Still, for many whose water and electricity supplies have been severed, the aid has not come soon enough.
"I took part in the Indian war and made my contributions to the country, yet they have given us nothing," growled retired People's Liberation Army soldier Qiongmaite, 73, referring to China's border clashes with India in the 1960s.
"They didn't even come by to ask 'How are you? How are you dealing with the hardship?'"
The streets are abuzz with talk of a much higher death toll. One person said they had heard talk that 470 had died and some 6,000 were injured in Qiongkuer Qiake alone.
"There may still be some people buried down there," said Tian.
As a funeral procession passed through one village, one mourner took a foreign reporter aside and scratched a number in the dirt street. Then shutting his eyes, his head nodding to the side, he feigned death.
"1,000," it read.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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