JIEGU, China (AP) — Tibetan monks in crimson robes dug through earthquake rubble alongside government rescue workers, a startling image for a Chinese region long strained by suspicion and unrest.
The central government has poured in troops and equipment to this remote western region, but it is the influential Buddhist monks whom residents trust with their lives — and with their dead.
As the death toll climbed to 1,144 late Friday, there was tension and some distrust over the government relief effort, with survivors scuffling over limited aid.
"They have a relaxed attitude," said Genqiu, a 22-year-old monk at the Jiegu monastery, of the government-sent rescue workers. "If someone's taking their photo then they might dig once or twice."
Since Wednesday's quakes, government relief efforts have been slowed by heavy traffic on the single main road from the Qinghai provincial capital, 12 hours away. On Friday, heavy equipment finally arrived.
"The disaster you suffered is our disaster. Your suffering is our suffering," Premier Wen Jiabao said in remarks broadcast repeatedly on state TV.
Though the government was reaching out, many residents turned instead to the monks and their traditions, rather than a central authority dominated by the majority Han Chinese. The groups are divided by language — the government has had to mobilize hundreds of Tibetan speakers to communicate with victims — as well as culture and religion.
Cultural differences might have contributed to Friday's sharp rise in the death toll. In a telephone call with The Associated Press on Friday, rescue officials seemed surprised to hear that hundreds of bodies were at the Jiegu monastery, taken there by Buddhist families. The new official death toll was announced hours later.
It wasn't clear whether tensions over the relief effort were driven by longtime suspicions of the government or by the stress of living outside for three days in the freezing air and digging for loved ones with bare hands. Many buildings in the town collapsed in the quakes; countless others are unsafe.
Residents of the largely Tibetan town pointed out repeatedly that after the series of earthquakes Wednesday, the monks were the first to come to their aid — pulling people from the rubble and passing out their own limited supplies.
Tibetans traditionally perform sky burials, which involve chopping a body into pieces and leaving it on a platform to be devoured by vultures. But Genqiu, who like many Tibetans goes by one name, said that would be impossible now.
"The vultures can't eat them all," he said at Jiegu monastery, where bodies were carefully wrapped in colorful blankets and piled three or four deep on a platform.
More than 200 monks chanted in the late afternoon sun in preparation for a mass cremation on a nearby mountaintop Saturday. In two blue government tents stamped "disaster relief," hundreds of candles burned on a makeshift altar.
One monk estimated 1,000 bodies were brought to a hillside clearing in the shadow of the monastery. Gerlai Tenzing said a precise count was difficult because bodies continued to arrive and families had taken some away.
Nearby, two men worked to fit two bodies into the back of a taxi.
Yushu county, the area impacted by the quakes, is overwhelmingly Tibetan — 93 percent by official statistics, though that does not include Han migrants who have moved in temporarily to open restaurants, take construction jobs or work in mines.
The area largely escaped the unrest that swept the Tibetan plateau in 2008. But authorities have periodically sealed off the area to foreign media and tourists.
On Friday, some survivors competed for the limited aid. A line of police held back anxious sunburned residents as aid workers unloaded packets of noodles, tents and other supplies.
"I saw trucks almost attacked by local people because of the lack of food and shelter," said Pierre Deve, program director at a community development organization, the Snowland Service Group. "It started yesterday, but you still see some things like this today. It's getting better. Chinese authorities are doing well."
Still, he said his aid group was relocating outside town in case things worsened.
A few people were still being found alive. China Central Television reported that a 13-year-old girl was pulled from a toppled two-story hotel after a sniffer dog alerted rescuers. And the state news agency Xinhua said a 43-year-old woman was rescued after being trapped for 50 hours with no food or water.
State media said more equipment to check for signs of life was on the way, along with 40,000 tents — enough to accommodate all the survivors.
Makeshift rescue teams of monks and fellow Tibetans said they would work until there was no one left to save.
"We wanted to help people and save lives," said Dengzeng Luosang, a monk from neighboring Sichuan province, as his crew pushed at a section of wall with wooden beams and yanked away a chunk of concrete with ropes.
Nearby, a dozen government rescue workers probed the debris with video cameras and heat sensors.
Both teams, one Tibetan and one largely Han Chinese, were likely to spend another cold night sleeping on a bus or in a tent after yet another meal of instant noodles.
"It doesn't matter if it is Han or Tibetan," Dengzeng said, wearing cotton work gloves and a simple face mask. "Life is precious."
Associated Press writer Chi-Chi Zhang and researchers Zhao Liang, Yu Bing and Xi Yue in Beijing contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.