JIEGU, China — 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.
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.