The 7.1-magnitude quake in a remote part of China’s Xinjiang region killed three people and left five others injured, damaging hundreds of buildings.
The tremor caused significant damage amid freezing temperatures, but the toll on lives and property was relatively light, owing to the sparse population around the epicentre in Uchturpan county, near the border with Kazakhstan.
Footage shown by state broadcaster CCTV showed evacuees eating instant noodles in tents, with bonfires providing heat.
Local officials said they planned to check houses’ stability before people could return.
The earthquake hit in a sparsely populated area with clusters of towns and villages scattered across an otherwise barren winter landscape.
In Kizilsu Kirgiz prefecture, the earthquake caused damage of various degrees to 851 buildings, collapsing 93 structures near the epicentre and killing 910 livestock, according to local officials.
The area is populated mostly by Kyrgyz and Uighurs, ethnic Turkic minorities who are predominantly Muslim and have been the target of a state campaign of forced assimilation and mass detention.
The region is heavily militarised, and state broadcaster CCTV showed paramilitary troops moving in before dawn to clear rubble and set up tents for those displaced.
Two of the three people who died were members of a Kyrgyz sheep herding family who had brought their flock up the mountain and spent the night in their rest hut, said Shi Chao, the Communist Party head of Kulansarike township.
Rescuers found the family of three, including a six-year old girl, and brought them down the mountain but only the father survived, Shi said.
The township has been replacing the huts with sturdier structures partially subsidised by the government, he said. The third death happened elsewhere in Akqi county.
The prefecture has deployed more than 2,300 rescuers, and Akqi county evacuated 7,338 residents. In total, 12,426 people have been evacuated.
Rescue crews combed through the rubble while emergency survival gear including coats and tents arrived to help the thousands of people who fled their homes.
“This 7.1 rating is very strong, but the death and injury situation is not severe,” Zhang Yongjiu, the head of Xinjiang Earthquake Administration, told a news conference.
The quake’s epicentre was in a mountainous area about 9,800ft above sea level.
State broadcaster CCTV said 1,104 aftershocks, including five that were above magnitude 5.0, were recorded as of 8am local time on Wednesday. The largest registered at magnitude 5.7.
Among the buildings damaged, 47 houses had collapsed, the government of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region posted on its official Weibo social media account Tuesday.
Officials said most of the houses that collapsed were in remote areas and were built by residents. Newer public housing built by the government did not collapse.
Footage broadcast by CCTV showed staff at Aksu’s train station ordering passengers out of the waiting hall in a speedy but not panicked manner.