Thu, Feb 16, 2017 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Home is where the hole is for Chinese cave dwellers

AFP, ZHONGDONG, China

Zhongdong Village, where 18 families live inside an enormous natural cave in China’s Guizhou Province, is seen on Nov. 6.

Photo: AFP

High in the misty hills of southwestern China, an hour’s hike from any road, the lowing of livestock echoes through Zhongdong Village, where a group of 18 families live inside an enormous natural cave.

The final hold-outs of the nation’s “last cave-dwelling” village have had modern conveniences, such as electricity, for years. However, their only access to the outside world is a footpath winding through Guizhou Province’s rugged mountain terrain.

Now a local tourism development company has built a 15 million yuan (US$2.2 million) cable car that residents will be allowed to use for free.

The funicular will make their daily lives easier and furnish new business opportunities, the firm says.

It is to go into operation May 1. Currently, villagers must haul in all food and products that they cannot make or grow themselves — even large items like furniture — from the nearest town, a three-hour commute each way.

While some residents are excited by the economic prospects of more tourists, others are unconvinced that the new transport will improve their lives in one of China’s poorest regions.

The cable car is not convenient for the rural people of Zhongdong, since poultry and unwieldy cargo will not be allowed in cabins, 22-year-old Wang Xingguo said.

“They said they’d build us a road 15 years ago, but then they discovered this was a place they could make money off and so chose not to build it,” he said, ushering a herd of goats into a pen near the mouth of the nearly 200m deep cave.

“When authorities decide to develop a scenic spot, only they get rich,” he added.

The name Zhongdong literally translates to “middle cave,” a reference to its position between two smaller, but uninhabited caverns. Beneath the high ceiling, thatch-walled homes, piles of firewood, and domestic bric-a-brac like washing machines and bamboo posts hung with clean laundry surround a central square, fashioned into a dirt-floored basketball court.

There is no consensus as to when people first moved into the cave, but some families say they have lived there for generations. Most are of the Miao ethnic minority.

Wang’s father, Wang Hongqing, said their family moved into the cave when he was just a baby, not long after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The cave was previously occupied by bandits, but when the People’s Liberation Army drove them out, Wang’s family seized the opportunity to make it their home.

Twenty years ago, he became the first in Zhongdong to convert a portion of his home into a small guesthouse and now makes about 18,000 yuan (US$2,600) a year housing tourists.

New visitors brought by the cable car will make it “easier to make money,” but there are downsides, he said.

For almost a decade, the government asked villagers to move out, but Wang Hongqing refused, afraid of losing such an important supplement to his income from growing corn and raising free-range chickens.

There are concerns too that if they leave, and the area is formally incorporated into the nearby Getu River Park for paying visitors, they would be unable to return — or even visit.

“When they make this a tourist site, they’ll charge entrance fees, and I wouldn’t even be able to afford to get into the place that used to be my home,” Wang Hongqing said.

His neighbor, Wei Xiaohong, hopes the improvements will bring young people back from the cities where they have gone to find jobs.

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