Friday, July 3: Pingyao, China
8:30 We pile into a golf cart for the 10 minute drive to a parking lot where we left the truck. Cars and trucks are not permitted inside the walled city and with only soft, fleshy pedestrians to get in the way, the golf cart driver wastes no time. Several corners were taken on two wheels.
8:50 We’re back on the truck and heading to the village of Lijiashan. It’s only 240 km away but like the back alleys of Pingyao, it’s a few hundred years back in time. Most of the houses in Lijashan are about 550-years old. They’re built on terraces and stacked up to 10 high. While most have outdoor courtyards, the actual living spaces are built into the sides of a sandstone cliff. Some residences are little more than caves with a door and window.
10:15 A major highway is closed so we divert to some 2-lane paved roads and three of us climb up to the roof seats for a warm but breezy drive through the mountains. We are stopped by police three times. They generally warn us that commercial trucks are not permitted in cities and on some secondary roads. We explain that Zara is actually licensed a ‘bus’ and carrying passengers not freight. They check the paperwork and wave us on. The three cops at the last stop want to take photos of us. One gives us a military style salute when we break out our cameras and take photos of them. They break out laughing as we pull away.
14:00 We are about 15 km from Lijiashan when we come to a roadblock. Large concrete slabs have been placed on the road so as to allow cars to pass yet blocking the way of trucks and heavy equipment. Two vans are dispatched from Lijiashan and they arrive within 30 minutes. We pay a shopkeeper 100 Yuan to watch the truck overnight.
15:00. We arrive in Lijiashan and instantly fall in love with the place. Well, maybe not the toilets, but everything else is picture postcard stunning. There isn’t much to do here so most people elect to chill with a good book and a cold beer. I go for a walk that is akin to 2 hours on a Stair Master.
17:00 There are several domestic tourists staying at this guesthouse and they take turns snapping photos of us. We take turns snapping photos of them. We all take photos of the charismatic tabby who clearly rules this place.
19:00. Dinner is served. There’s very little meat and the 6 or 8 vegetarian dishes are all well below the impossibly high standards we’ve grown accustomed to. Oh well, you can’t beat the setting.
21:00 After Mark wins all five rounds of ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” a guitar appears and Duncan takes centre stage. We do our very best to exhaust the town’s entire supply of cold beer.
22:00 We sleep in four rooms with two people per bed. The large traditional beds are raised on a brick platform and in winter they place hot rocks under the bed. That won’t be required tonight as it’s about 25C at 10:00 pm. I’m informed that cuddling will not be required, either.
The following article by Daniel McCrohan was first published on LonelyPlanet.com.
“China’s high-tech building industry may have been flexing its ample construction muscles for the past decade in places like Beijing and Shanghai, but a few hundred miles away in Shanxi province, an estimated three million people still live in caves.
These simple homes often dot the countryside in small, hard-to-find clusters, but in places like Lijiashan, where hundreds of caves scale nine different levels of a hillside, it’s possible to find whole communities made up entirely of cave dwellers.
People have been living in caves in Shanxi for around 5000 years, and it’s believed that at one stage a quarter of the population lived underground. These days around one-twelfth of Shanxi-ers live in caves – still a remarkable number – and for many of them, life is almost as it was for their ancestors.
Lijiashan, a 550-year-old cave village, hugging a hillside set back from the Yellow River, is typical. Like most cave communities, it was hooked up to the national grid some time ago, but there’s still no running water or sewage system, meaning locals are as reliant as ever on the raging muddy waters of the nearby Yellow River. The village’s nine terraced levels are linked by stone stairways that date back to the Ming Dynasty, and most homes still have paper windows rather than glass panes. Inside, their owners sleep on large stone beds, known as kang; cool in the summer, but with cavities underneath so that fires can be lit inside them during the winter months.
It all sounds like something from a history book, but there are qualities here that would impress the most forward-thinking of modern architects. Intrinsically linked to the earth, cave homes are, unsurprisingly, pretty kind to the environment. Surrounded by thick earthen layers, cave houses are very well insulated, ensuring residents are protected against freezing winters and scorching summers (not to mention noisy neighbours) without racking up huge electricity bills. Less building materials also makes cave homes very cheap to make and, importantly for this part of the world, they also afford better protection from natural disasters such as earthquakes.
Current cave-dwelling numbers may sound high, but in fact these communities are far from thriving. Lijiashan once housed 600 families. Now there are just over 40. Most caves lie abandoned or are used to house the livestock of local farmers, and Lijiashan’s school, with caves for classrooms, currently has just four pupils.
Lack of home comforts is one obvious reason for kids here to jump ship at the earliest opportunity. Remoteness is another – Lijiashan is an eight-hour, triple-bus journey from Taiyuan, Shanxi’s capital city – but the main reason the youngsters have scarpered is that living in caves just isn’t very cool.
Mr Li’s family has lived in Lijiashan for six generations. After his kids left the village to find work elsewhere, he and his wife converted their 180-year-old courtyard home into a guesthouse with cave bedrooms where Chinese art students stay when they come to paint the unusual village landscape.
‘The only people left here now are old people,’ he said. ‘As soon as the children grow up they leave. They don’t mind living here by the Yellow River. Sometimes they just move down the road. But they want to live in new apartments, not in these old caves.’
You can get to Lijiashan from either Taiyuan or Pingyao, via the mining town of Lishi and the ancient trading port of Qikou. Occasionally there are direct buses from Taiyuan to Qikou, but don’t bank on it. Taiyuan is about an eight-hour train journey from Beijing.”