last cave dwellers
/ Guillaume Bonnefont
2012, Ziyun province, Guizhou, China - For more than six decades about 80 Miao ethnic minority people have lived in a enormous natural cave that stretches 215 meters into a mountain at an altitude of 1,800 meters. The mouth iof the cave is 115-meters wide and about 50-meter high. This is the last dwellers cave recorded by the Chinese authorities that houses an entire village of 13 families.
"I'm living in this cave since 65 years and for nothing i want to leave" said Yaomei a 69 years old Miao ethnic minority woman standing in front of her house built in the cave, deep in the poor, remote southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou.
For more than six decades Yaomei's village of Zhongdong - which literally means "middle cave" - is built in a huge, aircraft hanger-sized natural cave, carved inside a mountain over thousands of years by wind, water and seismic shifts and today 13 families are living inside.
Getting to the cave is extremely difficult. It takes some four hours to drive there from provincial capital Guiyang, the last hour on a dirt road which clings precariously to the side of a mountain valley, high above a river. But the final way up to Zhongdong is to walk for more than an hour up a steep, rough stone path hewn out of rocks. The cave dwellers are over 80 Miaos people and the families have constructed homes inside the cave, wich are mainly made of wood sheets of bamboo for walls that all supported by wooden poles.
The Miao cave dwellers grow corn on mountain slopes and raise livestock in nearby meadows. Electricity has arrived via wires strung over the mountains since 2003 thanks to hydroelectric plant in the valley. Four houses now have televisions. Satellite dishes are perched on outcrops at the cave's entrance and there is even mobile phone reception.
Prior to 1951, when the expansive cave was first settled, past generations of local people lived in much deeper caves to protect themthelves from war and bandits.Guizhou's "cave dwellers" have been documented in literature dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
But after the chaos that followed the 1949 Communist revolution, Miao people came in the Zongdong cave.
To try to have a better life, the cave dwellers built a small guest house and several restaurants In the 1990's to accomodate outsite visitors who were curious of the people's way of life.
Nowadays few visitors come to the cave and the tourist facilities have closed.
At the same time, the local gouvernment has tried three times to get the cave people to move to less remote areas close to the cave where better services can more easily be provided.
But the Miao people who were here quite a long time continue to resist to stay inside the cave as Luo Yaomei.
Now the local government has changed the tactics and plans to again try to develop the caves as tourist attractions, wich they hope will alleviate poverty in the area.
But mass tourism is dangerous in China and people may be surprised at this change in strategy.
Ultimately it may be economics that kills Zhongdong. Already many villagers have left to work in richer parts of the country.
Luo Yaomei's three children have all gone, leaving her to bring up their children -- her grandchildren -- in her thatched house blackened by smoke deep inside the cave.
"None of them want to live here," she said.