When armed bandits prowled this remote, mountainous stretch of the southwestern province of Guizhou in the chaotic years before the founding of modern China, the ethnic Miao villagers hid in the region’s enormous caves.
And there they have remained, even after China was united under communist rule, grinding out an existence of profound rural poverty and isolation.
The area is in one of the poorest provinces in China. The only link to the rest of the country, and the outside world, is over a mountain footpath – a brisk one-hour hike through a steep valley – that leads to a nearby road.
Over the past 20 years, though, the caves have become less secluded because of a steadily increasing trickle of tourists, who come to experience what local media have described as the last continuously inhabited cave in China.
A cottage industry has popped up in which the cave dwellers earn extra money by renting out rooms in their homes, which over time have clustered within Zhong cave, a limestone cavern big enough to hold four American football fields. The hangarlike cave is so large that their wooden or bamboo-made residences form a small, subterranean village built along its undulating walls.
During the day, the cave is filled with the sound of cows and roosters. On Friday afternoons, the laughter of children echoes and the smell of cooking fires permeates the cave’s cool, damp air, which offers relief from the heat of the valley below.
The county government wants the residents of Zhong cave to move to a nearby block of housing: low-slung, white-walled farmhouses with wooden window frames that were completed nearly 10 years ago.
Officials say that residents have not taken care of the cave, leaving it unsuitable for inhabitation, and that the government should oversee the village as it is listed as a protected community by the Getu River Tourism Administration, a local agency. They have offered each resident 60,000 renminbi, or approximately $9,500, to leave.
Only five families have agreed to move.
The remaining 18 families have held on stubbornly to their homes inside the cave. They say that the new homes are too small, that they fear losing access to their land, and that they alone, because of their historical connection to the cave, should have the right to independently control its small tourism economy.
“The residents of this cave should be the administrators of tourism here, regardless of whether or not we are paid,” said Wang Qiguo, head of the local village, who established the first hostel there.
As he spoke, his wife prepared a steaming array of dishes made from home-smoked pork and local vegetables grown in the valley.
After all, Wang noted, “The best thing about this cave is its inhabitants.”
Even residents who are considering moving out seem to agree that $9,500 per person is too little money, especially because many are elderly and speak little or no Mandarin, meaning they could feel isolated if they leave the cave community. They still rely on their nearby land to grow the millet and vegetables on which they subsist.
Villagers have also complained about the quality of the new housing, saying it’s too small and poorly made.
During the 1980s, the outsiders who most often visited the Zhong cave were local government officials conducting checks to enforce China’s “one-child” policy. The measure was deeply unpopular among the villagers whose children work alongside their parents in the fields, and tending to livestock.
Wang said that during those years, violators of the policy would sometimes be taken away for forced abortions and sterilization.
The single greatest change in the history of the cave was the introduction of electricity, only in 2002.
Surprisingly, the Chinese government did not bring electricity to the area. Instead, a wealthy American businessman from Minnesota, Frank Beddor Jr., was responsible.
Beddor first visited the Zhong cave in 2002, and would ultimately return several more times – donating tens of thousands of dollars to connect the cave to the region’s electrical grid.
His continuing financial support also built a schoolhouse and a communal bathroom, and delivered livestock and other assistance to the villagers – dramatically improving their quality of life.
But in 2011, the school was closed by the local government, forcing residents to send their children, as young as 5, to the region’s boarding school nearly two hours away.
Beddor died at age 83 in 2007. His emotional connection to the village is still a mystery to the villagers, some of whom remember the few times he visited the cave.
Wang Qicai, 39, a farmer who also runs a small general store out of his home in the cave, said young people may move out to become migrant workers, but many end up returning to have their families.
The cave, he said, “feels like home.”
“The weather inside the cave is amazing,” he added. “It feels like heaven.”