The television, cooking pots and worn furniture inside Zhou Mincai’s home are unremarkable – a collection of items that could belong to any elderly person. But underfoot, it’s a floor of earth. The late afternoon autumnal light does its best to light the home, helped by a bare 40-watt bulb – but the darkness is a reminder that we’re in a cave, its walls once part of a hill that’s been hewn into smooth surfaces.
Times aren’t easy for 83-year-old Zhou. ‘It’s not convenient for me to get water from the well, plus it’s difficult for me to feed the goat. The goat is naughty and I’m old,’ he says in Xi’an’s distinctive dialect.
Zhou is likely to be one of the last generations to live in cave dwellings around Xi’an in Shaanxi province. This area, together with neighbouring Shanxi and Henan provinces, is home to most of China’s cave dwellers, whose style of home dates back to the Bronze Age. There aren’t reliable figures on the number of people living in caves today, but one thing for sure is this population is shrinking rapidly.
Cave is perhaps the wrong term. These are not natural rock structures but dugouts formed by hand from the loess earth. Hills in the area are like Swiss cheese, filled with holes. Even the former Chinese leader Mao Zedong lived in a cave: Communist commanders used the caves of Yan’an, to the north of Xi’an, as headquarters from the 1930s to ’40s, and during Kuomintang airstrikes the dugouts provided protection as the rest of Yan’an was destroyed.
Julia Bartaux, manager of tour company Xi’an Insiders, first met Zhou when he was out walking his goat – a surprisingly common sight in Shaanxi. The company’s tour groups now frequently turn up to his cave in the village of Zhoujiagou. Zhou’s children are either unwilling or unable to take him and his wife into their own homes, so the elderly couple remains in the cave.
Today, most remaining cave dwellings are hooked up to mains electricity and some even have running water. But there is a big difference in the standard of caves; as with conventional homes, the size and condition of each cave reflects the economic means of the owners. Zhou’s consists of three connected rooms burrowed into a hill. But it stands in contrast to the residence belonging to the Wang family in Xi’an’s Hanyu village, which is little different to a house. Visitors to the area can stay here through Xi’an Insiders’ tours, and it’s even offered on the online homestay service Airbnb.
The Wangs’ residence is grander than most cave dwellings. Here, the centre of a hill was removed to create a central courtyard with caves opening onto it. Liu Yanlian, Wang’s wife, looks after the home’s four bedrooms and kitchen. ‘Maintaining a cave takes time and energy – most caves are just in the side of a hill and are under great pressure,’ she says, before continuing with a laugh, ‘but that’s the man’s job.’
Most inhabited portions of caves are plastered in cob. One of Wang’s bedrooms has even been whitewashed and has a paved floor. This helps to strengthen the domed caves from the threat of collapse and needs to be redone every few years. Dampness is a constant problem, particularly in the rainy season, so many cave dwellers cover the walls with old newspaper or calendar pages.
Zhou moved to his dwelling in Zhoujiagou when he was about 12 after his family’s original cave home in another village collapsed. Over the years he has witnessed the exodus from cave homes: he remembers 70 to 80 families in his youth living in the dugouts around Zhoujiagou, but now that number has dwindled to just six. It’s a similar story in Hanyu, where most people now live in houses in the village, often with a cave still accessible behind their house but just used for storage. While the younger generation recognises the cave’s benefits of insulation from weather extremes, they would rather have a modern lifestyle. As the older generation grows too old to live by themselves, most have gone to live with their children in these houses.
To bring the Wang family cave up to a required standard for housing guests, Xi’an Insiders created a new entrance to one of the bedrooms and brought in a portable toilet. ‘I was looking for a place of a suitable standard in the countryside so we didn’t have to keep bringing overnight tour guests back to the city,’ says Bartaux. ‘We were already visiting this cave and thought it would be an ideal location and great experience for guests.’ Many of the overnight guests are in fact Chinese wanting to experience cave life.
For 65-year-old Liu, looking after the complex has become a full-time job and she welcomes visitors’ interest in this alternate lifestyle. ‘People come because they like the place and want to experience it, not because they think we are poor.’
In fast-developing China there is also the ever-prevalent threat of demolition. Such a threat is now facing the Hanyu caves as a highway inches its way closer. Currently the residents are uncertain of the exact route and which dwellings will disappear, but the Wang family’s cave is likely to be affected.
Liu lived in a regular house until age 22, when she married Wang, but she is now a staunch proponent of living in caves. She estimates this cave has belonged to her husband’s family for seven generations. If it does escape the bulldozer, her eldest son would like to live there after her – he grew up there and finds it comfortable.
‘There’s nothing we can do about it,’ says Liu with resignation. But she adds firmly, ‘I like living here. I’ll stay until the last moment.’
Cathay Dragon flies to Xi’an from Hong Kong seven times a week