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Xian: The Abandoned Cave House Village

Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a cave? Tucked away deep into the earth, quiet and cool, and a little dark… There are still many, many people living in caves in China, or working in them, like the papermakers I wrote of last month, and the area around Xi’an is rich with caves – almost all man-made – called yáodòngcarved right out of the soft red-yellow earth of Shaanxi’s Loess plateau – millennia of compressed and striated dust blown in from the Gobi Desert.

Coming into Xi’an by train, I noticed hundreds of cave-houses in the hillsides, and I became fascinated by them. Who wouldn’t want to see a real, live cave house? So I asked our lovely guide Melanie if she could help us see inside some, and to my surprise she told me that her parents, and her husband’s parents all have yáodòngs on their farms, sadly too far from Xi’an to get there and back easily in a day; so she proposed we visit a recently abandoned yáodòng village instead. Melanie explained that they are a common type of dwelling in Shaanxi province, the loess earth is easy to dig, and the lack of other building materials has made them popular dwellings for hundreds of years.
The downside of living in a cave however is the threat of collapse, ever present. In the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, the deadliest earthquake ever recorded, 830,000 cave dwellers perished when their homes collapsed. I imagine this is now why all the caves appear to be of fairly standard dimensions, four to five metres wide and with an arched roof, this combination giving the maximum stability for height. 

The other downside is that the Xi’an local government has decided that they are either treacherous, or an eyesore, or both, and in the spirit of making everyone’s lives better they have recently begun demolition on an entire yáodòng village outside Xi’an, to make way for a new high class housing development. In the interim, everyone has been moved out of the homes they’ve occupied for some generations, and required to relocate to modern apartments elsewhere, at approximately double the cost of their compensation money. Families were reluctant to leave but had no choice, although I notice a single dwelling still seems occupied, with washing hanging out to dry outside the door.

As we enter the demolition site I don’t know if the occupant is a stalwart resident or the caretaker living on site, but when we approach he comes out to chase us away – Melanie ignores him and we carry on exploring, and he gives us no further trouble once we’re out of sight.

In the village it is clear that the demolition is well underway, and all that remains are the caves themselves and the rubble of what were once courtyards and outdoor dwellings. Amongst the broken bricks lie smashed plates, old shoes, and bits of plastic, discarded remnants of lives left behind.

The cave houses are still fascinating, despite being stripped of almost every last vestige of habitation. The cool smooth walls have been plastered and whitewashed, and here and there a few posters and calenders remain pinned to the walls. The light inside the caves comes from the only opening, giving a soft, muted glow reflected off the reddish earth. Some caves are divided into two separate rooms, perhaps a living area closer to the opening and a sleeping area at the back of the cave.

In a couple of the houses we can see the remains of a kong, an elevated earth bed connected by a flue to the fireplace, by far the warmest place to sit and sleep in wintertime. In another, a tiny alcove within the back wall is now an empty shrine, under the lonely poster of a Taoist god – I’m not sure if it’s Zai Jun the kitchen god, or Cai Shen, the god of prosperity watching now over the empty room.

I wonder how it feels to go from living in a community of cave-dwellers to a high rise apartment, when a cave is all you’ve ever known. I ask Melanie what she thinks.
‘Some of them are happy, particularly the younger ones who wanted to move closer to the city anyway’ she says. ‘But the older people didn’t want to move. They liked it here.’

I can see why. The cave houses have a beautiful, simple quality to them, with their thick earth walls and soft light. Next time I come to Shaanxi, I ask, will she take me to a living yáodòng village? For sure, comes the reply.