Every night when we set up camp it’s either on farmland or very close to it, given that every square inch of flat land in China is given over to agriculture including road verges, spare pocket handkerchiefs of land between fences and homes, and tiny slips of land beside bridges and waterways. The skerricks of land that are left over are too steep to farm but also too steep to park on, causing us all to roll forwards under the dashboard during the night, like slow-rolling stones.
When the farmers are about we ask if we can camp, and when they’re not we choose a quiet site away from farmhouses so we stay out of the way of daily farm business, allowing the farmers to go about their work without any disruption from us.
Other times we park in what we consider a remote spot only to discover the next morning we are directly next to a ‘tractor highway’ as all the local farmers drive their tractors to work out in the fields. Did you know farmers start work at 4.30am? Neither did I until the deafening two-stroke engines rolling past had me leaping out of bed in the dark.
These extraordinary homes are the most common form of dwelling in this part of China – almost everyone lives in one. They are not naturally occuring caves, like those inhabited by the papermakers of Guizhou, but are man-made arched caverns dug into the compacted dirt hills of the region. They’re cool in summer, warm in winter, and have the advantage of not occupying any precious terraced land used for farming.
We thought we were far enough from the village that the noise of our generator wouldn’t bother anyone, but what we hadn’t counted on was how curious those local farmers were about us.
Perhaps they had never met foreigners before. Certainly they had never seen a fangche before. In their ones and twos, then in their tens they all came to say hello, ask a lot of questions, look inside the van, and watch us cook and eat dinner. Babies, small children, teenagers, parents and grandparents – all came. I imagine not a lot of work got done in the village that evening.
The next day, at their repeated invitation, we visited their yaodong cave homes. The village had all stopped work and downed tools for our visit, waiting for us under the great big walnut tree at the entrance to the village.
Yaodong have a natural, simple beauty. Each one is fronted by three graceful arched doorways with inset windows decorated with fretwork and decorative brickwork. Inside, the yaodong are light and surprisingly airy, with light reflecting from the curved ceiling of plaster-covered rammed earth.
The rooms are all furnished simply with a kang – a large earthen platform bed with a chimney underneath for heat during the cold, harsh winter months – a small stove, a cupboard and sofa, and framed photographs on the walls of their families, some far away. The first two arched rooms are for living, and the third used to store grain and preserved foods.
The farmers were so pleased to have us as visitors, and so proud to show us their wonderful neat houses. It’s a great privilege it is to be welcomed into someone’s home as a stranger, let alone the homes of an entire village.