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May 12, 2019

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Carving out a tourist industry in the rich soil of revolutionary heartland

YIN Zhijun, a farmer in Yan’an, a former revolutionary base of the Communist Party of China in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, moved into a “cave” house he dug for his newly-wed wife 30 years ago.

Today, his 25-year-old son plans to continue living in the cave in Kangping Village after he gets married.

Cave houses, yaodong, are a form of dwelling common on the Loess Plateau in northern China. Over half of the 1.5 million plus people living in rural Yan’an still occupy these traditional dwellings.

Taking the advantage of thick loess soil and favorable landforms, the sturdy and durable yaodong are mostly carved out of hillsides. They do not take up valuable arable land and are warm in winter and cool in summer.

American journalist Edgar Snow interviewed late Chairman Mao Zedong in a Yan’an yaodong as he worked on the classic “Red Star Over China,” a rare and detailed account of the Chinese revolution in the 1930s.

Yin, 52, has been living underground all his life. He was born and raised in a primitive earth house, which was humid and caved in during downpours.

When Yin turned 15, his family moved into a new cave half-built from stone collected nearby. Due to the lack of road access, the transportation of stones was both arduous and expensive.

Years later, he became a coal miner, earning 9 yuan (US$1.3) a day, which was much more than a farmer could earn from his fields.

In 1990, he had saved nearly 9,000 yuan and was able to carve out four stone caves before getting married.

“A man can only be truly be called a man when he builds a yaodong of his own and has a family,” he said.

Today’s cave dwellings are quite different from those Edgar Snow described. In “Red Star Over China,” he depicted a Red Army university that “was probably the world’s only seat of ‘higher learning’ whose classrooms were bombproof caves, with chairs and desks of stone and brick, and blackboards and walls of limestone and clay.”

Tap water flowed into Yin’s village in 1995, and natural gas came shortly after. Higher quality moisture-resistant materials, modern furniture, electric appliances and spacious rooms with plenty of daylight, as well as improvements in the natural environment brought by afforestation, have made Yin feel increasingly at home in his caves.

He said that when he traveled and occasionally stayed in storied buildings it was a kind of “suffering.”

Statistics show that over the past decade, over half of the 1.5 million rural residents in Yan’an have moved into new house caves built with stones.

Last year, Yin renovated two of his idle caves and rented them out, earning an additional 700 yuan a month.

With the help of a tourism operator, idle caves in the village are under unified management. Cave hotels offer a unique experience for tourists eager to have a taste of the traditional life and reminisce about the history of the CPC.

Ma Hairong, Party chief of Yin’s village, said 45 cave houses in the village are being run as hotels at present while another 25 will be available soon.

The renovated cave houses preserve the traditional heatable adobe bed, while adding some modern hotel facilities such as WiFi and cable TV.

“The cave hotels in our village are so popular that customers complain that it is difficult to book a room during the holidays,” Ma said.

Instead of working in the fields, 20 villagers have found jobs as tour guides and housekeepers.

Yin and his wife have been running a greenhouse for a decade. Before the highway opened, they had to transport their melons to a market about 20 kilometers away. Since a new expressway was built they can sell all their crop on the roadside in their own village.

Today, Yin’s family has an annual income of 100,000 yuan. Apart from running the melon stall, Yin’s wife has also found a job as a cleaner in the cave hotels, which can bring her a monthly income of 2,600 yuan.

Last year, Yin bought his son a car for 150,000 yuan. He said his son can either buy an apartment in the city after he gets married or come back to live in a cave house with a spacious courtyard.

Though Hao Shenglan moved into a new cave house years ago, she goes back to visit her old loess dwellings in the village.

“Those old cave dwellings have been well preserved,” the 72-year-old said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the village received 14 “educated youths” — some of the millions of young city dwellers sent to remote rural areas to “learn from farmers” during the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976). They stayed in Hao’s old cave houses, which have been restored to their original status and opened to tourists as the former residence of the “educated youth.”

The furnishings are still the same: an adobe bed, wooden boxes, a water vat and a kerosene lamp. “Life was hard then. The five or six lads were all crammed into the same bed,” she said.

Now, Hao has a job as a housekeeper at her former home, earning 600 yuan per month.

Ma Hairong said although many Yan’an people have moved into apartments, they still want to stay in the caves during holidays, recalling their old memories and enjoying the peaceful rural life.

“For Yan’an people, yaodong means home forever,” Ma said.

At present, with its revolutionary history and the short distance to the China Executive Leadership Academy (Yan’an) and Yan’an University, Kangping Village has become a revolutionary education and training base and an outdoor teambuilding training base, further boosting its rural tourism industry.

Last year, the village of only 300 people received 32,000 tourists, including some from overseas, and earned 1.2 million yuan.


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