Chinese Cave Dweller

Ultimate Eco Living

chinese cave dwellerThe living conditions of cave dwellers in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province are expected to improve soon through the popularization of a new type of cave, according to a report from China’s official Xinhua News Agency.

Ma Heping, a 40-year-old farmer in Yan’an — the revolutionary base from where the late Chairman Mao Zedong launched his successful drive to win China — built a cave in 1999 that looks the same as other caves from the outside, but has entirely different indoor functions.

According to Xinhua, it is a two-story cave with living rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms above just like any normal house. Ma has installed a solar energy device on the roof of the cave, and hot water is available all day long.

The Loess Plateau in Shaanxi is honeycombed with caves. After the famous Long March, the caves in Yan’an housed the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee between 1935 and 1948.

People in Yan’an, in fact, have always lived in caves not out of poverty, but practicality — the earth dwellings are warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Modern cave builders have also found solutions to the problems of ventilation and daylight. The first batch of 40 new-type caves has been built at a cost of just 150 yuan (about $18) per square meter, Xinhua reported.

An estimated 70 million people live in caves in China today, following a tradition extending back thousands of years. The cave dwellers are mostly scattered throughout the northwest, where the fertile loess soil — deposits carried down by the Yellow River and other waterways over the centuries — make it easy to carve out rooms.

Although there are no official cave hotels yet, hardy tourists can usually find accommodation. Poor farmers are often more than willing to rent out rooms, with full board, for a payment of the equivalent of a few dollars.

The cave dwellings can definitely be very comfortable. Even in the middle of the harsh winter, visitors can curl up nice and warm on a ”kang,” a fire-heated brick bed.

Three types of cave dwellings are found in northern Shaanxi. Besides stone caves, there are those built of bricks and those dug directly into the cliffs. Known as ”earthen caves,” these are ready for use right after the doors and windows are in place.

Although stone and brick caves are the most solid, the earthen ones are certainly firm enough because the loess cliffs are solid, the air in the northwest is dry, and the inhabitants usually cook indoors — which helps to ”cure” the walls and ceilings and keep the inside dry.

It is said that after withstanding 1,300 years of severe weather, the cave dwelling of famous Gen. Xue Rengui, a native of Hejin County on the bank of the Yellow River, of the early Tang Dynasty is still in good condition.

However, after long years of use, the facades of the caves can become damaged. This happens most often during the rainy season, and the villagers have developed ways of tackling this problem.

Some simply cut off the facades and dig the caves farther into the cliffs. Prosperous families build eaves covered with tiles along the edge of the roof, which effectively prevents rain from running over the facade, the door and the windows.

Chinese cave dwellerCave dwellings that have thick solid roofs are never cold in winter or hot in summer, their natural insulation protecting them against such highs and lows. And since they can easily be built of materials within easy reach, they do not occupy farmland.

With all these advantages, they have attracted the attention of architects throughout the world, not to mention environmentalists who are impressed at their ecological soundness.

Outsiders often find it difficult to understand the intensity of cave dwellers’ passion for their homes, their readiness to declare that they would not trade their caves for any apartment or ”spacious” modern home anywhere.

Not all the caves are ideal dwelling places. In fact, some of the old ones not only have low ceilings, but are also narrow, dark and dreary because of too small doors and windows.

But the living standards of the peasants are clearly rising and they are building more beautiful and more comfortable caves. Doors are getting larger, windows wider and higher, walls taller and thinner. Old caves were built with roofs that arched too much so that furniture had to be placed away from the walls.

Today, arches do not start until a considerably higher wall is built, large pieces of furniture like wardrobes can be put against the wall, resulting in much more usable space.

In addition, modern builders fix fanlights above the windows, meaning fresher air indoors.

In other areas, such as Henan Province, other cave dwellings have been carved out of the sides of cliffs, either reached along narrow ledges or ladders.

Meanwhile, in Shanxi Province, on the border with Mongolia, vaulted cave homes carved out of granite are still being occupied two thousand years after they were created.

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