Modern Day Cavemen of Shanxi

Recently, Woo and I were in rural Shanxi Province, and noticed a series of caves carved into the landscape, off in the distance.  They were just dark shadows, really, but they were clearly man-made.

“Before, did people live there?” we asked the cab driver, like the good tourists that we were.

“Yes, but they still live there today,” he laughed.  “They’re called 窑洞.”  Yaodong, a cave dwelling.

“Really?  Like Captain Caveman?”  He didn’t understand the reference, at all.  I didn’t even bother trying to fumble it into Chinese.  “Can you take us there?”

We were on the meter, so he did.

Sure, people lived in caves in ancient times.  And I even remembered reading that Mao and his superpals had lived in Yan’an caves before liberation, but that was during war.  This was a peaceful time of expansion for China, and this was only about an hour’s flight from Beijing — the epicenter of it all.  How could this be?

But Shanxi wasn’t Beijing.  Everything we saw was covered in grey dust.  Grim factories, harvesting coal, seemed to be the bulk of industry… they were everywhere.

He took us down a dirt road, and through smaller and smaller villages, until we finally reached a cave village and convinced the skeptical locals to let us look around.

And you know what?  They were pretty nice!  Doors, windows, kitchens, electricity, goats!

“All of the young people have left,” this old man said.  “They’ve moved to the city, and to normal houses.  But I like it here.  It’s warm in the winter, and cool in the summer.  I’ve lived here for 60 years.”

60 years?  As a farmer, he only looked about 60 years old.  He’d probably lived in this cave his whole life.  He kept two goats tied up outside his door, and had an incredible collection of corn ears in his yard.




These posters on his bedroom wall… that is, his only room’s wall… weren’t 60 years old, but they were pretty incredible. That’s Wong Kar-Wai’s starlet Maggie Cheung (Ashes of Time, In The Mood For Love, 2046) from her early days, on both the left and right.  From long before she’d even heard of Wong, and possibly even the Cannes Film Festival (which she’d later win, jury, and appear on the poster for).  At about this time, she was just a recurring cameo actress, playing Jackie Chan’s girlfriend in his awesome Police Story films.

In the middle, the trio of lads are “Handsome Boys.”  (No surprise there.)  Echo assures me they’re not a pop group, but that “They are just three models.” I find it hard to imagine my grandfather keeping that poster on his cave wall.

One of his neighbors, who lives down the path in a hundred-year-old cave dwelling, repeated the “warm/cool” mantra.  The inside of her house was very dark, but she did have two rooms to herself.

“For old people, this is comfortable,” she smiled.


Then something clicked in her head. She turned to Michelle with a disapproving look, and asked, “Are you two together?”  She shook her head, when she heard we indeed were.

Historical Wonders, Modern Ruins /

3 Responses to Modern Day Cavemen of Shanxi

  1. Frank says:

    Not only rural Shanxi – When we visited Xian a few years ago, one stop on the way back from the Terra Cotta soldiers was a small cave community on the outskirts of the city. One cave set aside for chicken coops, and several were inhabited by older people. The younger folk had moved to the city.

  2. southerndysfunction says:

    I totally want to live in a cave now, once I am sick of living on a boat. I love this post!

  3. Dean Pickles says:

    @Frank, that's fascinating. I still haven't been to Xi'an, but this was only the next province over… so it does make sense. Love the idea of a coop cave.

    @SouthernDysfunction, get back here! We'll start making arrangements! Easter in a cave sound good?

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