How about the easy life - pleasant and comfortable, no need to walk the stairs. That is the way life is in Yan’an, in the Shanbei region of China's central Shaanxi province. And yet, if your China travels should bring you through the region, you wil find that life here is different than you could ever imagine. Most of the locals live the way their families have since ages past - in cave dwellings!
Yan'an is a significant Red Tourism destination, since it is near the ending point of the Chinese Communist Party's now famous Long March during the Chinese civil war. Many who travel in China to see Red Tourism hot spots come to see historically significant sites, important to the shaping of modern China. However, the local cave dwellings certainly rival the historically signifcant sites in Shaanxi in terms of interest and intrigue!
Nowadays in China, there are more than 3,000,000 Chinese people living in cave dwellings, with the majority of them in Shaanxi's Loess plateau. The plateau's unique geological makeup – yellow earthen cliffs and soft, compact sand and soil are easy to dig and make a great environment for building dwellings right into the earth!
As time goes on, more and more people are moving out of their family's cave dwellings and into modern apartments, which are popping up all over China. Not all, however, find the new living conditions as much of a step up as one might think. “Our cave dwellings are warm in winter and cool in summer; as well, it is quiet and safe inside,” commented one local farmer, “When I am old, I would like to have my roots in my original home.”
Most of the cave dwellings are dug with arched ceilings and decorated with either xuan paper (a high quality paper made in Anhui province) or pasted with colorful patterns. Some wealthy families even expand their cave dwellings into intricate complexes and use bricks to strengthen the walls, sometimes even going so far as to making traversing tunnels! With this method of "adding on," one family home might contain several functional rooms. Not only that, today’s cave dwellings can even be outfitted with electricity and running water!
Cave dwellings in northern China's Loess plateau date back more than 4,000 years. In the Shaanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia provinces of China, a layer of loess (a windblown sedimnetary silt) dozens of kilometers thick has allowed for cave dwellings to proliferate over the centuries. Due to the hard lives that farmers in the area lived, building a home right into the earth was a natural solution to the question of how to provide adequate shelter for their families while still being able to work the land for much needed subsistence crops.
In recent years, architects have begun to assess cave dwellings from an environmental impact perspective and come to the conclusion that cave dwellings are a low impact, highly efficient way to provide housing, as well as energy efficient for the residents. By building cave dwellings, farmers not only save arable land but also cut down on construction costs and necessary tools.
And so, all in all, despite how strange it may sound, there is no rush for the people of China's Loess plateau to move away from their time-honored tradition of building their homes right into the earth, and in fact, it may prove to be the best method of home building in the area for years to come! For a unique look into how China's central regions have developed, take a Xi'an tour and travel to the surrounding areas to see these unique local lodgings.