Lijiashan – Hobbiton in China, Chinese cave dwellings
Writing about the Lijiashan – Hobbiton in China, Chinese cave dwellings is a big challenge for me. It is probably one of the most difficult articles I have ever written. Why? Because the power of it being frozen in time and the feeling of lost pride being so strong makes it my favorite place in all of China. Is it possible to describe it with words and some pictures? No, it is not. But it’s worth a try!
We are in Shanxi province on the coast of the Yellow River. It is the birthplace of Chinese civilization; this is where China was born. Rough country, destroyed by the Yellow River, which changed its flow too often during its long history. Looking over this scarred country makes you think about how incredible it is that people have lived here for almost five thousand years. At a certain time in its history, one-fourth of all habitants of Shanxi were living in caves. Even today, probably one out of every twelve men in Shanxi still lives in a cave.
Chinese Hobbiton lies next to an old trading port town called Qikou. The Yellow River was getting so narrow in this area that it was no longer possible to transport goods on the river. That is why Qikou become one of the most important ports in China during the ancient times. In those times, Qikou had around six hundred families living here and some thousands of port workers. Today, there is something like forty families left; the local school has only four students. The Black Dragon, which was supposed to protect this town, failed, but his temple is still proudly standing on the top of the cliff above the river. However, its fame has faded along with the fame of the town. Local people are still bringing some fruit or cheap alcohol from a local store to offer as a sacrifice to the local gods. Other than that, there is just dust. You can hear only a strong wind screaming inside. The halls, still in good condition, make you feel small when you are standing in front of them. From the top of the temple walls, where two big bronze bells are standing, you can see a never-ending view of Shanxi country. In this direction, there is the lost establishment of a Family with the surname Li – Chinese Hobbiton Lijiashan.
From Qikou town, it is about a one hour walk to the cave dwellings Lijiashan. The name literally means ‘Mountain of the Li family’. On first sight, you can see that no poor people lived here. There are some poor caves as well, but most of them have huge, beautiful gates and some of them even have small yards. Today, these cave villas are just a memory of the richness that was here in ancient days past. All the people left. Most of them ran away during the war with Japan. No Japanese came in the end, but the fear of that cast out all the habitants. Most of them never came back; only old graves of their ancestors remain as a reminder of the presence of their families. Lijiashan was forgotten. And it overslept through all of Chinese modern history. No Red Guards destroyed it during the Cultural Revolution, so everything is still in its original form. Only the flow of time has touched this place.
Today, just a few old people are left here and they are having a tough life in these small cave houses dug into the mountain. With the sunrise, they climb to their small fields and they spend the whole day under the burning sun. When I got up to shoot the sunrise, I was not the first one there. Even before I saw the sun, I saw an old grandpa leave his house, carrying all his tools on his back. After an hour, I witnessed him finally arriving at his small field on the opposite mountain. He started digging in the strong ground. Just after him, the first bird arrived to watch the sunrise with me. The sun was just starting to wake up.
Some of these ancient houses have been turned into small hotels. We were staying in one of them. Most of these houses have more than five hundred years of history. They are on nine levels of terrace hills; the stairs connecting them are all original from the ancient Ming dynasty. No windows have glass. They are all still made from paper. Some of the gates head directly to the cave in the mountain, some of them first head into the small yards and then each room is a small cave dug into the mountain. This was our hotel. There are no beds, just traditional Chinese kang. This is a big stone bed with an empty space underneath where people can build a fire during cold winters. During the summer, the stone works as a natural coolant as well. There is no running water. People have to bring their own, but they do have electricity. Modernity is coming soon; the owner of our small hotel told us that they will have a running shower next year. Under the hill is a huge construction site. The idea of a tourist resort here makes me tremble in fear. But on the other hand, the local people deserve the easy life of a modern world. There is no easy life now. But the local people know how to make miracles out of nothing. The owner of our hotel made us a culinary fest with just a few simple ingredients. She does not ask anybody what they want to eat. She just prepares meals three times a day for all the people living in her house, mostly art students from the Shanxi province.
They come here quite often to paint this beautiful scenery. Twenty students can sleep on one big kang. I will never forget my night of drinking with Chinese students on the old Kang. You can get a cold beer even here. The owner has a cold storage area dug three meters underground in the middle of her yard. So all the beverages are perfectly cold and you can store various foods here for a long time. They do not have the luxury of everyday shopping. After all, they have to bring all the food up here by themselves.
Running away from busy Shanghai to Lijiashan is rewarding. The only thing you can hear here is the sound of nature, and the night I was photographing there, I also heard the voice of an angry dog. He didn’t like that somebody was painting with light from the long exposure of the camera. I was so into shooting, the owner locked me outside during the night. Fortunately, they do not have any toilets inside; you have to go outside to use the latrine. So I just had to wait for somebody to come out to the toilet with a flashlight in his hand. I even photographed the person walking outside our hotel. It is my favorite picture from the whole trip. For me, it perfectly represents the majesty, loneliness and magical atmosphere of this place.