If you have kids or know kids who complain about their commute to school, then consider the challenges facing the children in the Atule’er village in southwest China’s Sichuan province.
The schoolkids are walking half-a-mile vertically each way, and must navigate steep cliffs, hundreds of feet high, on rickety wooden ladders to get to and from school. It illustrates the yawning chasm between China’s gleaming first-world cities and its impoverished hinterland, and the difficulties faced by China’s many ethnic minorities.
The place the Chinese media have dubbed the “cliff village” is in Liangshan Prefecture, an eight-hour drive south of Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan Province. The road traverses the fertile Sichuan basin, and climbs along the banks of the headwaters of the Yangtze River.
As you approach Liangshan, the roads get rougher and the mountains higher. The increasing number of tunnels have no lights in them.
I recently made the climb to Atule’er village, a poor and isolated community of 72 ethnic Yi families. Until the 1950s, the Yi, China’s second-largest minority with 5.4 million people, practiced slavery. Among those over 15, nearly a quarter were illiterate, according to China’s 2000 census. In Zhaojue County, where the school is located, the illiteracy rate was 40 percent.
Getting to the top of the 2,600-foot mountain can take anywhere from two to four hours. In recent years, several people have fallen to their deaths.
In some places, there are ladders made of wood, vines or rusty metal. In other places, there are ropes and steel cables — or nothing but a few clumps of grass between the mountain face and the river valley, hundreds of feet below.
At the top, the mountain levels off. There are cornfields and mud brick homes, surrounded by mist-shrouded peaks.
I stayed at the farmhouse of the Mose family. Most families in the village share this surname as members of the same extended clan.
They get a fire going in a pit in the middle of their living room. Their ceiling is blackened from the smoke. Outside the main living room, black pigs and cattle live in separate pens. The family kills one of their chickens and stews it for our dinner.
“Down there, everything’s convenient,” says 21-year-old Mose Xiongti, who works in construction in nearby towns. “You a can buy a pack of cigarettes or anything. Up here, you can’t buy anything.”
Mose says villagers raise livestock and plant corn and potatoes, but as there’s no road to get them down the mountain, they just eat what they grow themselves.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he says stoically. “We’ve got no money to build a home down the mountain. We’d sure like to, though.”
That night, I string up my hammock by a little creek and catch a few hours of sleep.
Early the next morning, more than a dozen schoolchildren and their families assemble at the edge of the plateau and prepare for the trek down the mountain for the start of a new semester.
The Mose family is sending their daughter Lazuo, 13, to school. She’s wearing a pink sweatshirt with “Mickey Mouse” printed on it. Lazuo is only going into the fourth grade this year, as her parents kept her at home until they felt she was old enough to make the trek down the mountain to school.
“I’m sad to be leaving my family,” she says wistfully, “but happy that school’s starting again.”
The kids stay in dorms during the week. On weekends, they usually head back home up the mountain. But since Chinese media reported about the village in June, local officials are under pressure to keep the kids from making the trek too often.
The group heads down the mountain in single file, the children wearing knapsacks. Some of the smaller kids are attached to their parents by ropes, for safety’s sake. Most of the kids have made the trip so many times they’ve lost count.
Halfway down to the school, Lazuo says she’s a bit tired, but says she’s used to the climb. I observe she hasn’t even broken a sweat. Her older brother Xiongti says that he sometimes makes two or three round trips up and down the mountain in a day and thinks nothing of it.
After three hours, we finally make it down to the school, a simple, two-story concrete building that has just been given a fresh paint job. Kids and parents are busy registering, getting health check-ups and moving into spartan dorm rooms. Chinese donors who were moved by past media reports about the kids unload vans packed with new furniture for the school and supplies for the students.
Their donations have allowed the school to enroll 50 or 60 more students than last semester, school principal Jike Wuda tells me. That makes a total of about 250 students in grades one through four.
But the children’s commute still “makes it more difficult for them to study,” Jike says. “As teachers, we of course worry about their safety, since they’re so young and the road is so dangerous.”
In other parts of southwest China, the government is relocating minority residents out of their remote mountain communities, to better integrate them into the mainstream economy and give them better access to services.
But at the school, Communist Party secretary Mose Jiri says that there are no such plans for Atule’er village.
“There’s no land down here for people to move to,” he explains. “So instead, we plan to gradually build a road up the mountain.” He apologizes for his thickly accented Chinese, adding that he never went to school.
He offers no timeline for the road building. For now, he says the county government will settle for upgrading the ladders, using steel pipes. So it appears that in the near term, the school kids will continue their commute up and down the mountain.
The difference is that steel ladders will be better than wooden ones, and both beat grasping at clumps of grass or nothing at all.
Atule’er villagers’ “living conditions have undergone revolutionary changes compared to 30 years ago,” says Fu Jiajie, a Shanghai-based ethnic Yi commentator. Yet they remain largely mired in the pre-modern, pre-industrial age, their development decades or more behind the rest of the country.
Fu notes that some minority communities, not only the Yi, which the government relocates to new areas, do not have the skills or language ability to eke out a living. Some turn to crime and drug use, and end up returning to the mountain dwellings they left.
For many majority Han Chinese, Fu adds, these social problems confirm perceptions of the Yi as backwards and uncivilized. The resulting discrimination against the Yi — unequal access to jobs and housing, and a pejorative appellation previously written with a dog radical, suggesting that the Yi were uncivilized or even sub-human — just compounds their problems.
But at root, Fu says, China’s government is at a loss for policies that can effectively bring the Yi into the modern age. “Local governments have tried all the methods and policies they can,” he says. “They need new methods and techniques, but they have none.”