As we were chatting idly back and forth, I was measuring the cave with my eyes since I had come to understand that this was where we were going to be spending the night. It was about seven meters long, 3.3 high and the same wide. Thanks to the door and the window built right up to the roof, it was bright inside. In full view of the window was the warm kang, three meters long and two wide, connected to the stove. Next to the stove against the east wall was a row of tables covered with bowls, ladles, plates, pots and other cooking utensils. Facing the door was a cupboard holding an alarm clock, a mirror, a tea set, vases, winebowls and pots. On both sides were trunk stands, on which were placed wooden trunks for clothes. Along the west wall stood a washstand, three jars of pickled cabbages and carrots, a water vat, a vat of pig feed next to a neat pile of pumpkins, and a sewing machine.
A painting on the back wall was drawn from the fairy tale, "Sun Wukong Subdues the Whiteboned Demon" from the classic novel, A Journey to the West. Apparently any monkey who was capable of subduing demons and devils was a good bet for the job of being protective god of the caves. The east and west walls were both covered with New Year pictures and the window with all kinds of papercuts. Over the wall against which the kang rested were affixed all sorts of pictures of flowers and plants known as "kang-side pictures." The Wangs had also drawn a design in the shape of a shrine on the wall over the stove with characters saying "High Positions and Great Wealth" written above it. We Chinese seldom miss a chance to invite luck into our lives.
Each time we finished our meal, Cailian, Wang's daughter, would scrub the stone range and the wall around the stove until they shone. It was customary here for the hostess of the family to clean thoroughly all the pots and pans, bowls and ladles, plates and dishes to win the praise of the other women of the village.
When our host was showing us around the yard, to my amazement I caught sight of two jujube trees and an electric pole standing right on the two-meter-thick roof of one of the caves. Seeing my reaction, he explained to me that caves built of stone could withstand heavy pressure. So long as there was no leak in the roof, the heavier the pressure was, the more solid the cave would be. He pointed to the stone roller on the roof and said, "Two or three years from now when the surface becomes more weathered, we'll have to shovel it off and spread new earth over it. And we will also have to roll over it until it becomes really solid."
Very often people traveling in the loess plateau of Northern Shaanxi are unaware that they are walking in the lanes or threshing grounds of a village until they hear people's voices, hens clucking and dogs barking, or see smoke curling into the sky. No wonder the poet has given us the line:"Carts and horses can run across the roofs."
Traditional cave dwellings are found all over the provinces and autonomous regions of the upper and middle valleys of the Yellow River, which cover 600,000 square kilometers and have a population of 40,000,000.
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. From a mechanical point of view, stone and brick caves are the most sold, but 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 General Xue Rengui (a native of Hejin County on the bank of the Yellow River) of the early Tang Dynasty is still in good condition.
Schooling is also held in cave dwellings.
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 meeting 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.
Cave 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 with in easy reach, they don't 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 wouldn't trade their cave for any apartment or "spacious" modern home anywhere, including Biejing. MaJinxi, our escort, stated his unwavering loyalty to the cave frankly, "I'd rather stay home in my cave than in these modern buildings in Beijing!"
It must be said, though, that not all these caves are ideal dwelling places. In fact, some of the old noes are not only lowceilinged and narrow but dark and dreary because of too small doors and windows. Meanwhile, however, living standards of the peasants are clearly rising_and as this happens, 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. Since today arches don't start until a considerably higher wall is built, large pieces of furniture like wardrobes can be put against the wall, with much more usable space being the result. In addition, modern builders fix fanlights above the windows, which means fresher air indoors.