Writing about the Chinese Hobbiton Lijiashan (李家山) is a big challenge for me. It is probably one of the most difficult articles I have ever written. Why? Because the power of the 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 山西 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 people in Shanxi still lives in a cave.
Chinese Hobbiton lies next to an old trading port town called Qikou (碛口镇). 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 are around 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.
Most villagers have left, just a few old people still live here and they have a tough life in these small cave houses dug into the mountain. When the sun rises, they slowly climb to the fields where 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 rise.
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.
In our hotel, there are no beds, just traditional Chinese kang (康). The kang is a big stone bed with an empty space underneath where people light 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.
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.
Pavel is an interpreter, guide, photographer and blogger. China and Chinese language are his passions since childhood, when he was fifteen years old he started to study Chinese, later he graduated Chinese studies from a University. He first came to China in 2009 and has been living with his Shanghaineese wife in Shanghai since 2012. He writes about China on his personal website www.bamboome.eu, where he also publishes his photography and short documentaries.