lijiashan village cave houses china

Lijiashan – Staying in the Cave Houses of China

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Walking along the half-frozen Yellow River for about 7 kilometers, I turn and climb the hill to Lijiashan ( 李家山 ) – excited to see a village of cave houses deep in a valley of terraces.


Intro + My experience in 2011

Getting There + Advice

Revisiting in 2020 – Is it still worth it?

cave houses lijiashan village china
How it was back in winter 2011 – Chinese New Year period.

For around 5000 years in Shanxi Province people have lived in cave houses.

It makes sense as the earthen-surrounds means cool housing in the scorching summer and relative warmth during the brutal winters. (Another plus is that earth is good sound-proofing.)

panorama lijiashan cave house village china
Panorama of Lijiashan Village from across the valley.

Lijiashan – Li Family Mountain – is a Ming-era settlement (550 years old) that was home to wealthy merchants from the nearby Yellow River trading port of Qikou.

Today, the village is home to farmers

lijiashan village cave houses china
Cave houses amid surreal, frozen surrounds.

Some houses of Lijiashan can be rather fancy, not just caves built into the hillside, but with stone and brick facades and tiled interiors, surrounded by courtyards.

lijiashan cave house meal
Inside a simple cave house where I stayed a couple of nights, drinking baijiu with the Dad. LOWER RIGHT: The Kang bed I slept on, with heated chamber beneath – feed by the stove fire.

I slept on a Kang bed – a brick base that doubles as a bed and daytime seating area.

Now, in winter, heat from the coal fire cooking area funnels under my bed, providing warmth day and night, with a roof-vent to allow smoke outside.

In the walled courtyard of the cave house complex: the family who I stayed with in Lijiashan in January 2011.

How to Get to Lijiashan Cave Village

Transportation schedules often change – so I won’t bother listing anything except to say, one of the best ways is to bus-hop by going to a bus station.

Start at Pingyao – yes, do visit China’s best preserved ancient walled-city – and get a mini-bus to Luliang Lishi coach station ( 吕梁离石汽车站 ).

Then grab one of several daily mini-buses to Qikou ( 碛口镇 ), which will take up to 3 hours. (NOTE: You have to come this way if using public transport, but Qikou is an ancient riverport town also worth a visit.)

lijiashan village scenes china
Scenes from Winter in the cave village (2011) including a – frozen – stream that runs thru the valley of Lijiashan Village.

Back in the day, I walked from Qikou about an hour along the Yellow River and uphill to Lijiashan (but you can hire a taxi there now as the walk is nowhere near as scenic as it once was: construction + beautification, alias).

Maybe, you’ll leave Qikou and go direct to Taiyuan ( 太原市 ); it’s a 5 hour trip.

man smoking pipe lijiashan village china
Farmer enjoys a pipe.

In 2011, I stayed in Lijiashan for 2 nights and along with journey time there and onwards, you really need 4 or 5 days – if including a night in Qikou – to do the journey justice, traveling leisurely and without stress.

This area is not one you want to rush thru, so take it easy and wander at the local pace!

My advice – MRP
frozen yellow river lijiashan china
Partially-frozen Qiushui River (a tributary of the Yellow River) seen from the dry terraces in winter.
cave house amid hill lijiashan china

Revisiting Lijiashan in 2020

Traveling Shanxi province in our van, Wei and I wanted to visit (revisit for me) the cave houses.

Now, a major road has been cut up the valley and a large car park is being built, along with public toilets.

It was searing hot.

And unlike the winter of 2011, the barren frozen surrounds were green.

lijiashan scenes summer 2020
Verdant vegetation aside, Lijiashan had changed – been beautified. Center left: Wei in a complex for visiting art students; she had a good chat with the owner and one of the few remaining locals (her video-interview is on our Chinese social media account); we bought some walnuts and dried fruit from him.

The revisit was disappointing.

Instead of a quaint living village that I so fondly remembered, it’s now like a deserted outdoor museum.

The center of the village has been renovated and paths paved, and the work is on-going. Apparently, within the next 2 years construction will be complete and entrance tickets will apply.

Furthermore, the family I’d stayed with had moved out and the house now accommodated workers involved in the renovations. The few remaining locals sold produce.

In 2020, inhabited houses in Lijiashan number about 10 – down from 50 in 2011.

Yet the village will soon be reborn – this time as another Chinese Disney-tourism site, with hip guesthouses, restaurants and associated kitsch.

Is it still worth visiting?

Yes, Lijiashan remains impressive for the first time visitor. Just get there before it becomes a maddening tourist zone.


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