ZHONGDONG, China (Reuters) - For Wang Fengguan, a man's cave is his castle. He lives in a huge one -- and he has no intention of leaving. Neither do any of the other 20 families in his village.
"Where else would we go?" said Wang, sitting in his house, built in the cave where his family has lived for more than half a century, deep in the poor, remote southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou.
"This is our home. We are used to it," he added, in uncertain sounding Mandarin.
Wang's village of Zhongdong -- which literally means "middle cave" -- is built in a huge, aircraft hanger-sized natural cave, carved inside a mountain over thousands of years by wind, water and seismic shifts.
In other parts of China people live in houses tunneled out of hillsides, but Zhongdong is, the local government believes, the last place in the country where people live year-round in a naturally occurring cave.
The villagers are all ethnic Miao people, supposedly related to Southeast Asia's Hmong, and one of several minority groups who live in Guizhou.
Getting to the cave is extremely difficult. It takes some four hours to drive there from provincial capital Guiyang, the last hour on a dirt road which clings precariously to the side of a mountain valley, high above a river.
But the final way up to Zhongdong is to walk for more than an hour up a steep, rough stone path hewn out of rocks.
Everything must come up the path -- food, concrete and even washing machines.
The government has built houses for the villagers in a valley below the cave, but they don't want to go, saying the houses are "not up to standard" and leak during the heavy rains which characterize Guizhou's damp climate.
"We thought about moving, but we don't want to go," said Wang Houzhong, sitting on the floor splitting bamboo to make mats.
"We are China's last cave dwellers," he added, axe in hand. "Life is very bitter for us."
ROOM FOR OPTIMISM
To be sure, life in the village is tough. Villagers say they are lucky to make even 1,000 yuan ($129) per family a year.
Women give birth at home, in houses with dirt floors and wood-fired hearths. The nearest hospital is a five-hour walk away.
But in the last few years life has improved considerably, they say, somewhat optimistically.
Electricity has arrived via wires strung over the mountains, and there is a primary school, which like almost every other building in Zhongdong has no roof. It does not need one as the buildings are deep inside the cave.
Four houses now have televisions, some with DVD players, and some have washing machines. Satellite dishes are perched on outcrops at the cave's entrance and there is even mobile phone reception.
The school has revolutionized life, villagers say. The children happily chat away in clear, unaccented Mandarin, unlike their parents and grandparents who still struggle with China's official language or don't speak it at all.
"When I was younger, we used to have to walk three hours to school, and then three hours to get back home," said Wang Fengguan. "The new school is great."
Adult literacy classes are also held. Progress is marked on the household registration forms pinned outside homes, with the Chinese characters for "has escaped illiteracy" placed next to the names of adults who have attended class.
Daily necessities are still a struggle though. Villagers make the five-hour trek to the county town once a week to buy the things they cannot make or grow, like toothpaste and soap, and to sell their cattle.
Water supplies are limited in the dry season. Buckets are set up around the cave to catch drips.
Residents are building wells into the cave's floor, and are busy concreting them -- a measure, perhaps, of their commitment to stay in their remote home.
Exactly when their ancestors moved into the cave, and why, is a subject of debate.
Some villagers say they have been there for generations. Others say they only moved in following the chaos that followed the 1949 Communist revolution, to escape bandits.
There is a lower cave, too damp for habitation, and an upper cave that also has no residents.
But ultimately it may be economics that kills Zhongdong. Already many villagers have left to work in richer parts of the country.
Luo Yaomei's three children have all gone, leaving her to bring up their children -- her grandchildren -- in her thatched house blackened by smoke at the cave's entrance.
"None of them want to live here," she said. "Of course the outside world is better," Luo added, sadly.
(Additional reporting by Kitty Bu)