RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're going to travel to southern part of China now where, just like here, kids are going back to school. NPR's Anthony Kuhn traveled to one village where that commute to school can be a matter of life or death.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: We're driving through mountains covered in lush forests of bamboo. We're on an eight-hour drive out of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, and we're headed for Liangshan.
As we head south along the headwaters of the Yangtze River, the roads get rougher and the mountains taller. My next stop is Atule'er village, a poor and isolated community of 72 ethnic Yi families. The Yi practiced slavery until the 1950s. The climb to the top of the 2,600-foot mountain can take anywhere from two to four hours. In recent years, several people have fallen off the mountain to their deaths.
We're just past the halfway point on our climb up the mountain, and the going here gets a tad hairy, pretty steep, and we have to rely on some ropes and some steel cables that are fastened to the side of the mountain to get up. And it's raining a bit, and the rocks are a bit slippery. Other than that, piece of cake.
At the top, the mountain levels off. Here, there are corn fields and mud brick homes. I'm spending the night with the Mose family. They get a fire going in a pit in the middle of their living room. Their ceiling is blackened from the smoke. Their son, 21-year-old Mose Xiongti, works construction in nearby towns.
MOSE XIONGTI: (Through interpreter) Down there, everything's convenient. You can buy a pack of cigarettes or anything. Up here, you can't buy anything.
KUHN: 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 them themselves.
X MOSE: (Through interpreter) There's nothing we can do. We've got no money to build a home down the mountain. We'd sure like to, though.
KUHN: That night, I string up my hammock by a creek and catch a few hours of sleep. The next morning, we shut the door to the Mose family farmhouse.
And we're off, headed for school for the start of the semester. More than a dozen kids and their parents will head down the treacherous slope together.
The Mose family is sending their daughter Lazuo to school today. She's wearing a pink sweatshirt with the name Mickey Mouse printed on it. Lazuo is 13 years old, but she's only going into the fourth grade this year. Her parents kept her at home until they felt she was old enough to make the trek to school.
LAZUO: (Through interpreter) I'm sad to be leaving my family but happy that school's starting again. I feel both.
KUHN: On weekends, the kids usually head 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 kids are coming down a particularly steep, basically vertical stretch of ladder here. It's nothing but a tangle of roots and iron and mud.
Some of the parents have attached ropes to their kids to lower them down and keep them from falling off the mountain. We finally reach a plateau, a good spot for a break.
LAZUO: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: We're just about halfway down, Lazuo tells me. She says she's made the climb more times than she can remember. And while she's a bit tired, she hasn't even broken a sweat. After three hours, we finally make it down to the school. Kids and parents are busy registering and moving into dorm rooms. School principal Jike Wuda says the kids' commute is a problem.
JIKE WUDA: (Through interpreter) It makes it more difficult for them to study. As teachers, we of course worry about their safety since they're so young and the road is so dangerous.
KUHN: The local Communist Party secretary is Mose Jiri - no relation to the Mose family I stayed with. I asked him if the government has any plans to relocate residents down off the mountain.
MOSE JIRI: (Through interpreter) There's no land down here for people to move to, so instead we plan to gradually build a road up the mountain.
KUHN: He offers no timeline for the road building. For now, he says, the county government will settle for upgrading the ladders using steel pipes. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan province.
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