Fifteen children regularly use a rattan ladder to scale an 800-meter cliff on their way to and from boarding school every two weeks in Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture in Sichuan province.
The children, aged 6 to 15, belong to 72 families in Atuler village in Zhaojue county. The villagers go to the nearest market several kilometers away once a week using the same ladder to buy necessities and sell agricultural products, mainly pepper and walnut.
The ladder is a chain of 17 smaller ladders tied together, some even perpendicular and fixed to the cliff with steel bars or timbers. There are no safety measures. A villager in his 40s fell off the cliff and died not long ago.
Chen Jigu, one of the villagers, said the ladder is as old as the village, maybe hundreds of years.
"We replace a ladder with a new one when we find one of them is rotten," Chen said.
Most of the families live in houses made of mud, thatch and wood. The villagers said their ancestors chose to live in this difficult place to hide from war and tribal conflicts.
But that has led to great trouble in life. It takes about two hours for the children, led by an adult, to climb up the cliff, and nearly 1 1/2 hours to get down.
When a villager is too sick to climb down the mountain, a person must tie him or her onto their back to get down the cliff with the help of two other villagers.
All the villagers live hand-to-mouth on less than $1 (S$1.38) a day.
"Our main income is from the pepper and walnut," said the village head, Er Dijiang. "The buyers know we are from the mountaintop village and that we do not want to carry the pepper or walnuts back, so they offer a much lower price－we have no choice."
Api Jiti, Party chief of Atuler village, said: "It is impossible to build a school on the mountaintop because the area is too small. The school down the mountain has reliable power and water supplies and the living conditions are much better than in the village."
The living cost is 300 yuan ($45.70) a semester per child at the school. The education itself is free. But the boarding cost is still a big expenditure for parents.
"The government and the families try their best to ensure every child can receive education, because we all know knowledge can help them live a better life," Api said.
Jike Jinsong, an official at the Zhaojue county government, said: "It will cost about 60 million yuan to build a road connecting Atuler and two other remote villages. But the county government only has 200,000 yuan for the project."
Jike said it is unrealistic to relocate the village down the mountain because their land is on the mountain and the villagers will lose it if they move to other places, where the land belongs to other villages.
After the Beijing News reported the children's dangerous school journey on Tuesday, Lin Shucheng, Party chief of the prefecture, promised to build a makeshift steel ladder to replace the rattan ladder as soon as possible to ensure the safety of the villagers.
The government will later invite experts to discuss how to solve the poverty and transportation problem, Lin said.
Ke Lage, Party chief of Zhaojue county, said the government is considering attracting investors to turn the ethnic culture and picturesque scenery in the mountains into a tourist attraction.