Couple creates self-sufficient love nest

Tang Guanhua and Xing Zhen enjoy a romantic breakfast in the yard. The couple resigned from their city jobs and started to experiment with self-sustaining ways of life with the help of friends in an area in Laoshan Mountain.

Do you live on your own?

Twenty-five-year-old Tang Guanhua and his wife Xing Zhen answer by injecting new meaning to the phrase. They have created a self-sustaining home in Laoshan Mountain, Qingdao, in Shandong province, where most, if not all, of their daily necessities are self made with natural materials.

"Since I was in university, I have always dreamed of living with my beloved on our own, with as little effect as possible upon the environment," Tang says, "then I met Xing and we made it into a plan."

The couple started preparations soon after falling in love. In 2011 the lovers displayed some of their skills, like cutting their own hair and making soap from plants, in an exhibition.

The pair resigned from their well-paid jobs as an advertising designer and securities analyst, and after selecting an area in Laoshan Mountain started to experiment with self-sustaining ways of life with the help of friends.

In order to achieve their ambition "you need to master some necessary skills that are not easily seen in daily urban life," Xing says, giving examples such as making concrete and soap by hand.

They used the former material to build their two-storey cabin, which has three rooms on each floor, and which Tang says he feels proud of and is always willing to share with guests.

The couple refuses to call their humble home an invention because the techniques used to build it date back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). "They used the technology to build the Great Wall," Tang says, outstretching his hand, which is rough with calluses, "all it takes is some sand, clay, and hard work mixed with sweat."

The handmade soap and some other self-made products are sold online to support the couple's cost of living and to help maintain their website, Anotherland.org, which details their experiences. They also use the soap themselves for bathing - which is "not as frequent as in cities", due to the lack of water, Tang jokes.

"The only ground water source lies in a pool from a small stream about 50 meters away," Xing explains, adding that it is an unstable supply as it depends on rainfall.

To compensate for the lack of water the couple introduced another clever device. They installed barrels on the roof of their house that collect water and channel it into a purifier, which is also handmade.

"We produced activated charcoal by burning coconut shells and put it in a bucket with a tap on the bottom", Tang says.

The duo can connect a pipe to the tap to get water for their self-made roller washing machine. After digging a small pool in the ground, Tang puts two basins near each other in the middle and channels water in. The two basins roll around with the help of electricity to wash clothes.

"The biggest problem with making our own machines is we have no one to complain to about the service," Tang says.

The couple is well equipped to make their devices, with a whole wall of one room dedicated to tools that hang from hooks including pincers, screwdrivers and some of their own contraptions.

In another room, Tang has connected a generator to an old bicycle to provide electricity.

He rides the bicycle, which is fixed to ground, as part of his daily exercise and electricity is generated from the back wheel.

What happens when he is too tired to assume the role of a power generator? I asked.

"Ah he is often just too lazy," Xing says with a cunning smile before Tang can answer.

She points to the roof, which is covered with a layer of solar panels.

As a coastal province in Eastern China, Shandong can be extremely cold in winter and the height of Laoshan makes the cold an even bigger challenge for the couple. To keep warm Tang insulated the cabin with 15,000 compressed plastic bottles.

"We used waste bottles to ensure we were self-sustaining and environmentally friendly," he says, adding that it was a challenge to collect the number of bottles they needed as recycling plants were unwilling to donate them.

Luckily some friends of the couple at the Qingdao-based Ocean University of China lent a hand. They launched a campaign, called Save Your Bottle, in 2011 and had collected enough within three months, "barely in time for us to start adding an insulation layer to the love cabin," Tang says jokingly. Now room temperatures remain at between 16 and 18 C in winter, which is enough to keep warm and comfortable.

The couple is also attempting to make clothing. About 30 meters away from their cabin is a small field of cotton, which they use for supplies. "The old Chinese saying can best describe our current situation: The husband ploughs while the wife weaves," the pair laughingly says.

It sounds almost romantic to light fires with flint and cotton, but Tang, having practiced thousands of times, knows the reality. "The secret of making fire in this way lies in forgetting you are desperate and never giving up," he says, with a painful expression on his face, "I bet you won't want to try it."

The duo is not completely out of industrial society. Due to lack of land they plant vegetables but purchase wheat and rice. Xing also has a dog named Tuotuo and when any of them needs medical attention they head down the mountain to a hospital or vet.

"When we grow into a community, hopefully we will be able to produce herbal medicine," Xing says.

For Tang and Xing their self-sufficient love nest is only a small part of a much bigger plan to build a community where people can live together in an environmentally friendly way.

They are currently drafting a pamphlet, called Necessities for Self-Sustaining, which is based on their lifestyle and experiences. They hope it will be published and sold at cost price so more people will get the chance to read it and join them in their mission.

For the same reason they post videos on their website that teach the necessary skills for a self-sustaining life. The couple hopes to share their experiences to give people another option in they way they live their life.

"Ours is not a utopia," Tang says. "But we hope that the mode can be popularised so that more people can pursue their hidden dream in their hearts."

Contact the writer at zhangzhouxiang@chinadaily.com.cn

Xie Chuanjiao in Qingdao contributed to this story.