The small Chinese village of Atule’er sits upon a mountaintop a half-mile high.
It takes eight hours by car to reach the 200-year-old town from the provincial capital of Sichuan.
Of course, there aren’t any actual paved roads in that remote rural area. But the 400 people who live there still try to make the most of the fertile soil, the scenic views among the clouds, and the half-mile climb down a sheer cliff mountainside that the school-age villagers must traverse to get to school.
The perilous trek to the local Le’er Primary School, which serves the entire Zhaojue County, is the stuff of video game nightmares.
It puts every cliched older-relative anecdote about walking uphill both ways in the rain to shame. And it’s the frightening reality of life in an isolated region with a literacy rate of 60%.
To aid in their descent, the children must rely on a haphazard system of 17 wicker ladders and, more recently, an adult chaperone-cum-belayer who secures them all with a rope harness around their waists. At least eight people have fallen to their deaths there, although they haven’t seen that kind of tragedy since 2009.
Children need their exercise, of course. But this is something else entirely.
Unfortunately, the costs of adding in the necessary infrastructure to these kinds of villages is far more than most governments are willing to spend. For example, a proper road into Atule’er would cost an estimated $8 million dollars, or $20,000 per person who lives there. So the government decided it was easier to just give $150,000 worth of sheep and let them fend for themselves.
If there’s any silver lining in this hazardous trip, it’s that the children remain at their boarding school for two weeks at a time before returning home for a five-day weekend — so at least they’re not embarking on a twice-daily risk. That counts for something, right?
Atule’er is hardly the only place in China, or the world, where children face this kind of treacherous journey.
But their story was enough to catch some viral attention in spring 2016 that helped turn their circumstances around.
CNN, The Guardian, and many other publications reported on the kids’ treacherous school journey in 2016, and this brief spike in awareness put some public pressure on the Chinese government. Eventually, official representatives were sent to the village to look into solutions.
In May 2016, they announced a plan to install a new steel ladder-staircase with railings down the side of the mountain. And in August of that same year, they actually delivered, with completion of the $150,000 project scheduled for completion in November.
This solution is far from perfect, but it’s much better than what the people of Atule’er were forced to endure.
Most importantly, it means that they won’t have to risk their lives for education anymore either.
The effects of poverty on remote rural regions is a serious problem across the globe. All too often, people in places like Atule’er are left to fend for themselves, which just perpetuates the cycle. Education is the easiest path to new opportunities, which can lead entire communities toward progress and prosperity.
Is that worth risking your life for? Absolutely. But no one should be forced to make that kind of choice.
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