ZHONGDONG, China — Every morning, the children in raggedy clothes perch on the rocky mountain ridge, waiting for a skinny figure to stumble into view.
If Yang Zhengxue makes it, there will be school. If he doesn't, there will not.
Yang is the only teacher in this remote corner of southern China. His students live high up in a huge limestone cave, an almost prehistoric habitat without electricity, running water or any other amenity that would identify it as a home for residents of the 21st century.
He is their only bridge to the modern world.
"We don't have a tradition for education here. So many villages in this area have no school at all," said Yang, who treks up and down craggy peaks and through muddy fields for an hour and a half to reach his students. "If I give up, it will be the end of this school."
It's a heavy burden for a 38-year-old whose own education peaked at middle school. His sense of mission highlights the monumental task his country faces in educating the most populous nation on Earth.
While technically still a developing nation, China wants to project the image of a rising global power, one capable of hosting the 2008 Olympics and embracing world trade. The Communist leadership in Beijing knows that education is a basic building block that makes everything else possible.
The Communist government has made enormous strides to combat illiteracy since coming to power more than five decades ago. In 1949, the country's illiteracy rate was 80%; it has dropped to 6.7%, according to the latest government census, in which literacy is loosely defined.
But a huge education gap persists between the wealthier coastal cities and the impoverished inland countryside. Failure to narrow the schism could have lasting repercussions on the country's developmental ambitions.
"China's education system is a giant pyramid. At the top is a few highly educated people, and at the bottom is a huge base of 1.3 billion who are barely educated at all," said Zhong Dajun, who runs a private research center in Beijing. "The difference between ignorance and knowledge is the difference between poverty and wealth."
The hardships of the cave students and this mountainous area's historic isolation and primitiveness make it an extreme example of the unevenness of development in the country.
The spectacular limestone peaks and lush green forests surrounding the cave where the children and their families live look deceptively inviting. But life here is so poor and underdeveloped, it's no wonder that every other teacher quit. Yang, however, still makes the arduous hike from his home several mountains away, every day weather permits. He's been doing it for almost 15 years.
"When he arrived, there were five teachers. Now he's the only one left," said Wang Qixiang, 17, a former student of Yang's.
The cave sits several hours' walk across rocky mountain terrain from the nearest road and about five hours' drive from Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province.
Unless one knows the cavern exists, it's almost impossible to spot it among the endless rolling slopes that dominate the landscape. That's why people chose to live here: It was a perfect hideaway from warlords, armed bandits and tax collectors who terrorized the country before the Communist revolution.
The 70-odd cave dwellers call their home Zhongdong, or middle cave. It's the largest of the three natural caverns in the area and the only one hospitable to long-term residence because it goes deep into the mountainside, a kind of underground stadium.
The other two are hardly caves at all, but hang on the forested path to Zhongdong like giant archways along an emerald stairway to the skies.
Inside, however, Zhongdong is far from paradise. Two dozen shanties with plastic for roofs and straw sheets for walls squat under the cave's porous moonscape ceiling. The air is a potent cocktail of pigsty waste and human sweat. The only source of water trickles down in tiny droplets from a crack in the darkness above.
Daylight peeks in through a thick curtain of bamboo shielding the large entrance. Most families can't afford to buy candles, so they huddle around a campfire in the middle of the dirt floor. An eerie silence reigns except for the pounding echo of stone tools being used to press corn into flour.
Cave dwelling used to be popular in this area of Guizhou. Various poverty-alleviation programs have succeeded in relocating some residents, but others have refused to leave, usually because they worry about making ends meet outside.
Those who remain eke out a living by hawking their precious few chickens, pigs and cows to markets far below the mountains. Those too old or frail to raise livestock subsist on corn, the only crop that grows in this hilly terrain.
The 20 families who live in Zhongdong belong to the ethnic Miao minority. They speak their own tongue and don't understand Mandarin, the national dialect.