By Xinhua writers Huang Haoran, Hu Chenhuan, Ma Yujie
About 2,000 years ago, Chinese businessmen rode horses, camels and hinnies along the Ancient Silk Road and Tea Horse Road to trade porcelain, tea and silk abroad.
Crossing some towering and treacherous terrain, these horse caravans brought prosperity to areas along the trade routes and served as cultural ambassadors of ancient China.
The ancient form of transportation disappeared long ago with the dawn of modern civilization, but has resurged in recent years with a new task -- to help with China's poverty-relief campaign.
REVIVAL OF OLD-FASHIONED CARAVAN
Yu Yulin, 47, leads a horse caravan with his wife in Xingguo, a poverty-stricken county surrounded by steep hills in eastern Jiangxi Province.
Consisting of 10 people and 22 horses and hinnies, their team now undertakes the transport of sand and stones used in the repair of collapsed earthwork of the West-East Gas Pipeline Project.
The road from the stones to the construction site is only 300 meters in length, but is so precipitous and sinuous that even the horses have to hold their breath as they rush to the top of the 30-meter-high slope.
"The animals are having a hard time under the scorching sun. We prepared liquid medicine in case they suffer sunstroke," said Yu.
Horse caravans were not a common sight in Jiangxi, but are now an indispensable force in the infrastructure construction of impoverished regions.
Yu was raised in a traditional farmer's family and had been working outside after marriage when they could hardly live off the land.
"We bought four ponies in 2001 with all our savings when a friend told me that a horse caravan business can make at least 10,000 yuan (about 1,400 U.S. dollars) a month," said Yu.
Living with the sturdy animals was unexpectedly dangerous. "Once we strode toward them with two buckets of fodder. They were scared and gave us a fierce kick. I hurt my waist and my wife lost two front teeth," said Yu.
Now they have become close friends. "We now know clearly when they sleep, when we should not disturb them, and we even learned to cut their nails for them," he said. Five years later, Yu received his first deal -- to transport construction materials for a high-voltage pylon.
For years, Yu and his team members have woken up at 5 a.m. every day and stayed busy until 8 p.m. Often staying overnight in the remote and desolate mountains, it is a common scene to see Yu and his wife walking around at night holding up a cellphone in search of a signal to call back home.
"We are busy with endless orders because a lot of construction projects are underway as government continues to push forward poverty alleviation and rural revitalization," said Yu. Now the county of Xingguo has nine horse caravans and an average 150 horses are working every day. "More than 80 percent of the county's power towers were built with the help of caravans," Yu said.
Despite years of prosperity in the coastal regions, pockets of residents still lag behind in the underdeveloped rural areas, which presents a challenge for the country's battle to wipe out absolute poverty by 2020.
China's rural population living under the national poverty line of 2,300 yuan in annual income was 98.99 million in 2012, and by the end of 2018 it had dropped by 82.4 million, with 16.6 million still living in poverty and areas with relatively poor infrastructure.
Xie Fenlan, 69, lived with his disabled wife and two granddaughters in a shabby adobe house in Lixi Village in Xingguo. The local government intended to build a new house for the elderly couple, but Xie had long dreaded transporting the materials up the 180-plus steps to his home.
Local officials then came to Yu and it only took three horses 20 days to move 30,000 bricks and more than 20 tons of sand and cement.
"If it hadn't been for the caravan, we wouldn't have been living in a new house by now," said Xie. Horse caravans have helped many other households in the village solve their housing problems. Xie, who has moved into his new house, has raised more than 100 chickens and ducks and the family will no longer be poor soon.
Local official data showed that all 183 impoverished households in Lixi Village have moved to new houses and 603 people have been lifted out of poverty. And Xingguo County, which administers Lixi, is expected to shake off poverty next year.
Yu, too, has made new plans to grow Chinese herbal medicine next year. "I'm sure horse caravans will disappear one day, but as long as life in the countryside is improving, we have nothing to worry about," he said.