BEIJING - Just to get home from school, they climb 800 meters (more than 2,500 feet) toward the sky - on a ladder made of bamboo and secured to a sheer cliff face.
After pictures surfaced of the challenging trek faced by schoolchildren in a poor corner of China's mountainous west, their village may be getting some assistance by way of a safer, more modern piece of infrastructure: a solid set of steel stairs.
The hardship faced by residents in the village of Atuleer in Sichuan province underscores the vast gap in development between China's prosperous, modern east and parts of the remote inland west that remain mired in poverty.
The bamboo ladder is the only means of access to the village to which the 15 children age 6-15 return every two weeks from the school at which they board. The 72 families who live there are members of the Yi minority group and subsist mainly by farming potatoes, walnuts and chili peppers.
A news release Friday from the Liangshan prefectural government that oversees the county said a set of stairs would be built as a stop-gap measure while officials consider a longer-term solution.
It quoted local residents as saying that in addition to the safety issue, the ladder-only access exposed villagers to exploitation because traders knew they would be unable to carry unsold produce back up the cliff.
"The most important issue at hand is to solve the transport issue. That will allow us to make larger-scale plans about opening up the economy and looking for opportunities in tourism," county Communist Party Secretary General Jikejingsong was quoted as saying in the news release.
The dramatic photos that appeared online earlier this week show children wearing colorful backpacks climbing the 17 separate ladders accompanied by a pair of adults. The photos garnered even more attention after appearing on the front page of the English-language China Daily and other newspapers on Thursday.
A team of 50 officials from the Zhaojue county government's transport, education and environmental protection departments traveled to the area on Wednesday to assess safer alternatives, the Global Times reported Friday. It said the county is considering building a road to the village, although the cost would be exorbitant for such a poor region.
China pulled almost 700 million people out of poverty following the implementation of economic reforms in the early 1980s and says less than 10 percent of the population still suffers from extreme privation.
Most of China's poorest people are from long-marginalized minority groups or are farmers and herders living in the mountainous southwest, where rope bridges, aerial runways, canoes and cliffside ladders remain crucial to accessing the outside world.