The mountainous areas in southwest China's Guizhou Province are an enticing travel destination. But for Xu Benyu, the volunteer teacher who was recently honored as one of CCTV's "People Who Moved China, 2005" after spending the past two years there, life was about more than charming scenery. A tall man with a Shandong accent, he was born into a poor family in rural area of Liaocheng City in east China's Shandong Province.
Goudiaoyan village, embraced by the high mountains and excruciating poverty, can be accessed only by a narrow path winding through the mountains.
Electricity, telephones and mailmen cannot reach here. Until Xu decided to go there two years ago, neither could education.
Xu worked in the school in 2003, determined to help the children in any way he could.
"My mother was always ready to help others and often gave them food and clothing, even though our family was poor," he said. "My mother often told me to help people in need."
Xu's later experience helped him to realize just how important such help can be. The mother of one of his classmates gave him a sweater to keep him warm while he was studying at university.
"Others also helped me, so I wanted to pay them back by helping others."
Xu supported himself through a part time job at the university, devoting any extra money to others who had even less.
When he first read a story about the poor conditions of a primary school in Goudiaoyan village, Xu burst into tears and immediately decided to offer his help as a volunteer teacher. Perhaps he failed to anticipate all the future tears that would follow his decision.
After a month of preparation, Xu and four of his classmates left the big city for the remote village school. They took with them three boxes of clothes, a bag of books and 500 yuan (US$60) in cash.
Xu was shocked when he saw the Yandong Primary School, since it had the worst conditions of any school in the area. It was built in a cave in the mountains, without electricity or lighting. Natural sunlight that filtered into the cave was the only source of illumination allowing students to see their books and the blackboard. Two earth walls divide the cave into different classrooms.
The arrival of Xu inspired the village and the school. He quickly made friends with the students, teaching them to sing pop songs, play games and acquire knowledge of things they had never dreamt of before.
Xu and his old classmates stayed for two weeks teaching the students. When they left, the students walked many miles into town to see them off. Xu received eggs from the students, the most precious gifts they had.
"When a student stared at me and asked me whether I would come back, I said 'Yes,' said Xu. He could not resist the plea in the students' eyes nor turn down their request.
The promise proved very expensive and led to huge changes in his life.
On July 2003, Xu returned to the school after giving up his graduate studies, bringing with him more than 3,000 books and seven followers.
But awaiting them were poor conditions and feelings of loneliness rather than the sense of great beauty from the mountains and rivers there.
The villagers lived on cornmeal and preserved vegetables, while struggling with the giant flies that tried to share their meals. Fleas were everywhere during the long, wet nights, making sleep almost impossible.
The hard life drove away all of his helpers after a month. Xu had to run the whole school by himself.
But the biggest challenge lay in communication. The students found Mandarin difficult and had no knowledge of the outer world. Most had never heard of computers, skyscrapers or motor vehicles.
"It was really hard in the beginning. But I believe everything gets better if you put your heart into it," said Xu.
The biggest problem of all was the pervasive loneliness that, for 22-year-old Xu, was a real source of distress.
"The happiest thing for me was reading letters from my family and friends," he said. "Loneliness would bite during days without letters or electricity."
He admitted life in Goudiaoyan nearly wore him out.
"I would wake up at midnight with my pillow wet from tears. I felt pain and confusion in my heart. It was almost too much for me."
But Xu also took many surprises to the village.
"The students there can understand Mandarin and speak a little English now," said Wu Daojiang, the founder of the village's school.
The school has 250 students now, 50 per cent more than when Xu became the village school teacher.
"What's more, the parents have come to attach more importance to education," said Wu. "Their children used to collect nuts and wild vegetables and went their whole lives without ever hearing of cars."
Xu also struggled to build a two-storey building to house the school so the students could move from the dark wet cave which used to be their classroom.
As a volunteer, Xu received no wages or bonus and his poor family was unable to provide any support.
"The local government began to give me 500 yuan (US$60) a month after my story appeared in the newspaper and attracted attention," said Xu.
He has now volunteered to work in another school in the same mountainous areas.
"There are students there who are in even more need of help," he said.
(Shanghai Star March 16, 2005)