He Hua emerges from his makeshift mine shaft, every inch of his body as black as the haul of coal he lugs behind him. Having woken before dawn, he has hiked nearly two hours through mountainous terrain to get to the coalface where his daily grind begins.
Like many of the illegal coalmines that are scattered across the country, these operations in Zhaoyang - officially one of the poorest districts in China - are unregulated and run by unscrupulous bosses who pay a pittance for the coal a small army of desperate miners scrapes together, usually in appalling safety conditions.
The tunnels are haphazardly reinforced with wooden planks by the miners. Few wear helmets, masks or safety gloves.
Government safety officials come weekly like clockwork, armed with explosives to seal off the entrances to the mines, fining any miners who are caught.
But it is little more than a charade; a snapshot of petty corruption in a far-flung pocket of China. In exchange for cash, officials tip the miners off before their visits. The feebly blocked entrances are then cleared by miners in a couple of days.
Proudly, He says the tunnel he has been single-handedly chipping away at for months is now 70 metres deep. He will make dozens of return trips up and down the shaft, hauling close to a tonne of coal a day. For more than 12 hours' work, he says, he will take home about $20.
It is back-breaking work - but for the men who venture into the hazardous trade, they are the top breadwinners in a village with no employment options.
Zhu Guangcai, a dark, wiry man in his late-20s who scales the steep slopes with sherpa-like ease, only started working in the mines a week earlier. He has an extra mouth to feed - his wife gave birth to their second child just over a month ago.
''You kneel and squat for hours on end but there's no other choice here, there are no jobs,'' he says. Zhu points to where a man was crushed to death after one of mine shafts collapsed.
''Every few years, someone will die,'' he says.
Zhu's home, Lengjiaping village (which translates, sombrely, as ''cold home'' village), offers a window to some of the challenges the Chinese government faces at the grassroots: increasing disparity between rich and poor, rapid urbanisation to the detriment of rural areas and even low-level party corruption.
To think of modern China is to increasingly conjure up images of bustling cities and towering skyscrapers, indicative of the nation's breakneck economic growth.
But despite the economic strides China has made in the past couple of decades - in the process, hauling hundreds of millions out of poverty - Lengjiaping, it seems, has been left behind. Here, in the isolated mountain regions in the north-eastern reaches of Yunnan province, the strain is showing.
Wang Jianfen, 55, lives with her husband, Zhu Xueming, in a one-room hut, about three metres by three metres, fashioned out of rock, mud and cement. To save space, they sleep in a crevice between the roof and ceiling.
''Life here is hard,'' she says. ''There's not much to eat.''
The harsh climate means potatoes are the only viable farming crop; boiled spuds invariably make up the majority of the villagers' diet. A pig is slaughtered for new year, the meat dried and shared among a couple of families to last the year. White rice, a staple throughout most of China, is a luxury in these parts.
There is no running water after persistent drought dried the wells. Fresh water has to be collected from halfway down the mountain and hauled up via a back-breaking two-hour uphill hike.
Healthcare is non-existent. Childbirth happens at home, with no antiseptic or medical training. Cradling his one-month-old son in his arms, Zhu Guangcai tells us he helped deliver the baby. It is as dangerous as it sounds. His wife's aunt died from losing too much blood during childbirth.
Other than the mines, there are few jobs in town and, with the cost of living rising, villagers say about one-third of the men have been forced to leave home to find work. Many have gone to Hainan, working for about $250 a month at a plant nursery.
''Who doesn't want their son to stay?'' Wang says through tears. ''But there's nothing here. We want our kids to be happy but, because of the burden, the young ones have to go out to work.''
Isolation is the biggest factor in the village's slow progress from Third World conditions but it has not been helped by corruption.
As one of China's poorest districts, Zhaoyang qualifies for a share in 20 billion yuan ($3.14 billion) of urgent government subsidies doled to alleviate poverty.
But villagers have yet to see any sign of the money at work. ''They say but we don't see it. We can't even imagine it,'' says Li Jianguo, a villager in his 50s.
Villagers are also meant to receive 10,000-yuan subsidies to build homes but Li says officials pocket a 20 per cent ''handling fee''. They also handle the procurement of building materials and what arrives is usually short of what is needed.
''The poorer you are, the less they give,'' Zhu Xueming says. ''The richer they are, the more they get.''
Most villages feel powerless to do anything when their rights are trampled on.
''The power is all with them, there's nothing we can do,'' Li's wife, Wang Guanyin, says.
The village's residents are also hamstrung by China's rigid hukou, or household registration system, which determines where people can live largely based on where they were born.
For those in Lengjiaping, this means they are even unable to relocate to the foot of their hill, where there is easier access to water.
However, the residents draw strength from a rather unlikely source. It is after dark when Zhu Guangcai ushers me into an unremarkable stone and mud hut. Inside, about 50 villagers sit on low wooden benches - men on one side of the room, women on the other.
Sacks of fertiliser and grain are piled at the back of the room, the small room illuminated by a dangling light bulb from the roof.
There are no stained glass windows, pews or statues but this, the cramped living room of one peasant, is the village church. Congregations meet at least twice a week.
Lengjiaping is predominantly made up of people from the Miao ethnic minority and it is devoutly Christian, due to the work of Samuel Pollard, an influential British missionary who arrived in China more than 100 years ago.
There are over 50 million members across China's unregistered house church networks, which are sporadically cracked down on. Christian gatherings are only meant to occur in officially-sanctioned settings.
Zhu Guangcai is different from most of his fellow villagers in that he has finished high school.
But the village is his home because he wants to help alleviate poverty and spread his religion.
In the hut that is a church, the villagers hold worn Chinese-language Bibles and hymn books - they are singing songs of praise. ''A-mens'' and ''ha-lle-lu-jahs'' fill the room.
with Sanghee Liu
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