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YINCHUAN -- Ma Dechuan has been living beside a ravine for decades. Before there was a bridge, it used to take him more than 40 minutes to cross it.

"I have been walking down and then back up the other side all my life," said Ma, 70, from Goutan village, Tongxin county in Northwest China"s Ningxia Hui autonomous region.

Though only 249 meters wide, the gorge is more than 30 meters deep. Crossing it was like going down 10 floors and then coming all the way back up again. There were no regular steps, just rugged trails.

"Elderly villagers were virtual prisoners here," Ma said.

The problem was not limited to people, but also what they grew. Farm produce had to be carried down by the villagers themselves or by donkey cart. Retailers were unwilling to bear the extra cost of transport.

"We have very good watermelons, but no one wanted to buy from us," said Ma Wenfu, Party chief of the village. "Transporting heavy, fragile produce was both troublesome and expensive."

Ma Dechuan used to plant potatoes, but retailers refused to make their way to the village and the price they offered was too low. They sold for 40 percent less than potatoes from the township on the other side of the ravine.

Villagers could be left nothing from a whole year of labor as costs were so much higher than those of the farmers on the other side of the chasm. Ma gave up potatoes and grew cereals instead.

"There was just no way for us to make any money," he said. "People left in droves to work in towns and cities."

Goutan is home to 360 households with more than 1,200 residents on registration, but only 700 people actually live there. Forty-seven households are below the national poverty line so Goutan was put on a poverty list and can only be removed when no more than 3 percent of residents earn less than 2,300 yuan a year (around $360)

"If you want to be rich, first build a road" is a popular saying in China and the county has been improving infrastructure, in particular building roads, but first they had to build a bridge.

In the summer of 2016, a bridge was completed at a cost of nearly 30 million yuan and Goutan was connected to the outside world. It now takes Ma Dechuan just one minute to ride his bicycle to the other side.

Immediately, he started growing potatoes again. At harvest, retailers arrived in trucks and purchased them right from the field. He made 1,500 yuan from potatoes alone.

"Now I really see some hope," he said.

The average annual income per capita in the village was 6,350 yuan last year, up by more than 50 percent from the previous year.

In 2016, 32 percent of all families in the village, almost one in three, were living under the poverty line. The ratio dropped to 13.1 percent last year, as the bridge narrows both the geological gap and that between rich and poor.

China has lifted more than 66 million people, about the population of Britain, out of poverty over the past five years. There were still around 30 million people in China, 144 in Goutan, living below the poverty line at the end of last year.

Ma Wenfu, the Party chief of the village, said more roads will be built this year, linking every household in the village. He expects the village to be removed from the poverty list this year.

"The bridge has brought our village to life. Some of those who moved away are now coming back," he said.


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