Sanmenxia Yaodong

Cave Houses of Sanmenxia City

Useful Information

Location: Sanmenxia, 陕州地坑院 - Shanzhou Dikengyuan.
Tourist bus from the Sanmenxia train station.
(34.691776, 111.133602)
Open: Not yet open.
Fee: Not yet open.
Classification: SubterraneaYaodong (Cave House)
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System LightColoured Light
Guided tours:  
Bibliography: C. J. Ma (2013): The Regeneration Design of Sunk-Yaodong in Western Henan of China, Applied Mechanics and Materials, Vols. 409-410, pp. 459-462, 2013
Gideon S. Golany (1992): Chinese Earth-Sheltered Dwellings. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, Press, 1992.
Address: Sanmenxia Yaodong, Tel: +86-, Fax: +86-,
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.


2000 BC people begin living in dwellings built within deep pits.
1368-1912 cave houses have a peak during Ming and Qing dynasties.
2005 protected as part of Henan's Cultural Heritage.
2010 cave home building technique listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.
MAY-2016 opened to the public.


The city of Sanmenxia was built on a loess plain. The tradition of building underground houses in the loess is here some 4,000 years old. Today around 10,000 underground houses exist in this area. The surface is a plain with some trees and hedges, and regular pits. There are trails connecting the houses and roads crossing the area. Some cave house owners added some surface buildings, mostly storage room.

Loess is very fine grained rock, dust which has strange physical properties. This size is grains is called silt by geologists. On one side it is just fine sand and can flow and be transported by wind. On the other side, when it is deposited, it behaves a little like solid rock. So if you start carving with picks and hovels, the removed material is soft sand and easy to transport, while he sand layer itself remains quite stable. So it is possible to easily dig caverns which are then stable enugh to live inside. The porous nature also makes the rock a rather good insulation, so it is normally dry and easy to heat. The houses are protected from winds,

Many houses in Sanmenxia are built by carving caverns into the loess. Those cave houses are called Yaodong, which means arched tunnels, or Tian Jin Yao Yuan. They all follow the same rules. There is staircase from the surface leading down into the earth. At the end it turns by 90 degree and then opens into a sort of patio, actually a square shaft dug about 7 m deep into the loess. On all sides are openings, arches leading to various rooms. This patios or pit yards are the reason why the houses are also called courtyard homes or pit yards.

Most patios are enclosed at the surface by a low wall, which protects the edges from collapsing. But it is not high enough to form a railing, so people walking on the surface must be cautious, not to fall into the pits. Not so difficult on a sunny day, but probably dangerous during night, fog, or when drunk. Some have a small roof with roof tiles along the end. Typically the walls of the pit are covered by plaster or a rock wall to protect the loess from the weather.

Many of those cave houses are still inhabited. The houses are easy to construct, cheap, warm, dry, and comfortable. Today many of them are equipped with electricity and other utilities. But the government tries to open some of them to the public. In a first step numerous houses were set under conservation. They are protected now, and some of them will be converted into a sort of museum. If you want to sleep, that's also possible as some of the cave houses have been converted into hotels.

The most well known cave houses are located in the southern suburb 陕州地坑院 (Shanzhou Dikengyuan). Here the houses were renovated, but unfortunately they were transformed into a sort of Las Vegas, with coloured lights and gambling machines. However, there are several houses which are still in the original state and some are even inhabited, so if your are polite and generous you might be able to see the interior. Or you visit one of the dozen small villages to the south, along S318, which are all underground. Obviously this is not officially recommended, as the towns are not developed for tourists.