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A series of dramatic photos showing kids putting their lives on the line by climbing a 2,625-foot bamboo ladder to and from school forced embarassed officials in western China to propose a quick remedy on Friday: a set of stairs.
The 15 children ages 6-15 climb up the cliffside ladder to return home from the boarding school every two weeks. It's their only way to get home.
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 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 solid set of steel stairs would be built as a stop-gap measure as officials considered 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 showed 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 was 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.