Deep in the Chinese countryside I discovered a world barely touched by modern life (writes presenter Justin Rowlatt). Perching high above a dramatic bend in the Yellow River, where the Great Wall snakes down to the shoreline, sits the crumbling village of Laoniuwan.

It was the first stop on my epic journey through China’s impoverished countryside. We had driven our little bread van nearly 400 miles west of Beijing and you could hardly imagine a greater contrast from the bustling modern capital.

For centuries Laoniuwan was the outer limit of imperial rule and it feels like an ancient place. Along the mountain ridge great circular embankments still stand where once beacons were lit to warn of invasion from Mongol horsemen.

Cave houses

The entire village is composed of cave houses, dug into soft stone of the loess hills.

Wang Guisheng, a subsistence farmer who lives in Laoniuwan, showed me around the three rooms that make up his surprisingly cosy cave home. He told me that digging into the hillside keeps the place cool in summer and warm in winter.

I was to discover that cave homes are quite common in northern China – some 20-30 million people live in them (yes, 20 to 30 million!).

Cars absent

What was really striking, though, was the complete absence of cars. A single lane tarmac road wound its way below the brow of the hill but none of the villagers seemed to have vehicles to make use of it.

China is now the world’s largest car market and the biggest manufacturer of cars in the world, yet the automobile still hasn’t reached villages like this.

It was spring when I visited and Mr Wang – a shrewd and articulate man – was preparing his land for sowing. This meant, quite literally, donkey work: the only way Mr Wang could plough his fields was by renting a donkey.

Back-breaking work

In Laoniuwan one donkey is shared between two villages – a stark reminder of the poverty that still exists in much of rural China. Some 250 million people still live in absolute poverty in the Chinese countryside, earning on average around a third of those who live in the country’s cities.

But the donkey wasn’t the only beast of burden to be put to work. Mr Wang had spotted an opportunity to get a bit of free labour, his own migrant worker – me!

I spent the morning helping him and the donkey cut (no so) orderly farrows into the red soil of his fields. Back-breaking work – alleviated only by Mr Wang’s smirks as I struggled with the plough.

Vast poverty

The vast well of poverty is arguably the greatest challenge China’s communist leaders face. The government likes to talk of the “harmonious” society it aims to foster. If China is to achieve the harmony it seeks it will need to find a way to allow its quarter of a billion poorest citizens a share in the riches that China’s incredible economic growth has brought.

In Laoniuwan that seems a distant dream.