YINCHUAN, Nov. 18 (Xinhua) -- In a small village tucked away on a remote mountain in northwest China, 18 residents and four donkeys are the whole world.
It has been the same routine every noon for the past 40 years. Tian Jisheng, 81, from Tianzhuang village, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, lassos his donkey and takes it to carry water from the nearby river or spring two kilometers away.
The slightly salty water in the river is for livestock, while the freshwater from the spring is for family.
Tian uses a small bottle to fetch water for the two buckets on the donkey's back. The donkey carries about 100 kilograms each trip, enough for two days of drinking for either the villagers or for the animals.
One day Tian goes to the river, the next day to the spring. An absence of work for just one day would lead to thirst for either the animals or his family for two days.
The old man treats his work seriously.
From his home to the river, Tian has to climb a steep slope about 20 meters high, and dragging his stubborn donkey is hard work.
With chronic pain in his back, Tian walks slowly, and the four kilometer round-trip takes him nearly an hour. He usually picks up some dead branches to use as a walking stick and later for firewood at home.
Tian keeps two donkeys for carrying water. "There were more people and donkeys in the past. But now there are just four donkeys left in the village," he said.
A 100 meter wide, 10 meter deep trench separates the village from the outside world. Big and small gullies as well as ravines cut into the valley. The lack of roads, and poor mobile phone signal, means residents generally rely on shouting for communication.
With barely any young people in sight, old couples "rule" the village -- heatable earthen beds, pipkin tea, long-stemmed smoking pipes ... they keep a traditional way of life.
Tian said that water-carrying donkeys are increasingly difficult to find, and are rarely spotted now that more households have access to tap water.
Last month, the regional government invested nearly 4 billion yuan (580 million U.S. dollars) to lay water pipes for millions of residents in the region's central and southern areas, including Tianzhuang village.
As tap water will run into the village by the end of the year, Tian's donkeys are soon set to retire.
"I am too old to lead donkeys, and I am pleased to be relieved of the job," Tian said. "But I am afraid that soon there will not be any more water-carrying donkeys to be found."