Friday, February 25, 2011

The Mountain Porter - Huangshan Mountain, China

A Huangshan Mountain Porter Showing the Strain of His Labor
Living and working overseas gave me the opportunity to see how many different people earn their living.  As much as we all take pride in how hard we work or used to work, there are those people throughout the world that most likely work much harder than us and for a great deal less money than we do.

Malaysian Rubber Plantation Workers Offload Raw Latex at Field Station
During my time in Malaysia I encountered some very hard working people - rubber plantation workers outside of Kuantan in the State of Pahang Darul Makmur.  These thin and wiry men went about the vast rubber plantation on small motorbikes collecting the latex one-half balls that were formed in the process of tapping the rubber trees.  We found the workers discharging their harvest at a small weigh-in station in the heart of the plantation.  The workers were hot and sweaty from the jungle's hot and humid air along with their physical exertions associated with walking from tree to tree to collect a semi-spherical glob of tree sap, loading their bike up with hundreds of these globs and perilously navigating the trails back to the weigh station to offload their cargo and recommence the process.  It appeared that their pay was related to how much material they brought to the station for the men were very hectic as well as frantic in the labor.  The smell of the raw latex only seemed to accentuate the sense of urgency about the workers.  I often think of these men as some of the hardest working people that I have ever encountered - so far.

Malaysian Rubber plantation Weigh-In Station
Another group of hard working men are the mountain porters of Huangshan Mountain (Yellow Mountain).  I became familiar with them in 2004 during a photography tour of China or more correctly a potion of China.  Three weeks in China only serves to remind you of how much you have missed and why you need to return to witness and photograph in the vast and very interesting land.

As I wrote in yesterday's blog, Huangshan Mountain receives over 15 million visitors a year.  It is a national park so there are certain environmental as well as land use restriction placed upon the area.  Access to the upper reaches of the peaks is by cable cars or hiking up trails.  As tourists on a three week tour we took the cable cars up and down the mountains.

We originally stayed in the Cloud Valley, elevation 890 meters (2,920 feet) at the base of the mountains.  We spent one night on the mountain at the Bei Hai Guest House, elevation 1,630 meters (5,347 feet).  To get to the Bei Hai Guest House we took an 8 minute approximately 2,500 foot ascent by way of cable car.  Needless to say, the view and scenery were spectacular.  Since we were only spending one night on the mountain we took only a small overnight bag with us.  The remainder of our luggage remained in storage in the Cloud Valley.

At the terminus of the cable car, we were greeted by porters who offered to carry luggage up to the hotel(s).  I don't know if I was cheap, proud, or a masochist but I ended up carrying my backpack of camera gear on my back and lugging our overnight carry-on sized bag the twenty minutes UP to the hotel.  The porters typically carried 6 to 8 bags distributed 3 to 4 bags on the ends of a bamboo pole carried across their shoulders.  I estimate that they were carrying roughly 120 to 160 pounds of luggage each.  In addition they were constantly passing me up the paved trail and stairs to the hotel area.  That was my introduction to the hard working mountain porters of Huangshan.

 Porters Hauling Supplies to Observation Station On Huangshan Mountain
I later found out and observed that all materials required to support tourism and the government observatory on the mountain are transported up and down the mountain on the backs of the porters.  Foods, drinks, linens, cleaning supplies, alcohol, paper goods and all other items required to maintain and satisfy tourists and resident workers on the mountain are bundled up and hauled up the mountain on a trail that rises almost a mile from the valley to the mountain peaks.  Waste, garbage, and dirty linens are hauled down the mountain along the trails to the valley for disposition.

Food On Its Way to the Observatory
The porters to the government observation station on the mountain are apparently paid by the weight of the material that they haul up the mountain.  At the back of the large stone observation building, the porters deliver their goods and congregate as their cargo is carefully weighed and recorded in a ledger book.

Fresh Food Arriving at the Observatory

The Porter's Cargo Is Carefully Weighed and Recorded
As I walked along the trail with my 25 pound backpack of camera gear from the hotel over to the observatory and eventually a place that I called Sunset Point, I was often passed by porters bearing approximately 150 to 200 pound loads on their shoulders.  The combination of my exertions at the elevation, the steepness of the trail in places, the many steps along the way as well as watching the porters as they hustled along made me thirsty as well as tired.  I had brought along drinking water with me but it was as I was exhausted less than one-half the way to my destination.  I was apparently not the first tourist to be in that situation.  Along the trail there are some benches where you can "enjoy the scenery" and definitely catch your breadth and also as in my case wait to photograph the porters as they came upon you unaware of your presence.  As for your thirst; you have to eventually make your way to the observatory to find vendors selling water, juices, and soft drinks.  As for the porters ... they never rested and carried a small bottle of water on top of the concave bamboo pole upon which their cargo was suspended.
I made so inquiries regarding the porters and was told that they make two round trips a day.  Two round trips a day?  On a good day I think that I might make it up from the valley to the hotel but without an load.  These guys carry approximately 800 pounds of stuff up almost 1-1/2 miles and down 1-1/2 miles in elevation during a day - everyday.  I do not know what their total mileage for a day is but I find just the accumulation of elevation change to be impressive - definitely a great deal more work than I have ever done in any day with or without the cargo on their shoulders.

A Porter Approaches the Bei Hai Guest House with His Cargo

A Porter Prepares His Load for the Trek Down from Bei Hai Gust House
Most of the porters wore a distinctive yellow vest similar to the vests worn by motorbike taxi drivers in Thailand.  I suspect that like in Thailand the vest indicates that they belong to a labor organization, are licenced, or sanctioned by the government to perform their work.

Kitchen Supplies Arriving at the Bei Hai Guest House

Back Door Delivery of Beer, Soft Drinks, and Cooking Oil
Another surprising aspect of the porter operations on the yellow Mountain was the age of some of the porters.  Many of them were past middle age and were what I consider to be elderly.  I did not see any young men hauling goods on the mountain.

An Old Man of the Mountain

An Elderly Porter Delivers His Goods

A Busy Day On the Mountain

Observing people such as the mountain porters of Huangshan makes one appreciate their own choice and definitely the opportunities available to us to earn an easier living .  In witnessing their labor, I could not help but to respect them more and admire their abilities.

Never Too Busy or Too Tired to Not Smile
 The next time that I feel that I have it rough at my job or status in life, I will take a moment and reflect upon the trials and tribulations of the Huangshan mountain porters and then reconsider my situation.

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