So there they were, taking each step slowly and with great care. They usually put one hand on the iron chains that run along the steep path that goes up the mountain, while leaving the other hand on the carrying pole on their shoulder for balance. From a few steps behind, you could hear them breathe, heavily: One step they would inhale; the next, exhale.
The porters are an amazing sight on Mount Hua in western China. They climb the mountain with at least 110 pounds of goods on their backs every day, rain or shine. And on this snowy day in March 2011, I got to watch in awe how they trek some of the most dangerous trails I had ever seen.
Some 75 miles from China’s ancient capital Xi’An, Mount Hua is known as one of the Five Great Mountains in China and is famous for its Daoist traditions. It is also famous for having some of the most hazardous trails in China — steep, narrow and often exposed on bare rocks.
Sure, there are stairs running up the mountain, as in many of the country’s mountains, but some patches of the pathways go up almost vertically, and climbers have to hold on tight to the handrails or iron chains for their dear life and slant their feet to increase contact with the tiny and uneven stone stairs. One misstep, and the hiker could fall into the abyss.
The climb up Mount Hua is exhausting and risky for even day hikers carrying only a light backpack containing water and a few snacks. But porters have to balance more than 100 pounds of goods on their shoulders while making the same trip, day after day, sometimes in bad weather conditions, often with swarms of sightseers trying to pass them and hurry on to the next site.
On the day I went, the snow started in the early morning but got heavier as the day went by. Fresh snow on the mountain paths was especially sticky and slippery. Some of the more stunning sites were closed out of safety concerns; and by midafternoon the mixture on the ground had turned into a combination of snow, ice and slush.
It was under such dicey conditions when I caught up with a group of porters. Their yokes stretched across the path and on them were boxes of beer, cooking oil, instant noodles and whatever else needed by the hotels up the mountain. Every few minutes, they would shift the wooden pole from one shoulder to another.
There’s a silent rhythm among the group: they trekked slowly but steadily, as if they had measured with precision the time to spend on each step. But they hardly stopped to have a rest. I guess when you are carrying such a heavy load, it’s hard to get the momentum going once you stop.
But during the few breaks they did take, I learned a few things about them. A porter typically carries more than 50 kilograms of goods (about 110 pounds), and gets paid Rmb0.8 for each kilogram he moves up the mountain. Most of them make just one trip up the mountain each day, which gets them a little more than Rmb40 (around $6), about half the price a tourist pays to ride the cable up to the north peak, or probably just enough to buy a couple of beers served by the shops on the mountain. If they work every day, their monthly wage would be about Rmb1,200 to Rmb1,500, much less than the national average for migrant workers in 2011 (around Rmb2,000). And the porters don’t get paid extra in bad weather conditions. (All the numbers mentioned were from 2011.)
None of the porters I ran into was young — the younger generation tends to be better educated than their fathers, allowing them to get better-paying jobs; and unlike their fathers, they have no appetite for such grueling work.
One man going up the mountain by himself looked older than the groups of porters I saw (probably in his late 50s) and walked at a much slower pace. He was carrying 50 kilograms of cement up for some pathway being built — to make the mountain more accessible to tourists like me, I suppose — and got a slightly better rate of Rmb1 per kilogram, i.e., he would make Rmb50 or $7-plus for the day. But he started his day at 5 a.m. and hadn’t even reached his destination by the time I ran into him at around noon.
The man was from the neighboring Sichuan province and told me that he had hardly taken a day off in the 10-plus years that he had been doing this. “Yesterday, the snow was even worse than today,” he said. “And a lot of people (porters) took the day off. But I carried 75 kilograms of cement up the mountain.”
He said he has a wife and a child back home in Sichuan and that he misses them very much.
Walking behind these porters, I slowly acquired their rhythm. Not too fast, I told myself constantly. And going slowly allowed me to always feel a certain level of energy hidden inside me, ready to be drawn upon at all times.
I was more than annoyed when tourists passed the porters without care — sometimes a hiker’s shoulder touched the load a porter was carrying, breaking his balance. To do this on a steep, narrow mountain trail was not only careless but also disrespectful for others’ lives.
Most of the time, though, the porters were left alone to walk. Their steps were slow, measured and solid. But once in a while, they paused to regain balance on a particularly slippery patch.
And each time a porter faltered to find his balance, I felt as if my heart quivered. I was afraid they might fall backward onto me, knocking me off the trail and into the abyss. But even if they just accidentally broke a bottle of beer or crushed some instant noodles they were carrying, it would create no small hardship for them.
Xiao Zhang initially wrote this story in March 2011 following her trip to Xi’An, Shaanxi Province in western China; she revised it this week for unheralded.fish.