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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Travelling #13: Traffic and Travel on the Trails

“You know what, we haven’t seen a single wheel since we arrived,” comments my trekking partner Harsh one day.

And as soon as he pointed that out, I knew he was totally right. In 10 days in the region, the last wheel we saw was on the airplane that dropped us of in Lukla – no wagons, bicycles, cars, trucks, carts or even a hula hoop. In a region dominated by sinuous, deep valleys and sharp peaks, much of the lattice network of “roads” and trails are rough and even the smooth, stone-paved ones have numerous stairs. A wheel, that time-worn invention of convenience, simply does not have a place or advantage in this vertical world.

Instead, due to geography and culture, the region is entirely run on the strength of humans and yaks. Despite the advances in technology, here it still makes sense for the entirety of trade and movement of supplies to be carried out by these twin foundations of the supply chain. Between the two, they carry up everything necessary for villages and for the significantly added needs of the thousands of visiting tourists. Foodstuff and beverages for the guesthouses and homes, gear for the tourists, supplies from detergent to light bulbs, and all building materials get carried up, load by load, up from Lukla or to a lesser degree over the high passes along the ancient trade routes from other valleys and even still from Tibet.

You quickly become part of this arterial flow of goods and people up and down the valleys and passes. They become your traffic on the trail – the honk of horns, grinding of gears and diesel cloud replaced by the tinkle of yak bells, the soft slap of the flat shoes or flip-flops of the porter and the cold, dry air that stings your nose if you breathe in too sharply. It is quiet and it is slow. Everything is measured by where one can walk in a day and no more. That is the world. It is amazing how fast you get used to the pace.

yak train heading to EBCOn the trail, their oncoming presence is always known by the jangle of the bells around their neck. At the villages and settlements, their soothing tinkle provided a constant and pleasant backdrop through the thin walls of the guesthouses and often welcoming you to the morning as your alarm clock as well.

The yak is a foundation of the Himalayan and Tibetan economies. As well as providing a beast of burden for supplies and farming, the provide high-quality milk, meat (usually only when Yaks die naturally, due to Buddhist restrictions on slaughter) and strong, warm wool. For many of the rural, poor and nomadic families, they are their life. I saw this very strongly in Tibet last year, more so than the tourist-modified Khumbu region.

Yak over Khumbu Glacier (c) SriharshaYaks are funny creatures. They are surprisingly docile, not the brightest tools in the shed and have to be the laziest, most distracted beasts of burden imaginable. Big and bulky and with long, pointy horns, you might think they would be aggressive, but truth be told, whether by conditioning, breeding or just plain disposition, yaks are generally quite skittish. The ones on the trail in Nepal were usually reasonably calm or dazed enough, but the ones I saw last year in Tibet would bolt if you looked at them sideways.

Herding yaks down the trail seems like it would be an easy job, what with the yaks doing all the heavy lifting, but it actually looks like a really tiring job as it is quite literally and exactly like the visuals of the expression “herding cats”. They have to be constantly driven at all times to keep them from drifting aimlessly off the trail or in fact to keep them moving at all. They don’t seem too concerned with getting anywhere quickly. Really unconcerned. They plod down the trails in a daze and as slowly as they can get away with. They often have to be kicked into gear by their owners as if they just forgot all of sudden to move. I have not seen one go more than 10 feet without strong encouragement by their drivers via poke, prod, smack or curse. The yaks rarely complain, actually hardly seeming to notice, and continue on with whatever they were doing like someone on a ‘24’ Season 1 DVD marathon. I don’t think they mind the weight on their back. I think it is just that standing and grazing is their natural state of being and moving holds no interest or inspiration for them.

waiting for yaksThe result of this on the trail is that you can find yourself stuck behind one for a while. Since they are big, bulky creatures who obviously do not know how to go single file or pick a lane, despite their non-aggressive nature they naturally get right-of-way on the Khumbu highway system. This is fine if you’re approaching them, as you can simple step off the trail and let them pass with a smile and a “Namaste!” to their drivers, but if you come up behind one going the same way, it can be quite some time before you can manage to pass. Resigned to their pace and how much work it is to get the yaks moving in a semblance of a straight line, the drivers cannot afford to aid the passing of every trekker or porter. So you wait and find a passing lane as you can. On the plus side though, when you’re going uphill, the forced slower pace can be a nice excuse to snap some pics.

At narrow points and bridges though, opposing directions of yaks and people can get bunched up and stuck, a “yak jam” (which is not something you spread on toast). You just have to chuckle at it all and wait your turn as the drivers wearily, but good-naturedly coerce a placidly unhelpful group of large animals to negotiate whatever twist, obstacle, bridge or blockage has them stopped and milling again. Ah, the funny things that become your world on the trail.

In truth, I should say that many of the yaks we encountered on the trails are not proper yaks at all, but are actually crossbreeds. In the lower regions, the cross-breeds are actually the more common and trekking, you won’t likely see a real yak for several days. The name pedagogy is rather complicated depending on what type of crossbreed it is (yak-cow, cow-yak, male or female offspring) and the language (Nepali, Sherpa, Tibetan)so I won’t try to sketch it out, but they are variously called Dzomo, Dzo, Dzopko, Dzopkia, Mdzo-mo, or Dzum. So in the southern regions, most of the “yak” caravans were actually Dzopkia whereas higher up, we encountered more full-blooded yaks better suited for the cooler temperatures and thinner air. The crossbreeds have much shorter hair and are generally smaller whereas the full-blood yaks look more like big, walking carpets.

By far more numerous on the trails than the yaks and responsible for the lions share of the goods transport are the porters.

Typical Porter Load (c) SriharshaA porter will carry on average anywhere from 30 kg to a whopping 80 kg of weight and rumours swirled that they would cart as high as 100 kilos when building materials needed to be moved. And all this weight is carried fully off a strap across their forehead. Yes, their forehead. Strong backs and strong spines these men and women have. Most items are carried in V-shaped wicker baskets piled increasingly high and strapped down firmly to ensure it is balanced and doesn’t slip, often towering above their heads. When portering for tourist groups, they will take your heavy duffle back or pack, tightly tie it to 2 or even 3 others into a bulky rectangle, add something else on the top and then hang it off their foreheads. And off they go, slow and steady. Or sometimes not even that slow. The tourist porters often went quite slow since they had a closer destination to go to and very likely all day to reach it, but those carrying supplies to the distant villages would sometimes pass you at a good, solid pace as they carried 50 kg or more a distance in a day you planned to do in 3. Humbling to say the least.

Group of porters (c) ShriharshaOften however, you’d also pass groups of porters going really slow up the steeper stretches, taking a break every 5 minutes to rest and you can tell they are carrying a really tough load, even for them. The worst we saw were the guys carrying the plywood wall panels. All the guesthouses are built of them – thin, completely un-insulated, but I suppose the lightest wall material they could use. But light as they individually are, those panels, in stacks of 5 or 6 panels of 5x10 each has to be laboriously carried up, balanced on the back, over the rough trails, stairs, rocks and dust by a small, determined army.

porter carrying his heavy loadSimilar to the yaks, these heavily-laden people go at their own pace and their own path, taking the route of least resistance, whatever that appears to be to them. With head down they may not see you until a step or 2 away and even if they do, conserving momentum and concentration, they have to just keep moving. So like with yaks, as the more nimble and lighter on the road, you have to do the dodging or just step to the side and let them all truck by.

The need for breaks to take the weight off has let to a series of interesting innovations though. The porters with baskets use this waist-high walking stick with a T cross on top, which is sized to perfectly fit underneath the basket, so when they need a break, they just slip it under their back and stand there with the load off. Brilliant! For those without this option, you quickly notice benches and conveniently cleared flat boulders purposely laid all along the trail for the porters to rest on. Coming across a nice bench in a village didn’t seem that unusual, but discovering them out cut into some random hill miles from anywhere seemed odd at first. Places to get water too are similarly laid out. The entire community is structured around the needs of the transport system, as you would expect of course thinking about it. It is just that it is different and unusual at first.

The other thing you quickly note is the footwear most of the porters are using or the lack thereof. The most popular seemed to be basic flat sneakers with the second being flip flops. Yes, they carry giant weights up trails and over snowy passes in flip flops. At least they don’t seem to often go barefoot these days although I did see a couple examples of porters in the snow without socks. Some, often the tourist porters and those part of organised group tours where more money gets circulated, have runners or trail shoes, probably the most useful. Very few wear solid hiking boots, but if your ankles are strong enough, the cushioned and less stiff shoes are probably the more comfortable option.

So these were our traffic, our companions and our amusement on the trail every day. By hoof or flip-flop we saw our rice and macaroni, our treats of coke, beer and chocolate, our walls and mattress, our cooking gas and, for many trekkers, their packs, gear and supplies slowly work its way up beside us. Everest Base Camp had a constant train heading up and down to feed its temporary village of canvas and tent.

A whole world at walking pace. And no wheels for more than 2 weeks. It was wonderfully refreshing.


Hot Soup said...

Amazing. It's a completely different life.

Surely something like a wheelbarrow would be a great improvement? Or are there choke points which are so narrow or steep that even a little cart like that would halt progress?

What were your thoughts on this stream of your possessions passing you by, carried by others?

McKay said...

I don't know if the wheelbarrow would have been useful. Today, many parts of the trail are widen and paved with stone, but even they have several steep stair sections. But even a decade ago, most of the network would be rough-hewn dirt trails and paths contouring and climbing the hills. There would be rocky, bumpy sections, muddy sections, thin bridges or creek crossing. It is the same really hiking in the mountains of BC and the US - why of course do all hikers wear backpacks - it would be more trouble to negotiate the wheelbarrow than to just carry the stuff off the ground. So over the centuries, the carrying got entrenched and will continue for some time until real roads are put in (which I am sadly sure will happen one day).

As for your second question on what I thought about the stream of people carrying the trekker's possessions, it prompted complex feelings. I'm going to post a whole blog about it in the next day or so.