Ganesh Nepali hasn't heard of TV's latest escort to the Himalaya, Michael Palin. But he has watched another BBC programme that more directly describes his working life on the high mountain trails - Carrying the Burden. Ganesh is a porter in Nepal, a country where few roads extend beyond the valleys and the transport of everything from trekkers' baggage to, literally, the kitchen sink for a new guesthouse must be carried on someone's back, typically Ganesh's.
There is something of the character of the man in his name. Ganesh is the most popular Hindu god in Nepal, the cheery, elephant-headed deity of prosperity and wisdom. Each evening, around yak-dung burning stoves at lodges we slept in earlier this month, Ganesh the porter was the most popular teller of tales and dispenser of earthy wisdom. As a porter, though, he does not rate high on the prosperity front. That second name, Nepali, echoes his nationality and also marks Ganesh as a Dalit, underdogs in Nepal's pernicious caste system, yet the backbone of the vital portering business.
Ganesh, a 37-year-old veteran, and Tek Bahadur Tamang, a relative novice aged 18, carried our burden on a hike in the Himalaya with both a pleasurable and a charitable purpose. ("Shame on you for not carrying your own bags," you might say, except that to do so would leave two more men unemployed in the one of the poorest countries in the world. After paying hundreds of pounds to a giant corporation to fly oneself to Nepal, why deny the local economy the very modest sum of a porter's wages?)
We - a small party supported by Community Action Treks of Cumbria - were going to check on progress of the building of a health post and shelter for porters at a height of 4,470m in the Gokyo valley. It's a breathtakingly beautiful part of Nepal's Khumbu region but the scene of two or three porter deaths most years, due to cold and altitude. The "shelter", which will look like a large L-shaped bungalow, is being built at the settlement of Machermo by CAT's charitable partner, Community Action Nepal. Some £45,000 has to be raised to complete the project. Incorporated into the shelter will be a health post staffed and equipped by the International Porter Protection Group.
During last autumn's trekking season IPPG operated a post on a temporary basis from a lodge at Machermo. Altogether 127 people were treated over 47 days, about half of them porters and half trekkers, suffering in the thin, oxygen-starved air. Machermo stands at almost the height of Mont Blanc and more than three times that of Ben Nevis. Lives were probably saved.
Public awareness and perception play a big part in the fortunes of both porters and the mountain travel industry. The five-day hike from the airstrip at Lukla - gateway to the Khumbu - to Machermo gave ample time to reflect upon many things, including the impact of two British television documentaries: BBC2's Carrying the Burden, shown four years ago, focusing on the hard life of porters in Nepal, and Michael Palin's Himalaya, shown on BBC1 just a few months ago.
Almost as soon as the first of the Himalaya series was broadcast there was a surge in enquiries to trekking companies from people wanting to tread in the engaging Python's footsteps; bookings for 2005 soon followed. KE Adventure Travel of Keswick, one of the biggest UK operators, reported a "dramatic increase" in interest in trips to the Indian territories of Ladakh and Sikkim.
KE director Tim Greening said it had been the biggest November in the company's 24-year history, with bookings up 40 per cent on the same month in 2003 and requests for brochures up by an extraordinary 65 per cent. "Palin has been a breath of fresh air because he has been honest about reporting on what he experienced in the Himalaya. He has shown that despite all the bad press about areas of, say, Pakistan and Nepal, that when you actually visit these countries the locals could not be more friendly."
Small companies such as Community Action Treks have also felt some of the Palin effect, though interest in Nepal is blighted by the ongoing civil war between Maoist insurgents and the Royal Nepal Army. The effect of the war on the ground is curious to say the least. Sometimes it seems as though two parallel worlds exist in Nepal: that of the trekkers and climbers who fly from Kathmandu over a rural hinterland largely controlled by Maoists to a mountain playground; and the country of ordinary Nepalis, thousands of whom have suffered cruelly and died in the nine years of "the people's war".
The main interface is when trekkers are stopped by armed Maoist bands demanding a contribution to the cause; the rebels are, after all, the de facto local government. So far, the Khumbu above Lukla has been a Maoist-free zone but demands for money in the Annapurna trekking area are common. The going rate of this tax is typically 1,000 Nepali rupees (£7.50) per head, though up to 10 times that for Americans, whose government is supporting King Gyanendra's forces. Palin did not duck the Maoist issue, though like most tourists he seemed confused as to what the appropriate reaction should be.
Doug Scott, founder of both CAT and CAN, is in no doubt about his response: "Keep on coming, Nepal needs you." Scott, the first Englishman to reach the summit of Everest, has devoted himself to the people in whose mountains he made his reputation as one of Britain's boldest adventure climbers. CAT pays decent wages to its porters - commonly twice as much as less caring trekking outfits - while CAN has built schools and health posts and provided villages with clean water.
The porter shelter/health post is a new venture for CAN. And hardly had we made the white-knuckle landing on the sloping airstrip at Lukla before the need was grimly brought home. Just a few days earlier a trekking porter had collapsed and died on the street there. He had fallen sick at Gokyo, highest settlement in the eponymous valley, yet continued to carry his load for another seven days down the rough trails, not eating in all that time. The porter had been hired by a Kathmandu-based outfit whose sirdar (foreman) either didn't notice the man's deteriorating condition or ignored it.
Ganesh at least offered a more cheerful perspective on portering. A typical load, he said, was 25kg to 30kg with "good companies" and 50kg or 60kg with "bad companies". Yet no sooner would he ease the laden doka (basket) off his back than the banter would begin. Then in the evening, hunched round the stove with fellow porters, sherpas (who generally do not carry loads), lodge workers and ourselves, it was Ganesh's laughing voice that captivated. Indeed, his abiding memory of Carrying the Burden was the singing and dancing that followed the screening.
The film is shown daily during trekking seasons - spring and autumn - on a wobbly video at the rooms of Porters' Progress, another small charity, in Lukla. When the programme was first broadcast it caught a wave of concern for the hitherto unnoticed heroes whose sweat makes trekking in the Himalaya possible for most Westerners. IPPG, started by Jim Duff, a British mountaineer and doctor, was just getting into its stride and a young American, Ben Ayres, shown in the programme living the porter life, went on to found Porters' Progress, supplying warm clothing, running language classes and raising the status of porters.
At Machermo we looked at the piles of stone blocks prised from the ground around the site and trimmed for the shelter walls. The location of the shelter, due to be erected next summer, would make it a priceless property were it not 10 days' walk from the nearest road. It will stand on yak pasture by a stream hurrying from a glacial valley with the sublime rock and ice spire of Kyajo Ri (6,186m) at its head.
Inspection over and the building's alignment decided, a week remained to do what, in Western eyes at least, Nepal's Khumbu has been ideally created for - enjoyment of the mountains. We moved up to Gokyo, by its partially frozen lake, and made forays to beneath the stupendous south face of Cho Oyu, one of the world's great 8,000m peaks.
The highlight was an ascent of Ngozumpa Ri (5,553m), a nine-hour return adventure from Gokyo. Snow plastered on its shady side, the mountain presents little difficulty, apart from a shortage of puff, on its sunny south aspect and culminates in a rocky ridge that would be a popular scramble in the Lake District. The view, however, is classically Himalayan.
I had made the ascent with Tej Tamang, a CAT guide, who had not previously explored north of Gokyo. He was visibly delighted with his ascent of Ngozumpa Ri and declared it the best vantage point in the Khumbu. The massive face of Cho Oyu seemed almost within touching distance. We watched one huge avalanche explode down. Ranged to each side of Cho Oyu were the peaks of the Tibetan border while to the east was the dark pyramid of Everest.
Surprisingly, considering its size, Everest is a concealed beast from within Nepal, few places offering much of a view down its flanks. Ngozumpa Ri is an exception, a deep glacial trench offering a corridor filled in the distance by not only Big E but its 8,000m neighbours Lhotse and Makalu. We lingered on the summit for almost an hour, despite the short daylight of December. Nepal undoubtedly has its problems, but as Palin showed in Himalaya and we had experienced in the company of Ganesh, Tek Bahadur and Tej, the allure of travel among its mountains remains profound.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Stephen Goodwin flew from Manchester to Kathmandu via Doha on Qatar Airways through Community Action Treks (01228 564488; www.catreks.com)
Warwick Mill, Warwick Bridge, Carlisle CA4 8RR. Prices vary according to the season but, through CAT, typically cost between £500 and £600.
The charity Community Action Nepal can be contacted at the CAT address give above. Further details are also available at www.canepal.org.uk.
For the International Porter Protection Group go to www.ippg.net
For Porters' Progress, Nepal go to www.portersprogress.orgReuse content