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Beasts (and men) of burden

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

There are times when a Nepali is happy to carry a load (like when he's being paid), and times when he'd rather get someone else to do it for him. On these occasions, he turns to his two favourite beasts of burden. The pony is the jack of all trades, the yak the high altitude specialist, and both are very different in character.

Ponies and yaks move along the trails in trains, marshalled and cajoled by a scruffy man at the rear. He likes to give the impression of being in complete control of his animals, but this is seldom the case. Pony and yak trains (like Northern Rail trains) are prone to regular unscheduled stops. To keep the beasts moving, he shouts commands such as "Shhhooo!" and "Yyyaaa!" but these don't seem to have much effect. His other weapons are a whip or a well-aimed rock, which does have a positive effect on the speed, if not the direction, of travel. The startled animal he strikes bolts forward and veers off the path until it regains its composure and stops again. For this reason, when you spot a train of animals coming in the opposite direction, it's best to get well off the path (and always on the uphill side).

The pony is a docile beast and seems resigned to its fate as a load-carrying slave. Its needs are simple - a nosebag and a dust bowl are all it requires - for a pony is never happier than when munching something green or rolling around in the dust. Woe betide the pony man who takes his eye off his animals for one second, for they will have their noses in the bushes before you can say "Yyyaaa!". I do pity the pony man, for the back end of a pony train is not a pleasant place to be. Ponies are walking fart machines, especially on uphill paths. When they're walking nose to tail, it can't be very pleasant for the ponies either (after all, who likes the smell of someone else's farts?) Perhaps that's why the train keeps stopping and the lead constantly changing - it's all a tactical game of fart evasion.

Pony paradise is a roll in the dust

Pony paradise is a roll in the dust

Yaks are basically shaggy cows with a rebellious streak - you could describe them as the punk rockers of the cattle world, but they also have a skittish nature. A yak train is more unpredictable than a pony train, because yaks are more contrary and easily frightened. We came close to being trampled in our kitchen tent by a runaway yak in the Tsum Valley. Here, the yak trains carry goods over a high pass into Tibet, an old trading route which nowadays means an influx of cheap Chinese goods. (You could say this valley is a microcosm of the global economy). One particular family brought their animals down from the pass and camped next to us at Kalung. No sooner had their yaks been unloaded and released, they scattered far and wide, up and down the mountainside, seeking out (deliberately, or so it seemed) the steepest, most inaccessible slopes to graze on. The following morning the yak herder had to retrieve his errant beasts. We went on a morning walk up the valley, and when we returned at lunchtime he was still trying to locate the last few animals.

Yaks prefer their own company, but there are times when we saw them gathered in large numbers. If ever you approached a door or gate in a stone wall across the path, you are guaranteed to find a posse of yaks on the other side, waiting for an absent-minded trekker to leave it open so they can all pile through. Yaks can be quite vocal when they are seen together. They communicate with deep, guttural grunts, which translate as "Bugger off" to my ears.

As well as being beasts of burden, yaks provide a whole range of services for free. Those with a special touch (yak whisperers, perhaps?) can milk them; the milk is turned into curd, butter and a very pungent cheese. A female yak is called a nak, so it's not strictly correct to talk of yak cheese and yak butter. With their long shaggy curtains of hair swishing round their legs like a valance on a bed, it's not easy to distinguish the males from the females. I'm sure there's a knack to tell a yak from a nak, but I'm afraid it's a knack that I lack.

A great number of yaks must be sacrificed to satisfy the western craving for meat, judging by the number of yak steaks, yak curries and yak burgers on the menus of Kathmandu's and Pokhara's restaurants. (Buddhist Nepalis are usually vegetarian and Hindu Nepalis stick to chicken, mutton and goat).

The yak is a beast that keeps on giving, and its final gift is the valuable commodity known as Nepali gold, which comes courtesy of its rear end. In the high kharkas (pastures) of Nar-Phu and the Solukhumbu, women venture out early in the morning to collect dried yak dung for fuel. It sounds an unpleasant task, but when you are warming frozen hands on a dung-powered stove late at night, you’re very grateful to them. In the Tsum Valley the villagers take a different approach, collecting fresh dung and applying it to the walls of their houses to dry. I should imagine it makes an effective, if somewhat fragrant, render.

I have to admit a soft spot for the yak. When you see them peacefully chewing the cud, with their sunlit coats shining like halos and their colourful ear tassles lending a comical air to their solemn expressions, I must confess that my heart softens a little. I would never go as far as to describe a yak as cute though. As they stare at you balefully with their big black eyes, you just know the cantankerous bastards are thinking of interesting ways to kill you. But it was only on our Sikkim trek that I finally understood the true nature of the yak. Trekking through blizzards and thick clouds, we came across a group of yaks clustered on a high ridge. We were togged up in waterproofs, fleeces, hats and gloves, desperately trying to stay warm and dry. The yaks stood impassively, facing down the elements. One of them turned to me and grunted: “Bugger off and leave us alone.” And so I did just that.

Yak a doodle doo

Yak a doodle doo

This blog wouldn’t be complete without some words about porters. When it comes to load-carrying in the Himalayas, it’s sometimes a case of ‘four legs good, two legs better’. Yaks and pones are easy to joke about, but portering is a tough way to make a living. The daily wage is just US$5, cheaper than the cost of hiring a yak or a pony. In the mountain villages of Nepal and India, carrying loads is an essential survival skill. Firewood, freshly harvested crops, dried foods, chickens, blankets, building materials and babies are all carried on the locals’ backs, typically in bamboo baskets with the weight transferred via a thick strap to the forehead. (Even our rucksacks were carried this way.)

Our Nepali porter Sinkhada on the climb to the Kang La

Our Nepali porter Sinkhada on the climb to the Kang La

In the age of Empire, British officers took advantage of these skills and employed native ‘coolies’ to carry equipment on field expeditions and into battle. With such objectionable origins, you might think that there would be a stigma attached to portering, but this is not the case. There’s a chronic lack of job opportunities in Nepal, and thousands of young men emigrate every month in search of work. Portering is welcome chance to earn some much-needed cash for a few weeks.

Although most porters are from poor, low-caste backgrounds, they can be a surprising bunch. One of our Nepali porters, Jack, spoke several languages and had worked for the British Army during the last Iraq war as an interpreter. Our porters genuinely loved being in the mountains as much as we did, and a great camaraderie developed between them.

In Sikkim, we were worried that they were poorly equipped for the cold weather and snow, but porters are tough and although some were clearly suffering at times, our guide took good care of them, and they all pulled through. The ethical trekking companies limit a porter load to 25kg, but some will willingly carry more to earn more pay. Sherpa porters are the toughest and strongest and are quite prepared to carry 50kg or even 60kg, more than their body weight.

In Nepal, people will find a way of carrying absolutely anything on their backs. Here are some of our favourite porter loads:

  • Mr Moving Roadblock was stopping the traffic on the Annapurna Circuit with his sheet of corrugated tin (carried horizontally).
  • A party of Korean trekkers were served lunch in dozens of delicate little porcelain bowls. I suppose it made them feel at home, but I pity the poor porter entrusted with them.
  • A pampered British party set up camp opposite our lodge in Phu. Not only had they paid for helicopter transfers to and from their trek, but they had a sit-on loo seat in their toilet tent. Quite what their porters made of it all, I don’t know.
  • In the fields around Tilche the bushes were moving. On second glance we realised the locals were collecting the corn harvest, and they were carrying so many plants their whole bodies had disappeared from view.

A moving roadblock on the Annapurna Circuit

A moving roadblock on the Annapurna Circuit

The only downside to porters is politics. In Nepal, our porters were generally well-behaved (especially after the cook had thrown their playing cards into a ravine), but there was one bad egg who was lazy, got drunk and got into a fight one night. He was promptly sent back to Kathmandu by the guide, but not without a scene. In India we were delayed at the start of our trek because not all our porters showed up for work. There were further problems which we never quite got to the bottom of, but once our guide had put his foot down and threatened them with docked pay, they did as they were told.

A porter, a pony or yak
Will happily carry your pack
The pony is lazy
The yak is plain crazy
But neither will answer you back

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:09 Archived in Nepal Tagged india trekking nepal ponies porters yaks

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