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Dinner ascending: Getting food up a mountain in China

August 7, 2013
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A Chinese porter carries water up China's Huangshan or Yellow Mountain.

One hundred and forty-four. That’s how many water bottles were strapped to each side of the long wooden beam stretched across his back. Each bottle, about 20 ounces each, was neatly packaged in cases. Each case was bound to the next one by commercial-strength plastic. One look at the man carrying this cargo, and all 46 of us who had traveled to Yellow Mountain, or Huangshan, were in awe. A little over 5’ tall, each man passed our group sitting at the base of the entrance gate to our climbing path on the mountain in the southern part of Anhui province in eastern China. They inched one step at a time with their loads.

We shared the trail with these amazing porters during a special outing for students and staff from the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute. The porters had much more than the small backpack that I shifted along my shoulder blades. Each carried different cargo as they made their way past us one by one. Sacks of bean sprouts, corn and rice. A whole hog freshly slaughtered and cut into pieces. Watermelons balancing out cartons of eggs. It clearly took strength to walk across a flat path with such a load, let alone up a mountainside.

A Chinese porter carries parts of a butchered hog up Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain.

The stairway path carved out of the mountainside was narrow. Most of the way up had a two-person width so that people could ascend and descend in more or less single file. Understandably, every time we caught up with a porter, we literally ran into them. Trying to avoid the swaying load on either side of their shoulders, we squeezed between the loads and stone pathways to get ahead as they walked slow and steady or stopped to rest along the pathway.

“There goes our dinner. So we should be very thankful for our food up there,” I blurted out to no one in particular as we passed yet another worker carrying up a load. It was expected that they needed to rest. What wasn’t expected was the fact that some of us seemed to need as much rest as they did. The climb was turning out to be a painful test of my blood cells’ capacity to bring enough oxygen the leg muscles desperately straining after what seemed like the 1000th step of only one-tenth of the full journey. Stair after stair. Landing after landing. How do they make it up this mountain? It was a mystery to see our dinner ascend the stairs steadily as our shoulders strained from the weight of two water bottles at best, a few packages of crackers, a change of clothes and a few miscellaneous items to get us through the night.

The author (far right) taking a rest at a scenic spot on Huangshan.

The author (far right) taking a rest at a scenic spot on Huangshan.

All things considered, the peaks were absolutely amazing and worth the hike. Wispy clouds, rounded peaks and greenery combined to create truly the most picturesque scenery I can remember in a long time. Yet aside from the streaming waters, the seemingly hand-crafted peaks and the various trees and bushes all around, I will never forget what it took to get our food to the top. Every slice of watermelon, every cup of noodles and every bottle of soda was carried across the backs of men who made my young calves and quadriceps pale in comparison. The message may never get to any of the porters—my fellow climbing mates— on that Saturday in late July, but it must be said anyhow: Thank you for our food.

Kelicia Hollis worked as the international programs intern at the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute during the summer of 2013. She is seeking a master’s degree in higher education at U-M’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education.


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