Perhaps it was a bit foolish. While tourists, both Western and Chinese, loaded into the Yungu cable way to take the tram up to Huangshan (literally, yellow mountain) we began our hike up White Goose Ridge to the plateau at the top of the scenic area, nearly 700 m (2300 feet) of steep stairs above us. This east ridge is the easier way up to the UNESCO recognized area which is a jumble of incredibly steep peaks and over 50 km of improved trails going straight up and down them. The trails are mostly stone stairs, sometimes broad and even, other times narrow and much closer to a ladder than a staircase.
Even with backpacks on, it’s not terribly difficult climbing, at least in the beginning, but that’s not to say it isn’t a sweaty, steep, and exhausting hike. We pass by loads of smiling tourists skipping down, but almost none going up. Yet, we’re not alone trudging up these stairs. Men carrying large loads of laundry in white sacks suspended on either ends of a bamboo bar across their shoulders are practically running down the stairs towards us. They are careful when the pass more men hoisting heavy steel gas bottles, probably filled with propane and as tall as the men themselves, onto their shoulders and up the mountain.
The bottles are balanced on their shoulders with the help of a bamboo stick and some rope which they use to balance the bottle on when they stop to take a rest. A few are wearing a vest with printing from the hotel they apparently work for over thin t-shirts or bare chests, and many have green army issued sneakers on their feet. Some have worn dress shoes. They aren’t all young, but most are friendly and find enough breath to respond to our “Ni hao” greetings.
At the top are several Chinese four-star hotels. They are not cheap by anyone’s standards and they’re not good value either, offering considerably less quality than two and three-star hotels I’ve stayed in elsewhere in China. There is no other option and everything is expensive on the mountain. Many, who have seen the porters carrying these loads, seem to understand. Since everything must be carried in, it’s understandable, they explain.
Except everyone has conveniently forgotten the cable car whisked them up here without breaking a sweat. There are several cable cars around the mountain and they don’t carry tourists at night. Couldn’t the hotels contract with them to carry loads of necessities up the mountain? Couldn’t they build their own cable car? The obvious conclusion is that it’s cheaper to use human labor than the cable car.
Except that doesn’t seem possible to me. There are probably hundreds of porters going up and down the mountain everyday. Perhaps more. Many of them surely live in Tangkou and other villages at the base of the mountain. I had already popped into a little grocery store at the base for some water for the hike. It didn’t appear to be a tourist trap of a grocery store and prices were similar, or perhaps a bit cheaper, than I had just seen in Shanghai or elsewhere in China. Of course, I don’t really know the real costs of living in a village in China, but I can bet it’s more than a couple of dollars a day. If the men are so cheap, how do they survive and raise their families in the villages below? This isn’t a particularly rural part of China and heating costs alone would break the bank of many a poor family living on too low of a wage, but houses and apartments, while small are hardly mud floored shacks. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to pay these men enough to even feed themselves and still be cheaper than simply loading the cable car a few times every day.
I’ve also heard that the Chinese government subsidizes many jobs in an effort to ensure that its citizens are gainfully employed and not sitting idle, plotting their leaders’ authorities downfall. It’s a plausible explanation, but it’s not clear how sustainable it is. For now, judging by their rush descending, it’s likely the men are paid on a per load basis and the wear and tear on their bodies is clear. The cost of the eventually necessary medical care is not so obvious; China has not yet solved its medical care problems.
Almost as interesting as the sights, China is constantly offering these sort of economic puzzles. Are these men subsidized by the government? Is it really cheaper, even in the short run, to pay hundreds of laborers when the idle cable cars are already there? What’s going on here? I never did come up with a satisfying answer. If you’ve got a better idea, discuss it here!