The Growth of the Khumbu Region
During my time in Namche Bazar and the journey to our next destination—Phortse—Ram was a fountain of knowledge for all of my burning questions. As I spoke with him, I slowly gained a better understanding of the economic system within the mountains. Most of my prior knowledge rested on research of the Everest economy, but the economy at large poses a much more complicated problem.
A significant portion of the mountain region relies on tourism. The earliest expeditions to the Himalayas brought an influx of money, as British, Swiss, and other foreign climbers needed food, lodging, guides, and porters. Over time, as global transportation became more inexpensive and widespread interest in trekking grew, so did the demand from tourists for goods and services in the Khumbu Region. Tea houses, shops, guiding companies, and even entire towns grew out of the influx of trekkers seeking stunning views and climbers summiting the world’s most alluring peaks. As a result, a region that once was filled with quiet, isolated, farming communities, grew rapidly into a hub for tourism.
This growth, however, did not come easily. Development in the Khumbu Region is difficult due to the high expense of transporting goods into the mountains. The entirety of civilization past Lukla is connected via a series of trails—none of which are paved. The same trails we used to trek to basecamp. There are no roads, no cars, and no motorbikes. The primary form of transportation is by foot. For this reason, economic growth and the movement of people and products is extraordinarily slow and remarkably expensive. In response, people have adapted by using makeshift methods for development. For example, buildings are fashioned only out of local stones that are hammered into shape and lumber carried up the trail. Only the most expensive structures use concrete, which is flown in via helicopter. These challenges have caused slow development across the mountains, with luxuries like electricity and plumbing hitting many areas only recently. Regardless, the growth inspired by tourism has been extraordinarily beneficial for the mountain communities, revitalizing what was once isolated, poor farming villages into hubs of activity for global travelers.
Tourism in the Mountains
The problem, however, is that tourism is a seasonal industry. As soon as the downpour of the monsoon season arrives, everything changes. Locals close up shop, leave the mountains, and head to Lukla, Kathmandu, or their home villages for the summer. There, they continue working, but in the underlying industry that permeates all of the mountains and much of Nepal—agriculture. An astounding 27 percent of Nepal’s GDP comes from the agricultural sector. People in the Khumbu Region typically grow potatoes or cabbage, as the high altitude prevents much else. The only other industry within the mountains is animal husbandry, particularly of yak and mule for transport.
Farming and animal husbandry are not nearly as lucrative as the tourism business. For this reason, many people go into the tourism industry in order to make enough money to support their families and afford the high cost of living that comes with being in the mountains. This means working as a guide for trekkers, opening a tea house, or becoming a shop owner. Unfortunately, all of these professions take upfront capital or extended experience, and in the mountains there is only one way to gain capital or experience in the mountains—becoming a porter.
The Porter Economy
The porter economy is perhaps the most visible profession across all of the Khumbu Region. Simply put, when yaks or mules are unavailable, porters are used to transport cargo across long distances by foot. In essence, they are the FedEx men of Nepal. Everywhere in the Khumbu Region, men lug massive loads on their backs across miles of rough terrain. There are two major types of porters: those who carry gear for tourists and those who transport goods for people and businesses.
Porters for Goods
Porters carrying goods typically transport large loads of water, food, wood, and other products used by tea houses, shops, and homes. This is perhaps the hardest job across the Khumbu Region. There is no limit to how much one can technically carry, and they are paid by kilogram of weight—incentivizing them to carry as much as possible.
A porter in the Khumbu Region is typically paid about 65 NPR (Nepali Rupees) or $0.60 for every kilogram of weight carried per day. Many porters carry up to 80 kilograms for two days (which is 175lbs), meaning they would take home about 10,400 NPR or $93.00 for the total journey. Would you accept $93.00 for two days of carrying 175lbs on your back?
Unfortunately, serving as a porter is quite seasonal, meaning that most porters work about 6 to 8 months out of the year. Assuming one was able to manage two of these $93.00 trips per week for 8 months, they would bring home 665,500 NPS or about $5,990 per year.
Given that the approximate average wage in Nepal is about 361,450 NPR or $3,240 per year, this seems like a good salary. However, the cost of living is substantially higher in the mountains, meaning much of a porter’s salary is taken up in food and housing. Ultimately, it is a difficult life, but it is the best way to start out a career in the lucrative business of tourism. Serving as a porter is one of the only decent-paying jobs available for a young low-skilled Nepali in the region. Unfortunately, there are more willing porters than there are jobs, making it a competitive industry. The most competitive, however, is serving as a trekking porter.
Porters for Trekkers & Tourists
Because many trekkers do not want to (or are not able to) carry all of their own gear, they hire porters to transport a duffel bag of supplies from village to village ahead of them. While it may seem nearly inhumane to make someone carry loads of your own gear across rugged Himalayan terrain, most trekking organizations carefully place weight limits on duffel bags and pay their porters significantly more than private businesses (how much I’m unsure). Trekking porters also receive free accommodations in tea houses along the trek as long as they purchase their meals at the tea house—a great deal!
For these reasons, porter jobs for trekking agencies are far more coveted. In addition, it is a great way to meet people from around the globe and travel through the mountains. At the end of our trek, the entire team paid for our porters’ dinner. We were able to sit with them and (attempt to) communicate with them. Most were quite young, but extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with us. It was a special moment to see their faces all light up when we surprised them with heaps of Mars Bars for dessert!
Many porters begin as young as 15 or 16 to develop the skills and strength necessary to do the job. Ours were anywhere from 16 to 21 years of age. (Note: Nepal measures age by how many years you’ve lived through, not how many full years you have been alive. The New Year is technically everyone’s birthday).
Rather than carry items by hand or on a pack, porters use ropes to tie two duffel bags together and fashion a large strap that goes over their forehead like a bandana. When worn properly, this bandana-like strap allows the majority of the weight to rest on their head, distributing throughout the spine and down to the legs—rather than solely resting on the back like a regular pack might. Whether or not this is truly better for one’s health I am unsure, but it seems to be the standard practice in Nepal.
Porter to Assistant Guide
Depending on their level of experience and education, Nepalis work as trekking porters for 5 to 7 years before being promoted to the role of assistant guide. Assistant guides work under an older, more experienced guide who knows the region and trails extremely well. It is important that assistant guides have some knowledge of English and ample experience trekking throughout the mountains. They aid the trekkers by leading the way during treks, answering questions, ordering meals, filtering water, and many other things. It is a hard job, but one that is much more enjoyable than working as a porter. Our assistant guides—Surya and Biru—were both in their late 20s with ambitions to further their knowledge of the tourism industry. Most of all, they were a deeply important part of the team and became much like family to us.
Assistant Guide to Guide
After many years working as an assistant guide, some are promoted to guide. This is the best job one can have in the tourism industry as you are normally quite well respected, know many people throughout the communities in which you trek, and are paid fairly well (by Nepal standards). Our guide, Ram, has been working for the same trekking agency for 25 years, earning him a reputation as one of the best, wisest, and most enjoyable guides one can have. He lives especially well for himself because although he works in the Khumbu Region, his home is back south where the cost of living is much lower, allowing him to make more and spend less. The best part of being a guide (or an assistant guide as well) is that one is able to forge relationships with travelers from all over the globe. All in all, it is a fairly good gig in Nepal.
Summarizing Lessons Learned
During my time since Namche Bazar, I learned a great deal about the Khumbu Region. It is isolated, suffers from inequality, and allows tourists first priority at resources. The cost of living in the mountains is extremely high due to the difficulty of transport. Porters are overworked and underpaid unless taken care of by good trekking organizations. And unless a Nepali has the capital to start a tea house or tourist shop, the only available jobs are in farming or animal husbandry, which pay very little. This fare the mountain economy is shaping up to be quite similar to what I had expected—one dependent on tourism and suffering from poverty. Fortunately, there has been much growth in the past and there is much room for growth in the future. I also have much more to learn.