For many, climbing Everest is high on the bucket list. But who actually makes the most famous trekking industry possible for 30,000 tourists every year? Leah Davies hiked 200km to find out.
“Sewa [hello],” says a young dimple-faced girl as she holds her school books close to her chest and walks through a field of tall millet that almost hides her face. As the sun descends, the blue roofs of houses gleam in the afternoon light and the soft scent of burning wood can be smelled from afar. Nearby, a queue of mules navigate a rocky footpath, carrying heavy loads of rice and flour from one village to the next on their way to Namche, Nepal, along the Everest trail.
“We are carrying the Everest tourism industry, but without any acknowledgement. We are very much living in the shadows of the most famous mountain in the world.”
Perched precariously beneath the highest point on Earth, at 3300 metres above sea level, this is the exquisitely remote region of eastern Nepal known as the Mahakulung. The province is made up of four villages – Gudel, Chheskam, Bung and Sotang – which are so remote that it can take some people two days on foot to reach, and is home to more than 21,000 Kulung people. The Kulung are an indigenous ethnic group, and key workers in the tourism industry that support Mount Everest climbers.
“My people live a simple life,” says Dilip Kulung, a former porter from Chheskam, and a committed social activist. “We farm, we laugh, we practise our rituals. We carry large loads nearly as heavy as our own body weight on our backs at high altitudes to put food on the table and to send our children to school.”
Twice a year, more than 8000 Kulung – men, women, and even children – leave their homes in search of work for the bi-annual trekking seasons. “From March to May and September to November, we work as porters, cooks, house workers and vendors on the Everest trail,” says Dilip.
While the 30,000 or so tourists who make their bucket list trips to the Everest region each year have created a financial windfall for the Nepalese government, the Kulung people say they have seen little reward for their courageous, and often highly dangerous, labour. And while there are countless tales of the conquest of the world’s tallest mountain, the stories of those locals who make these feats possible are often forgotten. It’s hoped they will be captured in an upcoming documentary, Carrying Everest, filmed by a team of Australians and Kulung. “It will provide us with an opportunity to be truly heard; our voices, our lives, our perspectives,” says Dilip.
“We farm, we laugh, we practise our rituals. We carry large loads nearly as heavy as our own body weight to put food on the table and to send our children to school.”
One woman, a mother of four children all under the age of 13, lost her husband in an avalanche in 2015 when he was portering close to Mira Peak during the earthquakes that shook Nepal.
“I worry all the time,” she says. “I can’t sleep because I don’t know how I am going to be able to afford to pay for my children to go to school. To find work, I must leave the Mahakulung and work as a cleaner in a teahouse or sell produce at the markets in Namche. I’m lost and unsure what to do now without my husband.”
A 22-year-old porter has carried 90kg on his back since the age of 15 to support his parents, and now his wife and two-year-old son. “I remember the first trek I went on,” he says. “The whole time I wanted to stop. I didn’t want to carry the load anymore.
“My back, my neck and my head ached… everything ached… but I knew I didn’t have a choice. It’s easier now. I’m away from my family for sometimes very long periods if there is work. It’s dangerous work. I don’t want to do this forever, but I don’t have a choice. Farming does not give us enough money.”
Another mother, this time in Bung, talks of her darkest and hardest moments since losing her son to altitude sickness almost a year ago. “I feel alone. I have my daughter, but she is busy with her family. Now that I no longer have a son, my community doesn’t respect me anymore. The boy child
is the most important in the family [in our culture] and now he’s gone. I’m lost without him.”
“I’m away from my family for sometimes very long periods if there is work. It’s dangerous work. I don’t want to do this forever, but I don’t have a choice.”
Dilip explains that while the work of the Kulung is relentlessly challenging, what’s more difficult is the fact that not many people realise who they are.
“They don’t know about our indigenous heritage and our connection to this sacred land. Not many people realise we are responsible for as much as 80 per cent of the labour in the Everest region,” he says. “We are carrying the Everest tourism industry, but without any acknowledgement. We are very much living in the shadows of the most famous mountain in the world.”
But other locals also tell stories of incredible work opportunities.
A porter nicknamed ‘champion porter’ by his friends explains he’s been doing this job for more than 20 years, summiting several peaks while never injuring himself. Asked if he ever dreams of a different future, he laughs. “I like portering. It worries my wife all the time because it is very dangerous, but I love being up among the mountains with my friends. I’ve always been a porter and always will be,” he says.
A loom-business owner talks of losing his mother when he was just a child. Poorly cared for by his father, he had very little clothing and hoped to one day have enough clothes to keep himself, and other kids in his community, warm and clean. “That’s why I started my loom business,” he says. “It took me three weeks to transport all the equipment from Kathmandu to Chheskam, and now I have 28 staff who create traditional Kulung clothing for our community, keeping children warm and our culture alive.”
A young woman who had recently opened a new teahouse in Namche missed out on school because she had to work to help her parents support their family. She was abundantly proud of her many years of hard work, which have allowed her to become an entrepreneur at age 19. “It has always been my dream to run my own business and now I finally am after many years of working very hard,” she says.
With each conversation, it’s clear that both pain and opportunity run parallel in nearly every person’s story. And despite the hardships, there remains great pride for what it means to be Kulung.
“We face many challenges – poverty, unemployment, poor education, the threat of earthquakes, unsatisfactory healthcare – but, despite it all, we live from a place of peace, harmony and mutual respect,” says Dilip.
“It’s one of the characteristics that sets us apart, actually. We are positive in the face of adversity, smiling despite our troubles.”
Dilip, who worked on Carrying Everest, also smiles about the future.
“We have big hearts and much talent, but in the shadow of Everest, we remain unseen… It’s time for us to be seen.”
Photography by Jason Di-Candilo