Till recently I had an image of Balti porters as extremely competent, hospitable, friendly and caring folks. Arandu changed my impression. It was a totally different face of Balti porters that I experienced and what is exactly opposite to my earlier image. They created a mess every day during our latest trekking expedition. I do not however have any reason to generalize this event which I consider as an isolated one and the overall image of Balti porter more or less remains the same. No doubt I will be a bit more careful now in future treks when it comes to choosing and dealing with the porters.
Haramosh La was chosen as the destination for our trekking trip for 2013. Arandu is the last village of Bhasha valley from where trek to Haramosh starts. Like other remote Balti villages at the base of giant mountains, it’s a beautiful village with lush green fields. While planning for the trek, we got in touch with a local guide from Arandu – Fida Ali who assured us about the availability of all the porters from his village. Previously, to remain on the safe side, we had planned to hire some porters from Shigar, Tisar and Bisil too but upon Fida’s insistence, we dropped that idea and trusted blindly on him. Fida Ali was porter sardar for our expedition. For every trekking or climbing expedition in the area, the group must designate one porter who is more experienced and competent as the porter sardar. This sardar acts as the bridge between porters and the team and is supposed to be the single point of contact for the team for everything related to porters.
First scene happened right at the very first day of our walking day. Finalizing porters and weights is always a time consuming activity. Each porter carries up to 25 KG of weight besides his personal stuff. When porter weights had all been sorted, calculated and divided, it was the time to talk about rates. Portering has now taken the shape of an industry in the area. Tourism department in coordination with other stake holders issues an annual rates list containing porter charges per stage along with the additional charges like kit, rest, return charges etc. This document is applicable to whole Baltistan region. We took this rates list out and calculated in front of Fida total rates based on the total number of stages he mentioned which were 16. Once every thing got finalized and agreed upon, we picked our rucksacks and were all set for the departure. And it was never that easy! Suddenly, some young porters came forward and asked about the total amount they will be paid upon reaching Haramosh. They were communicated about the total amount was Rs. 10700. They went back, had some discussions among themselves and came back with the demand that they will charge a lump sump of 14000. When asked this is against the rule and there is no justification for this extra demand, they threw the official document away and said Arandu has its own law and that we do not recognize any other law or rule. For the next one hour, we tried to convince them that this is not how things are done and never has this happened to us before but they were consistent. We even tried to bargain a bit if we could reach some middle ground solution but to no avail. By that time, it was no more possible for us to go back and arrange porters from some other area and also there was no guarantee that they would allow us to do that. We had to finally give in and we accepted all of their demands including extra rest charges.
Additional amount we had agreed to pay to the porters would definitely have an impact on our budget. We decided to review all of our stuff in the evening and take only the essentially required items with us thus relieving some porters from the first campsite. The next morning, we made sure to dispose of all of our extra stuff and managed to reduce the load by almost two porters. When we announced this in front of porters, there came another surprise. While it is a normal practice on other treks, these porters refused to go back from the first points and said this has never happened before and they will not go back from this point. We tried to convince them once again that how we are low on budget and do not need these extra porters but it fell of deaf ears. Having no other option, we again had to give in and we continued with the same 16 porters.
We decided to release four porters from Balocho – the next camp site. Reducing four porters means reducing a total of 100 Kg which is not an easy weight to reduce. We requested the help of our Shimshali high altitude porters and they agreed to take some load till Lailan basecamp after which they will get engaged with their technical work. We communicated it to Fida and also got four names from him in the morning. When it came to distribution somehow the weights started appearing greater than they weighed the previous day. I strongly suspected the weight bar which might have been altered somehow. My doubt go stronger when Fida and other porters put the stuff away and went for a porter strike after I and Ihsan tried to get the stuff weighted one more time on our own. Again we had to give in and instead of four, they released only one porter from Balocho one less than even what was being released a day ago.
Luck was not with our side and the weather turned worst by the time we reached Balocho. We got continuous snowfall at Lailan base camp and eventually we decided to retreat and move back towards Arandu. The worst from the porters side came on the very last day when we had to pay them. Upon our return, the ringleaders of these porters again started making a fuss and asked for double charges for meat and kit one till the base camp and other for return. We had agreed to give them one forced rest day payment but then started asking for 4 rest days payments which had no justification at all. Even they played with us for the number of stages. When we later met Khorpa guys in Skardu, they confirmed that from Arandu to Lailan basecamp makes a total of 7 stages while Fida charged us for a total of 8 stages. These porters including their sardar exploited us at every possible place they could have realizing we do not have any other option except to accept their demands. We resisted till our level best and tried to convince them but the heated arguments continued. We even got threats from them during all this saga. It was after all their land and we had no other option but to give them whatever they are demanding and we did.
Once we moved away from Arandu, it was our turn to teach them a lesson. We were definitely angry on the extra budget it had caused us but more importantly we wanted to make sure this thing doesn’t happen to any other group in the future. We stopped at Tisar police station and filed our official complaint against the behavior of porters. Upon reaching Skardu, we used our contacts to reach the higher ups of police and made sure a proper action is taken. Shigar DSP was summoned and a stern action was ordered. He apologized on behalf of the porters of Arandu and assured us he will teach them a lesson. He decided to go immediately to Tisar and sent the SHO with his men to Arandu with an order to bring all the culprits to Tisar police station and apprehend them before he reaches there. He wanted us to stay for one more day to see what action is done against them but we had already make the booking for Rawalpindi bound bus for the evening. By the time we had left Skardu, we got a call from DSP that he has reached Tisar and Arandu guys are on their way to Tisar. We lost the signals after moving away from Skardu and by the time we got into signal zone again at Jaglot, missed call alters and text messages told us something has happened there already. The tone of Arandu porters had changed completely on phone and their families started making requests through multiple channels to forgive them. We didn’t have any intention to pursue the case anyway but we made sure that they remain in the lock-up for at least a few days before being released so that they remember this lesson for the rest of their life. They got released on the third day after getting an appropriate doze by the police.
Separately, we had a detailed meeting with Khurpa Care guys in their office in Skardu. Khurpa Care is the organization responsible for all matters related to porters in Baltistan. Their president Zahid is a nice young man who assured us that an appropriate action will be taken to make sure this thing doesn’t happen with any other group in the future. My advice to other trekkers planning to go in Baltistan would be to get in touch with the Khurpa guys while planning for the trek and get details about the stages, rates and rules. If you do not have prior contacts, these guys can recommend you the best guides, porters and sardaars. Even inc case you arrange porters on your own, you should at least meet these guys along with your porter sardar before your departure and get the official verdict on package details, number of stages and other modalities. Once decided in front of these guys, it will be very difficult for local porters to disagree as this is the body that can blacklist them based on any maltreatment.