Last of Nepal's car porters recalls life without roads

CHITLANG, NEPAL - At 92, Dhan Bahadur Gole is the last known survivor of a generation of porters who carried luxury cars on foot across steep mountain passes to Nepal's rulers in Kathmandu.

Before the Himalayan nation built its first highway in 1956 only the capital city had paved roads, and porters were the only means of getting cars to the wealthy Rana dynasty.

Gole had never even heard of cars when he started working as a porter at the age of 20, let alone seen one.

Although Chitlang village where he was born in 1922 is just 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Kathmandu, it has only been accessible by car for a decade.

His father was a farmer and collected taxes on behalf of the Ranas, who ruled Nepal until 1951 as hereditary prime ministers.

"We never had any money - the Ranas took all the taxes, we had to rely on farming to feed ourselves," Gole told AFP at his home in Chitlang village.

By contrast, the Ranas could afford not only to splash out on Mercedes and Ford cars, but to pay dozens of porters to carry them over the mountains from India.

Their fondness for luxury cars was so well known that in 1939, Adolf Hitler gifted a Mercedes Benz to then ruler Juddha Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana to persuade him to keep Nepal's feared Gurkha troops out of World War II.

Gole's first day in the job began at five in the morning. After tying logs together to build a bamboo stretcher for the car, he and 63 other porters hoisted their cargo on their shoulders and started to walk.

Dressed in thick cotton clothing and wearing flimsy slippers they chanted "pull it, pull it, take it forward" as they navigated steep passes and crossed fast-flowing rivers, trekking for nearly five weeks.

"After we delivered the car to the driver, he turned it on and it came alive. It was like watching someone perform magic," said Gole.

One of the world's most isolated countries, landlocked Nepal was largely inaccessible by modern transport at the time.

Over the next few years, Gole carried several cars, only resting for a couple of days in between assignments.

He earned about 25 rupees (S$0.53) for a month's work, which helped him build the house he now shares with one of his grandsons and his family.

"We had to take care and keep the car safe while going uphill, while crossing rivers, while managing sharp turns," he said.

"But we had fun - we were all young, we were friends, and every day was exciting."

'No interest' in cars

The work came to an end with the construction of the Tribhuvan Highway which connected the Kathmandu valley with the southern town of Birgunj near the India border.

"They built the road and that was it, they didn't need us anymore." By then, the Ranas had lost power. But in Chitlang, little had changed.

"We had no school, no road, no doctors, no toilets. None of the kings did anything for us," Gole said.

When Nepal finally abolishing the monarchy and became a republic in 2008 after a 10-year Maoist insurgency, Gole was eager to cast his vote in the country's first post-war elections.

Despite widespread frustration over successive governments' failure to agree on a constitution for the new republic, Gole said he remained optimistic about the country's future.

"Everything is better now, we have electricity, water, food," he said.

"Besides, if you don't like a government, you can kick them out. Earlier you couldn't do anything." Today Gole, a widower who has been married three times, has more great-grandchildren than he can remember.

He sports a bushy moustache and says he still wakes up early and goes for a walk through the hills every morning.

He said all his former colleagues had passed away in the six decades since they last worked as car porters.

During all that time, he has never once been in a car.

"I guess cars must have been useful to our kings, but they were of no use to me," he said.

"I have no interest in riding in a car, I am happier at home. Anyway, I am too old for adventures now."