They are hardy but humble men who perform an ancient job in a modern time. Using only rope and wooden poles for leverage, they haul sacks of cement, cases of beer, bales of cabbage and even refrigerators up a two-mile stairway to the top of one of China's most sacred mountains.

They're known as tiaofu, or mountain porters. But they like to call themselves "old oxen." Whether in the harsh July heat or biting January cold, they plod up and down Taishan's thousands of wide, steep stone steps, their bodies bent in exertion, the long poles digging furrows into their callused, sunburned shoulders.

Working in teams or alone, 200 porters deliver goods to the more than three dozen temples, hotels, restaurants and shops along the mountaintop thoroughfare known as Heaven Street. For each three-hour round trip, they earn 15 yuan, less than $2. On a good day, when they are feeling strong, they can make three ascents.

For 2,000 years, the porters have shouldered such loads to the mountain pinnacle where emperors gave offerings, philosophers drew inspiration and true believers made pilgrimages to what was considered the highest altar in the Middle Kingdom, a place of lonely beauty where the stars are near.

One of the five holiest peaks of Taoism, Taishan, or Big Mountain, remains one of China's most popular tourist destinations -- its summit offering commanding views of the North China Plain. Each day, tens of thousands of tourists tread its forested slopes, past carved stone tablets and landmarks with such poetic names as the Spring Where the Dragon Meditates, Ridge Where the Horses Falter and Bridge Where One Greets the Fairies.

The porters are considered central to the Taishan culture, revered for their strength and stamina, the inspiration for songs and stories. But for these small, sinewy men, this holy mountain is a decidedly mundane scene of muscle-numbing labor.

At night, after another grueling day, the men return to mid-mountain hovels made of rock, dirt and discarded wood to cook meager meals over open fires. The oldest, in their sixties, say their bodies often ache so much they cannot sleep.

"This job is too hard, too meaningless, for any man to do," said Han Shitai, who for 20 years has been shouldering loads that often exceed his own weight.

The porters are among the most exploited laborers in a country notorious for harsh working conditions. Even as China enters a new age of technology, jobs such as these hark back to its brute-force past, when men's muscles were the cheapest form of labor and transport.

On Taishan, the porters consider themselves the weakest of all laborers when it comes to workers' rights. Although not manufacturing-based, their labors supply the Taoist temples and tourist industry that draw as many as 30,000 foreign and domestic visitors each day.

The porters want to unionize but know such aims often bring swift and harsh government response.

"The government doesn't benefit from making our lives more human, so they don't care," said Zhao Pingjiang, 54, a former rural doctor and accountant who now manages the mountain porter team. "Our concerns fall on deaf ears."

Zhao could face trouble for discussing his cause with a foreigner. But his concern over conditions that are not fit for many animals, he says, forces him to speak up.

"What can they take from us?" he asked. "We have nothing left to lose."

Han Shitai knows how the Great Wall and other ancient edifices were built: by an army of men who strained to move crushingly heavy objects to extreme heights.

The 45-year-old porter has climbed the Road to Heaven countless times, carrying bronze statues, hotel beds, live chickens, cases of soft drinks and plastic jugs of oil. He once helped a team of 100 porters lug a 2-ton iron kettle to the top, a trip that took an entire day.

Like other porters, Han is a peasant farmer who answered an ad to join this government-sanctioned enterprise. The goal of the porter program, officials say, is not to make a profit but to help solve the problem of surplus labor in the nearby city of Taian and on small local farms, which do not provide year-round work.

Zhao's group solicits work and agrees on fees with business owners and temple leaders at the summit. When there are loads to be carried -- in the busy summer months the porters are needed constantly -- the men leave their farms for weeks at a time to live and work on the mountain.

The earnings are divided at the end of each day. Han and others say that although their salaries are low and the living conditions poor, they can earn as much making two trips to the mountaintop as they could during a whole day working at a local construction site.

Although they have failed to persuade merchants to pay more for their labors or government officials to improve their housing, the porters know they are uneducated men lucky to have such work. If they refuse, there are many others eager to take their place.

On a recent day, Han worked with a team of five other men to carry a loaded oil drum from the mountain's Middle Gate to Heaven Street. The 2,000-foot climb was normally a job for eight, but the porters know they can earn more by using fewer men.

Scores of freelance porters who were not part of Zhao's team hoisted lighter loads along the entire 5,000-foot, five-mile path from downtown Taian up to Heaven Street. But Zhao's group handled the bulkiest and heaviest loads, working the steepest two-mile, 4,000-step section from the Middle Gate to the top. The cargo was delivered to the mountain's midsection -- where the road ends -- by truck.

On their ascent, the first of two that day, they passed healthy young men and women using canes to aid their climb. They grunted at the slow movers, camera-toting tourists who often glared at the porters as if their jostling had ruined a good snapshot.

The porters silently endure such disrespect. Chao Jing Sun, 48, who has been a porter since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1979, said tourists ignore requests not to take his picture without permission. He's also weary of the same question asked time and again: "How much do you make? I wouldn't do your job for a thousand yuan."

But some express admiration for these porters, whose ancestors for centuries hauled both people and possessions on what many say is the oldest road in China. As an old saying goes, the men's bodies are "as firm as Mount Tai," the Chinese equivalent to the Western phrase "solid as the Rock of Gibraltar."

The porters know such work may take years off their lives. Many have bad knees and endure back spasms and other chronic pains. Zhao, the leader, keeps a plastic bag filled with painkillers and Chinese medicinal herbs for the worst cases.

The self-proclaimed "old oxen" say even those animals no longer labor in the fields. "Now our lives are worse than even theirs," said veteran porter Li Hongping.

Fifteen years ago, Taishan added a cable car to whisk tourists to the top in minutes. A second, slower freight lift was also built, but there is often a wait for deliveries. Many merchants prefer the porters for their quick turnaround time.

Although they believe they are underpaid, the porters are reluctant to raise rates, fearful that merchants will switch their business to the freight gondola.

But Zhao says Taishan administrators can afford to make their lives easier. Each of the hundreds of thousands of annual mountain visitors pay a 100-yuan, or $12, entry fee -- more than his six men together earned carrying the oil drum to the top.

Government officials have built housing for the workers, but at a distant location, so many choose not to sleep there. Although the porters collectively pay 10,000 yuan a year for the quarters, most men sleep in huts with dirt floors that become rivers of runoff on rainy nights.

The porters contribute 15 percent of their pay to an insurance pool, in case one of them is injured and cannot work. It's a cost they believe the merchants should help shoulder.

Lu Guilan, owner of the Country Egg restaurant on Heaven Street, is not sympathetic, asking, "If the government doesn't care, why should we?"

A government spokesman also scoffed at the porters' requests. "Do you know who these people are?" asked Du Guanghua. "They're farmers. They come to do labor."

One porter will not last until change comes to Taishan. After 33 years, Cui Qisheng says he is too weak to go on. "I want to quit," the 59-year-old said. "Next year I will."

Then he picked up his heavy burden, crying out at the weight, and returned to his mountain task. He sighed. There were only 3,000 more steps to go.

Six porters carry a full oil drum two miles up a stairway to the top of China's sacred Taishan mountain. Each will earn less than $ 2 for the job.Sweat rolling down his body, Fung Shi, 44, shoulders a wooden yoke as he and other porters haul goods up the mountain's steep steps. The men suffer from numerous physical ailments.