As she led a group down Taishan mountain's steps recently, Liu Yan, a tour guide, said the porters served to remind an increasingly sedentary China of the value of hard work. "They show you how to be a real, strong man," she said. "While carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, they move swiftly, in union. Even faster than the tourists who carry nothing."

Nearby, one man could only shake his head as the porters passed, sweating profusely under the weight of the oil drum. "It's a miracle," he said.

Still, up they went, through a forest of old cypress trees and flat-faced rock walls inscribed with ancient calligraphy. Their route skirted numerous shrines with gargoyles poised on the tips of upturned eaves, along 18 tortuous turns on the way to the South Gate of Heaven.

Along the path, they passed a leper holding a cup in his outstretched hand, a beggar woman with gnarled fingers and vendors using cell phones and portable computers. They overtook a single porter, who shouldered a load of vegetables and beer, swinging his free arm for balance. Near the top, just short of the Pavilion That Touches the Sky, the stairway became sharply steeper. But the porters did not pause to rest or even take a drink.

At the summit, a fog rolled across the temple walls, and tourists donned jackets as the sound of a gong rang through the mist. Only then did Han and the others stop.

Within the hour, the porters had loaded up a bulky generator for the return trip.

Although aided by gravity, the way down is often more dangerous, the porters say. Many slip on loose stones. And with the heavier loads, they build up the momentum of a human freight train, unable to stop quickly.

One woman knelt in the middle of the stairway, focusing her camera. "Hai huh!" the men called out, but she did not hear them. Still, they could not stop. Finally, a companion reached out to pull her aside before she was trampled.