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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Opening the Gate to Kailash

July 29, 2010

Tibet Infomation Network
July 26, 2010

  The opening of Ngari Gunsa Airport on 02 July
2010 is the culmination of substantial
infrastructure development efforts by the Chinese
authorities over the last few years. Their aim is
to transform the region around Mount Kailash and
the nearby Lake Manasarovar in the far west of
the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) into a
lucrative tourism destination. Pilgrims from
India who venerate Kailash and its environs have
for years constituted the majority of the
visitors to the region. The treatment many of
them experience at the hands of state-sanctioned
travel agencies suggests that there is a long way
to go before the advent of a serious and
professional tourism sector in this remote
region. Regardless of this, the Chinese
authorities seem keen to engage India in a part
of Tibet that has for centuries been more
oriented towards South Asia than towards China.

Situated at an altitude of 4,272m above sea
level, the new airport will be able to
accommodate four commercial aircraft and it is
planned to handle 120,000 passengers and 350 tons
of cargo per year by 2020. Construction of the
airport began in May 2007 and cost in the region
of 1.7 billion yuan (UK£162.4million; US$250.7m;
EUR€194.2m). The opening of the airport coincides
with the finalisation of quality metalled roads
that ensure all-year connectivity of the area
around Mount Kailash (6,638m) and Lake
Manasarovar (4,556m), both within the desolate
Ngari (Chin: Ali) prefecture and to Central Tibet
(Lhasa is 1,600 km away by road), as well as
Mainland China (via Ngari prefecture town, the
Changtang plateau and Qinghai/Amdo province).

While the new connectivity is likely to
substantially increase the number of those
western and few Chinese travellers in search of
wilderness, the area is likely to remain out of
the way for the majority of tourists whose
typical circuits focus on regions with a higher
density of cultural hotspots at lower
altitudes(1). It is far more likely to give a
tremendous boost to trips in the region by Indian
visitors who, apart from Tibetan pilgrims, were
already the largest group travelling to the area.
Both Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar are held
sacred not only by Tibetan Buddhists and
Bonpo(2), but by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs from
across the Indian subcontinent. For these people,
a pilgrimage to Kailash once in one's life is a must if it is at all possible.

The official Chinese claim that development of
tourism was long impossible here due to the
inaccessibility of the region does not withstand
much scrutiny. The region has been a zone of
penetration for Indian and Persian culture across
the Himalayas since prehistoric times, and it was
from here that a renewed spread of Buddhism in
Tibet began, from the 10th and 11th centuries
onwards. Despite the advent of progressive
desertification in more recent centuries, it has
remained an important corridor for trade. The
routes leading from Lhasa to Central Asia went
through here and the Tibetan town of Purang
(Chin: Burang) figured prominently until recently
on regional maps under the Nepali/Pahari name of
Taklakot, as it was a vibrant trade hub between
Tibet and South Asia. Until the 1950s, a chunk of
the region even remained an Indian exterritorial enclave(3).

It is only the advent of Chinese power in Tibet
in the 1950 and 60s that has made the region
inaccessible. In fact, as the bird flies, the
Kailash-Manasarovar area lays only 50km away from
the point where the borders of Nepal, India and
Tibet/PRC meet, and it is just 15km away from
Nepal's northern border(4). It was hence a
deliberate political decision by China to
constrict the passes which permitted, in
principle, a much easier to access to the region
from South Asia than from Central Tibet. Tourism
could have been given a boost earlier by
re-opening the ancient route from Ladakh via
Demchok which follows the Indus Valley, as has
been proposed by the Indian side. With that, the
region could have taken advantage of the
experiences and infrastructure development for
tourism that has taken place in Ladakh since
1974. As late as in 2007, China and India signed
an agreement of principle to this effect, but
that has so far remained unfulfilled. Strategic
reasons are often advanced for the late
development of tourism in the region, but a more
likely explanation is that the Chinese
authorities could only envisage an opening of the
region once they were in the position of making
maximum profit from its assets. The religious
attraction exerted by the Kailash-Manasarovar
region in India has been well understood in
Beijing, though, and has been the focus of
goodwill diplomacy, while at the same efforts
have been made to ensure maximum profit for Chinese tourism operators.

Pilgrims, politics and profit

Following an agreement dating from the 1980s
between India and China, the Indian government
operates an annual subsidised tour for pilgrims
from June to September, but seats are restricted
and allocated by lottery. In 2009, applications
were invited for a total of 16 groups made up of
60 pilgrims each. These groups are generally well
looked after by the Indian authorities and
serious problems rarely occur. Because of the
importance of the scheme in the diplomatic
relations between the two countries, they also
receive VIP treatment from the Chinese
authorities. The pilgrims are met at Lipulekh
Pass crossing and driven in convoy, escorted by
People's Armed Police (PAP) personnel, and put up
in Purang Guest house. Their arrival is marked by
firework displays. They are taken for medical
tests and then escorted in bus and land cruisers
to Kailash-Manasarovar where they stay in a
designated accommodation. Porters, yaks and
horses, medical care, oxygen cylinders and
decompression chambers etc are all provided.

However, these official tours with limited
numbers are not sufficient to accommodate the
ever greater number of Indians pilgrims, who are
some of the fastest growing outbound tourists in
the world. Many affluent pilgrims are now
prepared to travel on expensive and poorly
equipped trips organised by private operators,
often without any preparation or medical tests
for what is a very rigorous journey for even the
fittest of people. Most of these private tours go
via Nepal, either crossing the border in the
extreme west of Nepal(5), a short, but very
difficult trip, or through the gateway of
Tatopani/Dram (Chin: Zhangmu), east of Kathmandu
and then follow the western route from South
Tibet(6), a far easier but much longer option.
The trip typically costs around Indian Rs150,000
to 200,000 (UK£2,100 - £2,750; US$3,200 - $4,200;
EUR€2,450 - €3,270) per person all inclusive.

In 2009, one of these unofficial pilgrimages
turned into a nightmare for a large number of
Indians who had bought tours advertised in
brochures that bore no resemblance to what they
encountered once they were in the TAR.
Arrangements were non-existent; there were no
doctors and no medicine; there was also a lack of
food, water and oxygen cylinders. The Indian
government was forced to issue a travel warning
for those intending to undertake the pilgrimage,
after nearly 100 pilgrims were stranded in Purang
in the second week of June 2009 and ten deaths
were reported. Many more were forced to cut short
their trip due to medical emergencies. Some of
those who completed the pilgrimage had harrowing
experiences, and reported seeing pilgrims
sleeping in the open in streets in very cold
conditions in Darchen and Purang as there were no
rooms available. And as priority was given to the
official tours, the unofficial pilgrims were
forced to vacate their rooms, even if they had
paid for them. One of them died on 12 June 2009
on the way back to the Tibet-Nepal border after
being discharged from a medical clinic in Khasa
(Dram) on the grounds that he was beyond
recovery. Chinese officials at the border point
stopped the vehicle carrying his body and
demanded a fee equivalent to Indian Rs.5,000 in order to release his body.

Although Indian and Nepali tour operators must
take some share of the blame, it is Chinese tour
organisers on the Tibetan side of the border who
are in control over what happens during the
pilgrimage. They charge exorbitant sums for
non-existent facilities and change the schedule
midway for the slightest reasons and show scant
regard for the pilgrims, who are regularly left
in the lurch. They also charge more money for
providing the same basic facilities, such as
medical care, shelter and transportation that the
pilgrims had been promised and had already paid for in advance.

In 2009 alone, it was estimated that around
12,000 Indian pilgrims were present in Darchen,
the small town at the foot of the Kailash, during
the Sagadawa festival, which marks the Buddha's
enlightenment in the Tibetan calendar. It is also
an important event in the Hindu calendar, as it
is believed to be the day that the gods Shiva and
Parvati descended from heaven. Chinese
authorities must have anticipated such large
numbers of Indian pilgrims as special visas were
being issued in New Delhi and Kathmandu in their
thousands. The large number of pilgrims arrived
in a small town with temperatures dropping to
minus five degrees Celsius There were also only
four or five guest houses and local households
that could offer no more than 100 rooms at most.

The Chinese tour operators also appear to have
little understanding of the pilgrims'
sensibilities. Although it should have been known
that most are vegetarians and that even
non-vegetarians shun meat during their
pilgrimage, appropriate food was not available for them.

An entity called the China Indian Pilgrims'
Service Centre (CIPSC) has a monopoly over the
rights to handle travel arrangements for the
Indian pilgrims. CIPSC comprises of the Tibet
Tourist Corporation (TTC), which is affiliated to
the China International Travel Services (CITS),
Ngari Tourism and Tibet International Sports
Travel (TIST). Its creation was the brainchild of
Tenzin Norbu who heads Ngari Tourism. The TTC is
headed by Huang Li and TIST (Lhasa) is headed by a Tibetan called Jigme.

It is mandatory for all foreign travel agencies
to make travel arrangements for Indians on the
Kailash-Manasarovar pilgrimage through the CIPSC.
This is also responsible for fixing the prices
for services such as accommodation,
transportation etc which the pilgrims must
purchase in order to be issued a visa from the
Chinese embassy. Problems faced by pilgrims on
the ground and concerns of the travel operators
were discussed on a meeting between
representatives from Nepalese companies that
operate trips to Kailash and the CIPSC on the 11
March 2007 at Hotel Annapurna, Kathmandu, Nepal.
As a result, the minimum number of people per
group was reduced from 47 to 25. The TTB and the
CIPSC also pledged to improve health facilities
in Darchen, Paryang and Sakya. It appears from
the experience of Indian pilgrims in 2009,
however, that the CIPSC have yet to implement any of these undertakings.

The monopoly trade practices of the CIPSC and the
group permit system is at the root of the
pilgrims' problems. Currently the minimum number
of people per group is 25 and each group is
charged US$7,000 (UK£4,500; EUR€5,400). The
charges have to be paid fully in advance with no
refunds in the event of cancellation or
postponement. Thus to economise and offer a
competitive tariff, it is imperative for travel
operators in India and Nepal to have a group of
more than 25. After that, the fee for larger
groups works out less per person, meaning that
the more pilgrims in a group, the more the travel
agents save on charges payable to the CIPSC. It
is evident that CIPSC rules are designed to
encourage greater numbers of bookings per group,
which result in higher income from facilities
offered to the individual pilgrims. Meanwhile,
once in Tibet, the facilities on offer, and for
which the pilgrims are being overcharged, are
insufficient to sustain that number of people.
The CIPSC's terms and conditions specify the
amount of the booking that is refundable and the
time frame required to claim it, but in practice
refunds are unheard of. The CIPSC's monopoly
allows it to make a profit even in the event that
transportation provided by them breaks down or is
involved in an accident. Where this has happened,
the pilgrims were charged for alternative
transport. Even if a pilgrim dies, the CIPSC
offers no compensation to the family. Instead,
they are charged for the cost of the yak, which
is 12,000 yuan (UK£1,140; US$1,770; EUR€1,360),
or the horse, at 7,000 yuan (UK£666; US$1,030;
EUR€800), that is used to carry the dead body.
Relatives are also expected to pay any onward transportation fees.

Future prospects

Whether the new airport and infrastructure will
also bring better business practice to the area
remains to be seen. What is certain is that, with
a better inland infrastructure now in place, the
authorities in Tibet are already in a position to
maximise the potential presented by Indian
pilgrims. In spring 2010, the Chinese authorities
announced that new direct flights between the TAR
and South Asia will be operated soon. The new
airport in Ngari is likely to be one of the new
destinations. Meanwhile, a new road is being
planned under Chinese leadership in Nepal's
western districts of Bajhang, Humla and Darchula
to connect to the already existing road to
Kailash on the Tibetan side of the border. This
road will allow for pilgrims with more average
incomes, and who hence cannot afford to fly, to
access the Kailash area overland without having
to endure the current hardships of a long march
or the costs of air-lifting by helicopter to reach the border.

While working towards optimising resources from
tourism in the region, China seems to be keen to
show an eco-friendly face and to continue to
demonstrate friendly relations with India. Since
2006, the two countries have agreed to jointly
measure the impact of global warming in the
Kailash region where three south Asian rivers
originate - the Indus, the Sutlej and the
Brahmaputra - and which also feeds the Ganges.
More recently, in April 2010, Nepal, India and
China agreed on a common framework to develop a
conservation strategy and environmental
monitoring plan for protecting the fragile
ecosystem of the Kailash region. While still
rather vague and non-committal, these endeavours
indicate China's will to acknowledge some kind of
stake of India in that part of Tibet.

1: Apart from the Kailash itself, the two other
attractions of the region are the ruins of
Tsaparang, the capital of the extinct Tibetan
kingdom of Guge, and the monastery of Tholing.
2: The indigenous, pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet..
3: The Minsar enclave was actually under the
jurisdiction of the kings of Ladakh until Ladakh
lost its independence in the mid-19th century,
and came under the rule of the Maharaja of Jammu
and ultimately the control of British India.
Independent India's claim over Minsar was in
effect quietly given up in the 1950s in order to placate China.
4: In comparison, it is 1,000 km away from Lhasa
as the bird flies and 750 km from the nearest major Tibetan town of Shigatse.
5: Nepalgunj - Simikot - Hilsa - Purang.
6: indhupalchowk - Kodari - Khasa - Sakya - Darchen.
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