Known in the Tibetan language as the Gang Rinpoche, Kailash is the highest peak in the Gangdise Mountain range. Photo: Mountainsoftravelphotos.com
Ngari prefecture in the Tibet autonomous region, famous for scared Mount Kailash, is opening its arms wide to foreign visitors, following Chinese President Xi Jinping's announcement during his visit to India in September that China would open a second route for pilgrims to the site.
Pilgrims from home and abroad have been flocking in record numbers to the prefecture to visit the 21,778-foot-high mountain that is the source of four of Asia's mightiest rivers.
Known in the Tibetan language as the Gang Rinpoche, Kailash is the highest peak in the Gangdise Mountain range and considered holy by the Tibetan Buddhist, Hindu, Bon and Jainis religions.
Over the centuries, historic figures have gone to the mountain for inspiration and to lecture on Buddhist doctrine there. Legend says that the Buddha himself and an eminent Tibetan monk named Milha Riba had been to the mountain.
Pilgrims believe that walking a full circle around Kailash can bring prosperity and purify one of the sins of a lifetime. It is believed that the god of Kailash was born in the Year of the Horse, so circumambulating the mountain in the Year of Horse is most auspicious.
This being the Year of Horse, the number of visitors to Ngari has soared to about 470,000, an increase of more than 50 percent over last year.
Among the pilgrims, more than 30,000 came from neighboring countries such as India and Nepal, said Phuntsok, deputy director of the standing committee of the People's Congress of Ngari prefecture. He said the fast growing demand has spurred the local government to improve infrastructure to better serve visitors.
"To guarantee the safety and health of pilgrims, we have ordered all 30-plus vehicles from our seven counties to be on stand-by, in case they're needed for any emergencies," said Phuntsok, who added that the authorities also encouraged pilgrims to choose alternate times to visit to avoid peak time crowding.
It takes a pilgrim two to three days to complete the 32-mile circuit around the mountain. Most people go on foot but some ride horses hired from local villagers. Travelers pass several snow-capped mountain tops more than 16,000 feet above sea level.
Pilgrims have had a major impact on the local tourist trade, which is a pillar of the prefecture's economy, he said. One village of more than 800 people earned more than $1.6 million a year, he said, with the adults working as guides and porters on the mountain trails.
In addition to Mount Kailash, nearby Lake Mansarovar is also considered a sacred religious destination. Ngari prefecture boasts a cultural heritage and long history that still remains mysterious, as scholars have varying opinions on the origins of the 2,100-year-old Zhang Zhung culture.
The natural scenery and geological formations in the prefecture are also popular tourism destinations. Local governments have allocated funds to improve facilities for the growing number of visitors in recent years, especially in transportation, said Phuntsok.
The 1,000-mile-long expressway connecting Ngari and Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet autonomous region, has sharply cut travel time between the two locations.
"It used to take us a week to get to Lhasa because of the poor road conditions, but now we can drive there in a day and a half, weather permitting," Phuntsok said.
Ngari's success with tourism is inspiring other areas of Tibet to follow their lead. Tibet received 12.8 million tourist visits as of November, including 149,600 tourists from overseas in the first nine months of the year, an increase of 18.4 percent over the same period last year, according to the autonomous region's bureau of statistics.
Tourists brought $2.7 billion in revenue to the region in the same period. To keep the boom of tourism going, Tibet plans to allocate more funds to exploring the tourism market.
By the end of the 13th Five-Year Plan Period (2016-20), the autonomous region government will invest about $8.3 billion in 100 major tourist towns, 300 tourist villages and 3,000 high-quality family hotels.
"Ngari is the mysterious land of western Tibet, and like a piece of heaven because of its extremely special landscapes. Any way it can, Ngari will focus on tourism to enhance the welfare of its residents," Phuntsok said.
If you go
For foreign tourists who want to travel to the Tibet autonomous region, two documents are necessary: a Chinese visa, which you can apply for in the Chinese Embassy in your country, and Tibet Travel Permits (TTP), which you have to obtain in advance in order to enter Tibet.
All foreign tourists must hold a passport valid for at least six months. If you enter Tibet from inland China, your Chinese visa must be valid. If you want to travel into border areas such as the base camp of Mount Qomolangma, Zham Township or the Medog County, a border pass is required both for Chinese and foreign visitors. The border pass is only available in Lhasa, where processing can take several days.
Air flights from many cities connect directly with Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region. It takes about four hours from Beijing to Lhasa by air and 30 to 40 hours from major cities in the US and Canada. Within Tibet, travelers can take flights from Lhasa to the prefectures of Qamdo, Ngari and Nyingchi.
The best time to travel in Tibet is from April through October.