China opens Kailas-Mansarovar pilgrimage…

…But only for Nepalis, and conditions apply

All photos: NABARAJ LAMA

It has been three years since Hindus have been unable to make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the holiest places in their religion: Mt Kailas and Lake Mansarovar. This is because of the pandemic, and the fact that the sacred sites are in China.

But China is gradually re-opening and has indicated that pilgrims will be allowed to visit Kailas-Mansarovar again — but at the moment only for Nepalis.

Mt Kailas (6,638m) is a granite monolith and is regarded by Hindus across the Subcontinent as the abode of Lord Shiva, his consort Parvati and the elephant god Ganesh. It is also revered by Buddhists of the Vajrayana tradition.

The glaciers of Mt Kailas feed Lake Mansarovar (4,590m) where Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims take a ritual dip for spiritual cleansing. Most of the Subcontinent’s major rivers, including the Sutlej, Indus, Ganges, Karnali and Brahmaputra have their origins within 100km of the mountain and lake.

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Mt Kailas from the south face.

Aside from its geological and religious significance, Mt Kailas and Lake Manasarovar also lie along geo-strategic fault lines. Regionals between China and India are strained, and their militaries clash frequently along the disputed Himalayan border.

The area also lies just north of the Kalapani-Lipu Lek region of northwestern Nepal which is presently occupied by India, and is at the tri-junction of Chinese, Indian and Nepalese borders.

Indian pilgrims have traditionally taken a 5-day trek up to Lipu Lek Pass to cross over into Tibet. But in 2020, the Indian Army built a road nearly to the top of the pass, reigniting the border dispute with Nepal.

Kailash Mansarovar

There is a quota on the number of pilgrims who can take this route, which is why many Indians flew to Simikot in Nepal’s Humla district to take helicopter ferries to the border at Hilsa, then driving 45km to Mansarovar by car.

A more expensive route was to fly to Lhasa and drive across the Tibetan Plateau for four days to reach the lake. Lhasa is now also connected to a new airport at Ngari Gunsa, 5-hour drive from Mt Kailas.

On 1 May, China reopened the Rasuwa-Kerung and Hilsa-Purang checkpoints that had been closed since early 2020 to revive overland trade. It also announced that it was opening Kailas-Mansarovar pilgrimages for Nepalis, but they needed to travel in groups of at least four and had to come to Kathmandu to get visas and biometrics at the Chinese Embassy.

Nepal Tourism Board said over 250,000 Indian tourists visited Nepal in 2019, and that one-third of them were booked on tours to Mansarovar and Kailas paying up to $3,000 each. The number of Indian tourists visiting Nepal has already exceeded 167,000 in the first six months of this year.

Since many of the pilgrims are not allowed into China, they visit another pilgrimage destination at Muktinath, or fly to Simkot to take a helicopter to Lapcha La in Humla from where both Mansarovar and Kailas can be seen to the north on a clear day.

The Lapcha La viewpoint was popularised by the Indian spiritual influencer Sadhguru when he made a well-publicised trip there in 2022.

“We have not received concrete information from the Chinese side, so there is confusion as to whether the border is properly opened,” Ujir Rokaya, Humla's Chief Administrative Officer, told us over the phone. “We are planning to go to the border to seek clarification.”

Once the Lipu Lek route is opened and the Chinese lift their quota restrictions, Indian pilgrims will prefer to travel directly, bypassing the routes through Nepal. Even if the Chinese restriction on Indians continues, pilgrims can go to Lipu Lek Peak from where Mt Kailas and Lake Manasarovar can be seen.

“The Hilsa route is still the most convenient one,” explains Mani Raj Lamichhane at the Nepal Tourism Board, which has been trying to sell the Pashupati-Muktinath-Mansarovar package via Nepal to Indian pilgrims.

But for that to happen, highways have to be upgraded, flights need to be more reliable, proper hotels need to be built along the route and there should be no hassles at the border.

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Local Tibetans and visitors circumbulating the outer kora of Mt Kailas.(Photo: Nabraj)betnab

“When the Hilsa border was open, it was tough to handle so many tourists. But now, the hotels are empty,” adds Bijaya Lama of a hotel in Simkot. “We expected at least 2,000 pilgrims this year, but it looks like we will not get any.”

Basu Dev Thapa of Himalayan Glory Travels and Tours has specialised in Indian pilgrim traffic for the past 20 years, and says the fact that Hinduism’s holiest sites are in Nepal or can be reached through Nepal is a big advantage.

“Since Nepal is culturally close to India, our services and hospitality are a plus,” adds Thapa. “Despite the new Lipu Lek road through India, the Nepal route is more convenient and pilgrims can visit multiple holy places on one trip.”

The Indian process to visit Mansarovar is also tedious because besides a lucky draw quota, pilgrims have to undergo training, biometric and health checks, which can take up to six months. The Nepal option is cheaper and has fewer restrictions.

Add Thapa: “If we improve connectivity and facilities, the Nepal option still holds more advantage.”