Restrictions were imposed on Tibetan government workers in Lhasa wishing to travel to Mount Kailash in western Tibet this year during the Buddhist festival of Sagadawa in May and June, the most auspicious period in 12 years to travel to the mountain, according to a Tibet Information Network (TIN) report on August 6, 2002.

Mt Kailash in Ngari prefecture (Chinese: Ali) is regarded as a sacred site by both Buddhists and Hindus, and is promoted as a tourist destination by the Chinese authorities.

According to reports received by TIN, Tibetan government workers in Lhasa were told by officials and by their neighborhood committees that they would lose their pensions and possibly their jobs if they traveled to Mt Kailash during Sagadawa. General restrictions on visiting Mt Kailash have been in place in Tibet for several years, with most Tibetan pilgrims requiring a permit to allow them to circumambulate the mountain. The authorities sometimes close the Kailash region to both foreign tourists and Tibetan pilgrims, often without offering any explanation.

Restrictions on Tibetan pilgrims going to Mt Kailash may have been enforced particularly stringently this year because it is regarded as an especially auspicious time to make a pilgrimage to Mt Kailash. This is because the festival of Sagadawa, which marks the enlightenment and death of the Buddha, and according to some Buddhist traditions his birth as well, has a special significance during the Year of the Horse (2002).1

Obtaining permits to visit Kailash can be a complex and lengthy bureaucratic process for Tibetans, especially for those without any connections within the relevant offices. A Tibetan truck driver from Ngari prefecture told TIN that pilgrims from his area first have to obtain confirmation of their address and a registration form from the local township administration, which then has to be taken to the county Public Security Bureau (PSB) for approval, and then to the regional PSB office. Final travel authorization has to be obtained from the Ngari region military headquarters. Fees are payable at different stages of the process. Other Tibetans contacted by TIN reported similar procedures. Despite these bureaucratic and other obstacles, at least 10,000 pilgrims reportedly visited Mt Kailash during Sagadawa this year – with many of them traveling from Kham and Amdo (regions of eastern Tibet now largely incorporated into Qinghai and Sichuan) rather than central Tibetan areas.

A Western tourist who visited Mt Kailash during the Sagadawa festival said that while there did not appear to be many uniformed security personnel present, the authorities did appear to keep an eye on her group and to make sure they did not leave the designated pilgrims’ route. The tourist said: “On the day of our arrival we walked up a hill towards some prayer-flags. When we stopped to catch our breath, a uniformed man, who had been walking behind us quite casually, told us that we couldn’t go any further as the area beyond the ridge was restricted. He wouldn’t say why. He spoke good English and was very friendly.”

The Chinese authorities have focused on Mt Kailash as a prime tourist destination this year. On 31 December 2001 Xinhua reported: “Ngari prefecture is to host a year of tourism in 2002 when tens of thousands of pilgrims come to worship the holy mountain and sacred lake [Manasarovar] in the region. (…) The authorities in the prefecture have decided to better serve the pilgrims by offering special transport in between the prefecture capital and the mountain and the lake and by providing better accommodation and food services along the pilgrimage route.” The Ngari authorities have also constructed a large Chinese-style gate at the approach to Mt Kailash.

However, the restrictions on tourists and pilgrims documented by TIN over the past two years indicate that promotion of the sacred mountain, as a tourist attraction is likely to remain subject to the authorities’ concerns regarding security in the region. The Chinese authorities have repeatedly emphasized the importance of “managing” tourism in this area. The Kailash region, which is close to sensitive border areas and which lies along one of the main escape routes for Tibetans traveling to Nepal, has been closed to both pilgrims and western tourists at various times in the past two years. One western tour group that had planned to visit Kailash in June 2001 was informed by its Nepalese travel agency that the Kailash area had been closed to tourists for “internal, political reasons”.

On that occasion the closure is believed to have been linked to the authorities’ concerns regarding a planned Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC)2 peace march from India to Tibet. (2) The march was stopped by the Indian authorities before reaching the Indo-Tibetan border region. In September 2001 the area was closed once more, which may have been due to the movement of troops in the region. Soon after the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, tourists reported seeing large convoys of troops, tanks and anti-aircraft guns moving from Lhasa and Shigatse towards the border areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

1 According to Tibetan Buddhism the circumambulation around Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar in the year of the horse, especially during the Sagadawa festival, brings far greater merit than at any other time. Therefore the number of Tibetans visiting the mountain during Sagadawa was expected to be much larger than in previous years. The next Year of the Horse will be in 2014.

2 The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) is an exile Tibetan organization based in Dharamsala.