Kang Rinpoche: holiest of pilgrimages or mass tourist destination?


Several big new hotels, badged with high profile global brand names, are under construction in Lhasa; the StRegis luxury hotel is already open. When the four new hotels are complete, by the end of 2012, Lhasa will for the first time have about 2700 premium priced beds that need to be filled, year-round, to pay for the investment by the Chinese property speculators who own the buildings.

How will the tourism industry fill those beds? One answer comes not from Lhasa but far to the west, at the holiest of Tibet’s sacred pilgrimage mountains, known to the world as Mt Kailash. Not only is there an airport close by, enabling wealthy tourists to turn the whole of Tibet Autonomous region into a circuit, Nepal is working hard make Kailash a destination appended to Nepal tourism, the final destination in a route that is mostly Nepalese.
With Tibetans compulsorily silent, Nepal is moving to fill the vacuum, repositioning Kailash as a multi-religious, multi-national site that just happens to be in Tibet.

As tourism in Tibet is rapidly being shaped by many actors, with quite varying agendas, the picture emerging is of both opportunity and threat. From a Tibetan point of view the threats are uppermost in many minds: Tibet overwhelmed by huge numbers of arrivals, an endless parade of strangers who come ignorant of ground reality and leave none the wiser after visiting not only Lhasa but other iconic destinations in Tibet, in an enclosed tourist bubble.

This threat needs to be taken seriously and considered carefully, for any opportunity to nudge the future in a better direction. But the very multiplicity of players now engaged in policy making for future tourism in Tibet also suggests positive opportunities for Tibetan values, Tibetan perspectives, Tibetan income and employment can also be integrated into such development.

Perhaps the best case study for identifying opportunities is not in Lhasa, where Chinese fears make it impossible for Tibetan voices to speak up. If we look instead at the remotest areas of upper Tibet, specifically Kailash (Kang Rinpoche), as a destination now with its own airport and plans to make it part of a Chinese tourism industry circuit, we can also find countervailing moves that might yet maintain Kailash as a sacred landscape, and prevent it being overrun.

Kailash is an especially useful case study because it has long been internationalised, with the devout Hindus (and Sikhs) of India and Nepal regarding it as an extremely sacred pilgrimage. For many centuries pilgrims have made the arduous journey to be purified, as do countless Tibetan pilgrims from all over Tibet.

If Kailash now belongs to China, it also belongs, in a cultural sense, to India and Nepal too, and this internationalisation is now highly formalised, as a transboundary process involving three governments, their official research institutes and many NGOs. It is the KSLCI, Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation Initiative, under the umbrella of the intergovernmental institution based in Kathmandu, ICIMOD, or International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. http://www.icimod.org/?page=529

KSLCI is up and running, holding regular planning sessions involving scientists, policy makers, tourism planners, with especially strong representation by biologists and conservationists whose primary concern is biodiversity, plus
KSLCI describes itself: “The Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation Initiative, a collaborative effort of ICIMOD, UNEP, and regional partners in three countries, was initiated through an extensive consultative process and launched with a Workshop and Regional Consultation held in Kathmandu in July 2009. KSLCI First Regional Workshop was organised from 11th to 13th of April 2010 in Uttarakhand, India and Second Regional Workshop was organized in Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China from September 4-6, 2010. The Conservation Initiative seeks to facilitate transboundary and ecosystem management approaches for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development through regional cooperation. The proposed Kailash Sacred Landscape (KSL) includes an area of the remote south-western portion of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, and adjacent parts of north-western Nepal, and northern India, and encompasses the cultural geography of the greater Mt. Kailash area.”

Having already had two workshops in 2010 (in India and China Sichuan) and a third in Nepal in December 2010, there is a lot of energy, with all three governments behind the project. Not only do the governments see this as an unusual opportunity to integrate biodiversity conservation across borders, but also to strengthen the tourism economy, with principal access via Nepal, for all nonChinese and nonTibetan pilgrims.

The second workshop staged by KSLCI in September 2010 had 25 participants, one of whom is identifiably Tibetan, Luo Rong Zhandui (Lhorong Damdul?) from the China Tibetology research centre in Beijing. That is an improvement on the first workshop, in early 2010, with 33 listed participants, none of them Tibetan. Perhaps the third workshop, concluded in Kathmandu (16 to 18 December 2010) managed to find more Tibetan voices. Perhaps not.

The limited Tibetan role in this internationalisation points to several concerns. The emphasis of the program is on biodiversity and there are biodiversity science purists who are too ready to see local Tibetan communities as threats to biodiversity conservation, and are quick to agree to the exclusion of locals from biodiversity protected areas, in the name of science. This may be old fashioned science, and contrary to the somewhat vague rhetoric of participation that KSLCI reports often mention, but it is quite common, not only among Chinese scientists but even people as famous as George Schaller, who clearly worries about Tibetan nomads in the Changtang protected area which he did much to establish.
While everyone is on record as wanting to maintain cultural values, ancient murals in old monasteries, and the integrity of the pilgrimage circuit, it is the livelihood of local communities that has fewer friends. Schaller accuses the nomads of bringing in trucks, enabling them to go deeper into the Chang Tang than before, and this undercuts the argument that nomads have traditionally made occasional use of all Tibetan landscapes, even the Chang Tang alpine desert. Trucks aren’t traditional, so the tradition argument is no longer valid, they say, in pressing for exclusion of nomads (as well as Chinese oil drillers and poachers).

The long standing question of hunting endangered biodiversity is the other accusation levelled at the pastoral nomads who have often retreated to the Chang Tang to get away from Chinese governmentality. The accusation is that the Chang Tang, and now Kailash sacred area are conduits for illegal trafficking, thus legitimating transboundary intervention. KSLCI reports frequently name tiger bone and tiger skin trafficking as a major issue for them. This too delegitimates Tibetan pastoral nomadism, at a time when China makes ready use of opportunities to sedentarise nomads in the name of science.
Despite the bland jargon used in KSLCI reports, there are signs that nomads will yet again be blamed and their livelihoods curtailed. Here are some quotes from their reports:

“Identification of major issues and priorities for the KSL
Fragility of ecosystem
– Prone to degradation due to overgrazing and vulnerability to climate change
– Need to protect rangeland and wildlife habitat
– Establishing a corridor for animal migration”

Gap analysis
• Biological and cultural diversity and resources
– Lack of information on carrying capacity and assessment of livestock overgrazing
– Little monitoring of biological, environmental, and socioeconomic data
– No integrated planning and action guiding environmental protection
– Role of traditional knowledge of ecosystem management not referenced or used fully
– No participation and management by local stakeholders
– Ecosystem fragility indicating that resilience may not be sufficient for adaptation to rapid climate change.”(source: First workshop report)

“opportunities arising from reduced loss of biological diversity and protection of ecosystem:
traditional knowledge of wise use of resources and biodiversity by local people
Large ecological engineering such as reversing grazing for grassland, Tibet eco-security conservation and construction engineering
NGO efforts: e.g. WWF efforts on nature reserves, Tibet antelope protection and capacity building.” (Second workshop report, p6-7)

Explicit mention of “reversing grazing” as an opportunity, a positive outcome of this trilateral intergovernmental process, graced by titles such as ecological engineering, Tibet eco-security and construction engineering, is alarming. Are Tibetan livelihoods yet again to be sacrificed for the sake of biodiversity, climate change mitigation, and the tourism/pilgrimage experience?

These are early days, the new airport at Ngari is barely open and tourist flights barely begun. But it is not hard to see how Chinese scientists and policy makers can readily slip in further restrictions on nomads, to a scientific audience based in Nepal, which is biased against Tibetans, and India, which has its own traditions of seeing Himalayan “tribals” and “backward castes” as primitive.

The worst case scenario is that the KSLCI legitimates further exclosure of nomads, confusing onlookers with the assertion that such removals are a scientific necessity essential to biodiversity conservation. On the other hand, KSLCI jargon is full of the language of participation, benefit sharing and stakeholder consultation. And the process is young. It is also reliant on funding from the German government, the same German agency that not so long ago was persuaded by China to invest in poisoning Tibetan plateau keystone species on the mistaken assumption that the eradication of grassland burrowing mammals would correct a major cause of degradation, even though international scientists consider the mammal population explosions a symptom, not a cause of degradation. The German technical assistance agency GTZ might be persuaded to take more care this time round to consider the complexities of tri-national governance of Tibetan areas with greater sensitivity.

A further vulnerability of the nomads who pasture their herds in the vicinity of Mt Kailash and the shores (and wetlands) of Lake Manasarovar, even though they are the only actual inhabitants of the sacred area, is that they are few and the Kailash Sacred Lands have been defined to make them a small minority. Cross the border in Nepal KSL includes a population of 330,000, while the Tibetan nomads are fewer than 9000 people. The needs of the Nepalis, of Bahjang and Humla, who are poor and quite isolated from the spread of development through Nepal, could tip the balance towards a pristine, unoccupied, biodiverse Tibetan upstream serving the needs of a populated downstream in Nepal.

While Nepalese scientists and ministries may readily accept Chinese suggestions that nomads are a threat to biodiversity, the prospect of integrating the Chinese and Nepali tourism industries, converging on Kailash, seems, in KSLCI reports, a welcome prospect. Among the many opportunities named is the expansion of tourism to an industrial scale.

“Ngari prefecture has abundant tourism resources in terms of mountain, grassland and lake landscape, human artefacts and cultural heritage sites; 47 scenic styles and 291 items based on the national standards
Potential industrial structure transformation and opportunities for employment on tourism and transportation’

The above list, taken from the second KSLCI workshop report, is headed as “Opportunities from eco-friendly and heritage-based tourism for the livelihood of local people”. If tourism industrial structure transformation is to be understood as an opportunity for the livelihood of local people, what future is there for the nomads?

These may be good reasons to study more closely the oldest examples of mass tourism, including eco-tourism, in Tibet, which is not in Lhasa but at the opposite end of the Plateau to Kailash/Kang Rinpoche. In Jiuzhaigou, north of Chengdu, on the easternmost edge of the Tibetan Plateau, above the lowland plains of hot and humid Sichuan, Chinese entrepreneurs took a Tibetan “fairyland” and made it into a destination for four million tourists a year. Jiuzhaigou (where KSLCI convened its September 2010 workshop) is a story of how Tibetan villagers were utterly sidelined by “tourism industrial structure transformation”, being forbidden to allow tourists to stay in their homes, and forbidden to continue farming, as they had for centuries, all in the name of science, and conservation of a UNESCO World Heritage listed landscape.