| Shortcut to Kailash
Lhasa, June 17: After a train to the holy city of Lhasa, a plane to the holy mountain of Kailash and the holy lake of Mansarovar.
While the train to Lhasa is a matter of a year, thanks to the ongoing Qinghai-Tibet railway project, it may be possible in another few years to fly to the Ngari prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where Kailash and Mansarovar are located.
The news about the airport project, which will be of special interest to Indian pilgrims to Kailash-Mansarovar, was broken by a senior official of the TAR tourism bureau to a group of visiting Indian journalists this morning. The TAR government has already completed a survey for the airport project and is looking for a site.
The official would not set a timeframe for the project, but pointed to the example of another airport project in the Nyingchi prefecture in eastern Tibet. “They have planned to complete the airport in three years from the time the site was selected.”
The airport project, he said, was the first step toward improving and expanding the tourism infrastructure in Ngari, particularly for the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrims.
In fact, both the airport projects are part of a massive Western Development Programme (WDP) that China unveiled in 2003 to boost the economy of the two backward regions in the west ' Tibet and the Uighur Autonomous Region, inhabited by Muslims, on the border with Central Asia.
Most of it is still the wild west that it has been for centuries. Deserts, high mountains, vast and empty spaces, snow and sandstorms make China’s west one of the most inhospitable places in the world. “As you know, we call it the third pole,” the tourism official said.
Much of that is set to change soon, as the west readies itself for the great leap forward. In addition to the huge central government funds that are being poured into the WDP, rich Chinese provinces are given to contribute to the development of some of these areas. Guangdong and Fujian, for example, are helping in the development of the Nyingchi prefecture.
Signs of the development activity are everywhere. New highways and other roads are being built, not only connecting these areas to the mainland but also within the region. Four new ring roads are coming up to connect Lhasa from four directions.
New towns are being planned and old ones are being expanded. Wherever one travels, the construction boom is in evidence.
A number of hydel projects are being planned ' Nyingchi alone is planning eight of them. The abundance of water from Tibet’s 20 rivers is being harnessed on an unprecedented scale. Five major rivers of Asia ' the Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Irrawady and the Salaween ' originate in Tibet.
And, of course, the face of the wild west is being changed to promote tourism and make money from it. From the beauty of nature to Buddhism to nomads, everything is grist to the great new tourism mill.
The development of China’s west could be of crucial importance to the countries in south and central Asia. It would mean reopening of old trade routes and starting new ones.
One example was the reopening of a border market two days ago at Kashi in the Uighur area to facilitate trade between China and Pakistan. The trading point on the old Silk Road, bordering central Asia, is believed to have existed for 2,000 years before it fell into disuse.
As far as India is concerned, the development of China’s west could pave the way for reopening old trading points between Tibet and Ladakh.