The Nepalganj route entails taking a plane to Simikot , changing to a helicopter to Hilsa on the Tibet border, and then driving by SUV to the sacred Lake Mansarovar. Half the 15,000 Indian pilgrims to Tibet every year take the Nepalganj route, and this week, hotels here were full of pilgrims waiting for flights to Simikot delayed by bad weather.
“Indians prefer to go via Nepal because the trip is smoother, the routes through India are very basic,” says Yash Thakur of Explore India Tours, which organises pilgrimages for Hindus from India, South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, the United States and Britain. “If there is more support from Nepal, we can take 20,000 more pilgrims to Kailash via Nepal every year.”
Prakash Shrestha of Explore Kailash has been arranging pilgrimage packages since 1996, and says if infrastructure bottlenecks are fixed, a lot more Indian tourists would prefer the Nepal route because they can also visit Pashupati or Muktinath.
“There aren’t enough helicopters, the weather delays flights, Nepalganj has good hotels, but there are few facilities in Simikot or Hilsa,” says Shrestha.
There is also anticipation in Nepalganj about Buddha Air flights from Delhi starting in January which are expected to bring Indian tourists to the city’s new casinos, as well as Indian trekkers to Rara and Dolpo, which have air connections from Nepalganj.
“Nepalganj is going to be a multiple hub. We are going to expand Nepalganj airport, extend the runway and apron and upgrade the terminal building,” says Mayor Dhawal Rana, “and in a few years we will also have a railway station connecting to India.”