With a six-lane highway joining the city to Kohalpur, plans to upgrade to a Metropolis, international flights starting soon from its expanded airport, a railway station connecting to India, and new hotels and casinos coming up, Nepalganj feels like a town on the move.

Adding to the excitement is the city’s can-do mayor, Dhawal Shumsher Rana, who was re-elected last year and immediately set about improving Nepalganj’s crumbling roads, drainage and its poor image.

The city suffered an economic setback when it lost out to Butwal as the capital of Province 5, but Mayor Rana is lobbying hard to declare Nepalganj a Metropolitan City by merging with Kohalpur.

“Come back in a few more months, you will see a different Nepalganj,” says Rana proudly as he supervised a road widening on a recent rainy Saturday.

Feeding the boom is Nepalganj’s emergence in recent years as one of the most popular gateways to Kailash in Tibet for Indian pilgrims. (See map). Devotees from all over the world travel to one of Hinduism’s holiest sites, and the easiest route is through Nepalganj. Pilgrims also fly via Kathmandu and Lhasa, cross at Kerung, or go via India.

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.”

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