Death during Kailash pilgrimage is auspicious: tour operator

By Prashant K. Nanda and Shweta Srinivasan, IANS,

New Delhi : “No medical test is mandatory… private tour operators are not as strict as government,” said the private tour operator in the capital that is in the news for its callous treatment of its clients and leaving them in the lurch during the pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash and Mansarovar.

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“We don’t conduct medical tests on our own. We ask our clients to give us a certificate. There is no specific rule as to who should (age wise) go on this pilgrimage,” said Pradeep Kumar, assistant tour operator of Shrestha Holidays in the capital.

IANS correspondents, seeking information as pilgrims, expressed their desire to take a 78-year-old man on the tour. To this Kumar said: “Is he fit, can he walk? He just needs to muster his will power. If yes, then there is no need of worry.”

“Even some in south India consider death during pilgrimage as auspicious. Some travellers have died in the recent trip. We consider it unfortunate, but in such a large group such incidents happen,” he added.

“The process on government tours is very cumbersome and long drawn out. They make you submit all sorts of papers and conduct their own health check ups. For us, we just need a medical fitness certificate – a government hospital is not necessary,” said Kumar Chhetri, vice president of Shrestha Holidays.

A group of 56 pilgrims who went under the banner of Shrestha Holidays had alleged ill treatment, lack of medical attention and emergency evacuation when many fell ill. At least seven people, including an 83-year old woman from Chennai, lost their lives due to hostile weather conditions and inadequate medical attention.

The 56 pilgrims, who flew back to India Saturday, had tales of horror. Of them, only 15 made it to Mt. Kailash, the rest either fell sick or lost their morale and opted not to go farther.

While Mt Kailash rises 6,638 m above sea level, the nearby Mansarovar lake lies at 4,556 m. They are held sacred by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike.

Situated in a narrow lane in South Delhi’s Malviya Nagar, the travel agency’s Delhi office has been organising Mt. Kailash tours for the last 15 years. A well decorated office with religious paintings adorning its walls, the agency gives an impression that it means business.

Unlike government organised tours which are heavy on paper work and fitness assessment, the agency asks its clients to fill up a one page booking form with an undertaking that the pilgrim accepts that “due to the nature of travel in Mt. Kailash and due to certain terms and conditions imposed by Shrestha Holidays, by principal i.e, Chinese travel Authorities, the traveller will not be eligible for any refund of the cost….”

In fine prints, their brochure says: “We recommend that you ensure (sic) yourself against sickness, emergency rescue, accident hospitalisation etc. We are not liable and responsible for any damages or extra expenses that may arise from mishaps and loss of their belongings during the pilgrimage.”

The tour operator officials also said that as their 16-day-tour package, costing Rs.80,000 per head, was overland, pilgrims should not expect helicopter evacuation in case of emergency. “Its not feasible,” Chhetri told IANS. He said an 11-day helicopter tour costs at least Rs.160,000.

The pilgrimage organised by the Indian government passes through Uttarakhand and pilgrims are put through exhaustive medical fitness tests prior and during the trip. Private tours pass through Nepal and Chinese territory.