Inn on Earth’s rooftop
A lodge for travelers to Tibet is the ‘dwelling place of the immortals’
Tibetan innkeeper Phuntsog describes his family hotel as the “dwelling place of the immortals”.
His business card displays a beautiful scene in his hometown: two-story Tibetan houses surrounded by green pastures with a full moon against a snowy mountain in the background.
Phuntsog’s home village is Tashigang, part of Lunang township in Nyingchi prefecture, located at an average altitude of 3,300 meters.
It is near “China’s most beautiful thoroughfare”, a 5,476-kmlong highway that runs from Shanghai to Zham on the ChinaNepal border within the Tibet autonomous region.
As tourism booms in Tibet, the remote village has received a growing number of sightseers, particularly backpackers in search of scenic, less-known attractions. Hidden among craggy snow-covered mountains and evergreen forests, Tashigang is home to only 311 people from 68 families, but it has become a major stop on many tourists’ itineraries.
Last year, 20.2 million tourists visited Tibet and tourism revenue topped 28 billion yuan ($4.2 billion), 15 times more than a decade ago. The flood of tourists has become a gold mine for villagers, and Phuntsog was among the first to try his luck in the hospitality industry.
Born in 1950, he never received any formal education and only learned to speak Mandarin after China’s reform and opening-up drive began in the late 1970s, when tourists started to arrive in his hometown.
“There was little access to traffic, so I offered tourists rides on horseback and told them everything I knew about the land,” Phuntsog said.
Fascinated by the landscape, many tourists asked him if they could stay for a couple of days.
“There were no hotels anywhere near the village, so I said they could stay with my family if they did not mind,” Phuntsog said.
In 1998, he opened the first family hotel in the village, a small, traditional Tibetan house with eight beds. He charged 70 yuan ($10) a day for three meals and a bed. The price was low and negotiable when lodgers were short of cash. In one extreme case, a guest paid only 10 yuan a day.
Phuntsog is a friendly innkeeper, beloved by his guests.
One time, a careless guest left his video camera in the hotel and Phuntsog, who did not have a car or motorbike at the time, hiked all the way to town to return it to him.
He keeps everything that has been left behind and unclaimed, including clothing, cameras, handbags and cash. “I hope their owners will eventually come back and get them,” he said.
Phuntsog became a member of the Communist Party of China at 62. “I feel compelled to live up to my obligations and lend a helping hand whenever I’m needed,” he said.
He often brings food and other supplies to his bedridden neighbor, Sanggyai Yeshi, who is over 70 and lives alone.
Phuntsog, Tibetan innkeeper It’s not enough for me alone to become rich. I want everyone’s business to prosper, too.”
Phuntsog took the older man to the hospital several times when his condition worsened.
Xiao Liujun, a photographer based in the regional capital Lhasa, stays at Phuntsog’s family hotel every time he visits Tashigang Village. “There are a number of family hotels to choose from nowadays, but I still prefer Phuntsog’s place,” he said.
Phuntsog’s hotel has hosted guests from France, the United States, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan.
As his business continued to expand, Phuntsog built three new houses that could accommodate 53 people.
Last year, he received nearly 3,000 guests and made about 300,000 yuan.
“It’s not enough for me alone to become rich,” Phuntsog said. “I want everyone’s business to prosper, too.”
Left: Tashigang village nestles right in the middle of picturesque Lunang forest farm. Right: Tibetan innkeeper Phuntsog welcomes visitors from Henan province at Tashigang village in Nyingchi prefecture, Tibet autonomous region.