Nyingchi, Tibet - Tibetan innkeeper Phuntsog describes his family hotel as the “dwelling place of the immortals.”
His business card displays a beautiful scene of 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, located in Lunang Township in Tibet's Nyingchi Prefecture, with an average altitude of 3, 300 meters. It is near “China's most beautiful thoroughfare,” a 5 476km-long highway that runs from Shanghai, China's largest city, to Zham on the China-Nepal border in Tibet.
As tourism booms in Tibet, the remote, landlocked village has received a growing number of sightseers, particularly backpackers in search of scenic, lesser-known attractions.
Tashigang Village, hidden among craggy snow-covered mountains and evergreen forests, is home to only 311 people from 68 families.
The village has become a major stop on many tourist itineraries. In 2015, 20.2 million tourists visited Tibet. Tourism revenue topped 28 billion yuan, 15 times more than a decade ago.
The flood of tourists has become a gold mine for the villagers, and Phuntsog was among the first to try his luck in the hospitality industry. Phuntsog, born in 1950, never received any formal education.
He learned to speak Mandarin only after China's reform and opening-up drive began in the late 1970s, when tourists started arriving at 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,” said Phuntsog in an interview with Xinhua, on the sidelines of a two-day forum on Tibet's development. In 1998, he opened the first family hotel in the village, a small, traditional Tibetan house with eight beds.
He charged 70 yuan (about R150) 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.
The guests love Phuntsog, who is friendly and always ready to help. Once a careless guest forgot his video camera in the hotel room. Without a car or motorbike at hand, Phuntsog hiked to town to return it to him.
He carefully keeps everything that is lost 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 often brings food and other supplies to his bedridden neighbour, Sanggyai Yeshi, who is over 70 and lives alone.
Phuntsog took the old 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.”
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,” said Phuntsog. “I want everyone's business to prosper, too.” He often shares his management experience with fellow villagers who have followed him into the hotel business, and when his place is full, he readily escorts guests to his neighbours' inns.
In Tashigang Village, there are now 43 family hotels with room for nearly 1 000 people. The village's tourism revenue topped 2 million yuan last year and the villagers' per capita net income surpassed 20 000 yuan, said Basang Tsering, Party chief of the village. “We have all benefited from Tibet's tourism boom,” he said.