Surrounded by the greatest heights of the Himalaya, the kingdom of Nepal is a land of eternal attraction, a place where one visit is hardly ever enough. It's a land of colorful cultures, ancient history and people, superb scenery and some of the best walking on earth.
Nepal forms the very watershed of Asia. Landlocked between India and Tibet, it spans terrain from subtropical jungle to the icy Himalaya, and contains or shares eight of the world's ten highest mountains. Its cultural landscape is every bit as diverse: a dozen major ethnic groups , speaking as many as fifty languages and dialects, coexist in this narrow, jumbled buffer state, while two of the world's great religions , Hinduism and Buddhism, overlap and mingle with older tribal traditions - yet it's a testimony to the Nepalis' tolerance and good humour that there is no tradition of ethnic or religious strife. Unlike India, Nepal was never colonized, a fact which comes through in fierce national pride and other, more idiosyncratic ways. Founded on trans-Himalayan trade, its dense, medieval cities display a unique pagoda-style architecture, not to mention an astounding flair for festivals and pageantry. But above all, Nepal is a nation of unaffected villages and terraced hillsides - more than eighty percent of the population lives off the land - and whether you're trekking, biking or bouncing around in packed buses, sampling this simple lifestyle is perhaps the greatest pleasure of all.
Travelling in Nepal isn't a straightforward or predictable activity. Certain tourist areas are highly developed, even overdeveloped, but facilities elsewhere are rudimentary; getting around is time-consuming and sometimes uncomfortable. Nepalis are well used to shrugging off such inconveniences with the all-purpose phrase, Ke garne ? ("What to do?"). Nepal is also a more fragile country than most - culturally as well as environmentally - so it's necessary to be especially sensitive as a traveller.
Topography is obviously a key consideration when travelling in Nepal. Generally speaking, the country divides into three altitude zones running from west to east. The northernmost of these is, of course, the Himalayan chain , broken into a series of himal (permanently snow-covered mountain ranges) and alpine valleys, and inhabited, at least part of the year, as high as 5000m. The largest part of the country consists of a wide belt of middle-elevation foothills and valleys , Nepal's traditional heartland; two ranges, the Mahabharat Lek and the lower, southernmost Chure (or Siwalik) Hills, stand out. Finally, the Tarai , a strip of flat, lowland jungle and farmland along the southern border, has more in common with India than with the rest of Nepal.
Nepal's history is closely related to its geographical location, separating the fertile plains of India from the desert-like plateau of Tibet. Its position between Indian and China meant the country was able at times to play the role of intermediary - a canny trader between two great powers - while at other times it faced the threat of invasion. Internally, its history was just as dynamic, with city-states in the hills vying with each other for power until one powerful king, Prithivi Narayan Shah, overran them all. That history is very visible today with the three great towns of the Kathmandu valley - Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur - still bearing witness to their days as fiercely competitive mediaeval mini-kingdoms. Indeed, in Nepal it's often possible to suspend belief and mentally roll the clock right back to the mediaeval era.
Behind the old temples and places of the Kathmandu Valley, above and beyond the hills that surrounding the valley, another kingdom' rises skyward. The abode of snows' which is what Himalaya means in Sanskrit, is a natural kingdom' and a magnet to mountaineers from all above the world. You don't have to be Sherpa or Hillary in order for you to get in amongst these great mountains. With a touch of enterprises and a modicum of fitness most travelers can walk the trails that lead into the road less heights of the Himalaya. In Nepal one trek is rarely enough, and many visitors soon find themselves planning to return. Fascinating old town, magnificent temples and great walking are not all Nepal has to offer. Many visitors come to Nepal expecting to find these things but also discover how outstanding friendly the Nepalese are.
Trekking is not the only activity which draws visitors, it also has some superb white-water rafting opportunities, mountain biking, which is become more and more popular, and down in the jungle, safaris on elephant-back into the Royal Chitwan National Park are another not-to-be-missed part of the Nepal experience.
In two of the three dimensions, length and breadth, Nepal is just another small country. In the third, height, it's number one in the world. Nepal starches from north-west to south-east about 800 km and varies in width from around 90 km to 230 km. This gives it a total area of just 147,181 sq. km according to the official figures.
Within that small area, however, is the greatest range of altitude to be seen on this earth - starting with the Terai, only 100m or so above sea level, and finishing at the top of Mt. Everest (8848m), the highest point on earth.
Often a visitor's overriding goal is to see the mountains, especially Everest and Annapurna. However, to exclude the people, flowers, birds and wildlife from the experience is to miss the essence of the country regions, or natural zones: the plains in the south, four mountain ranges, and the valley lying between them. The lowlands with their fertile soils, and the southern slopes of the mountains with sunny exposures, allow for cultivation and are the main inhabited regions.
Nepal has four distinct seasons. Spring from March to May, is warm with rain showers. Summer, from June to August, is the monsoon season when the hills turn lush and green. Autumn, from September to November, is cool with clear skies and is the most popular season for trekking. In winter, from December to February, it is cold at night, with fog in the early morning.
Because Nepal is quite far south in Latitude (same as Miami), the weather is warmer and winter is much milder at lower elevations. The monsoon is determined by the Bay of Bengal. It is hot during the monsoon with rain almost everyday. During this season, trekking in most of Nepal is difficult and uncomfortable, the trails being muddy and infested with leeches. It usually does not rain for more that one or two days during the entire autumn and the winter season. In the winter, the mountains are covered with snow including some high hills. Mt. Everest itself is a huge black rock during the trekking season, which becomes snow-covered only during the winter.
Nepal's population currently stands at around 23 million (1998 estimate). Every year population increases by nearly 600,000. The largest city is Kathmandu, the capital, with more than 700,000 people. In the mountains the rate of increase is lower than in Terai, but this is because many people are migrating in search of land and work. Despite extremely high rates of infant morality, the life expectancy is only a horrifying 54 years, the overall annual rate of population increase is a rapid 2.6%. Family planning is primary importance, but most people continue to regard children as a blessing. A child is seen as a vital and fulfilling part of the parents' life, an extra worker and someone to care for them in old age, not just an extra stomach. Women have an average of more than four children each.
Like the geography, the population of Nepal extremely diverse and highly complex. Simplistically, Nepal is the meeting point for the Indo-Aryan people of Indian with the Tibeto-Burman of the Himalaya, but this gives little hint of the dynamic ethnic mosaic that has developed and continues to change to this day. In a south-north direction, as you move from the plains to the mountains, the ethnic map can be roughly divided into layers: the Terai, the midlands or Pahad zone, and the Himalaya. Each zone is dominated by characteristic ethnic groups whose agriculture and lifestyles are adapted to suit the physical constraints of their environment. In the Himalayan zone, the people are Mongolian of Tibetan descent. They are know as bhote in Nepali. In the east of the midlands zone, one find Kirati people known as Rai, Limbu groups. They speak Tibeto-Burman Language. In the Terai zone, after the eradication of malaria in the 1950s the only people to live in the valley were Tharus of Hindu overtones.
Anthropologists divide the people of Nepal into about 50 ethnic groups or castes with their own culture and traditions. Everyone is proud of their heritage. Many people use the name of their ethnic group, caste or clan as their surname. The caste system has many occupational castes such as Brahmins (Hindu Priests), Chhetris (farmers in the hills and soldiers), Newars (the original inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley), Thakalis, Gurungs, Rais, Limbus, Tamangs, Magars, Potters, butchers, blacksmiths, cobblers, goldsmiths, clothes washers, etc.
Culture, Conduct & Consideration
Nepal has always been a dividing line between cultures and civilizations, and a cross-roads for the commerce and culture. Here the plains of the subcontinent climb up to the high plateau of Tibet, the languages and people of India give way to those of China and the Hindu religion blends in to Buddhism. Nepal is often a complex blend of the two influences and this variation is further complicated by the diversity of ethnic groups within the country.
The challenge for you as a visitor to Nepal is the respect the rights and beliefs of the local people, and to minimize your impact - culturally and environmentally. Remember Nepali is not an adventure park or museum established for your convenience, but home to a vital, changing culture. Life for many is extremely hard, but despite the scarcity of material possessions, there are many qualities that shame the so-called developed world. Your very presence in Nepal will have an effect - an increasing number of people say a negative one. In a totally different culture it is also inevitable that the visitor will make some gaffe at some point. Most Nepalis make allowances, but they do appreciate it when a genuine effort is made to observe local customs. Following is a miscellaneous collection of simple suggestions that will help avoid offense.