Nepal is the very watershed of Asia. Squeezed between India and Tibet, it stretches from rich subtropical forest to soaring Himalayan peaks: from jungly tiger habitat to the precipitous hunting grounds of the snow leopard. Climbing the hillside of one valley alone you can be sweltering in the shade of a banana palm in the morning, and sheltering from a snowstorm in the afternoon.
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Nepal’s cultural landscape is every bit as diverse as its physical one. Its peoples belong to a host of distinctive ethnic groups, and speak a host of languages. They live in everything from dense, ancient cities erupting with pagoda-roofed Hindu temples to villages perched on dizzying sweeps of rice-farming terraces and dusty highland settlements clustered around tiny monasteries. Religious practices range from Indian-style Hinduism to Tibetan Buddhism and from nature-worship to shamanism – the indigenous Newars, meanwhile, blend all these traditions with their own, intense tantric practices.
The cultural richness owes something to the shaping force of the landscape itself, and something else to the fact that it was never colonized. This is a country with profound national or ethnic pride, an astounding flair for festivals and pageantry and a powerful attachment to traditional ways. Its people famously display a charismatic blend of independent-mindedness and friendliness, toughness and courtesy – qualities that, through the reputations of Gurkha soldiers and Sherpa climbers in particular, have made them internationally renowned as people it’s a rare pleasure to work with or travel among.
But it would be misleading to portray Nepal as a fabled Shangri-la. Heavily reliant on its superpower neighbours, Nepal was, until 1990, the world’s last remaining absolute Hindu monarchy, run by a regime that combined China’s repressiveness and India’s bureaucracy. Long politically and economically backward, it has developed at uncomfortable speed in some areas while stagnating in others. Following a soul-scouring Maoist insurgency, which ended in 2006, it has ended up as a federal republic – governed, for the time at least, by Maoist rebels turned politicians. Nepal seems always to be racing to catch up with history, and the sense of political excitement in the country is thrillingly palpable.
Where to go in Nepal
Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, is electrifyingly exotic, with its medieval warren of alleys, Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas, and its uniquely relaxed nightlife. The city is increasingly hectic, however, so many visitors make day-trips into the semi-rural Kathmandu Valley, and the astoundingly well-preserved medieval cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, or overnight at one of the mountain view-points on the valley rim, such as Nagarkot, in the Central Hills. A few explore the valley’s wealth of temples, towns and forested hilltops in more depth, or make road trips to the Tibet border or down the tortuous Tribhuwan Rajpath towards India. Most people will take the tourist bus six hours west of Kathmandu to Pokhara, an engagingly easygoing resort town in the Western Hills, set beside a lake and under a towering wall of white peaks. While many visitors are happy just to gaze at Pokhara’s views, or hang out in its bars, it also makes a great base for day-hikes and mountain-bike rides, yoga and meditation courses, and even paragliding and microlight flights. Other towns in the Western Hills – notably Gorkha with its impressive fortress, Manakamana with its wish-fulfilling temple, and Bandipur with its old-world bazaar – offer history and culture as well as scenery.
Few travellers head into the flat Terai, along the border with India, unless it’s to enter the deservedly popular Chitwan National Park with its endangered Asian one-horned rhinos. Bardia National Park and two other rarely visited wildlife reserves are out there for the more adventurous. In the Western Terai Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, is a world-class pilgrimage site, as is Janakpur, a Hindu holy city in the east.
Nepal is most renowned, however, for trekking – hiking from village to village, through massive hills and lush rhododendron forests and up to the peaks and glaciers of the high Himalayas. The thrillingly beautiful and culturally rich Annapurna and Everest regions are the most oriented to trekkers, but other, once-remote areas are opening up, notably Mustang and Manaslu. Rafting down Nepal’s rivers and mountain biking, meanwhile, offer not only adventure but also a different perspective on the countryside and wildlife.
Top image: Boudhanath stupa, one of the largest spherical stupas in in Kathmandu, Nepal © Happy Poppy/Shutterstock