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.
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.
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
To make a Tibetan carpet, typically Tibetan wool – from sheep bred for their unusually long, high-tensile wool – is blended with foreign processed wool. Once it is spun into yarn, much of the spinning is still done by hand, producing a distinctive, slightly irregular look. It is then dyed and rolled into balls. Tibetan-style carpets are produced by the cut-loop method, which bears little relation to the process employed by Middle Eastern and Chinese artisans. Rather than tying thousands of individual knots, the weaver loops the yarn in and out of the vertical warp threads and around a horizontally placed rod; when the row is finished, the weaver draws a knife across the loops, freeing the rod. Once the weaving is finished, the carpets are trimmed to give an even finish, in some cases embossed and then washed (an industrial process which pollutes local streams with chemicals linked with birth defects). Most carpets are made-to-order for the export market, with distribution controlled by a small collection of traders. Prices vary widely: at the bottom end expect to pay around $50 per square metre; top-of-the-range carpets can be three times this, or even more. (Many Nepali producers also produce Afghan, Middle Eastern and Kashmiri-style carpets, though these are rarely as fine as the originals.)
A uniquely Nepali institution found in every hill village, the chautaara is a resting place that serves important social and religious functions. The standard design consists of a rectangular flagstoned platform, built at just the right height for porters easily to set down their doko, or basket, while two trees provide shade.
Chautaara are erected and maintained by individuals as an act of public service, often to earn religious merit or in memory of a deceased parent. Commonly they’ll be found on sites associated with pre-Hindu nature deities, often indicated by stones smeared with red abhir and yellow keshori powder. The trees, too, are considered sacred. Invariably, one will be a pipal, whose Latin name (Ficus religiosa) recalls its role as the bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Nepalis regard the pipal, with its heart-shaped leaves, as a female symbol and incarnation of Lakshmi, and women will sometimes fast and pray for children in front of one. It’s said that no one can tell a lie under the shade of a pipal, which makes the trees doubly useful for village assemblies. Its “husband”, representing Shiva Mahadev, is the bar or banyan (Ficus bengalensis), another member of the fig genus, which sends down Tarzan-vine-like aerial roots which, if not pruned, will eventually take root and establish satellite trunks. A chautaara is incomplete without the pair; occasionally you’ll see one with a single tree, but sooner or later someone will get around to planting the other.
• With a land area of 147,000 square kilometres, Nepal is about the size of England and Wales combined. Useable land, however, is in short supply due to the precipitous terrain and a growing population of 27 million or more, over a third of which is less than 15 years old.
• Eight of the world’s ten highest mountains are found in Nepal, including Everest, the tallest of them all.
• Prior to 1951, only a handful of Westerners had ever been allowed into Nepal. Today, the country receives as many as 500,000 tourists annually; increasingly they are coming from neighbouring India and China.
• Despite the fame of its Tibetan and Sherpa Buddhist communities, Nepal was long the world’s only Hindu kingdom, and Hindus still officially make up some eighty percent of the population. In truth, many Nepalis combine worship of Hindu gods with shamanic and animist practices.
• The decade-long Maoist insurgency ended in 2006, along with the career of the notorious King Gyanendra. Nepal‘s politics are now noisily turbulent but peaceful.
• With an average per-capita annual income of US$470, Nepal ranked 157th out of 186 countries in the UN’s 2011 Human Development Index. Half the population survives on little more than a dollar a day.
Nepal may be defined by the Himalayas, but it is much more than just mountains. The heartland is defined by the pahad, or middle hills, a wide belt running east–west along the length of the country, characterized by massive slopes and steep-sided valleys, and populated by rustic villages set amid terraced fields. The valley cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara are exceptions in these giant-scale hills, where the biggest stretch of flat land for miles around may well be the school volleyball court. Nepal’s southernmost strip is the Terai, a swathe of hot, flat farmland, with areas of jungle preserved in a trio of national parks. Culturally as well as geographically, the Terai forms part of the Gangetic Plain of northern India. As for the Himalayan chain, it guards the northern frontier, broken into a series of himal (snow-covered mountain ranges) and alpine valleys. Pockets of high, dry terrain lie in the rain shadow in the northwestern part of the country, extensions of the great Tibetan plateau. Cutting north–south across the grain of the land, meanwhile, are the country’s great, roaring rivers, laden with glacial minerals and sediment. The largest actually cut right through the Himalayan chain, with their sources in Tibet.
Nepal has a multitude of traditional and progressive disciplines, and though the country can seem something of a spiritual supermarket, its tolerant atmosphere makes it a great place to challenge your assumptions and study other systems of thought.
The past 25 years have seen an explosion of outfits teaching yoga and meditation to both foreigners and locals. The allied health fields of ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine are also an attraction for many travellers to Nepal. Many programmes don’t require a lengthy commitment, although any residential courses are worth booking well in advance.
Yoga is more than just exercises – it’s a system of spiritual, mental and physical self-discipline, designed to unify the individual’s consciousness with the universe. Techniques include Karma yoga (basically altruism), Bhakti yoga (devotion, recognizable by the chanting) and Jnana yoga (deep meditation, best practised only after mastering one of the other kinds).
What most westerners would recognize as yoga springs from Raja yoga, probably formulated around 600 BC. It has eight astanga, or limbs (not to be confused with the yoga style with the same name), each a step to realization. Three of these have a physical emphasis, and it is from this root that yoga’s reputation for pretzel poses and headstands comes. Whatever the name of a particular variation, be it Bikram, Kundalini, or Ashtanga, all types of yoga that use asanas (or positions) as an aid to developing the self are generally referred to as hatha yoga.
Most practices also include Pranayam – breathing exercises. You’ll find several kinds in Nepal, including the Sivanand school (a slow style with asanas and lots of spiritual guidance), Iyengar (a very exacting school that uses some props and focuses on alignment) and practices that follow particular gurus from India, usually including elements of Raja, Bhakti and Karma yoga.
Meditation is closely related to yoga, and the two often overlap: much of yoga involves meditation, and Buddhist meditation draws on many Hindu yogic practices. However, meditation centres in Nepal generally follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Buddhist meditation is a science of mind. To Buddhists, mind is the cause of confusion and ego, and the aim of meditation is to transcend these. Vipassana (“insight”) is the kernel of all forms of Buddhist meditation; related to hatha yoga, it emphasizes the minute observation of physical sensations and mental processes to achieve a clear understanding of mind. Another basic practice common to most schools of Buddhism, shamatha (“calm abiding”) attunes and sharpens the mind by means of coming back again and again to a meditative discipline. Several centres in the Kathmandu Valley run rigorous residential courses in this practice.
Tibetan Buddhist centres start students out with vipassana and shamatha as the foundation for a large armoury of meditation practices. An “adept” (novice) will cultivate Buddha-like qualities through visualization techniques – meditating on the deity that manifests a particular quality, while chanting the mantra and performing the mudra (hand gesture) associated with that deity. The Tibetan Buddhist path also involves numerous rituals, such as prayer, offerings, circumambulation and other meritorious acts; committed followers will take vows, too. Kathmandu has several centres offering introductory courses.
A big part of Tibetan Buddhism is the teacher-disciple relationship. More advanced students of the dharma will want to study under one of the lamas at Boudha, some of whom give discourses in English.
Ayurveda (often spelled “ayurved”) is the oldest school of medicine still practised. It is a holistic system that assumes the fundamental sameness of self and nature. Unlike the allopathic medicine of the West, which identifies what ails you and then kills it, ayurveda looks at the whole patient: disease is regarded as a symptom of imbalance, so it’s the imbalance that’s treated, not the disease.
To diagnose an imbalance, the ayurvedic doctor investigates the physical complaint but also family background, daily habits and emotional traits. Treatment is typically with inexpensive herbal remedies designed to alter whichever of the three forces is out of whack. In addition, the doctor may prescribe some yogic cleansing to rid the body of waste substances.
You’ll find ayurvedic doctors and clinics throughout the Hindu parts of Nepal, but those who are able to deal with foreigners are confined mainly to Kathmandu.
Medicine is one of the traditional branches of study for Tibetan Buddhist monks. Like ayurveda, from which it derives, Tibetan medicine promotes health by maintaining the correct balance of three humours: beken, phlegm, which when out of balance is responsible for disorders of the upper body; tiba, heat or bile, associated with intestinal diseases; and lung, meaning wind, which may produce nervousness or depression.
Nepali massage is a deep treatment that works mainly on the joints. It’s not all that relaxing, but it can be just the job after a trek. Nepalis themselves rarely receive massages after the age of about three, but numerous masseurs ply their services to foreigners. Many practitioners also offer shiatsu, Swedish or Thai massage, reflexology and so on. Others, especially in Thamel, are actually (or additionally) offering sexual services; the best advice is that if it looks or feels dodgy, it probably is.
A good thangka is the product of hundreds – or even thousands – of hours of painstaking work. A cotton canvas is first stretched across a frame and burnished to a smooth surface that will take the finest detail. The design is next drawn or traced in pencil; there is little room for deviation from accepted styles, for a thangka is an expression of religious truths, not an opportunity for artistic licence. Large areas of colour are then blocked in, often by an apprentice, and finally the master painter will take over, breathing life into the figure with lining, stippling, facial features, shading and, finally, the eyes of the main figure. Thangka can be grouped into four main genres. The Wheel of Life, perhaps the most common, places life and all its delusions inside a circle held firmly in the clutches of red-faced Yama, god of death. A second standard image is the Buddha’s life story. Many thangka feature tantric deities, either benign or menacing; such images serve as meditation tools in visualization techniques. Mandala (mystical diagrams) are also used in meditation. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. A full exposition of thangka iconography would fill volumes – ask a dealer or artist to lead you through a few images step by step, or visit somewhere like the Tsering Art School in Boudha to find out more.
In most parts of the country, women will be of interest mainly as foreigners rather than for their gender, but a few specific tips are given below.
For women travellers, most parts of Nepal are relatively easy: the atmosphere is tolerant and inquisitive rather than threatening or dangerous. Nepali society is on the whole chaste, almost prudish; men are mostly respectful to foreign women. Sexual harassment is unlikely to upset your travels: you might get staring and catcalling or a rare attempt to cop a feel in a crowd, but it’s not as bad as in India, or indeed most of the rest of the world, and seldom goes any further than words. The chief danger comes from the rare predatory trekking guide (see Sexual politics in the mountains).
Wearing revealing clothing will up the chances of receiving unwelcome advances. That doesn’t mean you have to wear Nepali clothes, though it may help – consider covering legs and breasts (and shoulders) and avoiding skin-tight garments.
A woman travelling or trekking alone won’t be hassled so much as pitied. Going alone (eklai) is most un-Nepali behaviour. Locals (of both sexes) will ask if you haven’t got a husband – usually out of genuine concern, not as a come-on. Teaming up with another female stops the comments as effectively as being with a man. If you find yourself on a public bus, you can make your way to the front compartment, where preference is usually given to women and children.
Terai cities and border towns are another matter, unfortunately. As in North India, misconceptions about Western women mean men may try for a surreptitious grope or even expose themselves. Travelling with a man generally shields you from this sort of behaviour. Don’t be afraid to make a public scene in the event of an untoward advance – that’s what a Nepali woman would do.
Of course, you may want to strike up a relationship with a Nepali man. There’s a long tradition of women travellers falling for trekking or rafting guides and Kathmandu has a small but growing community of women who have married and settled. However, Nepali men are not without their own agendas: exotic romance, conquest, perhaps even a ticket out of Nepal. Be aware also that many Nepali men use the services of sex workers and that HIV/AIDS is a growing and largely concealed problem.
A frustrating aspect of travelling in Nepal is the difficulty of making contact with Nepali women. Tourism is still controlled by men; women are expected to spend their time in the home, get fewer educational opportunities and speak much less English. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Nepali home for a meal, chances are the women of the house will remain in the kitchen while you eat. Upper-class women, who may even work with foreigners, are often well educated and free of these restrictions, but they have few encounters with travellers.
Sexual politics are different among highland ethnic groups. Along trekking routes, many women run teahouses single-handedly while their husbands are off guiding or portering. Proud, enterprising and flamboyant, these “didis” are some of the most wonderful people you’re likely to meet anywhere. There are a few female trekking guides now, too.
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