Mystical Nepal lies in the towering Himalaya Mountains on the roof of the world, sharing its wild landscape with eight of the tallest peaks on earth including Mount Everest. A destination for seekers of spirituality and Shangri-La, the sacred region was the birthplace of the Sakyamuni Buddha at Lumbini and Tibetan refugee settlements dating back to the Chinese invasion in the 1950s.
A backpacker haven since the ‘60s, Nepal now attracts eco-tourists in droves to its magnificent, unspoiled lands and unique eco-systems, adding to the crowds heading to Everest’s base camp along the perilous mountain trails. Its capital, Kathmandu, is a hive of traditional homes, the Royal palace and innumerable Buddhist temples. Pokhara is the main tourist hub, central to many of the country’s attractions and has a fascinating Old Town.
For travelers in love with natural beauty and ancient heritage, Nepal is the perfect place, although getting to see all of its glory can be somewhat of a challenge. Smaller aircraft now link most of the major towns, but the scenery is best experienced from the ground with the exception of the Himalayas. Micro-buses are popular and easy to use, but local buses are confusing and transport livestock along with people. Tour buses are a convenient and slightly safer option that connects Pokhara to other towns.
The monsoon season is the worst time to be here for trekking and hiking, as the intense rains turn trails to leech-infested mud pools and the clouds tend to obscure view of the towering mountains. However, the monsoon here isn’t typical, as rain often falls at night, with the sky clearing by morning and the mountains sparkling in the distance. Mustang, Dolpo and Manang regions are within the rain-shadow area and deflect the clouds, making outdoor activities possible even during the monsoon season.
Spring and fall are the best times to visit Nepal weather-wise, with warm nights and sunny days the general rule. For outdoor activities, the short period between mid-September and late November and early March to mid-May are best, but rates in the better hotels may be more expensive as it is peak season.
Currency: Nepalese Rupee
Official language: Nepali
Populated for several millennia, Nepal was first mentioned in the Vedic Parisistas of the Atharvaveda. By 500 BC, small city-kingdoms were established in the warmer southern regions and around this time the Shakya prince-turned-ascetic who would become the Buddha was born. For the following 500 years, dynasties rose and fell and by the 12th century, Western Nepali leaders had consolidated their power over the region, ruling for 200 years.
Subsequently, Nepal split into 24 petty states until the late 14th century, at which point Central Nepal and the Kathmandu Valley came under the unified rule of the Malla dynasty. By 1482, the kingdom again became fractured, this time into three separate kingdoms of Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu.
Unification began again in the mind-18th century, spurred by the determination of a Gurkha ruler, Prithvi Narayan Shah. After buying neutrality from Indian border states and receiving funds and arms from India, his conquest of the Kathmandu Valley was completed by 1768. 20 years later, Nepalese troops took Sikkim and raided Tibet, a long-time enemy. The northern Indian state of Kangra fell to the Nepalese until Sikh Punjabi king Ranjit Singh drove them back.
By then, Nepal’s borders extended north of the Himalayan border with China and controlled the high mountain passes, causing disputes with Tibet and the Sino-Nepalese War, ordered by the Qing Emperor in Peking. The Chinese victory cost Nepal dearly in heavy fines and lost land. Nepal’s southern border with India, the British East India Company was busily annexing minor states, a rivalry resulting in the year-long Anglo-Nepalese War in 1815.
At the beginning of the conflict, British officers underestimated the Nepalese and were defeated, forcing them to bring more armaments and form the first Gurkha regiments. The ruthless Gurkhas subdued the Nepalese, gaining a reputation as a premier fighting force. The war ended in a treaty, with Nepal losing land and the right to recruit military personnel.
The kings of the 19th century Rana lineage were loyal to the British and gave military aid during various Indian mutinies, thus regaining their lost Terai territory. By 1923, Britain and Nepal signed a friendship treaty and slavery was outlawed the following year, although debt-bonding still causes occasional problems in the Terai region.
The invasion of Tibet by the Chinese in the 1950s caused India to address the military threat posed by forces on its border, with the government asserting more influence with the Nepalese ruler. A 1951 sponsorship by Indian King Tribhuvan led to a new democratic government resulting in disputes over power between the ruling house and the government finally ending.
Ongoing Maoist violence began in 1996 and led to a ten-year civil war. The nation was shocked beyond belief in 2011, when the royal prince and heir to the throne, Crown Prince Dipendra, murdered eight members of his family including the King and Queen before committing suicide. Speculation across the country is still rife about the official reason given, that Dipendra had been forbidden to marry his choice of wife. Nepal is now a republic and secular state, commanded by the Communist Party, the ultra-modern reincarnation of the Maoists, although the word ‘Royal’ has been removed from its previous use in names of national parks and palaces.
The rich, multi-ethnic and multi-dimensional culture of Nepal is based on centuries-old traditions and social customs. Its diversities range of mountain communities and social strata are expressed in music, dance, folklore, language, and religion.
Nepal has two main religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, although many Nepalese practice a unique combination of both mixed with a degree of animism. The traditions of both go back over two millennia to the birth of the Buddha in Lumbini and the ancient Hindu rituals.
Nepal’s varied topography of plains, hills and mountains result in an equally varied climate divided into five zones – Arctic, sub-Arctic, cold, temperate and sub-tropical/tropical – and five seasons, spring, summer, monsoon, fall and winter. Overall, most of the country’s rainfall occurs in the June to early September monsoon season. High summer sees extreme heat; winters everywhere except the plains are snowy and freezing, and spring and fall are warm and pleasant.
The five climate zones in Nepal are based on the vast range of altitudes over a comparatively short north-south distance and the Himalayan massifs influence conditions. The southern plains of the Terai along the border of India see tropical and sub-tropical weather. Summer temperatures soar to 113°F, and winters are warm at worst. The summer monsoon hits here first, with dramatic storms causing landslides and flooding.
The Kathmandu Valley has nice summers with temperatures around 77°F and spring and fall highs a few degrees lower. Winter is cold, with temperatures regularly dropping around freezing with morning fog. The monsoon season brings high humidity and around 1300 mm of rain. Pokhara lies in the center of Nepal and enjoys a sub-tropical climate with its elevation restricting weather to a moderate average of 86°F in summer and 36°F or higher in winter.
If you will arrive by air, either apply for a visa at a Nepalese embassy or consulate before traveling, or purchase a tourist visa upon arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu.
For an online visa application form, see https://online.nepalimmigration.gov.np/tourist-visa.
Renting a car to drive yourself through the mountains is almost unheard of in Nepal, but getting a car with a driver is very cheap after you’ve enjoyed a bit of haggling. Travel agencies can also provide you with a car and driver at great rates, but be sure to get a quote from several companies before settling on one.
Visitors are discouraged from driving themselves as even if you’re experienced, the poor driving skills of Nepalese locals, ignorance of traffic rules, mountainous road conditions, and constantly-changing weather make for a dangerous combination. If you’re not risk-averse, Kathmandu has a selection of rental companies, although getting a car here is comparatively expensive.
From Kathmandu’s airport to town, the best taxi service is a government-sponsored set-up which requires pre-payment and charges fixed rates to most city districts. Don’t expect luxury vehicles, but an added bonus is that you get to avoid the crowds at taxi stands. Meters are uncommon, with drivers charging what they think you can pay, and haggling expected.
For travel around Nepal’s cities, taxis are a cheap option and easier than negotiating your way around the even cheaper bus routes. Hiring a cab for a full day of sightseeing in and around Kathmandu is a value-for-money decision, but trying to do the same thing through a hotel concierge will likely double the price.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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