While you go to Nepal for the mountains, you will come back for the people.
By Dr. Antonia Neubauer, President Myths and Mountains
Sandwiched in between mighty India and vast Tibet is tiny Nepal, a country of 54,363 square miles, slightly larger than the state of Arkansas. Yet, where Arkansas is home to a population of 2,949,131, Nepal is stuffed full with 28,951,852 people, belonging to about 102 different castes and ethnic groups – Brahmins, Chhetris, Newaris, Sherpas, Rais, Limbus and many, many others. In fact, Nepal is a melting pot, a dynamic society where the brahmanic, sedentary, farming polygamous Indian community meets the shamanic, nomadic, polyandrous Tibetan community.
The country literally goes from a hundred feet above sea level on the Indian border to Mount Everest at 29,028 feet in less than a hundred miles!! Basically, these hundred miles are divided into three general areas. The lowest, bordering on India and the most populated, is the Terai. Next is the Siwalik or middle hills; and, in Nepal, everything under 17,000 feet is considered a hill! Last are the mountains, and they are dazzling! Inside the borders of Nepal are eight of the ten tallest mountains in the world – Mt. Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna 1, as well as many other breathtaking Himalayan peaks!
Looking at the country on a map, one sees that the rivers run north to south, but the mountains run east to west. For the hiker or even the driver, this means that there is very little ridge walking. Rather, one goes all the way up, and then all the way down and then all the way back up again! Interestingly, it is said that the Himalayas are growing at .6 centimeters a year, so trekkers better hurry up and go there before the mountains get much bigger!
Up until 1991, Nepal was an absolute monarchy, ruled, since 1951, by the Shah dynasty. In 1991, while central and eastern Europe was convulsed by the revolutions overthrowing communism, Nepal made a peaceful yet dramatic shift and became a constitutional monarchy. Then, in 2001, most of the royal family was assassinated, and the brother of the dead king mounted the throne amid suspicion that he had been involved in the murders.
Unfortunately, the new political freedom, combined with chronic political ineptitude, led to rampant political corruption and social unrest. The upshot was a thirteen-year civil war that saw the end of the monarchy and the election of a communist government. In fact, Nepal is the only country in the world to have twice freely elected a communist government!
Despite the war, tourism continued relatively unabated, and tourists were left unscathed by any of the fighting. Today, more tourists than ever are flocking to this marvelous Himalayan country and travel is the largest industry and source of revenue in the country. Moreover, a visit to Nepal soon becomes chronic, leading to many more. As many visitors comment, “I went to Nepal for the mountains, but came back for the people!”
Most people think of Nepal in terms of trekking, but you do not have to be a trekker to enjoy the country, nor do you have to be a mountaineer. In fact, Nepal is a wonderful family destination for people from two years old on up. Children can go down to Chitwan National Park and ride elephants, visit the baby elephant center and even see crocodile breeding. They can ride Tibetan ponies along the trekking trails at low altitudes or be carried in the baskets of porters.
Generally, tourists arrive in the capital, Kathmandu, by air and spend several days visiting the Kathmandu Valley. The valley itself is composed of several major cities and other outlying suburban areas. Kathmandu is the capital, the government center of the country and home to some of the most well known temples, such as Swayambunath, the Lotus Temple and said to have originated with the birth of the Kathmandu Valley, Pashupatinath, the holiest of Hindu shrines in Nepal, and Boudhanth, central to the Sherpa and Tibetan community.
Near Kathmandu is Patan or Lalitpur, the city of artisans and home to some of the finest bronze casters, thanka painters and jewelry makers in the country. In fact, it was a Newari artisan from Patan who is credited with introducing the pagoda to the Mongol court of China back in the 13th century.
A bit beyond the airport is Bhaktapur, the “City of Devotés.” Unlike in Kathmandu and Patan, most traffic inside the main part of town has been banned and there has been a major effort to retain the characteristics of the original Newari buildings. The result is that Bhaktapur today is what the capital, Kathmandu, used to be about twenty-five years ago. Among other things, the city is known for its kumalis or potters, and one can wander down and watch how they do their work.
With the expanded road system in the country, there are many new places to visit for the non-trekker. For example, outside of Pokhara is the charmingly renovated town of Bandipur, formerly a major stop on the trading routes until the Pokhara road was built, bypassing the area. Today the town has been remodeled to look as it did in the past, has some marvelous mountain views, charming surrounding villages, as well as excellent old-style Newari hotels.
Then, of course, there is the tourists’ favorite – Pokhara itself – the capital of Kaski district. Known for its mild climate, Pokhara also boasts magnificent views of the entire Annapurna range and a lovely lake, Phewa Tal. Many Nepalis in the northern areas make the town their winter home. Today’s tourists can do everything from relaxing by the lake to parasailing!
For trekkers, Nepal is heaven, and the trekking staff in Nepal handles tourists perhaps better than any other country! Yes, there are new roads being built, but there are ways to avoid the roads and enjoy the quiet of villagers, the smiles of children and the warmth of the inns that dot many of the routes.
People can visit Nepal year round. Winter is a good time to visit the jungle in the Terai or the southern part of the country. Fall and spring are excellent for trekking. In the spring, the rhododendrons and magnolias are in full bloom, and the countryside is green. In the fall, after the monsoon, generally the air is crisp and clear and mountain views are at their best. For the adventurous hikers, who want to trek to Shey Gompa in remote Dolpo or Upper Mustang along the Tibetan border, although summer is the monsoon time in many parts of the country, May to September is the best time to travel in these northern parts of Nepal. Summer in Mustang is also festival time!
Speaking of festivals, fall sees the festivals of Dasain and Tirhar, sort of a Nepali version of Christmas and New Years rolled into one. Both are primarily family festivals, and Tirhar is actually the beginning of the new fiscal year. Here one lights lamps to invite Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, to visit the house and bring wealth for the family.
In spring, the Hindus celebrate Shivaratri or “Night of Shiva,” when sadhus or holy men from all over Nepal and India gather in Pashupatinath to worship the God of Animals and Destruction, the “hippie God’, with his dreadlocks and ash-covered body. Shivaratri is the only day in the year when marijuana is legal in Nepal, and the shrine is crowded with thousands of stoned sadhus!
Holi, slightly later, is sort of a Hansel and Gretal festival, celebrated by throwing colored paint on unsuspecting people – red, green and other colors! Watch out!
February is the month of Losar, the Buddhist New Year. In Boudhanath, locals are dancing, changing prayer flags, sprinkling saffron on the temple and generally rejoicing. Truly, any season is festival season and there is always something wonderful to see and do in Nepal.
Let me end this piece about Nepal with a story. Years ago, I was walking in Dolpo just after the area was opened for trekking. We were headed to the village of Reyche, but were not sure of the trail or time needed to get there. By the side of the road was an old crusty famer, and we stopped to ask some questions –“How far is Reyche? Does the trail go up or down? Are there any tea houses along the way? What will we see?”
The old man just looked at us as we talked. Finally, when we finally could ask no more, he quietly replied, “Why are you asking me all these questions? If you don’t start walking you will never get there!”
So it is with Nepal. If you have dreamed of visiting this Himalayan country, now is the time to go. If you don’t start walking, you will never get there!
Dr. Antonia (Toni) Neubauer is the founder and guiding spirit behind Myths and Mountains, an award winning adventure travel company, the Conde Nast Nepal Top Travel Specialist. Toni is also the founder of the non-profit, READ Global, using sustainable library community centers as a catalyst for rural development in Nepal, Bhutan and India.