Isolated from the world until 1951, Nepal has remained the greatest wonder to travellers around the globe. To many the mystique of Nepal lies within the mountains along its northern border, the Himalayas; to others, this mystique is created from the history, cultural diversity and arts representing over 3000 years of a forbidden kingdom.
The Himalayas rise up over 8000 metres (28,000 ft) above sea level, dwarfing everything in sight. For thousands of years these mountains have represented gods to Buddhists as they are unimaginable.
And while the Himalayas are awesome -- the history, culture and arts of Nepal are spectacular. Throughout thousands of years Nepal has represented the cultural center between India and China where cultures, religions and travellers meshed. This catalyst formed by Nepal's geographic location has made Nepal one of the world's premier destinations to view the treasures of history, including seven world heritage sites found in the Kathmandu Valley alone.
The dichotomy of Nepal's culture is as marvelous as it's mountains. While struck with great poverty, Nepalese live life with immense audacity - humble and content with what they have. Travelling amongst the mountains of Nepal, visitors may notice this excitement for life and friendliness as they are engulfed by school children, passed by farmers, or invited into hut's for tea. In Kathmandu and some of the larger cities in Nepal, visitors experience this unique culture through bazaars where they may bargain for beautiful wool sweaters, in open squares where women sell vibrantly colored flowers or amongst the historical shrines and stupas decorated in prayer flags. No matter where in Nepal one may be they are certain to be impressed with this friendly, exciting and humble culture.
Nepal's population is more than 24 million people and is growing rapidly at the rate of 2.3% per year. Almost half of the population lives in the lowland Terai, and most of the rest are spread throughout the country in small hill villages. The bright lights of Kathmandu have attracted many village people and the valley's population has grown to an estimated 2.5 million.
Because you will encounter people living in tiny villages that blanket the hills throughout the country, trekking in Nepal is not a wilderness experience. Even in the high mountains, small settlements of stone houses and yak pastures dot every possible flat space. People truly live off the land, only using a few manufactured items such as soap, kerosene, paper and matches, all of which is transported in bamboo baskets carried by barefoot porters.
It is difficult for most Westerners to comprehend this aspect of Nepal. Our preconception of roadless area is strongly influenced by our ideas of true wilderness. The average population density in Nepal is more than 142 people per square kilometre. Since much of the country is high mountains and steep hillsides, the true population density is much higher. It is estimated that only 12% of the population of Nepal lives in cities.
Rather than detract from the enjoyment of a trek, the hill people, particularly their traditional hospitality and fascinating culture, make a trek in Nepal a very special kind of mountain holiday.
Like so many things in Nepal made great through the mixing of vibrant colors, Nepal's culture has been blended over thousands of years of immigration from neighboring India and China. Anthropologists divide the people of Nepal into about 60 'ethnic groups'. Most groups have there own language and at least 49 mother-tongues have been identified. Almost everyone speaks Nepali as a second language.
Beginning in 1000 BC, immigrants began settling in Nepal. First were the Khas to the west, followed by the Kirat to the East and Licchavis to the South. The following decades have seen the immigration of Sherpas, from Tibet, who settled in the North alongside Tamangs, cavalry of Ghengis Khan. In recent years there has been an influx of those fleeing China.
Decades of immigration have tightly woven together varied cultures, mixing languages, arts, religions and traditions. Ironically, as Nepalese are known for their friendliness, no immigration ever resulted in war between rival groups. Like the colours of prayer flags, groups simply blended together to form something amazing, Nepal.
As immigrants settled in Nepal they not only brought their own cultures but also their own faiths. Most likely Hindu traditions began to appear in Nepal with the settlement of the Khas. These people worshiped the God Shiva who was manifested as Pashupati, Lord of the Beasts. While Hinduism flourished in Nepal for some time it was eventually challenged when those from Tibet began to settle in the region. These people brought with them the teachings of Buddha. Together Hinduism and Buddhism have survived in Nepal and today both are practiced and often in conjunction as most Gods are represented in both faiths but under different names.
Bound by the high mountains of China to the North and the low plains of India to the South, Nepal is a geographic wonder. Similar in size to Cuba (800km long, 200km wide), Nepal has over 28,000 feet of altitude change within 90 miles. The terrain changes longitudinally from glaciers on the northern Tibetan border to flat jungles of the Terai in the south, barely 150m above sea level. The country does not ascend gradually from the plains. Rather, it rises in several chains of hills that lie in an east-west direction, finally terminating in the highest mountains of the Himalaya, beyond which is the 5000m-high plateau of Tibet.
With eight of the world's fourteen highest peaks, the Himalayas give Nepal the highest and densest collection of mountains in the world, and they are still growing!
Complementing the world's highest peak, Mt. Everest, Nepal also has the world's deepest gorge, the Kali-Gandaki. The system of valleys and rivers running through the Himalayas provides support to the spring melt from high peaks and the summer monsoon. One only needs to imagine the run off of snow from the world's highest mountains to understand the opportunities awaiting the adventurer on Nepal's wild rivers.
Although the Himalayas may be Nepal's most know geography, they are equally challenged in beauty and grandeur by the lowland 'Terai' along Nepal's southern border. Here along the border with India, travellers can experience safaris through jungles and marshes home to over 20 endangered species. In Nepal's Terai, it is not that uncommon to hear news of man-eating tigers or of rogue elephant herds trampling villagers and houses!
More than 800 species of birds are known in Nepal, more birds than in Canada and the USA combined, or nearly 10% of the world's species!
Nepal's dramatic array of geography gives rise to one of the world's most dynamic ranges of climates with tropical jungle conditions to the South and ice capped mountains in the North. Within this range of climates Nepal encompasses four seasons, autumn, winter, spring and monsoon.
With each season comes different opportunities in Nepal. During the winter the high mountains are buried in heavy snow while the lower altitudes are perfect for exploration. With spring and the melting of snow wildflowers abound abundantly throughout the hills and mountains painting the Himalayas in vibrant arrays of color. Although the monsoon season blankets most of Nepal with rain from June till August, it gives raise to beautiful, crisp weather in the fall which is the optimal time for trekking in the Himalayas.
Trekking is possible any time of year depending on where you are going. The popular seasons are spring and autumn. During winter, trekking is possible at lower altitudes. During the monsoon season, you can trek in the rain shadow areas north of the Himalaya like Mustang, Upper Manang (Annapurna region) and Dolpo. These places are out of reach of the rain clouds because of the high mountains and are unaffected by the monsoons. The best part about trekking in this season is that the routes are less crowded and if you happen to be a keen amateur-botanist, you will revel in lush vegetation as meadows bloom in full swing.