Wedged between the plains of the north-eastern Gangetic basin and the high plateau of Tibet is one of the world’s most beautiful, complex, and diverse countries. Compressed in a width of just about 90 miles from south to north, Nepal encompasses lush sub-tropical jungles where 15 foot high grasses shelter tigers and one-horned rhinoceroses at an altitude of 150m to Everest – the highest peak in the world.
Where is Nepal? – You could well answer that it lies suspended between the Brow of the Cosmos (Sagarmatha – the Nepali name for Everest) and lush tropical Earth! It is a long rectangular country and as the mountains rise in rolling waves from ridge to valley to higher ridge until you reach the realm of eternal snow – Himalaya – you find a diverse and magnificent country peopled by some of the most hospitable, cheerful, and friendly folk on Earth.
Where else would a Maoist revolutionary leader ‘tax’ you, pose for a picture with you, insist on buying you a cup of tea and then assure you that his receipt would free you of any further exemptions?
The country is now at peace – thankfully – and the dreadful monarchy abolished. Kathmandu, the iconic capital, has lost something of its exotic character amidst the smog of pollution and traffic jams, but each of the three old cities of the valley – Kathmandu itself, Patan, and magical Bhaktapur – are richly rewarding in the sheer extravagance of their extraordinary architecture, sculpture, woodwork, and handicrafts.
Experience the evocative atmosphere that clings to the original Durbar or Court squares with palaces and temples lining them in gilded profusion. Here are the temples to The Living Goddess, a cult that dates back to the pre-Gorkha Malla Kingdoms, and the temple of Kashtamandap in Kathmandu supposedly built from a single giant sal tree and believed by some to be the origin of Kathmandu’s name.
If you can, aim to cover the entire gamut of Nepali experiences. There are two ways of approaching a Nepal holiday – both perfectly valid. One is to head for the highlights – and they are spectacular.
Nepal is home to some of the most extraordinary mountain scenery in the world, so you can head off on a trek in the Annapurna or Everest regions, navigating from one scenically located lodge to the next, tarrying perhaps at an atmospheric little tea-house before tackling the next climb to a ridge. Alternatively, you could treat yourself to a self-contained expedition style trek in areas where tea-houses are few and lodges non-existent, and the rewards all the greater. This is what I would do!
Stretching from almost sea-level to Everest, Nepal harbours an incredible diversity of habitat and wildlife. The birdlife is some of the richest in the world and in parks like Chitwan, Bardia, and Suklaphanta, you can search for great one-horned rhinoceroses, tigers, Gharial crocodiles, and Gangetic dolphins.
The culture of Nepal in the Kathmandu valley stands comparison with nothing else in the world, and you can enjoy some extraordinary examples in places like Dhulikhel or head down to the Indian border to Lumbini – birthplace of the Buddha.
The other way of exploring Nepal is slowly, off the beaten track in tiny converted farmhouses, on relaxed walks from lovely lodges on the rim of the Kathmandu Valley or above Pokhara. Here you can meander through fields and hamlets, absorbing the beauty and tranquillity of the countryside, and observe the differences in ethnicity of the people reflected by feature, dress, and village architecture. This is because Nepal has been at the crossroads of all the restless migrations of peoples from Tibet, India, and the wild knot of mountains in northern Burma and Yunnan.
Whichever way you wish to explore Nepal, hopefully I have helped to guide you and perhaps you will return with some more answers to the question: where is Nepal?