Nepal forms the very watershed of Asia. Landlocked between India and Tibet, it spans terrain from subtropical jungle to the icy Himalaya, and contains or shares eight of the world's ten highest mountains. Its cultural landscape is every bit as diverse: a dozen major ethnic groups, speaking as many as fifty languages and dialects, coexist in this narrow, jumbled buffer state, while two of the world's great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, overlap and mingle with older tribal traditions - yet it's a testimony to the Nepalis' tolerance and good humour that there is no tradition of ethnic or religious strife. Unlike India, Nepal was never colonized, a fact which comes through in fierce national pride and other, more idiosyncratic ways. Founded on trans-Himalayan trade, its dense, medieval cities display a unique pagoda-style architecture, not to mention an astounding flair for festivals and pageantry. But above all, Nepal is a nation of unaffected villages and terraced hillsides - more than eighty percent of the population lives off the land - and whether you're trekking, biking or bouncing around in packed buses, sampling this simple lifestyle is perhaps the greatest pleasure of all.
But it would be misleading to portray Nepal as a fabled Shangri-la. One of the world's poorest countries (if you go by per capita income), it suffers from many of the pangs and uncertainties of the Third World, including overpopulation and deforestation; development is coming in fits and starts, and not all of it is being shared equitably. Heavily reliant on its big-brother neighbours, Nepal was, until 1990, run by one of the last remaining absolute monarchies, a regime that combined China's repressiveness and India's bureaucracy in equal measure. It's now a democracy, but corruption and frequent changes of government have led to widespread disillusion and spawned a simmering rebel insurgency; political freedom has changed little for the average struggling Nepali family.
Travelling in Nepal isn't a straightforward or predictable activity. Certain tourist areas are highly developed, even overdeveloped, but facilities elsewhere are rudimentary; getting around is time-consuming and sometimes uncomfortable. Nepalis are well used to shrugging off such inconveniences with the all-purpose phrase, Ke garne? ("What to do?"). Nepal is also a more fragile country than most - culturally as well as environmentally - so it's necessary to be especially sensitive as a traveller. Tips for minimizing your impact are given in Basics.
Topography is obviously a key consideration when travelling in Nepal. Generally speaking, the country divides into three altitude zones running from west to east. The northernmost of these is, of course, the Himalayan chain, broken into a series of himal (permanently snow-covered mountain ranges) and alpine valleys, and inhabited, at least part of the year, as high as 5000m. The largest part of the country consists of a wide belt of middle-elevation foothills and valleys, Nepal's traditional heartland; two ranges, the Mahabharat Lek and the lower, southernmost Chure (or Siwalik) Hills, stand out. Finally, the Tarai, a strip of flat, lowland jungle and farmland along the southern border, has more in common with India than with the rest of Nepal.
Given the country's primitive transport network, most travellers stick to a well-worn circuit, with the result that certain sights and trekking routes have become rather commercialized. Don't be put off. The beaten track is remarkably thin and easy to escape in Nepal - and this guide is intended, first and foremost, to give you the confidence to do just that. It's the out-of-the-way places, the ones not written up in any book (even this one), that you'll remember most fondly on your return.
Everyone touches down in Kathmandu at some point, but for all its exotic bustle, the capital is rather rough going these days - logistically it makes a good base, but you won't want to spend lots of time there. Hindu temples, Buddhist stupas, rolling countryside and huddled brick villages provide incentives for touring the prosperous Kathmandu Valley, as do the historically independent city-states of Patan and Bhaktapur. The surrounding central hills are surprisingly undeveloped, apart from a couple of mountain view points, yet a few lesser routes, such as the road to the Tibet border and especially the Tribhuwan Rajpath, make for adventurous travel - especially by mountain bike or motorcycle.
The views get more dramatic, or at least more accessible, in the western hills. Pokhara, set beside a lake under a looming wall of peaks, is the closest thing you'll find to a resort in Nepal. Other hill towns - notably Gorkha and its impressive fortress, Manakamana with its wish-fulfilling temple, and laid-back Tansen - offer scenery with history or culture to boot.
It's in the teeming jungle and ethnic villages of the Tarai that Nepal's diversity really becomes apparent. Most travellers venture no further than Chitwan National Park, where endangered Asian one-horned rhinos are easily viewable, but Bardia National Park and two other rarely visited wildlife reserves are out there for the more adventurous. Lumbini, Buddha's birthplace in the western Tarai, is a world-class pilgrimage site, as is Janakpur, a Hindu holy city in the east. Rolling tea plantations, weekly markets and a rich cultural mix figure prominently in the spectacular and little-visited eastern hills, most easily reached from the Tarai.
And of course Nepal is probably the most famous destination in the world for a growing range of outdoor activities, covered in a separate section of this guide. Trekking from village to village through the hills and up into high Himalayan valleys is an experience not to be missed. The scenery varies from cultivated terraces to lush rhododendron forests to glacier-capped peaks, but the cultural interactions are often, in retrospect, the most rewarding part of a trek. Nepal's rivers, meanwhile, are the liquid counterparts to its mountains, and rafting offers not only adventure but also a different perspective on the countryside and wildlife. Yet another alternative means of locomotion, mountain-biking, brings you in contact with the land and its people at your own pace.
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The past decade has brought great upheaval to Nepal, and there's probably more still to come. The country's political system, economic development and mercurial relationship with India all seem to be in a worrying state of flux.
But while political instability is unlikely to have much of a direct effect on your plans, other changes inevitably will. No guidebook can reliably predict quite how things will be by the time you get to Nepal, but the following recent trends give an idea of what's in store:
Maoist rebels are waging a guerrilla war against the government from their bases in remote hill areas. At the time of writing no incidents have involved tourists, and the rebels have stated publicly that they have no quarrel with foreigners, but seek the latest advice as you plan your trip.
New road-building is moving trailheads further into the hinterland, making some treks shorter and the transport to them longer. This year's great trek or bike ride is next year's dirt road, and the following year's paved road (and a few years later, it may be a trail again).
Tourist bus services are proliferating, making travel to certain places easier, but also turning those places into tourist traps.
Nepal is getting more and more packaged: for no good reason other than heavy marketing, organized tours, treks and safaris have become common, even for budget travellers.
The growth of budget tourist ghettos has been a major theme of the past decade. The commercialization is really dismaying in some areas, leading many returning travellers to complain that Nepal is "ruined". It's not, but parts of it are, so avoid them.
Fortunately, a Nepali cultural revival seems to be emerging, as Nepalis discover that they need not toss out traditional ways to cater to foreigners. Thus travellers dissatisfied with pseudo-Western food and facilities now have a growing range of good, indigenous alternatives to choose from.
Rural electrification is proceeding steadily, bringing not only lights but also videos, cable TV, email and a whole lot more contact with the outside world.
Rip-offs and theft are on the rise, owing to an influx of Indian immigrants, high unemployment and weak law enforcement. Nepal is still one of the mellowest and safest countries in the world, but it's no longer the hassle-free paradise it once was.
Prices have historically risen faster than average in the tourist areas, though oversupply is beginning to reverse this trend. Off the beaten track, prices if anything tend to decline in real terms.
Table of Contents
|Getting there by air||3|
|Overland routes to Nepal||12|
|Climate and when to go||14|
|Red tape and visas||16|
|Costs, money and banks||17|
|Health and insurance||20|
|Information, maps and guides||27|
|Eating and drinking||40|
|Post, phones and the media||46|
|Opening hours and holidays||49|
|Festivals and entertainment||50|
|Spiritual pursuits and alternative therapies||63|
|Beggars and touts||70|
|Police and trouble||71|
|Travelling with children||73|
|Metric conversion chart||79|
|Part 2||The Guide||81|
|Orientation and arrival||85|
|Information and maps||89|
|North of Durbar Square||100|
|South of Durbar Square||104|
|Nightlife and entertainment||129|
|Trekking, rafting and other activities||137|
|Meditation, yoga and astrology||139|
|Chapter 2||The Kathmandu Valley||150|
|The Sankhu and Sundarijal roads||167|
|Budhanilkantha and Shivapuri||169|
|Balaju, Nagarjun Ban and Ichangu Narayan||171|
|The Dakshin Kali road||191|
|The Bungmati and Chapagaun roads||195|
|The Godavari and Lubhu roads||197|
|Chapter 3||The Central Hills||216|
|Banepa, Nala and Panauti||222|
|To the Tibet border and Jiri||229|
|The Trisuli Road||235|
|The Tribhuwan Rajpath and Daman||238|
|Chapter 4||The Western Hills||243|
|Along the Prithvi Highway||245|
|The Pokhara Valley||276|
|Tansen and around||286|
|Chapter 5||The Western Tarai||292|
|Chitwan National Park||296|
|Narayanghat, Bharatpur and Devghat||313|
|Butwal to Sonauli||316|
|Nepalganj and Birendra Nagar||327|
|Bardia National Park||331|
|West of the Karnali River||338|
|Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve||341|
|Chapter 6||The Eastern Tarai and Hills||344|
|Birganj and the border||349|
|Along the Mahendra Highway||352|
|Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve||360|
|Kakarbhitta and the border||364|
|Part 3||Outdoor Pursuits||375|
|Trekking peaks and mountaineering||383|
|Health and emergencies||386|
|North of Pokhara: Annapurna||392|
|North of Kathmandu: Helambu, Langtang and Gosainkund||400|
|Far western Nepal||411|
|Chapter 8||Rafting and Kayaking||415|
|When to go||415|
|Rafting operators and agents||415|
|Costs and red tape||416|
|Safety and the environment||417|
|Kayaking and other river sports||417|
|Information and maps||424|
|The historical framework||435|
|Religion: Hinduism, Buddhism, Shamanism||443|
|Music and dance||452|
|Tibetan exiles in Nepal||456|
|Glossary of Nepali, Newari and Tibetan terms||495|