The Roof of the World is how some people have described the tiny nation of Nepal and its northern neighbor Tibet (now part of China).
That's because eight of the world's ten highest mountains—including Everest (29,028 feet)—are on or within the Nepalese border. Of the world's 75 tallest peaks, almost half (33) are in Nepal.
Only about the size of North Carolina, this nation is landlocked by China to the north and India to the south and west. Nepal is a study in contrasts. Mostly mountainous from its northern border, Nepal's southern region of flat alluvial land, the Tarai, is only 230 feet above sea level at its lowest point. There, summers are subtropical, and winters, mild. Yet, to the rocky north, the climate ranges from alpine summers to severe Arctic winters. Most of the nation's 24 million inhabitants live in either the Tarai or the Kathmandu Valley, a large, high plain in the nation's center surrounded by mountains. The capital and largest city of Kathmandu is located in this valley.
For centuries, Nepal was closed to the outside world. Its extreme topography made the country undesirable for conquest by outside invaders. Foreigners weren't allowed into the country until 1951, contributing to the country's mystique. Since the 1970s, tourism has boomed in Nepal, and visitors are rarely disappointed by its spectacular natural scenery and ancient architectural wonders, such as Hindu and Buddhist temples and wooden and rope walking bridges suspended high above gaping chasms.
Tourism has become so big an industry in Nepal that most of its Sherpa mountain people, who once made a living solely by farming, now devote their work in whole or in part to the travel industry. They typically serve as guides or porters for foreign travel parties.
The Kingdom of Nepal, as it's officially known, has been slowly converting to a secular democratic form of government, although Hindus (90 percent of the populace) still dominate the nation's political and religious life. The constitutional monarchy legalized political parties in 1990 and held its first multiparty elections in 1991. Child marriage, polygamy, and the caste system were abolished in 1963.
In many ways, Nepal remains an anomaly in the modern world. It is among the poorest and least developed countries, with nearly half of its population living below the poverty line. More than 80 percent of the population still relies on farming. There are few accessible natural resources. Although the government has relaxed some of its requirements for foreign investment, the U.S. State Department reports that running foreign businesses in Nepal remains difficult, due to its remote location, poor internal infrastructure, and the considerable bureaucratic obstacles that remain.
Sandwiched between India and China, and relatively close to Pakistan, Nepal finds itself in the middle of one of the world's most politically volatile regions. The place where many go for clean living and spiritual enlightenment may owe its survival to the actions of three mutually hostile nuclear powers.
Travel in Nepal
Nepal has many foreign expedition companies offering tour packages, ranging from two days to two months. Depending on where you go in the country, how long you travel, and how difficult the tour is, prices can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
The most popular form of in-country tour is known as the trek, because the best way to see Nepal remains via foot travel. Roads are still a rarity in Nepal, and they are of poor quality at that. Most areas are still accessible by trails that in some cases have been used by the local people for centuries.
Tried-and-true trek routes in Nepal are known as circuits. One of the most famous of these is in the vicinity of Annapurna, the first 8,000-meter (26,247-foot) peak ever scaled. The Annapurna Circuit is typically a 22- or 23-day trek with terrain that varies from 1,500 feet (400 meters) to 18,000 feet (5,400 meters) and back. There are shorter and longer versions of this trip that are more or less extreme. The typical Annapurna Circuit trek covers 300 kilometers (186 miles), with 8 to 10 hours of walking a day for 22 or 23 days.
Some treks can include mountain climbing, but many of the easy to moderate treks simply involve short walks to sites around the more accessible Kathmandu Valley. Along the way, no matter what trek visitors choose, they often pass through dozens of villages and encounter friendly people and awesome scenery. For some treks, accommodations can include small lodges called teahouses. Many trekkers prefer camping trips, with the cost of tent rentals included in the tour fee.
Treks occur year-round in Nepal, but the most popular seasons are spring (February to May) and fall (September to November). Summer and early fall are the rainy monsoon months, when mountain areas are hidden by clouds.
There are no direct flights from the United States to Nepal. A typical flight plan would be New York to London, then from London directly to Kathmandu or to a layover airport in India before the final flight leg to Nepal.
Prices and amenities
If you decide on a trekking tour package in Nepal, keep in mind that many items are not included in the tour package cost. In general, trek package prices include:
- In-country transportation.
- Cooks and guides.
- Porters who'll carry your heavy gear.
- Trekking equipment (including tents and cooking gear).
- A trekking permit (in some cases).
- Some or all meals.
Most packages do not include these costs:
- Your passport or Nepalese visa ($30)
- Trekking permits (which can range from $5 to $20, depending on time and location of trek)
- Air travel from your country to and from Kathmandu or layover stops in between
- Airport taxes (such as Kathmandu Airport's "departure tax" of $15)
- Many meals and all tips
- Laundry services and other amenities
There are even filming fees. Many details cannot be overlooked in planning a trip to Nepal. Do lots of homework beforehand and make most preparations in advance to avoid bureaucratic hassle.
A quick check of some tour companies online shows prices for tours ranging from $300 (plus extras) for an easy, four-day camping trek in Annapurna to more than $2,000 for strenuous, 18-days treks.
Trek prices are based on the tour difficulty (easy and moderate to strenuous and very strenuous), the amount of amenities and equipment needed, the remoteness of location, and the number of people in your party. Parties of 10 or more that book with a tour can usually save hundreds of dollars per individual.
As a reminder, these are some items you should always carry:
- Passport, photocopy of passport, and extra photographs of yourself
- Vaccination certificate and medical history
- Proof of insurance on valuables such as cameras
- Travelers checks and at least $100 in U.S. currency in case of emergency (carry a minimum of cash)
For more information
There are many good links on the Internet about Nepal. Check out these sites:
An introduction to Nepal (by interknowlege.com)
Nepalonline.net (business and travel facts)
Nepal home page (travel, entertainment, and more)
Nepal-Net.com (news, travel, and more)
Lonely Planet: Nepal
Nepal Pride (more facts)
Facts and figures on Nepal (by Panasia.org)
Facts and figures on Nepal (by Infoplease.com)
Royal Nepalese Embassy in Washington, D.C.
CIA World Factbook: Nepal
U.S. State Department 1999 Country Commercial Guide to Nepal
Governments on the WWW: Nepal
Encyclopedia Britannica facts on Nepal
Links to cities and more
Kathmandu Metropolitan City at a Glance
Travel FAQ at Nepal home page
Hotels and travel in Nepal
U.S. Consulate (information you should know before traveling to Nepal)
World Travel Guide facts on Nepal
Nepal Tourism Board
Images of Nepal
Tons of facts on Mt. Everest and Nepal trekking in general
List of Nepalese trekking companies online
Airlines of the Web
Trekking and Expedition (commercial site with tour examples)
Day-by-day journal of a 24-day Nepal adventure
World Bank: Nepal Competitiveness Indicators
Currency converter (Nepalese rupees to U.S. dollars)
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Kevin Rayburn is a Louisville freelance writer. He has won awards from Yahoo!, Lycos, Netguide Magazine, Magellan, and others for his Web site on the life and work of film comedian W. C. Fields. He also has received recognition for his Web site on the history of the 1920s from the Internet Scout Project's The Scout Report, which identifies sites that are deemed useful for educators.