Updated on 20 February, 2012
When was the last time you went a week without seeing a car, or hearing the sound of a mobile phone? Had a conversation about politics with a stranger? Saw two major religions co-existing without friction? Or walked at 5,000m with mountains towering around you? Nepal is all this and more, a unique and fragile country, perched precariously between two Asian giants, and containing every form of ecosystem from tropical forest to icy mountain wilderness.
History, Geography, Economics and Politics
Where is it?
Find India on a globe. Head upwards until you see China. Sandwiched between the two are Bhutan, in the east, and Nepal, in the west. A thin rectangle of land, with a large chunk of its territory firmly in the Himalayas and suspiciously white on a geographical map. The green bit near India is the Terai, and this is where most of the food is grown.
Who Lives There?
25 million people, for the most part Hindus but with a significant population of Buddhists, particularly in the mountainous areas. An important population group is composed of people of Tibetan origin, both 'Bhotias', people who came over from Tibet up to 800 years ago, and more recent refugees fleeing the Cultural Revolution. The Tibetan refugees have largely integrated themselves and have done rather well economically, especially in the carpet industry. There are also 100,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepalese origin living in camps.
Who Runs the Place?
It used to be the King. Nepal had a monarchical/feudal system of some sort for nearly all its history, up to 2008 when the widespread dissatisfaction with the monarchy, and the inability to resolve the situation with the Maoists finally ended up in a republic.
Things had been difficult even before for the royal family. In 2001, the Crown Prince came down to breakfast with an automatic weapon. Nobody batted an eyelid, as he was apparently in the habit of carrying one to shoot birds. However, he then used it on his parents and sundry other members of his family, and then subsequently turned it on himself. This apparently was his reaction to the arranged marriage that had been found for him against his wishes. You can read more about what happened on the BBC News site. The previous King was the old King's brother, not present at the time of the massacre. His son wasn't very popular either, having been allegedly involved in a number of car accidents.
The other power in the land is the Communist Party of Nepal, more commonly known as the Maoists. When the Maoists first began their armed insurrection in 1996, many Nepalese (especially those with little money) welcomed the revolt against the established lack of democracy, rigid caste system etc. The long revolt had ended in disillusionment with both sides and 'ringing of bells for peace' an hour-long countrywide event aimed at reaching the ears of those involved in the conflict. The suffering of the ordinary Nepalese was considerable. 8,000 people were killed; both the Maoists and the state police and army committed human rights abuses; people 'disappeared'; and small businessmen were systematically targeted for extortion. Most tourists never saw any of this, although trekking groups occasionally met with a demand for 'taxation' by Maoists or bandits posing as Maoists1. Bizarrely, for some tourists, the Maoists were part of the attraction of visiting Nepal – according to this article. The Maoists were in charge for a bit, but are no longer – the main challenge now is integrating the former Maoist guerrillas – they all want to join the army!
What Brings in the Rupees?
Not enough is the short answer. With an average annual wage of 240 Euro, Nepal is poor, with a difficult economic outlook. For one it has terrible infrastructure – no access to the sea, virtually no railways and only a handful of decent roads2. Even these few roads require extensive investment to maintain in the mountainous environment and in the face of the monsoon. It also has no profitable natural resources to exploit (with the exception perhaps of hydropower if investments were made). Currently energy supply is intermittent at best – blackouts and electricity rationing are widespread. Large sections of the rural population are still involved in subsistence agriculture in difficult conditions, and there is considerable urban unemployment. The only thing that really brings in money is tourism3, and even this is vulnerable to any political instability were things to kick off again. Finally it is sandwiched between the two major regional powers – when it starts trying to cosy up to China, the Indians get sulky. As India provides much of the development aid, this is a problem.
Mountains and Myths
Mount Everest and the Rest
Nepal has eight of the world's fourteen 8,000m peaks wholly or partially within its borders. They are extremely impressive, even when viewed from the comparatively lowly heights of a trekking route. If you want to climb one you will probably have to shell out a large amount of cash and be very determined. News on Everest ascents is often posted on the Everest News website if you can find your way through the advertising.
If climbing to the top seems like a lot of hard work, admire the view from the top at your ease with the Everest Panorama site. Awesome.
May or may not exist. See Bigfoot, Nessie and the like. What is certain is that if you get a good photo, it will pay for your trip.
Gurkhas and Sherpas
The story goes that the Gurkha regiments of the British Army were created after the invading British soldiers were impressed by the ferocious resistance being put up against them. Although perhaps now a less fundamental part of the army than they once were, there are still two battalions. The Sultan of Brunei also has a contingent serving in his guard. The Gurkhas are not all from Gorkha, but are often Gurung, an ethnic group from eastern Nepal. All Gurkhas as well as most Nepalese military personnel carry a kukri, a curved dagger. The Ghurka History website explains the history of the Gurkhas in the British Army. It also debunks the myth that every time the kukri is drawn, blood must be shed. It states that the knife is often used for cutting wood or clearing a path, which shouldn't involve too much bloodshed.
The term Sherpa originally refers to someone from the Sherpa ethnic group, mainly found near Everest in the Khumbu area. As these people were the original mountain guides and porters in Nepal, the term has come to mean any mountain guide4. You can be a Sherpa without being a sherpa, or indeed vice versa. Possibly the most famous sherpa, sherpa Tenzing5, was also an ethnic Sherpa, though. Clear now?
Football and volleyball are popular sports, with cricket also having quite a following in the flatter parts of Nepal. Nepal is one of the only places in the world where you can watch Elephant Polo. Pitch invasions are not common. There are also a number of more peaceful leisure pursuits that are indigenous to Nepal. One involves sliding discs on a square table, each player having a go in turn. Another is a board game the rules of which this researcher was unable to work out.
The most important thing to note is that Nepal is a very friendly place. If you have hassles or a problem, with a bit of patience and perseverance someone will normally help you to sort things out.
The first thing that most visitors will see of Nepal is the airport, shortly followed by a hair raising taxi journey to Thamel6. Thamel is the district of Kathmandu where 90% of tourists stay – a noisy, chaotic, happening kind of place where you can get trekking equipment, Internet access for 20 Rupees (25 Euro cents) an hour, a meal for 150 Rupees (2 Euro) and many other things besides. If you can find a hotel room in this area that is reasonably quiet at night, staying in Thamel is a good idea and will save you lots of time on logistics and trying to make progress through the crowded streets of Kathmandu.
The other area that even the shortest visit to Kathmandu should include is Durbar Square, the historical centre of the capital. It contains the old royal palace, many interesting temples and several wandering sadhus (Hindu holy men). Some of these are married, which is technically cheating – they are dressed in all the right gear though. If you take a photo of them you should expect to pay for it. 10 Rupees would be plenty. You have to pay to get into the centre as well now, 250 Rupees per person at the time of writing. If you don't want to stay in Thamel you could stay on 'Freak Street', the former abode of hippies in the 1960s and 70s, which is not far from Durbar Square. It's a shadow of its former self now, but still worth a look.
Transport options in Kathmandu include walking (often the best and the quickest), hiring bicycles (good fun if you're up for it), hiring motorbikes (not advised – nerves of steel required), taxis (negotiate a fee before getting in), rickshaws (slow and dear but good fun), and various other forms of transport including the crowded tuk-tuks or tempos (not great).
One of the things you may notice in Kathmandu is that the residents like to hawk and spit at maximum volume. This is possibly down to the pollution or the smoky houses. Either way you might as well get used to it as it will often be the first thing you hear in the morning throughout your stay.
Kathmandu has its own website.
The Rest of the Kathmandu Valley
You could spend a week or more of your visit just seeing cities and temples in the vicinity of the capital. Some of the highlights include:
Patan – The neighbouring city to Kathmandu, just across the river. Its museum is the best in Nepal, and if you see this early on in your trip it will help make the rest of the temples you see a lot clearer.
Bhaktapur – The jewel of Nepal. Superb and very peaceful (traffic bans in the city centre). If it wasn't for the wallet-emptying entrance tax of 750 Rupees, it would almost be worth basing oneself here rather than Kathmandu. Plan to spend a full day here, just roaming the streets, admiring the architecture and seeing how things used to be.
Swayambhunath – Sometimes called the monkey temple. An easy walk from Kathmandu, with a good view from the top (once you've made it up the steps) and an interesting collection of stupas and temples.
Bodnath (Bouddha) – One of the main Buddhist religious sites in Nepal, an enormous stupa surrounded by shops. Go in the evening when the Tibetans go and the tourists have gone elsewhere.
Pashupatinath – An elaborate Hindu temple complex in green surroundings. Even more monkeys than the monkey temple. Cremations take place at the ghats at one end of the complex, by the river. Please behave appropriately, especially with regards to photos.
The Flat Bit
The bit of Nepal without any mountains is called the Terai. It plays an important role in the national economy, notably in terms of rice production. For some time a large part of this area was absorbed into the Raj, but this was given back in gratitude for Nepali help in quelling the Sepoy mutiny. Most visitors to this area will either be passing through from northern India, or planning a trip to the Chitwan National Park. Here you can ride elephants, spot tigers and generally do the safari thing.
Nepal is one of the best places in the world to go walking. Awesome scenery, extensive path and lodge network, many fascinating villages. Even if your exercise regime is limited to a Sunday morning stroll, it is possible to find an appropriate trek.
A mini guide to choosing your trek follows:
If you are short of money – The cheapest way to trek in Nepal is to carry your own equipment and stay in lodges. Doing this, you could keep your daily expenses down to 10 Euro a day, or maybe even less if you don't drink any beer7. In order to walk independently you need to be on a well-maintained path with plenty of facilities. The tour of the Annapurnas or the Everest Base Camp trek both fit these criteria. You will need to be fit though – carrying your own pack over the Thorung La at 5,400m is no picnic.
If you want to get away from the crowds – The Dolpo and the Mustang areas are very peaceful, because you have to pay a whacking entry fee8. The Naar Phu valley near the Annapurnas is currently quiet, but you need to go in an organised group. The tour of Manaslu is quiet and beautiful but apparently quite strenuous.
If you have to go in the monsoon season or the winter – The Mustang area is screened by the Annapurnas from the worst of the monsoon. Alternatively Ladakh or Zanskar in India would be good options. In the winter, the Kathmandu valley is beautiful, not too cold and peaceful.
If you are worried about the altitude – Pokhara to Jomsom is a superb low level walk (no higher than 2,700m). The villages, the vivid green of the paddy fields... The Langtang trek is not too high and quite peaceful. Alternatively the Annapurna sanctuary trek culminates at 4,100m, while still bringing you into the heart of the high mountains.
The type of trek you are doing will determine a lot what you should do and take. Nevertheless, it is always worth bearing in mind the following.
Travel light – If you have to carry too much, you'll feel bad. If you're using porters and they have to carry too much, you'll feel bad for exploiting them and your bag will arrive at the camp hours after you and when you wanted that extra jumper.
Take plenty of warm clothing, though – The evenings are cold from about 3,500m and really cold at 4,500m. Even in the dry season it could snow heavily.
You need to gain altitude slowly and drink plenty of tea or other fluids – Fitness is no substitute for acclimatisation. If you feel unwell, stop ascending. If you still feel unwell, go down for a bit. For more information read this article on altitude sickness.
Avoid trekking alone or in the dark – If you slip off the path, it could be days before anyone notices you are missing and starts looking for you.
Beware of traffic – Always pass buffalo, mules, donkeys and especially yaks on the hill side of the path. The yak will not fall over the precipice – but it might give you a nudge.
As for whether you choose to walk independently, with a sherpa or porter, or in a larger group with a full support team, it depends a lot on what you want and how confident/fit you are. If you go with an organised group you will be well looked after, and can go to places that independent travellers cannot. On the other hand, you may not meet anyone outside your group, and you can't just decide to have a day off when you want. Trekking with a guide will give you the chance to get to know Nepali life and customs and will certainly smooth out the edges of your trip. Trekking on your own is the cheapest, although paying a sherpa will only work out at a few Euro a day and can save you money in some situations.
Pick your sherpa carefully. The level of English is important and varies considerably. Try and get some references or pick a reputable company. One Researcher had this to say about his experience with a sherpa on an expedition:
I had a bad experience with one guide. Maybe he was scared, or maybe he hadn't reckoned with me getting even to the base of the mountain, but he announced on the eve of the serious climbing that he wasn't insured. I had to persuade him to get up really early and help me carry my ropes and gear up to where another expedition was camped. I then had to pay that group's guide. I summitted with them OK. But I had to do two days' ascent in one day.
Environment and Ethics
It May Look Green From The Air
... but Nepal suffers from a variety of environmental problems. These include the atrocious air pollution in and around Kathmandu, pollution of the streams and especially the rivers, deforestation that is causing soil erosion and landslides, and finally waste. This last one you can help with. Twenty years ago, there was virtually no waste in rural Nepal that could not be reused or left to biodegrade. Coffee tins become prayer wheels, glass bottles are refilled and so on. Since then, restaurants and lodges have discovered that tourists like to drink mineral water. In plastic bottles. Unfortunately, the waste disposal infrastructure required to deal with these bottles and other plastic items has not followed. Instead of being part of the problem, buy your water at an approved clean water drinking station, or treat it with a water purifying tablet. Or drink beer.
Is Nepal A Good Spot To Trek Naked?
No. Traditional Nepalese culture is conservative. Showing emotion is not the done thing, and showing flesh even less so. Men can get away with longish shorts, women in shorts will shock. Some lady trekkers recommend a long flowing skirt on the grounds this facilitates urinating on parts of the trail without cover, others complain that your feet get caught in it and stick to trousers.
While we're on the ethical stuff, it would be good if you could avoid giving sweets to children. They won't thank you when their teeth fall out. The mantra of this researcher is 'no dentist, no sweets'. Balloons, pens and similar is trickier. On one hand, a Nepali child can get hours of amusement out of a single balloon. On the other, it encourages begging and if you haven't got enough for everyone, it can lead to fights as soon as you've left the village.
Another ethical dilemma that you may be confronted with is the treatment of porters. In Nepal, porters are often made to carry ridiculous loads (80kg+) for derisory money. You may indeed see old skin and bone chaps staggering past you with about six biscuit boxes full of beer suspended from their forehead. Porters are low caste, don't have a union, and generally get a lousy deal. Still, when you trek with porters, try and play a positive role: check they have the appropriate clothing, somewhere to sleep at night if you are camping, and are not overloaded in relation to the terrain and altitude. If you are using porters on a very low budget trek they will probably be exploited but you can still seek to make the best of it. Employing porters remains a good thing – they would rather be carrying your bags than sat at home with an empty stomach.
Daal Bhat and Other Food
The traditional and standard food in Nepal is daal bhat, which consists of rice, lentil soup/sauce, a portion of vegetables (often spinach) and then one or all of a combination of some potatoes, some spicy pickle or possibly a poppadom. Nepalese people can and will eat daal bhat twice a day for weeks on end. One of the advantages of daal bhat is that you can nearly always have a second helping and sometimes a third helping if you can eat this sort of quantities.
Two other local options coming from Tibet are momos and Tibetan bread. Momos can be either steamed or fried – they are doughy pastry with vegetables or sometimes meat inside them. They generally come in portions of ten, accompanied by a hot sauce. Tibetan bread is quite sweet and fried, normally round and flat in shape.
As you would expect, Chinese and especially Indian food is widely available and very good. In Thamel you can get more or less any form of food you want - the quantity and quality is often excellent. Take the opportunity to put some weight on because you will be losing it when you trek! The trekking lodges often also offer a very extensive menu but at lunchtime you would be better sticking to daal bhat or pasta if you want to walk again in the afternoon as service of more exotic options can be super-slow.
Money and Other Basics
Currently there are about 82 Nepalese rupees to the Euro. Euro are accepted fine in Kathmandu, but dollars are better if you want to change money in any rural banks. Traveller's cheques should be in dollars as well. You can and probably should haggle/negotiate for carpets, taxis, rickshaws, hotel rooms in cities, tourist guides, anything from a street vendor, tourist tat, photos of sadhus or snake charmers and so on. You can't get money off published prices in restaurants, book shops, or mini-supermarkets. If you haggle with a lama9 over the price of a blessing, you will come back in the next life as a cockroach, if you haggle with a police officer you deserve what you get, and please don't haggle over the two Euro cost of the room in a trekking lodge. Remember what you paid for your airline ticket.
You might want to note that marijuana has been theoretically illegal in Nepal since 1979, despite the hippy tradition, the constant offers in the streets of Thamel10 and the fact that it grows wild in the valleys. Crime is generally very low, but as always try not to leave valuables around or flash lots of cash.
Medical facilities in Kathmandu are reasonable, but the further you get into the mountains, the worse it gets. The district medical officer in Chame has to cover a geographical region that extends to two or three days horse ride in either direction, for example. The state doctors will generally have at least some access to medicine but often very little in the way of diagnostic equipment. Fortunately they are properly trained and have very good access to supplies of common sense.
The official language of Nepal is Nepali, although there are many local languages such as Newari, Gurung and so on. These match the complex ethnic patchwork of Nepal. In addition, Tibetan and Hindi are reasonably common. The written form of Nepali looks like runes from The Lord of the Rings and is unguessable. Fortunately, any Nepali that has any involvement with the tourist industry (apart from porters) and/or has had some form of education, will speak at least rudimentary English. Often the standard is rather good. Other European languages are much less common, although some guides make themselves a good living by learning the language and then specialising in French or German clients.