Until the early 1950s, Nepal was known as the Forbidden Kingdom. No foreigners were allowed to enter and there were no roads linking its capital Kathmandu to the outside popular destinations for walkers and climbers. With the Himalaya making up its northern border, Nepal offers some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world. What many people don’t realise is that the south of the country contains dense jungle that is one of the last true habitats for the Bengal tiger, the Asian elephant and rhino.
When to go:
Kathmandu can be visited year-round. This beautiful city is subject to the same weather patterns as the mountains, but to a less extreme extent. The Terai, or lowland jungle to the south of the country, is hot year-round, but particularly wet and humid during the monsoon.
The monsoon runs from May-September, bringing with it heavy rain and thunderstorms. While the rain is not constant, tending to fall in sudden downpours, visibility of the mountains is severely restricted. There are some high-altitude valleys in the Himalaya, such as Mustang, which are in the rain shadow of the Himalaya and are therefore open and dry during the monsoon.
Traditionally October - November and March - April are the optimum months for visiting Nepal's mountains. Both of these times have their advantages. In October - November, immediately after the rains, the visibility is excellent, offering superb, crisp views. While March-April, the spring, is an excellent time for those who like flora, especially impressive are the rhododendron forests resplendent in reds, pinks or white depending on the altitude. Visibility in the spring is also good, but cloud tends to build as the day goes on. December and January are also clear, but being the winter and at altitude it gets very cold, especially at night.
What to do:
Kathmandu is one of those places that immediately conjures images of the exotic. In this instance it’s a true reflection of the destination. Hindu temples, shrines and images are found on most streets, daubed with colourful paints and with garlands of marigolds. Buddhist stupas and statues are adorned with thousands of colourful prayer flags, surrounded by banks of prayer wheels and the smell of incense. The old town squares of the three cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur are packed with pagodas and palaces, one of which is still home to the Living Goddess. It’s a bustling city, with traffic jams caused by sacred cows sitting in the roads, but it still feels like a place that has its own unique character.
When you think of Nepal most people think of mountains. It contains eight of the world’s ten tallest peaks, including the highest, Mt. Everest. The scenery is stunning, the high peaks a backdrop to the valleys and foothills that make up Nepal’s most popular attraction; trekking. You can camp, stay in small lodges (or teahouses as they are known locally) or more upmarket hotels. The most popular area for trekking is Annapurna. Most people start from the town of Pokhara, on the banks of a beautiful lake of that name, and choose their route according to their fitness level, the amount of time they have and the season. The two classic treks in this area are the Annapurna Circuit and the Annapurna Sanctuary. The first does a circuit of the Annapurna Himal, a beautiful section of the Himalaya that offers a great variety of scenery and cultures. For the first half of the trek you are in Buddhist areas, influenced by the Tibetan culture that exists just a few miles to the north across the border. After crossing the Thorong-la pass you arrive at Muktinath, a sacred site for Hindus and thereafter you walk through villages that follow this creed.
The second of the famous Annapurna treks is the Sanctuary, so called because it follows a small valley up into the heart of the Himal, arriving in a large hanging valley surrounded by all the high peaks. It’s a sanctuary as, according to tradition no women were allowed to enter for fear of upsetting the Hindu Goddess Annapurna. This trek is shorter and as there is only one route in and out of the Sanctuary, follows the same rail both ways.
Many people who visit the Annapurna region do not have the time or interest to do these long treks and there are plenty of easier and shorter routes to follow. The landscapes are beautiful, great mountainsides of terraced fields tumbling down to fast-flowing rivers channelling the melting snows out of the mountains. You can climb Poon Hill, a famous vantage point with great views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Massifs. The trails, built as the local network for getting around (there are no roads in many places) are well maintained with plenty of places for the local porters, and you, to sit and enjoy the views.
The other popular area to trek is in the Khumbu and everyone who goes there does so for one reason - to see Mt. Everest. Most people fly into the small air strip at Lukla, an adventure in itself. This is the homeland of the famous Sherpa people, renowned for their climbing prowess and compared to the lush green of the Annapurna’s it is a harsher landscape. You get to visit the Sherpa capital at Namche Bazaar, as well as the famous Thangboche Monastery. The goal of the trek is either Everest Base camp or a small vantage point called Kala Pattar which offers great views of Everest, Lhotse and the Nuptwe Wall. There are other places in Khumbu to trek to, such as the Gokyo Lakes, and all offer great high altitude landscapes and a real feel of being in the very heart of the mountains. There are many areas you can choose from, many of the less famous offering unspoilt landscapes and little touched villages. Whether you are after a few day-walks from a luxury lodge or a fully supported trek to the heart of the mountains, we can tailor the perfect holiday.
The Terai is the area to the south of Nepal that is covered by thick jungle. It is watered by the huge rivers that drain the snow waters from the mountains, sluggish and brown with rich silts. Fresh water dolphins and crocodiles live in there while hundreds of species of colourful birds swarm along their banks. The jungle is home to tigers, leopards, elephants and rhino, as well as a whole host of antelopes and smaller mammals. You can explore by vehicle, boat, foot or even on elephant back. There are several places you can visit, the most famous being the Royal Chitwan Tiger reserve. Ere you can opt for many styles of accommodation, from luxury camps to lovely lodges, one of them, Tiger Tops situated in the heart of the park and once the hunting lodge of the King. Further east, the National Park at Kanali offers great swathes of wilderness to explore.
Nepal is a small Kingdom that has managed to keep its soul as it has modernised. When it opened in the 1950s there were no roads to Kathmandu from the outside world - the 50 or so cars that drove its streets had been dismantled in India, carried through the hills by porters and reassembled in Kathmandu. Now it is a bustling metropolis, with a terrible rush hour and crammed to bursting with people. But head off down a side street or cobbled alley and you will soon come across a small Hindu shrine, often with small offerings of rice laid before it. Women sit on the street cleaning rice, while old men sit on steps watching the world go by.
Rob, our MD worked as a mountain guide in the Himalaya and is now the author of the Footprint Travel Guide to Nepal. He says, "I still remember my first glance of the Himalayas close up. We’d climbed a ridge, in the shade of a thick rhododendron forest. At its top we stopped and I glanced up at the jagged skyline cutting across the sky before me. It was breath-taking. Then my guide laughed and pointed into the sky. Above it all was the snow-topped peaks of the true Himalaya, floating in the morning air like what I’d taken them for, a band of high cloud.”
Although Nepal is now part of the greater world, it feels somehow detached and unique, a place like no other. The mountains hang over the country like a protective wall, giving it its essence. Whether you are in the foothills or the high mountains people are friendly and courteous, the air is crisp and clean and you feel that you can see forever.
Combine the rich history with the cultures and religions, the scenic splendour with the wildlife, and you have a destination that few are disappointed with.