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NEPAL

Nepal reigns in the collective consciousness as the land of extremes: Home to eight of the world’s tallest ten mountains—including the mighty Mount Everest—Nepal is a literal zenith on most travelers’ lists. This predominantly Hindu country has a small but thriving Buddhist population, and boasts impressive domed temples, colorful festivals, and even a living goddess.

Yet Nepal also suffers from extreme poverty. It is the poorest country in south Asia and the 12th poorest in the world. In 2008, the Nepali Civil War came to a close and a new republic was created, ending the rule of the world’s last Hindu monarchy and ushering in a new era for this small mountainous nation. From fluttering prayer flags to the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas, steadfast Sherpas to mountaintop monasteries, perspective-altering Nepal takes you on journeys both physical and spiritual.

Most Popular Films

Films featuring Nepal from international, independent filmmakers

Katmandu Before the Quake

Discover life among the temples of Kathmandu—many of which were destroyed in a 2015 earthquake.

Produced by Jonah M. Kessel ©2015 The New York Times

A Moment at the Top of the World

Experience life in a remote Nepali village, where high altitude often makes small tasks a challenge.

Produced by Maude Plante-Husaruk

Kids on a Wire

See how Nepali children literally go to great heights to receive a daily education.

Produced by Keshab Penday

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Immerse yourself in Nepal with this selection of articles, recipes, and more

ARTICLE

Discover some of the most incredible species of big cats, birds, and reptiles lurking in Nepal’s jungles.

ARTICLE

Travel on a journey through Nepal’s bustling streets and Himalayan valley, past colorful homes and sacred temples.

ARTICLE

Get an in-depth look at Nepal’s history—from the origins of Buddhism to the development of the country’s democracy.

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Small Group Adventure

Nepal & the Mystical Himalayas

85% Traveler Excellence Rating
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Days in Nepal
14

5 NIGHTS FROM $1,395

POST-TRIP EXTENSION

Kathmandu, Nepal

DAYS IN NEPAL
4

Visit the holiest temple in Nepal, the Boudhanath Stupa
Discover the ancient city of Kirtipur
Sip tea and explore the markets in Kathmandu

5 NIGHTS FROM $1,495

POST-TRIP EXTENSION

Nepal: Kathmandu & Annapurna Mountain Trek

DAYS IN NEPAL
4

Visit the holiest temple in Nepal, the Boudhanath Stupa
Trek to Dharampani village
Sip tea and explore the markets in Kathmandu

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Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

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Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

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Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.

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Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.

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Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.

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Beyond the Blue Horizon

The wildlife of Nepal

by Pamela Schweppe, for O.A.T.

About 29% of the country, however, is not alpine but subtropical, and is carpeted with large swaths of jungle.

When we think of Nepal, images of Mount Everest and the high Himalayas are usually the first to spring to mind—a terrain that’s generally no more hospitable to birds and animals than it is to human beings.

About 29% of the country, however, is not alpine but subtropical, and is carpeted with large swaths of jungle. It’s here where the rich wildlife of Nepal comes into its own. Take the Indian rhinoceros, for example. This lumbering fellow, who can weigh in at 6,000 pounds and whose hide is so thick it’s practically bulletproof, is also known as the one-horned rhinoceros—and it’s that horn (believed by some to be an aphrodisiac) that has led to the animal’s near extinction. Down to a total population of only about 100 a few decades ago, this species now numbers about 400, and vigorous efforts to combat poaching continue.

Rare beauties

In Nepal, the Indian rhino is most likely to be found in Chitwan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is also home to roughly 50 species of animals, 450 species of birds, 45 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 65 species of butterflies. During O.A.T.’s Nepal & the Mystical Himalayas adventure, you may take your viewing platform atop one of the park’s most famous residents: an elephant. And if you’re lucky, perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of the endangered Bengal tiger. More than 80% of the estimated 5,000 that remain are believed to live in Nepal, with approximately 125 adults living in the Chitwan National Park as of 2010—a slow but heartening increase from the estimated 40 adults which populated the park in the 1980s.

Creatures of the forest

Among the other mammals found here is the gaur, a wild ox whose large size and curved horns immediately betray its close relationship to the bison, water buffalo, and yak. Deer are also abundant in Nepalese jungles, including the prehistoric-looking muntjacs—affectionately known as “barking deer” (because of its call)—and musk deer, whose musk glands are the source of the popular fragrance. You’re also likely to see monkeys—perhaps the pink-faced rhesus monkey, considered sacred to Buddhists and Hindus—as well as sloth bear and antelope.

Birds of a feather

Nepal is also a birder’s paradise, hosting more species within its borders than the entire North American continent! The country’s national bird is the Daphne, an exotic pheasant with brilliant plumage—which it’s not shy to show off when it stretches out its wings to dance. Kingfishers, flycatchers, and woodpeckers also thrive here, and as you float along the Seti River, you might spot black and white storks, egrets, and heron.

The wildlife of Nepal

Nepal: A Celebration of Light and Color

Mikko Cook, from Dispatches

The air is thick with diesel fumes, alluring spices, soot, dust, and the occasional whiff of something nebulously pungent. Any thoughts, cares, or concerns that I may have had regarding this journey across the globe are shoved to the back of my being as car horns, the melodic caterwauling of Nepali music, and police whistles jab their way in. It is the morning of our first day in Nepal and tomorrow is Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. A celebration lasting five days, Diwali triumphs good over evil, light over dark—it is the biggest celebration of the year, and I'm invited to the party.

A bazaar in celebration
Movement in this city, whether it is the constant parade of people on the streets or the transports that cough their way around town, is a study in controlled chaos. As far as I can tell there are no street signs or traffic lights, and yet everyone makes their way to their destination. It reminds me of standing on a bridge as a child and tossing sticks and leaves into the torrent of a bursting springtime creek below. Unseen currents carry the objects here and there, with some getting caught in invisible whirlpools in the center, but eventually everything makes its way downstream.

We start at the bazaar in the center of Kathmandu in order to get an unabridged view of what a city enmeshed in festival fervor looks like. In addition to the standard flood of shopkeepers, schoolchildren, cows, dogs, monkeys (monkeys?!?), and chickens making their way along the streets, workers are returning home, and everyone must stop to pick up festival supplies. Colors bleed out of the stalls and doorways. Rickshaws, scooters, and mopeds ding, beep, and honk as they whiz past close enough for me to feel a breeze on my skin. If Kathmandu is a stream of consciousness, I’m riding its mind.

Our guide Sahadev (“Dave”) gathers us like the flock of chickens we are and directs us into a curved archway sandwiched between a mountain of copper pots and a curtain of shimmering saris. We emerge through the darkened portal blinking with wonder at a spectacular hand-carved Buddhist pagoda-style temple looming above us (the Temple of Karunamaya at Jana Baha), a handful of worshippers circling the sanctuary, and a stone-laid ground awash in the constant ebbing tide of a sea of pigeons.

Having lived in both Boston and New York City, I’ve strolled down many alleyways and through my fair share of random doorways, but this hidden celestial outpost was a shock to my urban wherewithal. How can Buddha just pop up any old place? Just feet from a man prostrate before a statue of the Buddha is another hawking plastic necklaces. But isn’t that the lesson? Doesn’t The Divine exist everywhere, and shouldn’t we be looking in all the old familiar places?

Energy of the square
From the bazaar we move on to Durbar Square and Hanuman City, the location of the old royal palace and two large temples in tribute to Hindu deities, Durga and Hanuman. As we stop every few feet to discuss architecture, art, or the reality-TV-like history of the last royal family in power (disgruntled children, illicit love affairs, murderous family members… watch for it to hit cable soon), I notice men, well-dressed in the traditional clothing of Nepal—long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and a vest (daura suruwal) and a stitched hat (dhaka topi)—on their knees in the square, digging out the cracked and crumbling mortar between the tiles. Their hands resemble crows’ feet curled around tiny sticks, working
diligently, reverently restoring what was deteriorating. I try to remember when I last saw anyone using such crude tools to complete such an enormous task by hand, or dressed so formally for such a grueling chore. I cannot.

Suddenly, my attention is seized. A woman, stationary in the center of the square, gazes at her recent purchase: a Nepali singing bowl, an instrument designed to produce vibrations meant to soothe and heal the human spirit. With the plastic shopping bag tucked under her arm, she cradles the bowl in one hand, the striking mallet in the other. Tapping the bowl over and over again, a look of wonder comes over her face and she becomes absorbed in the vibration. Despite the fact that she is standing in a public square, surrounded by throngs of people, this seems to be the most natural and expected thing to do. I stand as close to her as I can get without invading her privacy. I close my eyes and soak up the moment … the sound, the light, the energy of the square … like a sponge.

The gift of Patan City
As we enter Patan Durbar Square (each of the three royal squares in Kathmandu is named “Durbar” meaning “royal palace”) in the late afternoon, we flow into the currents of the end-of-workday life. The square is teeming with uniformed schoolchildren making their way home but taking time to show off for each other, while shoppers trundle with packages and Nepali men perch amongst the temples to take notes on the scene.

I pause for a moment to sit and watch the swirl of activity around me, and soon, I realize that I’m having one of those out-of-body experiences where everything feels surreal. I am surrounded by some of the most sacred sites in the world—the Krishna Mandir, reported to be the most important temple of the square, built in 1637 by King Siddhinarasimh Malla, who had seen gods Krishna and Radha and built the temple on the site of his vision; the Bhimsen Temple, built for Shiva in 1680 to honor, the Newar god of business and trade; the Vishwanath (built in 1627 and recognizable by its elephant carvings; and the Taleju Bhawani, the king’s personal deity’s house. Meanwhile, outside their doors are uniformed girls in platform heels and young boys in Simpsons t-shirts. It's all quite the juxtaposition, and I want to sit in reflection at each of these sacred sites. I long to kneel at the foot of just one deity, and feel my breath flow in and out as I have been trained to do in meditation classes, but all I can do is rest quietly and pray that on some level, I’m taking this all in. I just sit and breathe. In that moment, I realize the true nature of meditation—Nepal has just given me one of the greatest gifts of my life.

The jewels in the mountains
We leave the buzz of the largest city in Nepal and take to the Annapurna Range in the Himalayas. First we stop in Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city, which resembles the high-school-aged brother of grown-up Kathmandu, as the buildings don’t climb as high, and the congestion is far less mechanical—yaks, bicycles, and tractors are much more prevalent modes of transportation here. We set our sights on one of the largest mountains in the world, rising 22,943 feet in the distance: Machhapuchhare or “Fish Tail,” one of 30 peaks in the Annapurna Range. Its soaring beauty set against the surrounding brightly-colored fruit stalls and clothing vendors brings to mind Aspen, meets Carnival.

After a pit-stop to repack our bags for a trek into the Himalayas, we are off to lunch in the hills, when suddenly, Dave jumps up and shouts, “Pull over!” to our driver. It is the second day of Diwali, and a group of young schoolchildren are performing a dance on the side of the road. Hesitant to disrupt the festivities, we disembark our bus and join the crowd gathered to view the show. Spread upon the bare ground is a green outdoor rug, upon which four pairs of tiny feet bounce back and forth to a Diwali celebration song. The four- and five-year old couples are wearing traditional Nepali outfits—boys in a version of the daura suruwal, and girls in red and gold patterned skirts and scarves, layers of marigold necklaces, big gold earrings, and eyes outlined black with kohl. Mothers and teachers beaming with pride look on, trying to make eye contact with their babies. But the miniature dancers are fastidiously working out their hand motions, too focused and passionate about their task to be distracted.

Thinking of my own elementary-school-aged daughters, I immediately connected with the mothers in the audience and the children dancing before them. In another town, on another sunny day, these were my children and Diwali was my celebration.

Colorful joy
My ears pop as we ascend narrow streets, leaving behind the town of Pokhara and the valley floor. The milky blue of the Seti Gandaki River winds like a ribbon through the valley, with lush rice fields laid out in a patchwork quilt on either side. Speckled across the vastness of the green vegetation and the blue of the sky are eye-popping candy colors of passersby in their saris and homes awash in the colors of the Caribbean—and this, this is what I love about Nepal. The majority of their houses have no plumbing, walls are made from concrete, or in some situations, dung and mud, and if there is electricity, it is for the one modern cooking convenience: a crock pot. But the houses are painted in colors that make you smile ... textiles are hung like flags for a celebration ... and vehicles are covered with hand-painted symbols of happiness, deities, and flowers. This is a society that doesn't wait for joy to find it—it brings joy to the world.

The Kathmandu Valley: An Ancient Crossroads

Andrea Calabretta, from Dispatches

The word Nepal is said to mean “at the foot of the mountains”—an apt description that derives from the Sanskrit nipalaya. Other theories suggest it comes from an ancient sage called Ne who was the protector (pala) of the land, or perhaps from the Tibetan niyampal, meaning “holy land.” It may also refer to the Nep people, cow herders who first came to Nepal from the Ganges plain. Whatever the case, even the naming stories of this mystical land among the Himalayas reflect its bonds with cultures from the north and south.

Nepal’s position between India and China and the trade, travel, and pilgrimage routes that crisscross its hills and valleys have shaped the course of its history. Though mixing with nearby cultures has brought many foreign habits and flavors to Nepal, its geographic isolation and fierce independence have allowed it to retain a distinct character all its own.

Its history centers on the Kathmandu valley, home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Though settlement in this valley stretches back to ancient times, the nation of Nepal as we know it today was not actually established until the late 18th century. Over thousands of years, monarchs ascended to the throne and were deposed (sometimes in rapid succession), and the borders of the kingdom expanded and contracted. The pendulum swung between Hinduism and Buddhism—two faiths that grew from a shared cultural and religious background and were sometimes practiced simultaneously.

Though the valley may have been inhabited long before, recorded history of Nepal begins around the seventh or eighth century BC, when the Kirati (or Kiranti) people of Mongolia crossed the Tibetan plateau into Himalayan territory. The Hindu epic the Mahabharata mentions the Kirati king Yalambar, but the history of this dynasty of 29 kings is based largely on speculation. That speculation characterizes much of Nepal’s history until the modern era. However, it is worth wading through the inconsistencies in dates and details to grasp the ebbs and flows that shaped the present nation, where approximately 27.5 million people belong to more than 100 different ethnicities speaking more than 90 different languages.

Birthplace of Buddhism
Around the fifth or sixth century BC, one of the most important events in the whole of Asian history occurred in Nepal: Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who would become Lord Buddha, founder of Buddhism, was born in Lumbini in what is today southern Nepal. Early Buddhism centered on the Ganges valley in northern India and spread gradually to other parts of Asia. The Indian emperor Ashoka, a famous convert from Hinduism to Buddhism, is said to have visited Lumbini in the second century BC and erected a pillar at the birthplace of the Buddha. He is also believed to have erected four stupas around Patan, still visible today, when he traveled to the Kathmandu valley. Ashoka’s empire was responsible for helping to popularize early Buddhism in the region.

Around AD 300, first the Licchavi and then the Gupta dynasty from northern India migrated to Nepal, overthrowing the Kiratis and bringing with them Hinduism, which flourished side by side with Buddhism. While the Guptas were the first to bring the caste system to Nepal, the Licchavis are credited with bringing art and architecture to the valley and inaugurating a golden age funded by the riches that flowed from trade routes between India and China. The Licchavis established Nepal’s long-standing tradition of religious tolerance between Hindus and Buddhists and endowed temples of both faiths. One of their legacies may be the original stupas that stand at Patan’s Boudhanath, the holiest Buddhist temple in Nepal. Licchavi buildings and monuments can also be discovered in the back streets of old Kathmandu.

In 600 AD, the Thakuris replaced the ruling Licchavis. Some say that the founder of the dynasty, King Amsuvarman, cleverly married his daughter Bhrikuti to a Tibetan king in order to protect his northern borders from attacks and married his sister to an Indian prince to protect the southern borders. Bhrikuti may have introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Her father may have been the first to situate his splendid palace in what is today Kathmandu city.

Darkness, destruction, and division
The subsequent period, between the seventh and eleventh centuries, is considered a dark age, and little is known about its history. The Khasa empire—whose people spoke an early version of the language known today as Nepali—then seized control of the Himalayas from Kashmir to Pokhara. They ruled the region until the Mallas (“wrestlers” in Sanskrit) came to power in the 12th century after being forced out of India.

The early period of Malla reign was characterized by a flourishing of wealth and prosperity in the increasingly important Kathmandu valley. Another golden age, the era brought dazzling new temples and palaces, religious festivals, and an explosion of arts, music, and writing. Malla kings claimed to be reincarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, and they started the cult of Kumari, the incarnation of a goddess as a living girl who blessed their rule. The Mallas, though Hindu, were tolerant of Buddhism among the populace. However, they were rigid in their enforcement of the caste system, which was codified into law.

A series of calamities marked the Malla reign, including an earthquake that killed a third of the population and an invasion by Muslims from the northwest who destroyed the shrines of both Hindu and Buddhist deities. Within a century, the dynasty dissolved, and the kingdom split into numerous small city-states.

Another Malla king would not regain power for a hundred years—until Jayasthiti Malla assumed the throne and succeeded in unifying the Kathmandu valley by conquering the city-states of Patan and Bhaktapur in the late 14th century. The kingdom’s borders expanded considerably during this era, and the caste system offered the social stability the dynasty preferred. However, following the death of Jayasthiti Malla’s heir Yaksha Malla, the kingdom was again divided, this time among Yaksha Malla’s three sons. The kingdoms of Bhaktapur, Kathmandu, and Patan, situated close together in the Kathmandu valley, battled for control of trade routes and competed to design the most extravagant Durbar Square. The rest of the territory was again split into several states.

“A yam between two stones”
Meanwhile, a vigorous trade of Chinese silk, musk, and other luxury goods financed an arts and culture revival and a building boom in the mid-17th century. The Hanuman Dhoka Palace was built in Kathmandu and later the Kumari and Nyatapola temples in Bhaktapur. During this time, Capuchin friars who stopped in the valley on the road to Tibet recorded much of the history, and their writings first introduced the Western world to the allure of Kathmandu.

In the 18th century, Prithivi Narayan Shah, ruler of the Gorkha kingdom to the west, ushered in the longstanding Shah dynasty. He rose to power with the aim of unifying the various kingdoms of the Kathmandu valley to resist colonialism. Expelling European missionaries, he succeeded in isolating Nepal against the threat of the British Raj in India. He took control of the strategic fort of Nuwakot in 1744, ruthlessly fighting off the British East India Company, which had been called in to reinforce the Malla monarch. More than 20 years later, in 1768, he conquered Kathmandu during the Indra Jatra festival, when the populace was in the midst of celebrations. He succeeded in taking the whole of the Kathmandu valley by 1769, and the modern country of Nepal was born. Prithivi Narayan Shah moved his capital to Kathmandu and is revered today as the founder of the nation.

Characterizing his position as a “yam between two stones” (China and British-controlled India), the Shah king closed Nepal to foreigners completely—a condition that would remain for 150 years. Meanwhile, Nepal expanded its borders to the east and west. The kingdom continued to grow until a 1792 war between China and Nepal broke out over Tibet, and Nepal was defeated. Soon after, war with Great Britain erupted over control of the southern parts of Nepal and the Ganges plains. Nepal was again defeated and turned over large swathes of its territory to the British. It was during this fighting that the British army became so impressed by the fearlessness of Gurkha soldiers that they decided to recruit them into their own ranks, a practice that continues today. In 1816, a treaty with Britain established the modern-day boundaries of Nepal. The country was never colonized—a point of pride for Nepalis today.

The road to democracy
The Shahs continued in power until the mid-19th century, their rule punctuated by in-fighting, scandals, and sometimes sadistic treatment of the populace. In 1846, however, a violent coup known as the Kot Massacre brought the Rana family to power. Jung Bahadur Rana, a young general, assassinated scores of political leaders and members of court while they were gathered together in Kot courtyard next to Durbar Square. He appointed himself prime minister and made the Shah royal family mere figureheads. A de-facto autocrat, he imposed Hindu-caste culture throughout the country. Development halted, and outsiders were only rarely allowed into Nepal.

A major sea change came about when India gained independence from the British in 1947, and two years later the Communists came to power in China. China soon invaded Tibet. These events stirred the pot in neighboring Nepal, and in 1950, the Ranas were deposed, and the Shah king returned to power.

The populace was no longer tolerant of autocratic rule, however, and an era of struggle for democracy began. In 1989, leftist parties rose up as Communist states crumbled in Europe and pro-democracy protestors occupied China’s Tiananmen Square. They created a people’s movement that ultimately forced the king to relinquish many of his powers. Unfortunately, a new parliamentary democracy was beset by corruption, making true democracy difficult and causing increasing consternation among the people. A Communist government was formed and quickly dissolved.

In 1996, an insurgency brought the Communist Party of Nepal and its Maoist soldiers in conflict with the elected government and the constitutional monarchy. In the midst of this ten-year insurgency, the country was dealt a shocking blow on June 1, 2001, when Crown Prince Dipendra assassinated nearly every member of the royal family, including the reigning king and queen. The king’s brother, one of the only survivors, was installed on the throne.

Finally, after much upheaval, a comprehensive peace agreement was signed between the prime minister and the chairman of the Maoist party in 2006, and a Constituent Assembly was elected in 2008. After thousands of years of monarchy in Nepal, the assembly abolished the throne and made the country a Federal Democratic Republic with a president and prime minister at the head of its government.

That system of government remains today—as do long-standing traditions of religious tolerance between Hindus and Buddhists and openness to outsiders. Nepal may have closed its borders to foreigners for a century and a half, but for thousands of years, people from a host of regions and ethnic backgrounds have migrated here, quickly assimilating among an already diverse populace dwelling at the foot of the Himalayas.

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