Lying along the highest mountain range on the planet, Nepal is a country defined by the Himalayas, containing 8 of the world’s 10 highest peaks, and 90 peaks above 7,000 metres in elevation. Yet despite these gaudy heights, some portions of the nation are tropical, with lowest point being a mere 100 metres above sea level, baking in the heat of the monsoon season every summer while the northerly regions are comparatively chill.
A veritable geological staircase, Nepal effectively rises in stages, from the tropical south, where the land is low, hot, and dominated by people with Indian lineage, to the foothills and the valleys, where the heart of the Nepali nation lies in between the modestly high foothills of the Himalayas, and then finally, to the lekhs and Himalayan range to the north, where people descended from the Tibetans dwell, and climbers from every corner of the world comes with something to prove to others … or themselves.
Despite Nepal’s southerly location in the world, winter hits hard here, especially at higher elevations, where heavy snow and extreme cold make treks like the Everest Base Camp journey a near impossibility. Those looking for an ideal time of year to come to Nepal for these purposes should come in the Fall or Spring, when precipitation is reasonable, and visibility is excellent.
Apart from those seeking nature, Nepal also has cultural and gastronomic highlights to offer those uninterested in nature, or otherwise prone to altitude sickness. This is the nation where Buddha himself was born, and the many hole in the wall restaurants of Kathmandu will reveal a cuisine distinct from their Indian cousins to the South. Even if your trip here will only involve looking at mountains as opposed to climbing them, you will still find that there is much to do here.
Currency: Nepalese Rupee
What To Do
Since many likely begin their Nepal adventure by flying into Kathmandu, we will start by recommending that you visit its most famous stupa, the Swayambhu. Considered to be one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the country, the location of this monument also offers excellent views of the entire area … just be careful of the monkeys, as the playful buggers will snatch your food/drinks from your unaware hands if you aren’t paying attention!
Those seeking to see the holiest site in the country, if not in the entirety of the world for Buddhism should head to the town of Lumbini, which is reputed to be the birthplace of the one and only Buddha. This town features a pillar right on the spot where Buddha was born, along with multiple stupas and temples, along with a museum dedicated to the study of all religions.
With two of the biggest cultural highlights out of way, it’s time to head for the hills and get out amongst some of the highest terrain on Earth. There are many treks available for the avid hiker, but for the purposes of this brief guide, we will discuss the two most popular routes in the Himalayas. Many eagerly seek out vistas of the highest peak on Earth, making the Everest Base Camp trek one of the most trodden hiking routes in the world.
However, not everybody is cut out for such high elevation trekking, especially considering fitness levels among the general population these days. If you experience the symptoms of altitude sickness (dizziness, headache, shortness of breath, fatigue, etc) STOP at the level where you are at and attempt to acclimatize. If the symptoms don’t resolve themselves within a few days, seek medical attention, and a lower trekking route. For those who can handle the thin air, insanely awesome views await, as well as incredible people, both in terms of the locals and the pro climbers looking to conquer the mightiest pinnacle on this place we call home.
A little less inclined than the Everest Base Camp Trek, but no less impressive is the Annapurna Circuit, which circles the Annapurna Mountain Range. This chain of mountains contains some 8,000 metre + high peaks, and the trail is lined with incredible alpine flowers, teahouses that will give you a first-hand taste of Tibetan influenced Nepali cuisine, and enough challenge to cause the average traveler to grow in many ways. While not as severe in elevation gain as the Everest Base Camp trek, altitude sickness still a concern here, as elevations top 5,500 metres (18,000 feet) at its peak height.
Finally, with all the ice and snow at higher elevations year round, and the severe drop down to the lower plains in terms of topography, whitewater rafting is a fun and popular activity in this country. Many companies offer multi day trips on their roster, offering you the opportunity to ride the roller coaster of whitewater down to lower elevations, while you get to know chilled out locals and travelers that will turn out to be great friends during your trip, and possibly afterwards.
What To Eat
Taking their cue from Indian food, and to a lesser extent, Tibetan food, Nepalese cuisine drops hints from the meals of their neighbours, but they have managed to carve out an identity all their own in spite of this. The national dish in Nepal is widely considered to be Daal Bhaat Tarkaari, a rice dish that has daal, a soup made from lentils and spices poured over the grain, and served with various vegetables such as mustard greens, green beans, tomatoes and potatoes, among others. It can be found all over the country, and will be a constant companion to your dinner plate in the more remote sections of the country.
When you need to mix up the food that you are consuming in Nepal, ordering some Momos certainly couldn’t hurt. These Tibetan inspired dumplings are stuffed with goat or chicken in more populated areas, but the closer you get to the mountains, the more likely they will come with the traditional buffalo filling. Be sure to wash down your tasty treats with a bottle of Gorkha, a locally produced brew that many of the locals drink.
Once you get well into the Himalayas, try to hunt down some Rikikul, a potato pancake popular among the Sherpas in the area. If you get them to let you try some, they will pull straight off the pan, slather it in some fresh yak butter, and give it to you hot and greasy. A delight to be sure, making this event (and others like it) a defining moment for those among us who fancy ourselves foodie travelers.