Draped along the greatest heights of the Himalaya, Nepal is where the ice-cold of the mountains meets the steamy heat of the Indian plains. It’s a land of yaks and yetis, Stupas and Sherpas and some of the best trekking on earth. The Himalaya’s most sophisticated urban cultures took shape here, in the three great mini kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur – home to a world-class artistic and architectural heritage.
Behind the Vishnu shrine of Ichangu Narayan, northwest of Swayambhunath in the Kathmandu Valley, rises the ‘Abode of Snows’ (Himalaya in Sanskrit), a magnet for trekkers and mountaineers the world over. Only in Nepal can you trek for weeks without the need even for a tent. No longer does your name have to be Tenzing or Hillary to set foot in Everest Base Camp. Out of the mountains, get your adrenaline kick from world-class white-water rafting, kayaking and mountain biking, or from the spine-tingling sight of your first tiger or rhino in Chitwan National Park.
Nepal is not just a bungee-jumping, apple-pie eating Shangri-la. It’s also one of the poorest countries on earth. However, many visitors, drawn to Nepal by the promise of adventure, leave equally enchanted by the friendliness and openness of the Nepali people. One journey through this land is rarely enough. The first thing many people do after a visit is start planning the next one.
The history of Nepal began in, and centers on, the Kathmandu Valley. Over the centuries Nepal’s boundaries have extended to include huge tracts of neighboring India, and contracted to little more than the Kathmandu Valley and a handful of nearby city-states. Though it has ancient roots, the modern state of Nepal emerged only in the 18th century.
Squeezed between the Tibetan plateau and the plains of the subcontinent – the modern-day giants of China and India – Nepal has long prospered from its location as a resting place for traders, travelers and pilgrims. A cultural mixing pot, it has bridged cultures and absorbed elements of its neighbors, yet retained a unique character. After travelling through India for a while, many travelers notice both the similarities and differences. ‘Same, same’, they say, ‘…but different’.
Nepal’s recorded history kicks off with the Hindu Kiratis. Arriving from the east around the 7th or 8th century BC, these Mongoloid people are the first known rulers of the Kathmandu Valley. King Yalambar (the first of their 29 kings) is mentioned in the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic, but little more is known about them.
In the 6th century BC, Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born into the Shakya royal family of Kapilavastu, near Lumbini, later embarking on a path of meditation and thought that led him to enlightenment as the Buddha. The religion that grew up around him continues to shape the face of Asia.
Around the 2nd century BC, the great Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka (c 272-236 BC) visited Lumbini and erected a pillar at the birthplace of the Buddha. Popular legend recounts how he then visited the Kathmandu Valley and erected four stupas (pagodas) around Patan, but there is no evidence that he actually made it there in person. In either event, his Mauryan empire (321-184 BC) played a major role in popularizing Buddhism in the region, a role continued by the north Indian Buddhist Kushan empire (1st to 3rd centuries AD).
Over the centuries Buddhism gradually lost ground to a resurgent Hinduism and by the time the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Fa Xian (Fa Hsien) and Xuan Zang (Hsuan Tsang) passed through the region in the 5th and 7th centuries the site of Lumbini was already in ruins.
Buddhism faded and Hinduism reasserted itself with the arrival from northern India of the Licchavis. In AD 300 they overthrew the Kiratis, who resettled in the east and are the ancestors of today’s Rai and Limbu people.
Between the 4th and 8th centuries, the Licchavis ushered in a golden age of cultural brilliance. The chaityas (stupas) and monuments of this era can still be seen at the Changu Narayan Temple, north of Bhaktapur, and in the backstreets of Kathmandu’s old town. Their strategic position allowed them to prosper from trade between India and China. It’s believed that the original stupas at Chabahil, Bodhnath and Swayambhunath date from the Licchavi era.
Amsuvarman, the first Thakuri king, came to power in 602, succeeding his Licchavi father-in-law. He consolidated his power to the north and south by marrying his sister to an Indian prince and his daughter Bhrikuti to the great Tibetan king Songsten Gompo. Together with the Gompo’s Chinese wife Wencheng, Bhrikuti managed to convert the king to Buddhism around 640, changing the face of both Tibet and, later, Nepal.
From the late 7th century until the 13th century Nepal slipped into its ‘dark ages’, of which little is known. Tibet invaded in 705 and Kashmir invaded in 782. The Kathmandu Valley’s strategic location, however, ensured the kingdom’s growth and survival. King Gunakamadeva is credited with founding Kantipur, today’s Kathmandu, around the 10th century. During the 9th century a new lunar calendar was introduced, one that is still used by Newars to this day.
When to go??
Nepal has a typical monsoonal, two-season year. The dry season runs from October to May and there’s the wet (monsoon) season from June to September. Autumn (September to November) and spring (March to May) bring almost perfect weather and are definitely the best times to come to Nepal.
October to November, the start of the dry season, is in many ways the absolute best time. With the monsoon only recently finished, the countryside is green and lush, the air is sparkling clean and the Himalayan views are near perfect. Furthermore, the weather is still balmy.
There are some important and colourful festivals to enjoy, though the Dasain festival in October can be disruptive if you are on a tight schedule. For obvious reasons this is also the high tourist season but in recent years, due to the political problems, even Nepal’s ‘high season’ has been pretty quiet.
In December and January the climate and visibility are still good, though it can get very cold at high altitudes. Heading for the Everest Base Camp at this time of year can be a real feat of endurance and the Annapurna Circuit is often closed by snow on the Thorung La.
Down in Kathmandu, the cheaper hotels – where there is no heating – are chilly in the mornings and evenings. October to February are considered the best times to visit the Terai and Royal Chitwan National Park.
February to April, the tail end of the dry season, is the second-best time to visit. The weather gets warmer so high-altitude treks are not as arduous. Visibility is not as good as earlier in the dry season, but Nepal’s wonderful rhododendrons and other flowers are in Technicolor bloom.
May and early June are not the best times to visit as it is extremely hot and dusty, with temperatures often above 30°C, and the coming monsoon seems to hang over you like a threat.
Mid-June to September, when the monsoon finally arrives, is the least popular time to visit Nepal. Although it doesn’t rain all day it usually rains every day, and the trails and roads are muddy and plagued by leeches; the Himalaya disappear behind rain clouds; most rivers are too high to raft; and landslides often hold up transport. The latter part of the monsoon (August and September) is a time of festivals, which will certainly enliven a visit to Kathmandu, and this is also the best time to visit neighbouring Tibet.
Because of its lower altitude, Pokhara is warmer and more pleasant than Kathmandu during winter, but hotter before the monsoon and wetter during it.
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Other aspects of traveling to Nepal
Being a developing country, Nepal also has its downsides. Because we want to advise our volunteers in a complete and honest way, we have listed some things to consider if you want to come to Nepal. Especially those who have never traveled outside Europe, it can be a overwhelming experience to walk around in Kathmandu.
Please read the section below, but don’t be down right away. Nepal is beautiful and everyone who has ever come here has had an amazing experience. Just be aware of the fact Nepal is not like home!
In big cities like Kathmandu, there is a lot of traffic, waist on the streets, air pollution and homeless people. When you arrive fresh out of Europe you will be blown away. Sanitation is very basic, homeless people do their needs out in the open, there are rats, mice and cockroaches (like in every big city around the globe) Power is not always working, water shortages and fuel shortages are possible. On the countryside it is less polluted, but also power, water and sanitation are sometimes very primitive.
Many travelers get ill during the first week due to the pollution, food and climate. (never drink tap water, brush your teeth with bottled water as well!) After a couple of days, you body will get used to its surroundings and some people never even get ill at all. Bring some basic medication, and just eat food like biscuits, bananas and tea when you do get ill.
It can be hard to face the poverty in real life, many people will beg for money, food or other stuff. Children, crippled and others on the streets. All shopkeepers, taxi drivers an other business people will see you as a walking ATM. Always bargain when buying something, but keep polite! Pay attention to your personal belongings. A common trick is for a child to put a baby in your arms, and then ask for milk, food (will be sold back to the shop owner once you are gone) or money. Don’t do it! It will enable them to buy dope, glue and cigarettes!
Women are generally safe in Nepal, but be careful. Western women are seen as ‘easy’ and will get a lot of unwanted male attention, just play it cool and you will be alright. Avoid dark late-night alleys and always group up when you go somewhere unknown. Tell people where you are going, especially when you go out on your own.
There are many dogs, cows and other animals. Goats are being slaughtered in public and dogs hit by cars. Life is hard here, so also for animals. Don’t touch, stroke or go up to any animals since they can carry diseases as Rabies and (dogs) can be very aggressive.
If you are capable of dealing with all this: You’reWelcome!
Don’t forget Nepal has a lot of beauty as well, if you get used to all the difficult circumstances and just have patience and respect, you will love it!
Nepal does not officially require any immunizations for entry into the country, but the further off the beaten track you go, the more necessary it is to take precautions. Travelers who have come from an area infected with yellow fever are required to be vaccinated before entering the country. Record all vaccinations on an International Health Certificate, available from a doctor or government health department.
Plan ahead and schedule your vaccinations as some require more than one injection, while others should not be given together. Note that some vaccinations should not be given during pregnancy or to people with allergies.
It is recommended that you seek medical advice at least six weeks before travelling. Be aware that there is a greater risk of all kinds of disease for children and during pregnancy.
Discuss your requirements with your doctor, but vaccinations you should consider for this trip include the following:
Diphtheria & tetanus Vaccinations for these two diseases are usually combined and are recommended for everyone. After an initial course of three injections (usually given in childhood), boosters are necessary every 10 years.
Hepatitis A The vaccine for Hepatitis A (eg Avaxim, Havrix 1440 or VAQTA) provides long-term immunity (possibly lifelong) after an initial injection and a booster at six to 12 months.
Hepatitis B Vaccination involves three injections, the quickest course being over three weeks with a booster at 12 months.
Influenza ‘Flu’ is considered by many to be the most common vaccine-preventable illness in travellers. This vaccine is annual and based on the hemisphere of residence and travel destination.
Japanese B Encephalitis (JBE) JBE is a mosquito-borne viral encephalitis. At the time of writing there was a recent outbreak in the border areas of India. The risk of JBE is greatest in the Terai and during and after the monsoon. Like the rabies course, JBE vaccine is given as three injections over three to four weeks and boosted usually at three years. This vaccine is recommended for persons visiting high-risk areas and for prolonged stays.
Meningococcal Meningitis A single-dose vaccine boosted every three to five years is recommended for individuals at high risk and for extended stays.
Polio This serious, easily transmitted disease is still found in some developing countries, including Nepal. Everyone should keep up to date with this vaccination, which is normally given in childhood. A booster every 10 years maintains immunity.
Rabies should be strongly considered for long-term or frequent travellers to countries with rabies, especially if you are engaged in activities such as running, trekking, cycling, caving, handling animals or travelling to remote areas, and for children (who may not report a bite). Pretravel rabies vaccination involves having three injections over 21 to 28 days. The vaccine obviates the need for rabies immunoglobulin, which may not be available in many areas (and is extremely expensive) and will also shorten the vaccine course: if someone who has been vaccinated is bitten or scratched by an animal they will require two vaccine booster injections, while those not vaccinated will require more. The booster for rabies vaccination is usually given after three years.
Tuberculosis The risk of tuberculosis (TB) to travellers is usually very low, unless you will be living with or closely associated with local people in high-risk areas. As most healthy adults do not develop symptoms, a skin test before and after travel to determine whether exposure has occurred may be considered. A vaccination (BCG) may be recommended for children and young adults living in these areas for three months or more.
Typhoid This vaccination is available either as an injection or oral capsules. A combined hepatitis A-typhoid vaccine was launched recently but its availability is still limited – check with your doctor to find out its status in your country.
Self-diagnosis and treatment can be risky, so you should always seek medical help. Although we do give drug dosages in this section, they are for emergency use only. Correct diagnosis is vital.
In Nepal the top-end hotels can usually recommend a good place to go for advice. In most places in Nepal standards of medical attention are so low that for some ailments the best advice is to go straight to Kathmandu.
Antibiotics should ideally be administered only under medical supervision. Take only the recommended dose at the prescribed intervals and use the whole course, even if the illness seems to be cured earlier. Stop immediately if there are any serious reactions and don’t use the antibiotic at all if you are unsure that you have the correct one. Some people are allergic to commonly prescribed antibiotics such as penicillin; carry this information (eg on a bracelet) when travelling.
Register with your embassy in Kathmandu.
Seek out local advice on safe/unsafe areas.
Keep an eye on the local press to find out about impending strikes, demonstrations and curfews.
Don’t travel during bandhs (strikes) or blockades. Get very nervous if you notice that you are the only car on the streets of Kathmandu!
Be flexible with your travel arrangements in case your transport is affected by a bandh or security situation.
Keep photocopies of your passport, visa, flight ticket and travelers cheques separate from the originals.