For many travelers, Nepal is paradise on earth, or at the very least Shangri-La. Wedged between the mountain wall of the Himalaya and the steamy jungles of the Indian plains, this is a land of yaks and yetis, monasteries and mantras, snow peaks and Sherpas, temples and tigers, magic and mystery. Ever since Nepal first opened its borders to outsiders in the 1950s, this tiny mountain nation has had an almost mystical allure for travelers. Explorers and Mountaineers came to conquer the highest peaks, trekkers came to test themselves against some of the most challenging trails on earth and hippies came to wander in a stoned daze through the temple-filled towns at the end of the overland trail.
You’ll still see a few of the original ‘freaks’ meandering through the backstreets of Kathmandu, but they have been joined by legions of trekkers, clad in the latest technical gear and drawn by the rugged trails that climb to such famous destinations as Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna sanctuary. Other travelers are drawn here by the rush of rafting down a roaring Nepali river or bungee jumping into a bottomless Himalayan gorge. Adventure addicts can get their adrenaline flowing by canyoning, climbing, kayaking, paragliding, and mountain-biking through some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes.
Other travelers prefer to see Nepal at a more gentle pace, gazing towards the peaks from Himalayan viewpoints, strolling through the temple-lined medieval city square of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur and joining Buddhist pilgrims on a parkramaa (ceremonial circuit) around the giant stupas scattered across the Kathmandu valley. In Nepal’s wild and wonderful national parks, nature buffs scan the treetops for exotic bird species and comb the jungles for rhinos and tigers from the backs of lumbering Indian elephants.
But big changes are afoot in Nepal. For one thing, Nepal is no longer a kingdom. A decade of Maoist uprising and civil war came to an end with the election of the communist party of Nepal and the declaration of the Federal Republic of Nepal on 28 May 2008. Since then the last Nepali king, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, has vacated the royal palace in Kathmandu and moved to a modest house in Nagarjun and the word ‘Royal’ has been snipped from the signboards for Royal Nepal Airlines and Royal Chitwan National Park. After years of conflict, peace has returned to the mountains and an air of optimism pervades the nation.