Nepal: Destination of the week
Mount Everest puts it on the map, but Nepal has more to offer, including lush lowlands, the birthplace of Buddha and plenty of wildlife.
Thu, Nov 03 2011 at 8:41 AM
TREK TO IT: Namche Bazaar is the main Sherpa town in the Everest region. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Nepal, a tiny landlocked nation between East and South Asia, is known for its impossibly tall mountains. The country's peaks dominate the list of highest summits, with eight of the world's 10 tallest sitting, at least partially, within Nepal's borders. The most famous of these giants, Mount Everest, is a major attraction, though the skills (and money) required to climb it mean that most visitors simply admire it from afar.
Everest and its peers are only part of Nepal's tourism story. The country has a surprisingly diverse collection of landscapes and wildlife given its relatively small size. Treks through the Himalayan foothills and lush lowland valleys are not as difficult and dangerous as climbing to the top of a 29,000-foot mountain, but can still be challenging and rewarding.
Nepal also draws visitors because of its culture and history. The most noticeable example of the country's historic offerings is Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. It is a major pilgrimage site for believers and a popular stop for culturally minded tourists.
Though tourism is a major earner for Nepal and many of the nation's trails are well traveled by visiting trekkers, vacationing here can be a challenge. Independent travelers will find road travel sometimes treacherous and may have to rely on domestic flights to reach certain eco-tourism attractions because rough terrain makes road travel painfully slow, if not impossible. Even the chaotic capital city of Kathmandu does not lend itself to a quick and convenient vacation. However, travelers who thrive on adventure will find the trekking and eco-tourism opportunities in Nepal unparalleled. Those who appreciate unfiltered, non-touristy cultural experiences will fall in love with this small Asian nation.
In Kathmandu, the Thamel neighborhood is home to tourist-centered hotels and guesthouses, with many offering a decidedly "budget" sleeping experience. At the opposite end of the spectrum are places like the Gokarna Forest Resort, a high-end lodge within Kathmandu's city limits that is located on a former royal hunting ground. With its own forest, which includes a golf course and secluded picnic spots, Gokarna is a place to avoid the oft-chaotic urban experiences of Kathmandu while still staying in the city. The resort has eco-friendly policies that include the use nontoxic herbicides. There is also an organic garden that provides food for two of the on-site restaurants. Sustainable bamboo products are used in lieu of plastic whenever possible.
In the Annapurna and Everest regions, teahouse trekking is popular. Teahouse trekking is a way to take an extended walking trip without having to bring a tent. Locally owned guesthouses (known as teahouses) are spaced along the routes so that hikers have a place to stop each night. Companies like Getaway Eco-Treks offer guided treks that utilize this type of accommodation. Not only do these small scale inns offer an eco-friendly place to sleep, but guests also are supporting the local economy because most of the teahouses are family-run.
Kathmandu's Kheti Bazaar is an organic grocer that sells goods from local farmers. The adjacent Bhojan Griha Restaurant serves local cuisine while maintaining environmentally sound practices. The restaurant does not use any plastic and has an in-house waste management system.
Because Buddhism and Hinduism, the two major religions in Nepal, both champion vegetarian diets, non-meat-eaters will find plenty of options in the country. Vegans may find it a bit more difficult since some of the country's cooking styles rely heavily on dairy products. In more remote areas, meat dishes may be the only thing on offer.
Because of its mountains and valleys, Nepal lacks the widespread and useful train network that is found in neighboring India. Buses of all varieties dominate Nepal's public transportation industry. Local buses are dirt cheap and carry people, and sometimes their livestock, on shorter trips. Travel agents and hotels can usually help tourists book express buses from Kathmandu to major trekking and nature viewing destinations. Hotels and tourist companies can also help visitors book a seat on one of the many mini-buses that ply Nepal's roadways. Though not as comfortable as full-sized tourist buses, these vans can prove a faster alternative. Flying is a timesaving way to reach more far-flung destinations. Pokhara and Lukla airports see lots of trekkers who want to spend their time on foot on the trails rather than stuck in buses on the roadway.
Despite Everest and the high altitude adventures that surround it, one of the best eco-tourism sites in Nepal is located in the country's lowlands. Royal Chitwan National Park was the first national park established in Nepal. Opened in the early 1970s, Chitwan was recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1984. The forests and flood plains that now make up Chitwan were used as a hunting ground before the king of Nepal created the national park. Today, guests of Chitwan can explore the area on foot, by jeep or by elephant. Park residents include the one-horned rhinoceros, tigers, leopards, sloths and an array of primates and reptiles. The Parsa Wildlife Reserve, located in the same lowland region of Nepal as Chitwan, has a similar set of residents, with recent sightings of Bengal tigers and guars.
To the west of Chitwan and Parsa is one of the world's great cultural and religious sites, Lumbini, believed to be the birthplace of Buddha. Pilgrims from around the world come to visit the area's temples and sacred gardens. A bodhi tree and a 2,000-year-old pillar erected in honor of Buddha's birth are also in Lumbini.
Langtang National Park stretches from an area near Kathmandu all the way through the Himalayan foothills to the lands near the Nepal-Tibet border. Unlike its lowlands kin, this park has a more alpine flavor, with forested valleys and glaciers. Simple, locally owned lodgings are available throughout the park in many of the dozens of villages. Langtang is one of the more popular venues for teahouse trekking.
Climbing Mount Everest, Nepal's headlining attraction, requires tens of thousands of dollars and a high level of fitness. Most trekkers consider it an achievement to make journey to Namche Bazaar, the main Sherpa town in the Everest region. Some hiking trips venture as far as the Everest base camp. This journey can take a week or two to complete and problems like weather conditions and the possibility of altitude sickness, which can be fatal, do not make hiking in the Himalayan foothills particularly straightforward. Trekking in another high altitude hotspot, the Annapurna region, leads to arguably more scenic vistas. This region sits near Pokhara, one of Nepal's larger cities. Because of this, it is one of the more convenient and accessible places to trek.
Trekking permits are required for all hikers in Nepal. Organized tours or treks led by local guides can be a good way to add speed, safety and convenience to a weeks-long trek. Guides can help with acclimatization, if necessary, and also will be able to get you help quickly should something go wrong. That said, popular routes are well traveled and solo travelers will, more often than not, find themselves joining impromptu groups made up of other solo travelers who are using the same teahouses each night.
Nepal's infrastructure (or lack thereof) and geography mean that it is not the easiest adventure destination to visit. But its superlative mountains, hiking trails that can be followed for weeks (or even months), and a deep sense of culture make Nepal a unique and attractive place for an eco-themed getaway.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
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