By Victor Block
The setting resembled a stunning picture postcard come to life. Soaring, snow-capped mountains provided a backdrop for green-clad terraces carved out of steep hillsides. In fields below, men and women wearing a rainbow of colorful clothing bent low to pick golden shoots and tie them into huge bundles, which they carried to a rickety wooden wagon pulled by a pair of water buffalo.
Scenes like this make Nepal a destination of unsurpassed natural beauty and fascinating lifestyles. That small country about the size of Tennessee — tucked between India and Tibet — is home to eight of the 10 highest mountains in the world, including fabled Everest and the magnificent Annapurna range.
Nepal also is a nation where religion is as much a part of everyday life as eating and breathing. While about 90 percent of the people are Hindu, and most of the rest Buddhist, over 2000 years the line dividing those faiths has virtually disappeared. Many people worship the gods of both religions and hold sacred the shrines of the other. Spiritual beliefs and religious commitment provide solace for people who are among the poorest in the world, with a per capita annual income below $500.
The natural place to begin a visit is Kathmandu, where about 10 percent of the approximately 29 million Nepalese live. Visitors soon experience the intriguing scenes that abound throughout the country. The singsong cry of street vendors selling vegetables, spices and multicolored fabric is echoed by the occasional mooing of a sacred cow wandering serenely along the streets. Animals vie with cars and motorcycles whose constantly honking horns add to the din.
The oldest neighborhood is a maze of cobblestone back streets lined by tiny shops and small shrines. They are miniscule imitations of elaborately carved ancient temples and pagodas said to be the largest collection of religious architecture in the world.
The biggest concentration of shrines is in Durbar Square, a Magic Kingdom-like jumble of more than 50 structures built over centuries. They’re adorned by statues of humans, animals, gods and goddesses.
Venturing outside Kathmandu introduces visitors to a very different, if no less captivating, world. In remote villages, narrow streets are crowded with people going about their daily chores much as generations of their forebears did. Most eke out a living growing rice, wheat, maize and other staples of the diet.
The scenery offers a constantly changing tableau. In the north, near the border with Tibet, the rugged Himalayan mountains loom overhead, their jagged peaks blanketed year-round by deep snow and ice fields. Further south is the mid-mountain region, where peaks that elsewhere would rate as giants are relegated to second-class status by the towering Himalayas. Southern Nepal comprises the Terai, a subtropical belt of low-lying plains where much of the nation’s grains and vegetables are grown.
The majority of travelers visit Nepal for treks through the countryside and up mountains that last from several days to several weeks. I enjoyed a truncated two-day journey by foot. Even that hike, walking at an altitude of nearly 9,000 feet along stone paths clinging to steep hillsides, was challenge enough.
A very different environment awaits visitors to the Terai area, home to an abundance of wildlife. Elephants, tigers, leopard and rhinoceros are among residents of the region that roam jungle-like stretches. Monkeys chatter in the trees overhead and crocodiles and alligators lie hidden in stream waters.
The best place for close-up animal encounters is Chitwan National Park. As if the opportunity to spot a Noah’s Ark of wildlife in its natural habitat wasn’t enough, the unusual mode of transportation renders animal sightings almost a bonus. Elephants line up like taxicabs, standing patiently as four passengers take their place on a wooden platform strapped to each beast’s broad back. Then, guided by their handler, the massive pachyderms amble into the dense jungle, nimbly stepping over fallen logs and gently traversing muddy bogs.
This is but one memory of a visit to Nepal that I treasure. The magnificence of Mother Nature at her very best and of people who live with dignity even as they toil in fields from dawn to dusk are among others that make me hope to return some day.
If you go …
Given its remote location, challenging terrain and often basic tourism infrastructure outside the larger cities, Nepal is a destination that lends itself to group travel. I traveled with Myths and Mountains, whose founder Antonia Neubauer has been named by Conde Nast Traveler the top Nepal travel specialist in the world. Another plus is that the company focuses its trips on providing deep insight into the culture and customs of countries it visits, including exposure to secluded villages and activities that many visitors miss.
Trips begin at $2,295 for groups as small as two people. For more information, go online at mythsandmountains.com or call 800-670-6984.