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About Nepal

About Nepal

Nepal packs more into its 147,181 square km than most countries 20 times its size. Crowned by eight of the world’s 10 highest mountains, Nepal’s landscape compresses lush tropics and the arctic tundra into an amazingly small span. Altitude ranges from near sea level to 8,848 meters above it the summit of Mt. Everest, the highest piece of the planet.

This wild altitudinal variation fosters an incredible variety of ecosystems: steamy jungles and terraced valleys, forested hills, frozen peaks, and high-altitude deserts. Tropical flowers frame views of not-so-distant snow peaks; tigers and rhinos roam lush jungles while less than 181 Km north, snow leopards prowl barren mountain slopes. Whatever you might say about Nepal is bound to be true somewhere.

Natural diversity is only the beginning. Nepal’s rugged terrain has preserved a kaleidoscope of linguistic, ethnic, and cultural traditions rivaled by a few nations. Dozens of different ethnic groups live among its hills, each with its own language, costumes, customs, and beliefs. The Kathmandu Valley, a fertile green bowl set in the midst of Himalayan foothills, is an oasis of magnificent art, and the home of the ancient and sophisticated Newar culture.

Once isolated by suspicious rulers, Nepal only opened its borders to the outside world in 1951. At the time barely 200 Westerners had ever visited the country. Few had ventured far beyond the Kathmandu Valley. Today, over 1,200,000 tourists come to Nepal each year to explore the spectacular landscape, rich culture, and harmony of a traditional way of life. In terms of statistics, Nepal is one of the developing countries in the world, but it’s rich in humor, warmth, and natural beauty. Visitors are drawn here by the spectacular landscape, but they leave remembering the friendliness of the people.

Topographical map of Nepal

Nepal Topography

Dramatic, extreme, verging on the outrageous, mountains shape Nepal’s reality, molding its culture, history, economy, and politics. For 80% of the country, vertical is the main orientation, and up-and-down is the determining fact of life. The rugged topography is both a blessing and a curse. The spectacular landscape is world-famous, and the isolation enforced by mountains has preserved age-old cultures and traditions. But for a nation attempting to modernize, those breathtaking ranges are nothing but trouble.
Nepal is less than 900 km long from east to west and only 150-200 km wide north to south. You could drive the length of the country in a day, if only there were a decent level road. As it is, the East-West Highway traversing the flat southern portion of the country takes several agonizingly bumpy days, and it takes several months to cross central Nepal end to end on foot, a tough journey few would care to make. The mountainous terrain makes the country far larger than its actual size in terms of transportation and development. It’s said if Nepal’s landscape could somehow be detached from the rugged terrain and stretched out flat, it would approximately equal the area of the United States.

Borders

The eastern section of Nepal’s long northern border with Tibet runs along the crest of the Himalayas Mountains. West of Kathmandu the border is delineated by the Tibetan Marginal Range, a slightly lower series of mountains rising up about 30 km north of the Himalayan crest. This range also defines the region’s watershed, between Tibet’s great Tsangpo River to the north and India’s sacred Ganges to the south. In the small high valleys between the Himalayas and the Marginal Range, tiny pockets of Tibetan culture have been preserved from the Chinese influence that has devastated Tibet itself.

Nepal’s remaining borders are shared with India: the protectorate of Sikkim in the east, the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to the south and west. Sandwiched between China and India, Nepal is in a ticklish spot, geopolitically speaking. Consider the fact that India is 22 times larger in area than Nepal and China is over three times as big as India. Then think about the population differences! An 18th-century Nepali ruler succinctly described his kingdom’s location: “like a yam between two rocks.”
The northern barrier of the Himalayas mutes Chinese and Tibetan influence on Nepal, but the open southern border has always been a gateway to India. The latter plays an important role in modern Nepali politics, economics, and culture, though sovereign Nepal remains sensitive about India’s unofficial if indisputable, influence.

The Three Regions

Nepal can be roughly divided into three geographic regions, each with its own distinctive environment, peoples, economy, customs, and culture. Different landscapes have shaped different lifestyles. Flying over Nepal, you get a bird’s-eye view of the dramatic extremes: the level lush fields and jungles of the Terai rise into the crumpled, corrugated landscape of the Hills, patchworked with fields and forests and ribboned by streams. These, in turn, rise up and up, and up, into the highest of all mountains, the Himalaya, floating on the northern horizon like a dream.

The Terai Region

This narrow strip of land running along the southern border averages only 20 km in width and constitutes less than one-fifth of Nepal’s total area. Yet the flat, fertile Terai contains virtually the only reasonable farmland in Nepal and supports nearly half of the population. Seventy percent of the country’s arable land is in the Terai, and over 60% of its grain is grown here.

Paddy harvesting in the Terai region

The hot lowland Terai is a geographic extension of northern India’s Gangetic Plain, and Indian influences shape its culture. Traditional Terai dwellers (Madeshi) are either indigenous tribal people or Hindus speaking Sanskrit-based dialects. The open border with India allows people, influences, and goods to move across freely. Despite its enormous wealth and potential, the Terai is looked down upon by the “true” Hill Nepalis who set the standards for mainstream culture; Terai dwellers in turn tend to feel snubbed.
Through the 1950s, much of the Terai was uninhabited jungle. Even a single night spent in the area could prove fatal during the fever season, April-Oct., when malaria-carrying mosquitoes appeared. Except for a few indigenous tribes with natural immunity, malaria kept out everyone Nepalis, Indians, and foreigners alike. It was the perfect natural defense for Nepal’s vulnerable southern flank. A British historian noted: “Sundown in the Terai has brought an end to more attempted raids into Nepal and has buried more political hopes than will ever be known.” Beginning in the mid-50s intensive DDT spraying sponsored by WHO and the U.S. Agency for International Development opened the region for settlement. Hundreds of thousands of Nepali farmers poured down from the hills to settle on the new land, joined by landless Indians from the neighboring state of Bihar. Today the Terai is Nepal’s major agricultural and industrial region, with the majority of the country’s roads, industry, and urban centers.

The Hilly Region

Nepal’s heartland is the Hills, a rugged region of deep valleys and terraced ridges covering about half its total area. The name is somewhat misleading. Nepal’s “Hills” would rank as mountains anywhere else, and they would almost certainly be uninhabited. Few people would care to climb down 1,000 vertical meters to fetch water and then haul it back up even once, but for many Nepalis, it’s part of daily life.

About 45% of the population lives in this up-and-down region, farming terraced fields patiently carved out of hillsides by generations of farmers. Only by walking can you appreciate the true immensity of this land. Trails ascend 2,500 vertical meters, plunge down to a river valley, and rise again, crossing what seems to be an endless ocean of land frozen into huge breakers. This rugged region is the cradle of Nepali identity and nationalism. While a bare majority of the population now lives in the flat Terai, the Hills are still considered the homeland of genuine Nepali culture.

The Mountain Region

The Himalaya welds the Indian subcontinent to Asia, extending over 3,800 km in a great arc from the Hindu Kush range of Afghanistan to eastern Tibet. Twice the height of the Alps, it’s the undisputed king of mountain ranges, claiming the world’s 86 highest peaks before another range manages to interject a contender. The cream of the central Himalaya, nearly one-third of the range’s total length, falls in Nepal.

Kanchenjunga Conservation Area in eastern Nepal

Here rise eight of the world’s 10 highest mountains, nine of its 14 8,000-meter-plus peaks, two dozen 7,000-meter-plus giants, and several hundred peaks over 6,000 meters—nobody has ever bothered to count them all. The Nepal Himalaya is not an unbroken line of peaks, but an assortment of smaller chains or himal divided by river tributaries or lower ridges. Individual ranges branch off into a maze of spurs and ridges, many of them nameless even today despite the interest of Western cartographers. Less than eight percent of Nepal’s population lives in this rugged region, in permanent settlements that at up to 4,000 meters are among the highest in the world (temporary summer herding settlements are found even higher). The mountain region’s culture and religion are closely linked to Tibet’s, and the traditional economy was, and sometimes still is, based on trans-border trade with its northern neighbor.

Nepal Handbook by Kerry Moran

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