Nepal is a small, landlocked country, 800km long and 200km wide. Longitudinally, the terrain changes from glaciers on the Tibetan border to the flat jungles of the Terai, barely 150m above sea level. The country does not ascend gradually from the plains. Rather, it rises in several chains of hills that lie in an east-west direction, finally terminating in the highest hills in the Himalaya, beyond which is the 5000m-high plateau of Tibet. Despite the height of the Himalaya, the peaks do not form a continental divide. Although most rivers flow southward from the glaciers of the Nepal Himalaya to join the Ganges in India, several rivers do flow from Tibet through deep gorges in the main Himalayan range. These rivers have scarred the country with great gorges in both north-south and east-west directions and created a continual series of hills, some of which are incredibly steep.
The primary difference between eastern and western Nepal is that the influence of the monsoon is less in the west. In the east the climate is damp and perfect for tea growing. In the far west the atmosphere is very dry, notwithstanding amid the storm season. Another influence on the east-west division is the large rivers that flow south in deep canyons. These rivers often limit east- west travel as they wash away bridges during the monsoon. For this reason the major trade routes are from south to north, from Indian border towns to hill villages in Nepal and then across high mountain passes to Tibet.
Geographers divide Nepal into four main physiographic regions, or natural zones: the Terai, the Middle Hills, the Himalaya and the trans-Himalaya.
The southernmost region of the country, the Terai is an extension of the Gangetic plains of India. Until 1950 it was a malarial jungle inhabited primarily by rhinoceroses, tigers, leopards, wild boars and deer. Now, with malaria controlled, farming and industrial communities cover the Terai.
The area underpins around 47% of Nepal’s populace and envelops most of the nation’s cultivable land. The Terai incorporates the enormous urban communities of Nepalgunj, Birganj, Janakpur, Bhairawa and Biratnagar, yet the vast majority of the district is dabbed with little towns – groups of 40 or 50 houses in the focal point of a huge range of developed fields.
Just north of the Terai is the first major east-west chain of hills, the Siwalik (or Churia) Hills, and then comes the Mahabharat Range. In some parts of Nepal only farmers live in these hills, but in other parts they are the sites of large and well-developed villages such as Ham, Dhankuta and Surkhet.
A band only 60km wide, the Middle Hills are home to about 45% of the population. This is the home of the ancient ethnic groups of Nepal. The large towns of Kathmandu, Patan, Bhadgaon, Pokhara, Gorkha and Jumla are in the Middle Hills. Kathmandu lies in the biggest valley of the kingdom, and as indicated by legend the valley was previously a tremendous lake. Other than the Kathmandu and Pokhara valleys, the Middle Hills locale is all lofty slopes.Farms blanket the hills in an endless series of terraces planted with wheat, rice and vegetables.
Making up only a small portion of the kingdom, the Himalaya and its foothills run along Nepal’s northern border.
Less than 8% of the population lives in this inhospitable region. Most of the villages sit between 3000m and 4000m, although there are summer settlements as high as 5000m. Due to the short developing season, harvests are few and normally little, comprising for the most part of potatoes, grain and a couple of vegetables. The primary means of support are trading and the herding of sheep, cattle and yaks. The part of this region known as Solu Khumbu is the home of the Sherpas.
In the west, parts of the Himalayan region is on the north side of the main range. This is the trans-Himalaya, a high desert region like the Tibetan Plateau. This area includes the valleys of Mustang, Manang, Dolpa and Limi, as well as the Tibetan marginals (the fourth range of mountains sweeping from central to north-western Nepal, averaging below 6000m in height). The trans-Himalaya is in the rain shadow of the main Himalayan range and receives significantly less precipitation than the southern slopes. Uneroded crags, spires, and formations like crumbling fortresses are typical of this stark landscape.
Imagine the space Nepal occupies as an open expanse of water, once part of the Mediterranean Sea, and the Tibetan Plateau, or ‘roof of the world’, as a beachfront property. This was the ancient setting until 60 million years prior, before the Indo-Aus-tralian plate slammed into the Eurasian landmass. As the previous was pushed under Eurasia, the world’s outside layer clasped and collapsed and mountain-building started.
The upheaval of mountains caused the temporary obstruction of rivers that once flowed unimpeded from Eurasia to the sea. On the southern slopes of the young mountains, however, new rivers formed as trapped, moist winds off the tropical sea rose and precipitated. As the mountains continued to rise and the gradient became steeper, these rivers cut deeply into the terrain. The continual crunching of the two plates, augmented by phases of crustal uplift, created yet newer mountain ranges and once again the rivers’ courses were interrupted. If the forces of erosion eventually prevailed, long east-west valleys were formed. If not, lakes resulted.
The colossal outcome was the formation of four major mountain systems running north-west to south-east and incised by the north-south gorges of new rivers, plus the original rivers with watersheds in Tibet that
are older than the mountains themselves. In conjunction with the innumerable rogue ridges that jut out from the main ranges, the terrain can be likened to a complex maze of ceiling less rooms. The mountain-building process continues today, not only displacing material laterally, but sending the ranges yet higher and resulting in natural erosion, landslides, silt-laden rivers, rock faults and earthquakes.
Winter (December to February) it is chilly at night and can be foggy in the early morning, but afternoons are usually clear and pleasant, although there is occasional snow in the mountains. Because Nepal is quite southerly (the same latitude as Miami and Cairo), the weather at lower elevations is generally warm and the winter is quite mild, including Kathmandu at 1400m. It rarely snows below 2000m. Above 4000m the weather is always chilly, but the permanent snow line is much higher, at about 5500m.Nepal has four unmistakable seasons. Spring (March to May) is warm and dusty with rain showers. Summer (June to August) is to a great extent ruled by the storm, when the slopes turn rich and green. Fall (September to November) is cool with clear skies, and is the most well known trekking season. The rich, vibrant greens of the rice plant during the monsoon are highlighted by the subtle, diffused sunlight filtering through summer clouds.
The monsoon in the Bay of Bengal governs the weather pattern, creating a rainy season from mid-June to mid-September. During the monsoon it is hot and rains almost every day, but it is a considerate rain, limiting itself mostly to the night. During this season, clouds usually hide the mountains, the trails are muddy and infested with leeches and few people trek.
The Terai is considered the rice bowl of Nepal, although rice is usually grown up to 2000m, or even higher in the west. If possible, wheat is planted in the cleared rice fields and harvested in spring. Fields of yellow-flowering mustard are planted for making cooking oil. Com is planted in spring, especially on the hillsides, while millet is grown above the rice zone.Grain is sown in the higher elevations, and also buckwheat with its pink-and-white bloom bunches. The Sherpas develop potatoes up to 4000m, and have been doing as such since the product was presented, most likely from Darjeeling amidst the nineteenth century. Besides providing an important food staple, potatoes and the prosperity attained from trading expeditions allowed Sherpas to begin building their gompas (temples) and enabled their culture to flourish.
Among the crops, on the berms dividing the plots, various other food crops are grown, including soya beans, lentils, sesame and chili peppers. The bright red-and-yellow plants with clustered seed heads seen amidst the shades of greens are Amaranthus, once an important food and medicinal grain for the Aztecs and Incas.
To keep animals out of crops, Nepali farmers use assorted spiny or unpalatable exotics as natural barriers. Besides prickly pear cactus and agave, there are several euphoria used, such as the red-flowering crown of thorns, spurge and physic nut.
There are numerous trees planted around villages and fields, all for some kind of purpose, be it shade, fruit, fodder or medicine. Bananas, mangoes, papaya, citrus fruits, peaches and apples have all brought new income to the remote hill areas.
Fodder such as rice stalks and com sheaves are often dried and stored in trees, while seed com is stored under the eaves of houses. A variety of fig trees provide shade for pilgrims and travellers. The magnificent mushrooming canopies of banyan and pipal trees are unmistakable, and are usually found together atop a stone chautaara (platform) designed for accommodating porters’ loads. The banyan has hanging aerial roots and leathery elliptical leaves, while the pipal has a heart-shaped leaf with a long spur. The Buddha is believed to have received enlightenment under a pipal tree, and Hindus revere the banyan tree as an embodiment of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and the pipal as an embodiment of Narayan (Vishnu).
Bamboo grows under a variety of conditions and is found throughout Nepal. Giant bamboo is common in the tropics and dwarf bamboo in the temperates. This grass species is utilized for basketry and, where timberlands are exhausted, especially in the east, to build. The Rai people of eastern Nepal work bamboo into everything from water vessels to entire houses.
Kitchen gardens are common features in villages and comprise greens, beans, turnips, radishes, pumpkins, cucumbers, taro and squash. Bauhinia, with its distinctive camel- hoof leaves and orchid-like flowers, is grown near houses; the leaves are used for fodder and the flowers cooked or pickled. In the west, tobacco is a commonly seen plot in villages, as are fields of cannabis grown for hemp. In addition, stinging nettles are picked with tongs, detoxicated by boiling and eaten as greens. Eupatorium is a red-stemmed daisy with heart-shaped leaves called ban mara (‘death of forest’) in Nepali. A native of Latin America introduced into the Himalaya during the last century, it invades subtropical and temperate regions, and is widespread. Covering deforested hillsides, it is unpalatable, even for sheep and goats, and is a prime indicator of environmental degradation.
Bovines play an important role in rural and urban Nepal. Cows are sacred and are not slaughtered, nor are they used as beasts of burden – they bear calves and provide milk and, of course, multipurpose dung. The beasts of burden on the lowlands are usually castrated bulls, or oxen. In the Kathmandu valley, the cows you will see wandering and sleeping in the streets have been let loose by pious Hindus. Because the bull is Shiva’s steed, and Pashupatinath is a major Shaivite temple, bulls are also considered holy and generally are not used to pull ploughs in the valley. Water wild oxen have a place with an alternate variety, yet are still lumped with the bovines. These creatures lose their body hair as they develop, and should flounder to scatter warm and for assurance from the sun. The guys are utilized as large animals load and are butchered. The females create a smooth drain, some of which is changed over into yogurt.
The since quite a while ago haired yaks, no longer found in the wilds of Nepal, are likewise fickle and are for the most part utilized for stud benefit. What trekkers for the most part observe are half and halves, which have confounding names. The female yak is known as a nak. The nak or yak can be crossed with cows to deliver a more resigned animal (see the boxed content ‘Yaks’).
The Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee was founded in 1991 with the help of the Nepal Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and the World Wildlife Fund. It is in the process of changing its name to the Khumbu Environmental Conservation Committee. The organization is based in the Khumbu region and staffed by local inhabitants. Villagers also serve as elected members of the committee, which is chaired by the rimpoche of Tengboche monastery. SPCC undertakes a wide variety of activities, with its main concerns being the environment, cultural conservation, community services and sustainable development of tourism.
The committee’s mandate includes:
100.0. Preservation of cultural heritage
100.1. Preservation of natural heritage
100.2. Litter removal
In addition to public awareness campaigns, SPCC has organized lodge-owner training, emphasizing fuel efficiency, food conservation and hygiene. Conservation education programs have also been established in local schools. Other community-service projects include trail and bridge maintenance, providing water supplies, repairing Namche Bazaar’s water-driven prayer wheels and assisting with health- education schemes.
SPCC operates visitor centres in Namche Bazaar and Lukla, where you can learn about its activities and get information on trekking.
There are various alternative-energy schemes under way throughout the hills, the largest and most successful of which is the Austrian hydroelectric project near Thami that serves the Khumbu region. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) is also an innovative approach, incorporating not only other alternative energy developments, forest conservation and environmental education, but an effective strategy for getting the Nepali people directly involved in determining their own destiny.
Another success story is the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) in the Everest region. Faced with criticism from trekkers and a potential loss of income from tourists, the Sherpas created this organization to help cope with the environmental pressures of both visitors and a growing local population.
Visitors should ensure that they minimise their impact on the environment. Trekking groups or individuals staying in lodges should insist that kerosene, as opposed to firewood, is used for cooking meals and heating water and should discourage the use of wood stoves for heating the dining room. Also minimize the use of non biodegradable products (especially plastic and batteries), as there are no facilities for their disposal. One potential nightmare is the trend towards selling water in plastic bottles, which are expensive and completely unnecessary if you carry your own water bottle and iodine.
The first national park in Nepal was the Royal Chitwan National Park in the Terai, established in 1973. There are now eight national parks, five wildlife reserves and four conservation areas, although the majority of these are in the Terai. When trekking, you will almost certainly enter at least one of the mountain national parks: Sagarmatha, Langtang, Shey Phoksundo, Makalu-Barun and Rara.
The idea of a conservation area to protect a populated area originated in Nepal, and the Annapurna Conservation Area, created in 1986 by the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, has become a recognized model of community involvement in preservation efforts. It was an effort to balance the needs of the local population, trekking tourism and the environment It is not a national park since such a designation would have prohibited many types of land use, but conservation of the natural and cultural heritage is a primary goal.
Roughly 40,000 people, mostly farmers, live in the region and more than 30,000 trekkers visit each year, which has led to problems such as deforestation, water pollution, poor sanitation, litter and expansion of agriculture to meet tourist needs, among other environmental problems. A priority of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project is to increase the local economic benefits of tourism and reduce the environmental and social costs.
The Makalu-Barun Conservation Area was established in 1991 to provide a buffer zone around the Makalu-Barun National Park. It is co-managed by the Mountain Institute (a North American-based non government organisation) and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. The success of these projects has led to the establishment of similar conservation areas in Kanchenjunga and Manaslu.