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Nepal

  • OVERVIEW
  • GETTING THERE AND AROUND
  • WHEN TO GO AND WEATHER
  • PRACTICAL INFORMATION / VISAS
  • HISTORY

OVERVIEW

Draped along the greatest heights of the Himalaya, Nepalis where the ice-cold of the mountains meets the steamy heat of the Indian plains. It’s a land of yaks and yetis, stupas and Sherpas and some of the best trekking on earth. The Himalaya’s most sophisticated urban cultures took shape here, in the three great minikingdoms of the Kathmandu valley- Kathmandu, Patan & Bhaktapur home to a world-class artistic and architectural heritage.

Behind the Vishnu shrine of Ichangu Narayan, northwest of Swayambhunath in the Kathmandu Valley, rises the ‘Abode of Snows’ (Himalaya in Sanskrit), a magnet for trekkers and mountaineers the world over. Only in Nepal can you trek for weeks without the need even for a tent. No longer does your name have to be Tenzing or Hillary to set foot in Everest Base Camp. Out of the mountains, get your adrenaline kick from world-class white-water rafting, kayaking and mountain biking, or from the spine-tingling sight of your first tiger or rhino in Chitwan National Park.

Nepalis not just a bungee-jumping, apple-pie eating Shangri-la. It’s also one of the poorest countries on earth. However, many visitors, drawn toNepalby the promise of adventure, leave equally enchanted by the friendliness and openness of the Nepali people.

From the natural rhythm you ease into on a trek to the rhythm of a tabla drum at one of Kathmandu palace restaurants,Nepal is an amazingly diverse country that offers something for everyone. One journey through this land is rarely enough. The first thing many people do after a visit is start planning the next one.

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

When you arrive, just before immigration, there is a bank that's open for flight arrivals and has decent exchange rates. Next door is the visa counter where you pay for your visa if you haven't got one already. There is a hotel reservation counter as soon as you get out of customs at the airport.

When departing for an international flight check in at least two hours early, preferably three in the high season, as the check-in desks can be a bit of a scrum. You need to show your ticket as you enter the departure hall, where all baggage is X-rayed and tagged. The X-ray machines that screen cargo baggage are not film safe, so insist that the security officers physically inspect your film.

You pay your departure tax at the airport branch of Nabil Bank. It is possible to re- exchange Nepali rupees into US dollars at the Nabil Bank, if you have your unused foreign-exchange encashment receipts; commission is Rs 50, or 2%. Also here is a sporadically open post office and telephone office. After immigration there's a VAT refund booth and a cafe, where you can blow your last rupees. Next comes another X-ray and a manual inspection of luggage, before everyone crams into a hall far too small for the purpose.

Travel documents Tickets:
There are limited flights into Lhasa. The service costs US$70 per person, plus US$60 for three night's accommodation and a service fee. Foreigners currently aren't allowed to take the bus due to Chinese visa and permit hassles, but this could change.

Land Political and weather conditions permitting, there are six main entry points into Nepal by land: five from India, one from Tibet. There are no international bus or train services; everyone changes buses at the borders.

Bring your own vehicle A steady trickle of people drives their own vehicles overland from Europe, for which an international carnet is required. If you want to abandon your transport in Nepal, you must either pay a prohibitive import duty or surrender it to customs. It is not possible to import cars more than five years old. Make sure you bring an international driving permit.

India All of the land borders between India and Nepal are in the Terai. The most popular crossing point is Sunauli, near Bhairawa, which provides easy access to Delhi andVaranasi in India.

Sunauli/Bhairawa The crossing at Sunauli is by far the most popular route between India and Nepal and it's also the easiest route from Delhi or Varanasi. There are direct buses from Delhi to Sunauli (Rs 405, 24 hours) but many people prefer to do as much of the journey as possible by train - several trains run daily from Delhi to Gorakhpur (22 hours), where you can pick up a bus to Sunauli (Rs 50, three hours). Varanasi also has direct buses to Sunauli (Rs 150, 10 hours). Once you cross the border, day and night buses run regularly to Kathmandu (day/night Rs 230/280, eight hours) and Pokhara (Rs 230/270, eight hours). A more comfortable option to Kathmandu is the air-con service operated by Golden Travels, changing buses in Kalanki.

Mahendranagar The crossing at Mahendranagar is also used by travellers coming from Delhi. There are daily buses from Delhi's Anand Vihar bus stand to Banbassa, the nearest Indian village to the border (INRs 156, 10 hours). Banbassa is also connected by bus with most towns in Uttaranchal, as well as Agra and Dharamsala. Slow and inconvenient trains run as far as Barielly, about three hours from the border by bus.

From Mahendranagar, there are slow direct bus services to Kathmandu (Rs 735, 16 hours) but it's better to do the trip in daylight and break the journey at Royal Bardia National Park, Nepalganj, Butwal or Narayangarh. Note that this route is often blocked during the monsoon. Maoists are active throughout western Nepal - check the security situation before you travel.

Kakarbhitta At the eastern end of Nepal, Kakarbhitta is the closest border crossing to Darjeelingand Sikkim, and trains from Kolkata to northeast India stop close to the border at Siliguri. Travel agencies in Kathmandu and Darjeeling offer 'through buses' across the border, but these involve a change in Siliguri and Kakarbhitta, It's just as easy to do the journey in stages, which will also allow you to refresh your batteries with an overnight stop along the way.

From Darjeeling, take a morning bus/jeep to Siliguri (INRs 60/70, two hours) then a bus (INRs 15, one hour) to Panitanki on the Indian side of the border. If cross-border traffic is busy, jeeps sometimes go straight to the border from Darjeeling. Jeeps also run to the border from Kalimpong (Rs 90, three hours) and from Gangtok (Rs 140, 4½ hours), in Sikkim. Coming from Kolkata, you can take an overnight train to Siliguri, then a bus to the border.

From Kakarbhitta, there are day/night buses to Kathmandu (Rs 530/607, 17 hours) but it's more interesting to break the journey at Janakpur, the centre of Mithila culture in Nepal. However, there is Maoist activity in eastern Nepal so you should check things are calm before you travel.

Birganj/Raxaul Bazaar The border crossing from Birganj to Raxaul Bazaar is handy for Patna (in India's Biharprovince) and you can also get here easily by train from Kolkata. Buses run from the bus station in Patna straight to Raxaul Bazaar (INRs 90, five hours). From Kolkata, you can take the daily Mithila Express - it leaves Kolkata's Howrah station at 4pm, arriving into Raxaul at 9.10am the next morning (INRs 276/748/1165 in sleeper class/air-con 3-tier/air-con 2-tier).

From Birganj, there are regular day/night buses to Kathmandu (Rs 225/280, eight hours) and Pokhara (Rs 225/270, seven hours). All buses pass through Narayangarh, where you can change for Royal Chitwan National Park.

Nepalganj Few people use the crossing at Nepalganj in western Nepal. The nearest town inIndia is Lucknow, where you can pick up slow buses to the border at Jamunaha (INRs 160, seven hours). You might also consider taking a train to Nanpara, 17km from the border.

Over the border in Nepalganj, there are regular day/night buses to Kathmandu (Rs 450/540, 12 hours) and Pokhara (Rs 400/520, 12 hours), passing close to RoyalChitwan National Park. As always, you should check the security situation before crossing at Nepalganj.

Air In the last couple of years international air connections to Nepal have withered, so don't expect a great deal of choice of routes or heavily discounted fares.

Kathmandu is the site of Nepal's only international airport, Tribhuvan Airport (4472 256). The international terminal is a modern building but security measures are a little bit lax.

Bhairahawa airport is being upgraded to become Lumbini International Airport in 2008.

Airlines The airline offices listed in this section are all in Kathmandu:
Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation
Air China
China Southern
Korean Air
Air Sahara
Biman Bangladesh Airlines
Druk Air
Gulf Air
Ethyiad Airways
Indian Airlines
United Airways
Oman Air
Jet Airways
Pakistan International Airways
Qatar Airways .
Thai Airways International HubBangkok.
Other airlines that don't fly directly to Nepal but which offer popular routes to the region, and have offices in Kathmandu, include British Airways (4226611), Cathay Pacific (4246155), Austrian Airlines (4223331). Most airline offices are closed Saturdays, though a few (including THAI) open between 10am and 2pm.

WHEN TO GO AND WEATHER

Nepal has a typical monsoonal, two-season year. The dry season runs from October to May and there's the wet (monsoon) season from June to September. Autumn (September to November) and spring (March to May) bring almost perfect weather and are definitely the best times to come to Nepal.

October to November, the start of the dry season, is in many ways the absolute best time. With the monsoon only recently finished, the countryside is green and lush, the air is sparkling clean and the Himalayan views are near perfect. Further more, the weather is still balmy. There are some important and colorful festivals to enjoy, though the Dasain festival in October can be disruptive if you are on a tight schedule. For obvious reasons this is also the high tourist season but in recent years, due to the political problems, even Nepal's 'high season' has been pretty quiet.

In December and January the climate and visibility are still good, though it can get very cold at high altitudes. Heading for the Everest Base Camp at this time of year can be a real feat of endurance and the Annapurna Circuit is often closed by snow on the Thorung La. Down in Kathmandu, the cheaper hotels - where there is no heating - are chilly in the mornings and evenings. Tourists start to leave Kathmandu in December like flocks of migratory birds, headed for the warmer climes of India or Thailand. October to February are considered the best times to visit the Terai and Royal Chitwan National Park.

February to April, the tail end of the dry season, is the second-best time to visit. The weather gets warmer so high-altitude treks are not as arduous. Visibility is not as good as earlier in the dry season, butNepal's wonderful rhododendrons and other flowers are in Technicolor bloom. May and early June are not the best times to visit as it is extremely hot and dusty, with temperatures often above 30°C, and the coming monsoon seems to hang over you like a threat.

Mid-June to September, when the monsoon finally arrives, is the least popular time to visit Nepal. Although it doesn't rain all day it usually rains every day, and the trails and roads are muddy and plagued by leeches; the Himalaya disappear behind rain clouds; most rivers are too high to raft; and landslides often hold up transport. The latter part of the monsoon (August and September) is a time of festivals, which will certainly enliven a visit to Kathmandu, and this is also the best time to visit neighboring Tibet. Because of its lower altitude, Pokhara is warmer and more pleasant than Kathmandu during winter, but hotter before the monsoon and wetter during it.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION / VISAS

Money
Except in Solu Khumbu and on the Annapurna treks, changing foreign money is likely to be very difficult if not impossible. Bring enough money for the whole trek and don't count on being able to change Rs 1000 notes except in Namche Bazaar and Jomsom

ATMs
Standard Chartered Bank has ATMs in Kathmandu and Pokhara; you can get cash advances on both Visa and MasterCard 24 hours a day, though travellers have reported that these machines don't take cards that run on the Cirrus system. Other banks, such as the Himalaya Bank, also have ATMs but some only accept local cards. Using an ATM attached to a bank during business hours will minimise the hassle in the rare event that the machine eats your card.

Cash
Major international currencies, including the US dollar, euro and pounds sterling, are readily accepted. In Nepal the Indian rupee is also like a hard currency - the Nepali rupee is pegged to the Indian rupee at the rate of INRs 100 = Rs 160. Be aware that INRs 500 and INRs 1000 notes are not accepted anywhere in Nepal, apparently due to forgeries.

Changing money Official exchange rates are set by the government's Nepal Rastra Bank and listed in the daily newspapers. Rates at the private banks vary, but are generally not far from the official rate.There are exchange counters at the international terminal at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan Airport and banks and/or moneychangers at the various border crossings. Pokhara and the major border towns also have official moneychanging facilities, but changing travellers cheques can be difficult elsewhere in the country, even in some quite large towns. If you are trekking, take enough small-denomination cash rupees to last the whole trek.

The best private banks are Himalaya Bank Nepal Bank Ltd and Standard Chartered Bank. Some hotels and resorts are licensed to change money but their rates are lower. When you change money officially, you are required to show your passport, and you are issued with a foreign exchange encashment receipt showing your identity and the amount of hard currency you have changed. Hang onto the receipts as you need them to change excess rupees back into hard currency at banks. You can change rupees back into hard currency at most moneychangers without a receipt.

If you leave Nepal via Kathmandu's Tribhuvan Airport, the downstairs exchange counter will re-exchange the amount shown on 'unused' exchange certificates. Official re-exchange is not possible at any bank branches at the border crossings.

Many upmarket hotels and businesses are obliged by the government to demand payment in hard currency; they will also accept rupees, but only if you can show a foreign exchange encashment receipt that covers the amount you owe them. In practice this regulation seems to be widely disregarded. Airlines are also required to charge tourists in hard currency, either in cash US dollars, travellers cheques or credit cards, and this rule is generally followed.

Credit cards
Major credit cards are widely accepted at midrange and better hotels, restaurants and fancy shops in the Kathmandu Valley and Pokhara only. Branches of Standard Chartered Bank and some other banks such as Nabil Bank and Himalaya Bank give cash advances against Visa and MasterCard in Nepali rupees only (no commission), and will also sell you foreign currency travellers cheques against the cards with a 2% commission.

The American Express (Amex) agent is Yeti Travels in Kathmandu. It advances travellers cheques to cardholders for a standard 1% commission.

Money changers
In addition to the banks there are licensed moneychangers in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Birganj, Kakarbhitta and Sunauli/Bhairawa. The rates are often marginally lower than the banks, but there are no commissions, they have much longer opening hours (typically from 9am to 7pm daily) and they are also much quicker, the whole process often taking no more than a few minutes.

Most licensed moneychangers will provide an exchange receipt; if they don't you may be able to negotiate better rates than those posted on their boards.

Visas
All foreigners, except Indians, must have a visa. Nepali embassies and consulates overseas issue visas with no fuss. You can also get one on the spot when you arrive in Nepal, either at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan Airport or at road borders: Nepalganj, Birganj/Raxaul Bazaar, Sunauli, Kakarbhitta, Mahendranagar, Dhangadhi and even the funky Kodari checkpoint on the road to Tibet.

A Nepali visa is valid for entry for three to six months from the date of issue. Children under 10 require a visa but are not charged a visa fee. Your passport must have at least six months validity. Indian nationals do not require a visa. Citizen of South Asian countries and China need visas but these are free.

To obtain a visa on arrival by air in Nepal you must fill in an application form and provide a passport photograph. Visa application forms are available on a table in the arrivals hall, though some airlines (like Thai) provide this form on the flight. To get a jump on the immigration queue, you can download the visa-on-arrival form from www.treks.com.np/visa. A single-entry visa valid for 60 days costs US$30. At Kathmandu's Tribhuvan Airport the fee is payable in any major currency but at land borders officials will probably require payment in cash US dollars; bring small bills. Only single-entry visas are routinely available on arrival, though you may be able to score a multiple-entry visa if you ask.

If you have already visited Nepal during the same calendar year the visa fee is the same but you'll only get a 30-day visa. Much of the time you spend in the visa-on-arrival queue is waiting while officers scour your passport for previous entry stamps. It's worth knowing that if you stayed longer than 15 days in Nepal and are planning a second visit within the same calendar year, your second 30-day visa should be free.

At Nepali embassies abroad it's possible to get a multiple-entry visa (US$80 or equivalent), which gives you multiple trips into Nepal for a year, with each stay valid for 60 days, up to a total of 150 days in any calendar year. Multiple-entry visas are useful if you are planning a side trip to Tibet, Bhutan or India. You can change your single-entry visa to a multiple-entry visa at Kathmandu's Central Immigration Office for US$50. If you are just planning a lightning visit to Kathmandu it's possible to get a free nonextendable three-day transit visa at Kathmandu airport, as long as you have an air ticket out of the country within three days. If you stay in Nepal for longer than the duration of your initial 60-day visa, you will require a visa extension. Transit visas are nonextendable.

Don't overstay a visa. You can pay a fine of US$2 per day at the airport if you have overstayed less than 30 days (plus in theory US$3 per day between 30 and 90 days and US$5 per day for over 90 days). If you've overstayed more than a week get it all sorted out at Kathmandu's Central Immigration Office before you get to the airport, as a delay could cause you to miss your flight.

It's a good idea to keep a number of passport photos with your passport so they are immediately handy for trekking permits, visa applications and other official documents.

Visa extensions
Visa extensions are available from immigration offices in Kathmandu and Pokhara only and cost US$30 (payable in rupees) for a 30-day extension. You get a 30-day extension whether you are staying for an extra day or an extra 30 days. A multiple-entry visa extension costs US$80.

Every visa extension requires your passport, money, photos and an application form. Collect all these before you join the queue. Plenty of places in Kathmandu and Pokhara will make passport photos for you and there are several pricier instant-photo shops near the immigration offices.

Visa extensions are available the same day, sometimes within the hour. For a fee, trekking and travel agencies can assist with the visa extension process and can usually save you the time and tedium of queuing. You can extend your visa up to a total stay of 120 days without undue formality. You should be able to get a further 30 days extension but you may need to show a flight ticket proving that you are leaving the country during that time period, since you are only allowed to stay in Nepal for a total of 150 days in a calendar year on a tourist visa.

You can get up-to-date visa information at the website of the Department of Immigration (www.immi.gov.np). The visa fees chargeable for the citizens of the countries which charge fee higher or lower than the fees prescribed under sub-rule (1) shall be based on reciprocity.

Fees to be levied while issuing tourist visa by the Mission or entry point:
US Dollars 25 or other convertible foreign currency equivalent thereto for 15 days multiple entry visa.
US Dollars 40 or other convertible foreign currency equivalent thereto for 30 days multiple entry visa.
US Dollars 100 or other convertible foreign currency equivalent thereto for 90 days multiple entry visa.
Not withstanding anything written in clause (a) and (b), no visa fee shall be applicable to the passport holder of member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for 30 days .

Fees to be levied for renewal or regularization of tourist visa Nepalese currency equivalent to 2 US dollars per day to renew the validity of tourist visa. In case where request has also been made for the facility of multiple entry, just valid for the renewal period an additional amount in Nepalese currency equivalent to U. S. Dollars 20 to the fee as referred to in Clause (a). In regularizing visa of any foreigner stayed without renewal of validity of the tourist visa, Nepalese currency equivalent 3 US dollars per day shall be levied in addition to the normal amount to be paid for renewal of the validity of visa as per these Regulations.

Foreigners, who have already been overstayed more than 150 days without renewing the tourist visa shall be levied the fees referred in clause 2(c) and penalty amount as referred to in section 10(4) of Immigration act in addition. Not withstanding anything written in clause 2(a), the period of visa fee shall be levied, for the purpose to renew tourist visa for up to15 days if the visa be of a period less than 15 days and as referred to in clause 2(a) for more than this.

HISTORY

The history of Nepal began in, and centres on, the Kathmandu Valley. Over the centuries Nepal's boundaries have extended to include huge tracts of neighbouring India, and contracted to little more than the Kathmandu Valley and a handful of nearby city-states. Though it has ancient roots, the modern state of Nepal emerged only in the 18th century.

Squeezed between the Tibetan plateau and the plains of the subcontinent - the modern-day giants of China and India - Nepal has long prospered from its location as a resting place for traders, travellers and pilgrims. A cultural mixing pot, it has bridged cultures and absorbed elements of its neighbours, yet retained a unique character. After travelling through India for a while, many travellers notice both the similarities and differences. 'Same, same', they say, but different'.

The Kiratis & Buddhist beginnings
Nepal's recorded history kicks off with the Hindu Kiratis. Arriving from the east around the 7th or 8th century BC, these Mongoloid people are the first known rulers of the Kathmandu Valley. King Yalambar (the first of their 29 kings) is mentioned in the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic, but little more is known about them.

In the 6th century BC, Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born into the Sakya royal family of Kapilavastu, near Lumbini, later embarking on a path of meditation and thought that led him to enlightenment as the Buddha. The religion that grew up around him continues to shape the face of Asia.

Around the 2nd century BC, the great Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka (c 272-236 BC) visited Lumbini and erected a pillar at the birthplace of the Buddha. Popular legend recounts how he then visited the Kathmandu Valley and erected four stupas (pagodas) around Patan, but there is no evidence that he actually made it there in person. In either event, his Mauryan empire (321-184 BC) played a major role in popularising Buddhism in the region, a role continued by the north Indian Buddhist Kushan empire (1st to 3rd centuries AD).

Over the centuries Buddhism gradually lost ground to a resurgent Hinduism and by the time the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Fa Xian (Fa Hsien) and Xuan Zang (Hsuan Tsang) passed through the region in the 5th and 7th centuries the site of Lumbini was already in ruins.

Licchavis, Thakuris, then darkness
Buddhism faded and Hinduism reasserted itself with the arrival from northern India of the Licchavis. In AD 300 they overthrew the Kiratis, who resettled in the east and are the ancestors of today's Rai and Limbu people.

Between the 4th and 8th centuries, the Licchavis ushered in a golden age of cultural brilliance. The chaityas (stupas) and monuments of this era can still be seen at the Changu Narayan Temple, north of Bhaktapur, and in the backstreets of Kathmandu's old town. Their strategic position allowed them to prosper from trade between India and China. It's believed that the original stupas at Chabahil, Bodhnath and Swayambhunath date from the Licchavi era.

Amsuvarman, the first Thakuri king, came to power in 602, succeeding his Licchavi father-in-law. He consolidated his power to the north and south by marrying his sister to an Indian prince and his daughter Bhrikuti to the great Tibetan king Songsten Gompo. Together with the Gompo's Chinese wife Wencheng, Bhrikuti managed to convert the king to Buddhism around 640, changing the face of both Tibet and, later, Nepal.

From the late 7th century until the 13th century Nepal slipped into its 'dark ages', of which little is known. Tibet invaded in 705 and Kashmir invaded in 782. The Kathmandu Valley's strategic location, however, ensured the kingdom's growth and survival. King Gunakamadeva is credited with founding Kantipur, today's Kathmandu, around the 10th century. During the 9th century a new lunar calendar was introduced, one that is still used by Newars to this day.

The golden age of the Mallas
The first of the Malla kings came to power in the Kathmandu Valley around 1200. The Mallas (literally 'wrestlers' in Sanskrit) had been forced out of India and their name can be found in the Mahabharata and in Buddhist literature. This period was a golden one that stretched over 550 years, though it was peppered with fighting over the valuable trade routes to Tibet.

The first Malla rulers had to cope with several disasters. A huge earthquake in 1255 killed around one-third of Nepal's population. A devastating Muslim invasion by Sultan Shams-ud-din of Bengal less than a century later left plundered Hindu and Buddhist shrines in its wake, though the invasion did not leave a lasting cultural effect here (unlike in the Kashmir Valley which remains Muslim to this day). In India the damage was more widespread and many Hindus were driven into the hills and mountains of Nepal, where they established small Rajput principalities.

Apart from this, the earlier Malla years (1220-1482) were largely stable, reaching a high point under the third Malla dynasty of Jayashithi Malla (1382-1395), who united the valley and codified its laws, including the caste system. The mid-13th century saw the de facto rule of Queen Devaladevi, the most powerful woman in Nepal's history.

After the death of Jayashithi Malla's grandson Yaksha Malla in 1482, the Kathmandu Valley was divided up among his sons into the three kingdoms of Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon), Kathmandu (Kantipur) and Patan (Lalitpur). They proceeded to fight with each other over the right to control the rich trading routes with Tibet.

The rest of what we today call Nepal consisted of a fragmented patchwork of almost 50 independent states, from Palpa to Jumla, and the semi-independent states of Banepa and Pharping, most of them minting their own coins and maintaining standing armies.

One of the most important of these was the Nepali-speaking Khasa empire (Western Mallas), based in the far west in the Karnali basin around Sinja and Jumla. The kingdom peaked in the 13th and 14th centuries, only to fragment in the 15th century. Its lasting contribution was the Nepali language that is spoken today as the unifying national language.

Nepal's most profound export was perhaps its architecture; in the 13th century the Nepali architect Arniko travelled to Lhasa and the Mongol capital in Beijing, bringing with him the design of the pagoda, thus changing the face of religious temples across Asia.

The rivalry between the three kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley found its expression in the arts and culture, which flourished in the competitive climate. The outstanding collections of exquisite temples and buildings in each city's Durbar Square are testament to the huge amounts of money spent by the rulers to outdo each other.

The building boom was financed by trade, in everything from musk and wool to salt, Chinese silk and even yak tails. The Kathmandu Valley stood at the departure point for two separate routes into Tibet, via Banepa to the northeast and via Rasuwa and the Kyirong Valley near Langtang in the northwest. Traders would cross the jungle-infested Terai during winter to avoid the virulent malaria and then wait in Kathmandu for the mountain passes to open later that summer. Kathmandu grew rich and its rulers converted their wealth into gilded pagodas and ornately carved royal palaces. In the mid-17th century Nepal gained the right to mint Tibet's coins using Tibetan silver, further enriching the kingdom's coffers.

In Kathmandu King Pratap Malla (1641-74) oversaw that city's cultural highpoint with the construction of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, the Rani Pokhari pond and the first of several subsequent pillars that featured a statue of the king facing the protective Temple of Taleju, who the Mallas had by that point adopted as their protective deity. The mid-17th century also saw a highpoint of building in Patan.

Around 1750 King Jaya Prakash Malla built Kathmandu's Kumari Temple. Not long afterwards came the Nyatapola Temple in Bhakatapur, the literal highpoint of pagoda-style architecture in Nepal. The Malla era shaped the religious as well as artistic landscape, introducing the dramatic chariot festivals of Indra Jatra and Machhendranath. The Malla kings shored up their position by claiming to be reincarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu and establishing the cult of the kumari, a living goddess whose role it was to bless the Malla's rule during an annual celebration.

The cosmopolitan Mallas also absorbed foreign influences. The Indian Mughal court influenced Malla dress and painting, presented the Nepalis with firearms and introduced the system of land grants for military service, a system which would have a profound effect in later years. Persian terminology was introduced to the court administration and in 1729 the three kingdoms sent presents to the Qing court in Beijing, which from then on viewed Nepal as a tributary state. In the early 18th century Capuchin missionaries passed through Nepal to Tibet, giving the West its first descriptions of exotic Kathmandu. But change didn't only come from abroad. A storm was brewing inside Nepal, just 100km to the east of Kathmandu.

Unification under the Shahs
It took more than a quarter of a century of conquest and consolidation, but by 1768 Prithvi Narayan Shah, ruler of the tiny hilltop kingdom of Gorkha (halfway between Pokhara and Kathmandu), stood poised on the edge of the Kathmandu Valley, about to realise his dream of a unified Nepal.

Prithvi Narayan had taken the strategic hilltop fort of Nuwakot in 1744 and had blockaded the valley, after fighting off reinforcements from the British East India Company. In 1768 Shah took Kathmandu, sneaking in while everyone was drunk during the Indra Jatra festival. A year later he took Kirtipur, finally, after three lengthy failed attempts. In terrible retribution his troops hacked 120 pounds of noses and lips off Kirtipur's residents; unsurprisingly, resistance throughout the valley quickly crumbled. In 1769 he advanced on the three Malla kings, who were quivering in Bhaktapur, ending the Malla rule and unifying Nepal.

Shah moved his capital from Gorkha to Kathmandu, establishing the Shah dynasty, which rules to this day, with its roots in the Rajput kings of Chittor. Shah died just six years later in Nuwakot but is revered to this day as the founder of the nation.

Shah had built his empire on conquest and his insatiable army needed ever more booty and land to keep it satisfied. Within six years the Gurkhas had conquered eastern Nepal and Sikkim. The expansion then turned westwards into Kumaon and Garhwal, only halted on the borders of the Punjab by the armies of the powerful one-eyed ruler Ranjit Singh.

The kingdom's power continued to grow until a 1792 clash with the Chinese in Tibet led to an ignominious defeat, during which Chinese troops advanced down the Kyirong Valley to within 35km of Kathmandu. As part of the ensuing treaty the Nepalis had to cease their attacks on Tibet and pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in Beijing; the payments continued until 1912.

The expanding Nepali boundaries, by this time stretching all the way from Kashmir to Sikkim, eventually put it on a collision course with the world's most powerful empire, the British Raj. Despite early treaties with the British, disputes over the Terai led to the first Anglo-Nepali war, which the British won after a two-year fight. The British were so impressed by their enemy that they decided to incorporate Gurkha mercenaries into their own army.

The 1816 Sugauli treaty called a halt to Nepal's expansion and laid down its modern boundaries. Nepal lost Sikkim, Kumaon, Garhwal and much of the Terai, though some of this land was restored to Nepal in 1858 in return for support given to the British during the Indian Mutiny (Indian War of Independence). A British resident was sent to Kathmandu to keep an eye on things but the Raj knew that it would be too difficult to colonise the impossible hill terrain, preferring to keep Nepal as a buffer state. Nepalis to this day are proud that their country was never colonised by the British, unlike the neighbouring hill states of India.

Following its humiliating defeat, Nepal cut itself off from all foreign contact from 1816 until 1951. The British residents in Kathmandu were the only Westerners to set eyes on Nepal for more than a century. On the cultural front, temple construction continued impressively, though perhaps of more import to ordinary people was the introduction, via India, of chills, potatoes, tobacco and other New World crops.

The Shah rulers, meanwhile, swung from ineffectual to seriously deranged. At one point the kingdom was governed by a twelve-year-old female regent, in charge of a nine-year-old king! One particularly sadistic ruler, Crown Prince Surendra, expanded the horizons of human suffering by ordering subjects to jump down wells or ride off cliffs, just to see whether they would die.

The Ranocracy
The death of Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1775 set in motion a string of succession struggles, infighting, assassinations, feuding and intrigue that culminated in the Kot Massacre in 1846. This bloody night was engineered by the young Chhetri noble, Jung Bahadur; it catapulted his family into power and sidelined the Shah dynasty.

Ambitious and ruthless, Jung Bahadur organised (with the queen's consent) for his soldiers to massacre several hundred of the most important men in the kingdom - noblemen, soldiers and courtiers - while they were assembled in the Kot courtyard adjoining Kathmandu's Durbar Square. He then exiled 6000 members of their familles to prevent revenge attacks.

Jung Bahadur took the title of Prime Minister and changed his family name to the more prestigious Rana. He later extended his title to maharajah (king) and decreed it hereditary. The Ranas became a second 'royal family' within the kingdom and held the reins of power - the Shah kings became listless figureheads, requiring permission even to leave their palace. The hereditary family of Rana prime ministers held power for more than a century, eventually intermarrying with the Shahs. Development in Nepal stagnated, although the country did manage to preserve its independence. Only on rare occasions were visitors allowed into Nepal.

Jung Bahadur Rana travelled to Europe in 1850, attended the opera and the races at Epsom, and brought back a taste for neoclassical architecture, examples of which can be seen in Kathmandu today. To the Ranas' credit, sati (the Hindu practice of casting a widow on her husband's funeral pyre) was abolished in 1920, 60, 000 slaves were released from bondage and a school and a college were established in Kathmandu. But while the Ranas and their relations lived lives of opulent luxury, the peasants in the hills were locked in a medieval existence.

Modernisation began to dawn on Kathmandu with the opening of the Bir Hospital, Nepal's first, in 1889, the first piped water system, limited electricity and the construction of the huge Singha Durbar palace. In 1923 Britain formally acknowledged Nepal's independence and in 1930 the kingdom of Gorkha was renamed the kingdom of Nepal, reflecting a growing sense of national consciousness.

The arrival of the Indian railway line at the Nepali border greatly aided the transportation of goods but sounded a death knell for the caravan trade that bartered Nepali grain and rice for Tibetan salt. The transborder trade suffered another setback when the British opened a second, more direct trade route with Tibet through Sikkim's Chumbi Valley (the real nail in the coffin came in 1966, when the Chinese closed the border to local trade). Elsewhere in the region dramatic changes were taking place. The Nepalis supplied logistical help during Britain's invasion of Tibet in 1903, and over 300, 000 Nepalis fought in WWI and WWII, garnering a total of 13 Victoria Crosses - Britain's highest military honor - for their efforts.

After WWII, India gained its independence and the communist revolution took place in China. Tibetan refugees fled into Nepal in the first of several waves when the new People's Republic of China tightened its grip on Tibet, and Nepal became a buffer zone between the two rival Asian giants. At the same time King Tribhuvan, forgotten in his palace, was being primed to overthrow the Ranas.

Restoration of the Shahs
In late 1950 King Tribhuvan was driving himself to a hunting trip at Nagarjun when he suddenly swerved James-Bond-style into the expecting Indian embassy, claimed political immunity and was flown to India. Meanwhile, the recently formed Nepali Congress party, led by BP Koirala, managed to take most of the Terai by force from the Ranas and established a provisional government that ruled from the border town of Birganj. India exerted its considerable influence and negotiated a solution to Nepal's turmoil, and King Tribhuvan returned in glory to Nepal in 1951 to set up a new government composed of demoted Ranas and members of the Nepali Congress party.

Although Nepal gradually reopened its long-closed doors and established relations with other nations, dreams of a new democratic system were not permanently realised. Tribhuvan died in 1955 and was succeeded by his cautious son Mahendra. A new constitution provided for a parliamentary system of government and in 1959 Nepal held its first general election. The Nepali Congress party won a clear victory and BP Koirala became the new prime minister. In late 1960, however, the king decided the government wasn't to his taste after all, had the cabinet arrested and swapped his ceremonial role for real control (much as King Gyanendra would do 46 years later).In 1962 Mahendra decided that a partyless, indirect panchayat (council) system of government was more appropriate to Nepal. The real power remained with the king, who chose 16 members of the 35-member National Panchayat, and appointed the prime minister and his cabinet. Political parties were banned.

Mahendra died in 1972 and was succeeded by his 27-year-old British-educated son Birendra. Nepal's hippy community was unceremoniously booted out of the country when visa laws were tightened in the run-up to Birendra's coronation in 1975. Simmering discontent with corruption, the slow rate of development and the rising cost of living erupted into violent riots in Kathmandu in 1979. King Birendra announced a referendum to choose between the panchayat system and one that would permit political parties to operate. The result was 55% to 45% in favour of the panchayat system; democracy had been outvoted.

Nepal's military and police apparatus were among the least publicly accountable in the world and strict censorship was enforced. Mass arrests, torture and beatings of suspected activists are well documented, and the leaders of the main opposition, the Nepali Congress, spent the years between 1960 and 1990 in and out of prison.

During this time there were impressive movements towards development, namely in education and road construction, with the number of schools increasing from 300 in 1950 to over 40, 000 by 2000. But the relentless population growth (Nepal's population grew from 8.4 million in 1954 to 26 million in 2004) cancelled out many of these advances, turning Nepal from an exporter to a net importer of food within a generation. It is also widely accepted that a huge portion of foreign aid was routinely creamed off into royal and ministerial accounts.

During this time over one million hill people moved to the Terai in search of land and several million crossed the border to seek work in India (Nepalis are able to cross the border and work freely in India), creating a major population shift in favour of the now malaria-free Terai.

People Power
In 1989, as communist states across Europe crumbled and pro democracy demonstrations occupied China's Tiananmen Square, Nepali opposition parties formed a coalition to fight for a multiparty democracy with the king as constitutional head; the upsurge of protest was called the Jana Andolan, or People's Movement.

In early 1990 the government responded to a nonviolent gathering of over 200,000 people with bullets, tear gas and thousands of arrests. After several months of intermittent rioting, curfews, a successful strike, and pressure from various foreign-aid donors, the government was forced to back down. The people's victory did not come cheaply; it is estimated that more than 300 people lost their lives. On 9 April King Birendra announced he was lifting the ban on political parties. On 16 April he asked the opposition to lead an interim government, and announced his readiness to accept the role of constitutional monarch. Nepal was a democracy.

Democracy & the Maoist uprising
In May 1991, 20 parties contested a general election for a 205-seat parliament. The Nepali Congress won power with around 38% of the vote. The Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) won 28%, and the next largest party, the United People's Front, 5%. In the years immediately following the election, the political atmosphere remained uneasy. In April 1992 a general strike degenerated into street violence between protesters and police, and resulted in a number of deaths.

In late 1994 the Nepali Congress government, led by GP Koirala (brother of BP Koirala) called a midterm election. No party won a clear mandate, and a coalition formed between the CPN-UML and the third major party, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), the old panchayats, with the support of the Nepali Congress. This was one of the few times in the world that a communist government had come to power by popular vote. Political stability did not last long, and the late 1990s were littered with dozens of broken coalitions, dissolved governments and sacked politicians.

In 1996 the Maoists (of the Communist Party of Nepal), fed up with government corruption, the failure of democracy to deliver improvements to the people, and the dissolution of the Communist government, declared a 'people's war'. The insurgency began in the poor regions of the far west and gathered momentum, but was generally ignored by the politicians. The repercussions of this nonchalance finally came to a head in November 2001 when the Maoists broke their ceasefire and an army barracks was attacked west of Kathmandu. After a decade of democracy it seemed increasing numbers of people, particularly young Nepalis and those living in the countryside, were utterly disillusioned.

Royal Troubles
On 1 June 2001 the Nepali psyche was dealt a huge blow when Crown Prince Dipendra gunned down almost every member of the royal family during a get-together in Kathmandu. A monarch who had steered the country through some extraordinarily difficult times was gone. When the shock of this loss subsided the uncertainty of what lay ahead hit home.

The beginning of the 21st century saw the political situation in the country turn from bad to worse. Prime ministers were sacked and replaced in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005, making a total of nine governments in 10 years. The fragile position of Nepali politicians is well illustrated by Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was appointed prime minister for the second time in 2001, before being dismissed in 2002, reinstated in 2004, sacked again in 2005, thrown in jail on corruption charges and then released! Against such a background, modern politics in Nepal has become more about personal enrichment than public service.

Several Maoist truces, notably in 2003 and 2005, offered some respite, though these reflected as much a need to regroup and rearm as they did any move towards a lasting peace. By 2005 nearly 13, 000 people, including many civilians, had been killed in the insurgency, more than half of them since the army joined the struggle in 2001. Amnesty International accused both sides of horrific human-rights abuses, including executions, abductions, torture and child conscription.

The Maoist insurgency has, ironically, only worsened the plight of the rural poor by diverting much-needed government funds away from development and causing aid programmes to suspend activity due to security concerns. Until there is real social change and economic development in the countryside, the frustrations fuelling Nepal's current insurgency look set only to continue.

Nepal's 12-year experiment with democracy faced a major setback in October 2002 when the sour-faced King Gyanendra, frustrated with the political stalemate and the continued delay in holding national elections, dissolved the government. Gyanendra again dissolved the government in February 2005, amid a state of emergency, promising a return to democracy within three years. The controversial king has not been helped by his dissolute son (and heir) Paras, who has allegedly been involved in several drunken hit-and-run car accidents, one of which killed a popular Nepali singer.

Entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2004 and the creation of the regional South Asian free trade agreement in 2006 may offer some long-term economic advances but the country remains deeply dependent on foreign aid, which makes up 25% of the state budget and over two-thirds of Nepal's total development budget. The aid industry has come under increased criticism for failing to generate the economic and social development that had been expected. Recent years have seen a move away from the megaprojects of the 1960s and '70s to smaller-scale community cooperation and microfinancing.

Everything changed in April 2006, when parlimentary democracy was grudgingly restored by the king, following days of mass demonstrations, curfews and the deaths of 16 protestors. The next month the newly restored parliament reduced the king to a figurehead, ending powers the royal Shah lineage had enjoyed for over 200 years.

The removal of the king was the price required to bring the Maoists to the negotiating table and a peace accord was signed later that year, drawing a close to the bloody decade-long insurgency. The pace of political change in Nepal was remarkable. The Maoists achieved a majority in the elections of 10 April 2008 and a month later parliament abolished the monarchy by a margin of 560 votes to four, ending 240 years of royal rule. Former Maoist terrorist's became cabinet ministers, members of the People's Liberation Army joined the national army and an interim constitution was drafted to help bind the former guerrillas into the political mainstream. A renewed optimism in the political process was palpable throughout Nepal.

By 2008 a new government was formed, with former guerrilla leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal (known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, which means the fierce) as prime minister and Dr Baburam Bhattarai as finance minister. Ironically the People's armed struggle was led by two high-caste intellectuals.

There has still been plenty of potential for political instability. Calls for greater representation by groups such as the Madhesi of the Terai (who make up 35% of the population and live in the most productive and industrialised part of country) have resulted in a familiar pattern of economic blockades and political violence, and are only the beginning of many more possible claims. Political violence has continued to simmer in the Terai. The wounds of the People's war will take a long time to heal. Over 1000 Nepalis remain unaccounted for, victims of political disappearance's or simple murder and finding justice for these crimes may prove elusive.

Moreover, after 40 years and over US$4 billion in aid (60% of its development budget) Nepal has remained one of the world's poorest countries, with seven million Nepalis lacking adequate food or basic health and education. Nepal has one of the lowest health spending levels and the third-highest infant mortality rate in the world. The majority of Nepalis have continued stoically with their rural lives but until the government delivers on real social change and economic development in the countryside, the frustrations that fuelled Nepal’s recent political violence will remain unresolved.

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To all Aaradhana Teams! Its been an absolute pleasure to meet you all and I am very greatful for your hospitality and all the help I have received during my stay in Nepal. I hope you will continue this …

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Karen , Norway
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