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forms the very watershed of Asia. Landlocked between India and Tibet, it spans terrain from subtropical jungle to the icy Himalaya, and contains or shares eight of the world's ten highest mountains. Its cultural landscape is every bit as diverse: a dozen major
, speaking as many as fifty languages and dialects, coexist in this narrow, jumbled buffer state, while two of the world's great
, Hinduism and Buddhism, overlap and mingle with older tribal traditions - yet it's a testimony to the Nepalis' tolerance and good humour that there is no tradition of ethnic or religious strife. Unlike India, Nepal was never colonized, a fact which comes through in fierce national pride and other, more idiosyncratic ways. Founded on trans-Himalayan trade, its dense, medieval
display a unique pagoda-style architecture, not to mention an astounding flair for festivals and pageantry. But above all, Nepal is a nation of unaffected
and terraced hillsides - more than eighty percent of the population lives off the land - and whether you're trekking, biking or bouncing around in packed buses, sampling this simple lifestyle is perhaps the greatest pleasure of all.
But it would be misleading to portray Nepal as a fabled Shangri-la. One of the world's poorest countries (if you go by per capita income), it suffers from many of the pangs and uncertainties of the Third World, including overpopulation and deforestation;
is coming in fits and starts, and not all of it is being shared equitably. Heavily reliant on its big-brother neighbours, Nepal was, until 1990, run by one of the last remaining absolute monarchies, a regime that combined China's repressiveness and India's bureaucracy in equal measure. It's now a
, but corruption and frequent changes of government have led to widespread disillusion and spawned a simmering rebel insurgency; political freedom has changed little for the average struggling Nepali family.
Travelling in Nepal isn't a straightforward or predictable activity. Certain tourist areas are highly developed, even overdeveloped, but facilities elsewhere are rudimentary;
is time-consuming and sometimes uncomfortable. Nepalis are well used to shrugging off such inconveniences with the all-purpose phrase,
? ("What to do?"). Nepal is also a more fragile country than most - culturally as well as environmentally - so it's necessary to be especially sensitive as a traveller.
is obviously a key consideration when travelling in Nepal. Generally speaking, the country divides into three altitude zones running from west to east. The northernmost of these is, of course, the
, broken into a series of
(permanently snow-covered mountain ranges) and alpine valleys, and inhabited, at least part of the year, as high as 5000m. The largest part of the country consists of a wide belt of middle-elevation
, Nepal's traditional heartland; two ranges, the Mahabharat Lek and the lower, southernmost Chure (or Siwalik) Hills, stand out. Finally, the
, a strip of flat, lowland jungle and farmland along the southern border, has more in common with India than with the rest of Nepal.
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