Why Nepal? After all one could trek the Himalayas from India, China or any other of several other options. If willing to reach by land the highest mountain n the planet, then China is by far the most comfortable option. If wanting to see the origin of Buddhism, then, Nepal is not predominantly Buddhist, Hindu is the main culture. Several other countries, especially in Southeast Asia offer better encounters with Buddhism. The same holds for the Hindu culture; India is probably a better choice.
Yet, Nepal defeats all these objections. It is by far the preferred destination of trekkers in the Himalayas. In one of those strange shifts in history, Tibetan Buddhists escaped from the 1950s onwards to Nepal and populated the highlands with magnificent temples. Then, the Hindu culture is flourishing, with the royal citadels and the wonderful Newari craftsmanship being carefully restored back to their full splendor. Nature also gave a hand. The northern side of the Himalayas is a brownish plateau, while the southern slopes – the Nepali side – enjoys plenty of water brought by the monsoons and stopped by the mighty mountains. Nepal is wonderfully green.
Culture is an important part of travel; a positive local attitude to foreigners is thus crucial for the success of a trip. Despite most of them not being Buddhists, Nepalis display the broad mindset and tolerance of Hindus, offering a safe and pleasant environment for travelers. Not once during my treks there I felt threatened, despite having visited during a prolonged period of political upheaval. Foreigners were left out of the struggle by all sides involved.
Placed along old trade routes, Nepal was never a key thread on the Silk Road. The mountain passes next to the Himalayas highest peaks were never neither popular nor easy. Despite being tolerant and curious toward travelers (what did they bring? Would they exchange that shiny knickknack?), it never became a cosmopolitan place. Its traditional culture survives for the joy of modern visitors.
Yet, this isn’t paradise. Unlike Thailand, you can’t just drop by whenever you wish so. The winters are harsh in the highlands; the summers are very hot and humid. There are only two short seasons suitable for enjoyable visit; but if wishing to witness the main festivals – Indra Jatra and Dashain – then there is only one option. Miscalculate the trek – or meet an early winter – and the trip is ruined. Add to these strict visa policies limiting the number of days allowed on every year and you end up with a relatively restricted destination. However, after all this is part of this altitude bastion’s charm, the knowledge of having ventured into the real – and often harsh – world.
Then, there is Thamel, a dilapidated – but no less charming – version of Khaosan Road. Regardless the season and weather, it provides a truly cosmopolitan meeting place, with travelers from all over trying to decide between a custard apple strudel and a chili flavored coffee for dessert; futuristic fusions announcing new hopes.