Sandwiched between two great powers India and China, Nepal is a land of sharp contrasts and spectacular beauty. Nepal's geographical location has shaped its people, its history and its influence in Asia . Ancient history and the ever present towering Himalayas imbue the country side, villages and cities of Nepal with a somewhat mystical character. A visitor may feel as if time has stopped here in this country and yet within moments the same visitor may experience the bustle of modernization. This juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern gives Nepal an ever changing yet never changing face, which seems to capture the hearts of many who visit this impoverished country.
Though Nepal in surface area is a small country it is surely the world's largest in height as it boasts of ten of the world's fourteen tallest mountains which tower over 8000 meters. Mountains cover 80% of Nepal's 147,181 square kilometer territory. The very mountains that attract thousands of tourists and considered a trekker's paradise are the very same mountains that create huge challenges for those who live off the land. Eighty percent of Nepal's inhabitants have through sheer determination terraced and cultivated the land up to 2700 meters. The terraced mountain sides especially on an early misty morning appear as gentle waves of earthen colored silk. The beauty of these rich colorful terraces betrays the intensity of the labor involved in cultivating this harsh terrain.
Besides the dramatic Himalayas which mean "Abode of Snows" in Sanskrit with Mount Everest or "Sagarmatha" to the Nepalese as its crown, the Nepalese people are proud that Lumbini is believed to be the birth place of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism around 500 B.C. Hinduism has its origins some 2000 years ago in the Indian subcontinent. As people migrated to the north, they brought their beliefs with them. Hinduism firmly enshrined the caste system in Nepal when Jayasthiti Malla, of the Malla dynasty [1354-1395], divided his subjects into sixty-four occupational castes. Buddhism and Hinduism have since then harmoniously co-existed which adds to Nepal's mystical charm.
In 1963 the official caste system was dismantled. However, centuries of social customs associated with the caste system could not be so easily erased by the simple signing of a law. Nepalese society is still very much governed by which caste you are born into. Caste dictates a person's status in Nepalese society, occupation, living place, educational opportunities and even with whom a person can associate and/or marry.
Nepal is often referred to as a country of immigrants. Over the centuries people migrated from the north and the south to avoid domination in their home territories. As they settled in the plains and valleys they also brought their cultures, traditions, distinct languages, customs and dress. Adding to the diversity of castes within the four main castes of Nepal is this intricate overlay of diverse ethnic minorities which still exists today despite the unification of Nepal in 1769 by Prithvi Naraya Shah.
Despite Nepal's severe physical geography and its challenging human geography, its mystical charm continues to seduce those who come to trek and visit this country. For many it is a culture shock and they never return. Yet for many others the Nepalese friendliness, astonishing natural beauty, and mix of ancient spirituality draws visitors back to this country.
Nepal's splendid natural beauty is overshadowed only by the spontaneous innocence of its children. Despite their adverse physical conditions children are seen playing and laughing either in back yards, streets, lanes and in crowded areas. Older children carry younger sisters and brothers on their backs. Street children are seen helping each other and are often seen sharing the warmth of a small fire. Those who have the chance at education walk to school in crispy clean school uniforms. Children are children anywhere in the world and for the most part learn to live in the world that adults have created for them.