Situated between longitude 80º 4″ to 88º 12″ north, Nepal is a landlocked country encompassing an area of 145,391 square kilometers. The country is almost rectangular in shape with its 120 to 240 kilometers width and nearly 900 kilometers length wedged between the two Asian giants of China and India.
Within this small area lies one the most diverse topographies and varied plant and animal life to found in the world. This is but to be expected in a country where the land rises from a lowly 67 meters above sea level all the way to the tip of Mount Everest at 8848 meters in a distance of 100 kilometers or so.
Geographically, Nepal can be divided into seven regions going east and west. Although these divisions have mainly to do with altitude, they are equally different in the physical terrain as well.
All across the south is the Tarai lowlands, an extension of the Indo-Gangetic plain into the political borders of Nepal, touches the hills and mountains further north. These plains, which stretch the length of the country with an average width of around 30 kilometers, is the bread basket of Nepal.
Till a few decades back, the Tarai was covered with wide expanses of jungle. These malaria-infested forests served as an effective barrier against any would-be adventurer and helped further in Nepal’s total isolation until the 1950’s. Wide swathes of jungle can still be found all over the Tarai but the work of the axe is evident everywhere. It was to the Tarai that the people migrated as population pressure pushed them out of their limited land holdings in the hills. No wonder that this region is also the geographical zone which has the highest concentration of people in the country.
Next comes the Churia Hills, an unimpressive range that rises to around 1300 meters. These hills generally stand bereft of any vegetation and are most notable for their stark ugliness as opposed to the blue of the taller mountains at the back.
Beyond the Churia lies the Mahabharat Lekh, a magnificent range that serves as an effective barrier to hill country up north. The mountains stand as tall as 2700 meters here and deep, broad valleys densely populated are encased within it. Given its wide altitudinal difference, the vegetation found in this mountain range goes from the subtropical to the alpine in the higher reaches.
One of the unusual formations of the great upheaval that brought the Himalayas into existence is the existence of wide valleys. Among these valleys, called the Inner Tarai and dun alternately, there are three in Nepal which are more than substantial both in size and population. The Chitwan Valley in central Nepal is the biggest of these three and also the most thoroughly settled.
After the Mahabharat Lekh comes the hilly region of Nepal. This area is where most Nepalese, regardless of whether they live in the country or elsewhere, can trace their ancestry from and hence, can be called the Nepali heartland. Rivers crisscross the hills in every direction and almost the entire stretch of this mountainous region is inhabited. River valleys and other wider valleys such as Kathmandu and Pokhara are found in abundance here. And although the fields here are very steep, fashioning terraces along the slopes where staple crops such as paddy, barley, buckwheat, maize and temperate vegetable and fruits are grown have made them cultivable.
Running parallel to the Mahabharat Range on the northern side of this zone of hills and valley is 885 kilometers of the Himalayan mountain range. Here lie seven other peaks besides Everest that soar above 8000meters: Khangchendzonga Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna. These are but the big ones of Nepal. There are numerous other peaks above 7000 and 6000 meters that are small only in comparison to the Himalayan giants; elsewhere lesser mountains command the heights, they would tower high above.
The Himalayas forms the border with Tibet/China in the eastern part of Nepal but somewhere near central Nepal, this chain moves resolutely inland. Taking its place at the border is another great range, the Tibetan Border Range. Although not as high as the main Himalayas, this range has its own peculiarity that is not fully recognized: its southern flanks drain into the Ganges river system while the northern part of the Tsangpo/Brahmaputra watershed.
These are lateral divisions that are clearly visible as one makes a journey from north to south and are mainly determined by altitude. There is another division that is felt as one move from east to west; one created by the three main river systems of Nepal.
The high Himalaya is not one unbroken chain of mountains. It only lends a semblance of a semblance of being a continuous line. The entire range is a series of mountain clusters that have been divided by rivers flowing through them.
Practically every river that flows down from Nepal’s mountains are tributaries to one of Nepal’s three great rivers: Koshi, Gandaki and Karnali. Into the Koshi, the largest of the three, all the rivers of eastern Nepal flow. In the same way, rivers from central and western Nepal flow into the Gandaki and the Karnali, respectively.
Within this area that makes up Nepal, lie innumerable places of breathtaking scenic beauty and an abundant variety of life. There are, in all, 6500 species of plant life, which include hundreds of exotic orchids, rhododendrons and the beautiful Himalayan blue poppy. Over 900 species of birds have been sighted – that is one-tenth of all birds found in the world. The elusive snow leopard up in the high Himalaya and the ferocious three-tonne rhino of the Tarai are among than 180 species of mammals that inhabit the wilder side of the country. While among the gentler inhabitants, humans, and Nepal harbors 27 ethic groups of peoples who radiate a cultural kaleidoscope, both fascinating and delightful.