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In Nepal
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Map of Nepal

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By T. D. Allman Photographs by Maggie Steber

Gateway to the Himalaya, the nation struggles under its old burden of poverty and a new one—urban sprawl.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Bishnu Pratap Shah still remembers the time he wanted to punish the servant for losing the snowball. “I was nine,” Bishnu said. “It was my first snowball. I told him to keep it for me, but when I came back, the foolish fellow claimed it had disappeared.”

This incident happened in 1944, but in Nepal it might have been 500 years ago. Nepal was still Asia’s forbidden kingdom—ruled by hereditary prime ministers, the Ranas. Polygamy and child marriage were legal. Technologically, too, Nepal was in the Middle Ages—no airplanes, no roads.

Bishnu had reason to want to keep his snowball. The eternal snows of the Himalaya glisten on the far horizon above Kathmandu all year round, but it snows in the city, on average, only once in a Nepalese lifetime. It’s a sight to remember: the snow shimmering on the multitiered pagodas, dusting the bare bodies of the erotic sculptures. Ringing temple bells and the Sanskrit chanting of Hindu priests echo down the alleys of a medieval city that—just this once, until the snow melts—might be located beside the Rhine, in the Pied Piper’s time, not in the lap of the Himalaya.

Bishnu was raised by relatives and retainers, including the man caring for him that memorable day. “I wanted to take my snowball home; when he said it had disappeared, I accused him of hiding it. He was very confused. He told me it was nowhere to be found.”

Bishnu explained: “Back then Nepalese didn’t understand snow melted, any more than we understood the world is round.”

More than 40 years later many Nepalese still didn’t know. In 1987 Bishnu and I trekked into his home village, Maidi, in the mountains west of Kathmandu. I was the first American to step foot in Maidi. People in the tea shop there had heard something very peculiar—while the sun was shining in Nepal, it was nighttime in America. They wanted to know why.

I called for an orange and a Petromax lantern. The tea shop owner pumped up the pressure lamp so it glowed. “This lantern is the sun,” I said. I held up the orange. “And this is the Earth. It is not flat; it is round, and it turns.” I made a mark on one side of the orange, then another on the other side. “This is Nepal. And this is America.” Then I turned the orange. As they watched Nepal and America rotate between light and darkness, I saw the light of comprehension in their eyes, especially in the children’s eyes.

On my latest visit to Nepal, I saw a new kind of light in the eyes of some Nepalese children. At a cybercafé named K@mandu, they peered into flickering computer screens—an experience, judging from their excitement, they would remember as long as Bishnu remembers his snowball.

As Bishnu and I reminisced, he put the changes in personal terms: “No Nepalese has lived or ever again will live a life like mine. My parents were born in the Middle Ages. My son belongs to the 21st century. Only my life spans both the Middle Ages and the new millennium.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic Magazine.

In More to Explore the National Geographic Magazine team shares some of their best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Nepal sets its clock 15 minutes ahead of neighboring India—more as a symbol of political independence than because of any significant time differences.

University of Vermont Himalayan Cataract Project
Find extensive information on cataracts and the efforts of opthamologists working to conquer blindness in the Himalaya on this website of the University of Vermont Himalayan Cataract Project, which runs the Tilganga Eye Centre, featured in the NGM article.

Welcome to Nepal
Learn about the top tourist sites of Nepal at the Nepal Tourism Board website.

TND Foundation
The Nepal Digest Foundation runs this site, providing links on everything related to Nepal. You can sign up free of charge for the Nepal Digest e-mail newsletter at this site as well.

CIA-The World Factbook 2000—Nepal
The CIA World Factbook provides a general overview of Nepal, including data on population, government, infrastructure, and the economy.


Choegyal, L. Insight Guides: Nepal. APA Publications Ltd., 1994.

Hagen, T. Nepal: The Kingdom in the Himalayas. Rand McNally & Co., 1961.

Raeper, W. and M. Hoftun. Spring Awakening: An Account of the 1990 Revolution in Nepal. Penguin Books, 1992.

Roberts, P. Kathmandu: City on the Edge of the World. Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd., 1989.


Kellner, Debra. “Rana Tharu: Women of Grace.” National Geographic, Sept. 2000, 82-99.

Valli, Eric. “The Golden Harvest of the Raji.” National Geographic, June. 1998, 84-105.

National Geographic's Last Wild Places. National Geographic Books, 1996.

Carrier, Jim and Robb Kendrick. “Gatekeepers of the Himalaya.” National Geographic, Dec. 1992, 70-89.

Bishop, Barry C. and William Thompson. “The Mighty Himalaya: A Fragile Heritage.” National Geographic, Nov. 1988, 624-631.

Teas, Jane. “The Temple Monkeys of Nepal.” National Geographic, Apr. 1980, 575-584.


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