Colorful Nepal Is Still a Favorite Spot for Treks

Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

The huge, one-horned rhinoceros climbed out of a waterhole in the jungle just ahead of us and shook its head defiantly.

The elephant we were riding snorted almost derisively, and the rhino prudently retreated into the jungle.

The scene took place in Chitwan National Park, scarcely a half-hour by small plane from Nepal's capital city of Katmandu.

From now through April, a dozen tour companies have scheduled more than 300 treks in Nepal, despite India's economic and border boycott that continues to raise questions for travelers.

Since March, India has closed most overland entry points into Nepal, a country of scarcely 17 million people landlocked between India and China.

Prior to China's military crackdown on its own people in June, Nepal's constitutional monarchy had established independent foreign and economic policies that included more commerce with China, plus some restrictions on India's access to the Nepal-Chinese border, despite Nepal's basic economic dependence on overland trade with India.

When the India/Nepal trade and transit treaty came up for renewal in March, India underscored its wish to remain the dominant economic partner by delaying negotiations and closing 13 of 15 border crossings into Nepal, creating shortages of fuel and medical supplies and some food supplies.

This action was protested in a letter signed by 50 bipartisan members of the U.S. Congress, who pointed out that even with the purchase of some updated military equipment from China, tiny Nepal still has a security force of only 25,000 troops.

However, largely as a result of a meeting last month between King Birendra of Nepal and Prime Minister Gandhi of India, three border crossings are now open and negotiations are continuing.

Adventure tours have continued to arrive by air and continued to maintain supply lines. Nepal itself has increased airborne commerce with Malaysia and Singapore.

Meanwhile, the State Department Travel Advisory of May 13 remains in effect. It cautions travelers of transportation difficulties within the country due to the shortage of petroleum imports. Tour operators have been dealing with the situation by negotiating for their own petroleum purchases.

The advisory also notes that while visitors to Nepal can safely travel in tour groups, no one should trek alone due to the possibility of being attacked and robbed in some wilderness areas.

Sobek Expeditions of Angels Camp, Calif., has teamed with World Expeditions of Australia to offer more than 200 trips, ranging from soft adventures to high-altitude challenges for experienced mountaineers.

Sobek adventures of from five days to five weeks are priced from $650 to $3,000, plus air fare. For more information, call toll-free (800) 777-7939.

Mountain Travel of El Cerrito, Calif. is offering trips varying from easy three-day rambles to a strenuous 32-day trek to the glaciers in a newly opened region of Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world at 28,208 feet.

Mountain Travel trips include a nine-day trek through Sherpa country, with memorable views of the alpenglow on the summit of earth's highest peak, 29,028-foot Mt. Everest. The price is $2,949, including air fare from Seattle. Call (800) 227-2384.

A Nepal adventure tour company also named Mountain Travel, but a separate entity from the California-based company, is represented in the United States by InnerAsia Expeditions of San Francisco.

InnerAsia offers 16-day tours, with departures scheduled for October, November and December, that include a three-day Annapurna Himalaya trek, as well as jungle walks and elephant safaris from Tiger Tops Lodge. The cost is $1,575 plus air fare. Call (415) 922-0448.

For travelers to Nepal, the most evident sign of the border problem is apt to be the relatively few number of cars on the main streets of Katmandu, due to the blockade's curtailment of petroleum imports.

Getting to meet the people of Nepal begins on the picturesque back streets of Katmandu. It continued for us in the historic Yak and Yeti Hotel, a departure base for many tours and a rendezvous center for local civic and business leaders.

We were able to mingle with people in the villages, view the ancient monasteries and Buddhist temples, share the paths with pony caravans.

When the small Royal Nepal Airlines plane landed us at Meghauli to begin our elephant safari to Chitwan National Park and Tiger Tops Lodge, schoolchildren came out and danced for us.

Light packs, cameras and water are the only "carries" on most Nepal jungle and mountain adventures. Experienced guides lead and back up each trek. The support staff, porters and sometimes pack animals transport the food, tents and all necessary equipment.

Good physical condition is an essential. Some treks require a background in mountaineering and a doctor's certificate of fitness.

One of the most challenging adventures is the complete circle of the Annapurna Himalaya (rated "strenuous"), crossing a 17,771-foot pass, which fortunately comes at midpoint after you've had a chance to get used to altitudes at such "moderate" heights as 10,000 feet.

Mountain Travel of El Cerrito has a price beginning at $2,140, plus air fare, for 29- or 32-day adventures during October and November.

Above the Clouds Trekking of Worcester, Mass., describes a typical tourist day in Nepal as starting with a 6 a.m. cup of tea, followed by a hot breakfast. Hikers are on their way by 7 a.m. There's a lunch break about 11 a.m., then continued hiking until about 3:30 p.m.

During the day, the group may spread out as much as a mile, escorted by three guides. Porters will help by carrying children too small for the eight days of continuous walking.

The land cost for this trip is $1,400 per adult, $800 for youngsters 8 to 12, $700 for ages 2-7, and $400 for children under 2. Call (800) 233-4499.

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