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The insider's guide to Nepal

By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- On the day a peace deal is due to be signed between the government of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist insurgents, we offer a guide to the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal.

So where exactly is Nepal?

Pay attention! The HIMALAYAN Kingdom of Nepal.

Oh, right.

According to the Lonely Planet Travel Guide the country is "draped along the spine of the Himalayas," and bordered to the south, east and west by India, and to the north by China, which has controlled the neighboring region of Tibet since the 1950s. The Guide goes on to describe Nepal as "a land of sublime scenery, time-worn temples, and some of the best hiking trails on earth."

Sounds like a mountain paradise.

Scenically it is undeniably stunning, with rearing, snow-capped mountains and lush green valleys. Sadly it is also one of the world's poorest countries, with a per capita GDP of just $1,400, an unemployment rate of 42 percent and over a third of the population living below the poverty line -- a situation that has been exacerbated by a history of damaging political instability.

Don't tell me: the Maoist insurgency.

That's certainly a major part of the problem, of which more below. The country has also suffered from friction -- and at times outright conflict -- between its hereditary monarchy and its government.

More details please.

While its history can be traced back almost 1,500 years, the nation of Nepal as it exists today only emerged in the 18th century. Aside from a brief flirtation with democracy in the 1950s, it was subject to direct monarchical rule until the introduction of multi-party democratic government in 1991. Since then the king -- known in Nepal as the Raja -- has enjoyed a rocky relationship with his cabinet, twice suspending parliament and re-assuming full executive powers (in 2002-2004 and 2005-2006). To add to the general air of instability the royal family itself has not been free from internecine wranglings, most recently and dramatically in June 2001 when Crown Prince Dipendra massacred nine members of his own family, including his father and mother, the king and queen, before turning his gun on himself. He was in a coma for three days -- during which period, ironically, he was named the new raja -- before dying, to be succeeded by the current ruler, King Gyanendra (born 1947). The latter's powers have now been reduced to essentially ceremonial ones.

And the Maoists?

In 1996 Maoists rebels, determined to overthrow the existing regime and replace it with a Communist republic, initiated a conflict that has, in the intervening decade, claimed some 13,000 lives, and left 100,000 people homeless. Although ceasefires in 2001 and 2003 both failed to hold, talks between the government and rebel leaders resumed in May 2006, and in June 2006 Prime Minister Koirala and senior rebel leader Prachanda met face to face, the first such high-level contact between the two sides. In November 2006 a deal was provisionally agreed placing rebel arms under U.N. supervision and paving the way for a lasting peace settlement.

So is it safe to visit?

Despite all the political upheavals it's actually a lot safer for tourists than it sounds. There are certain areas you should probably avoid -- make sure you do your research into this before you go -- but in general the country has proved both a popular and safe (not to mention memorable) holiday destination, with visitors more likely to be affected by altitude sickness than political turmoil.

Anything else I should know about?

All sorts of things. The country is predominantly Hindu (about 81 percent of the population), with Buddhists and Muslims accounting for most of the rest; the main languages are Nepali (spoken by almost half the population), Maithali, Bhojpuri, Tharu and Tamang; and the capital is Kathmandu which, as well as boasting a host of important historical and religious sites, also gave its name to a great song by Cat Stevens (and a not bad one by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band).

And what should I look out for if I do go there?

You should really consult a proper guidebook about this, but among the country's many highlights are Durbar Square in Kathmandu (which boasts more than 50 temples and monuments, as well as the spectacular Hanuman Dhoka Durbar, or Royal Palace); the Boudhanath stupa, also in Kathmandu and the largest stupa in the country; and Chitwan National Park with its population of bears, deer, gharial crocodiles and Indian one-horned rhinos. And of course you can also trek into the foothills of Mount Everest, or Sagarmatha as it is known in Nepal.


Nepalese security personnel stand outside the entrance to the Hanuman Dhoka Durbar in Kathmandu.

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