Nestled in the cradle of the highest mountains on earth, Nepal has come to be known as the kingdom where deities mingle with mortals. Here are the Himalayas, the “Abode of the Gods,” Here, too, is the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, or what the Nepalese call Sagarmatha (“The Brow of the Oceans”). Sherpa artists picture the peak as the god Chomolungma riding the snow lion through clouds of many hues. Ancient sages sought the highest climes for meditative seclusion among gods who bestowed love or sudden anger on a worshipful people. Such devotion remains among today’s Nepalis: Whether Hindu, Buddhist or animist, the people of Nepal live close to their gods.

Nepal is one of the world’s most incredible countries—filled with geographical wonders and ethnological conundrum.  This is the home of millions of Nepalis whose languages and customs are as diverse as the terrain. From mountain to mountain, valley to valley, plateau to plain, ethnic groups vary as much as the climate.

No fewer than 36 languages and dialects are spoken in Nepal. Similar diversity is observed in rites and religions with wide variations between one ethnic group and its immediate neighbor. The prevailing pattern is of Hinduism in the south and Buddhism in the north; but animist rites and shamanistic practices have survived in a highly integrated from. Both major religions coexist in most of the country. And in the heart of the land, in the Kathmandu Valley, Hinduism merge, sharing the same festivals and the same places of worship.

Squeezed between the vastness of China to the north and India to the south, east and west, Nepal is the world’s most precipitous staircase to the frozen heights of “the Roof of the World.” Within a single day, one can fly closely past Everest and its neighboring summits, pause in the capital city of Kathmandu, and descend to the plains to ride elephants through tropical jungles and to view wild tigers.

A few years ago, Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom, unified by King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha in the late-18th century. Nepal today is a rectangular 497 miles (800 km) long and from 56 miles (90 km) to 137 miles (220 km) wide. Except for the narrow strip of the Terai plains along its southern boundary, (once alive with rhino and tigers), and the temperate, terraced valleys spread across its middle (home of the famous Gorkha soldiers), the country is entirely mountainous. More than a quarter of Nepal’s land area is over 9,843 feet (3,000 meters) in altitude and contains eight of the world’s highest mountains.

Legends, more memorable than history, traditional told the Nepalese all they needed to know about their origins, attributing unknown beginnings to great heroes and gods. But the sudden exposure of modern education, population pressure, communication and politics has altered age-old patterns and legends no longer carry the same meaning they once did. Still, the sense of belonging to one nation may not have spread to all the diverse people of this kingdom. To this day, it is not uncommon to hear people refer to Kathmandu as Nepal. Kathmandu may be Nepal, but Nepal is not just Kathmandu.