Nepal sits uneasily on the shoulder of the southern Himalaya, wedged between China to the north and India to the south. In length and breadth it is just another small country but in height, it's a world-beater. Not only does it have the world's tallest mountains, including the cloud-hugging Everest and Annapurna, they're also the youngest - and still growing. Apart from its four mountain ranges - Chure Hills, Mahabharat Range, Himalaya and the Tibetan Marginals - Nepal also has vast plains in the south, fertile valleys in the midlands and high-altitude deserts in the north. The heavily cultivated belt between the Mahabharat Range and the Himalaya supports the bulk of the country's population.

There are over 6500 species of trees, shrubs and wildflowers in Nepal. The height of floral glory is in March and April when rhododendrons, the national flower, burst into colour. Nepal also boasts an astounding diversity of animal life, with 800 bird species and exotic mammals such as the royal Bengal tiger and snow leopard, as well as rhinoceros, elephant, bear, deer, monkey and jackal. Unfortunately, due to habitat degeneration and poaching, opportunities for seeing wildlife are usually restricted to national parks, reserves and western Nepal, where the human population is sparse.

Nepal has a typically monsoonal two-season year: the dry season (October to May) and the wet season (June to September). The monsoon affects the whole country, often flooding the southern plains, before tailing off as it moves away to the north and west. Temperatures vary but are generally hottest in the summer months of May and June and coldest during December and January.

Climatic factors are very important in deciding when to visit Nepal. October-November, the start of the dry season, is in many ways the best time of year: the weather is balmy, the air is clean, visibility is perfect, and the country is lush following the monsoon.

February-April, the tail end of the dry season is the second-best period: visibility is not so good because of dust, but the weather is warm and many of Nepal's wonderful wild flowers are in bloom. In December and January the climate and visibility are good but it can be chilly: trekkers need to be well prepared for snow, and cheaper hotels in Kathmandu - where heating is nonexistent - can be gloomy in the evening. The rest of the year is fairly unpleasant for travelling: May and early June are generally too hot and dusty for comfort, and the monsoon from mid-June to September obscures the mountains in cloud and turns trails and roads to mud.