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Nepal good for gays? With LGBT rights about to be enshrined in its new constitution, with its legal recognition of a "third gender" and with same-sex unions on the horizon, this tiny country between India and China just might be the most welcoming LGBT travel destination in Asia.

Cold sweats, shortness of breath, pounding headache, even some vomiting--this could be the lead-up to any wedding, anywhere in the world.

But we aren't just anywhere. We're hiking to Mt. Everest, and we're winding a slow path, on foot, through the Himalaya. The vomiting (for at least one of us) begins at Namche Bazaar, a village 11,300 feet high in the Khumbu Valley. Namche has 1,000 year-round residents, about as many yaks and many more itinerant adventure-seekers. Despite the bouts of altitude sickness, we have come to idealize Namche, with its knockoff mountain gear, ready Internet actress, and plentiful Everest brand beer, as a kind of cloud-shrouded Shangri-La, a place of relative warmth, comfort and joy. As we walk, we unconsciously begin humming "Namche, Namche ..." to the tune of Madonna's Ray of Light-era "Shanti/Ashtangi."

Our tiny group--Jen and I and our friend Kat, as well as a Colorado-based mountain guide, a Sherpa and three porters--has been hiking steadily upward for days, though we've taken some one-or two-day breaks to try to acclimatize and therefore avoid the effects of altitude. The teahouse accommodations have become steadily more ascetic, but the landscape is more breathtaking with each vertical foot we climb.

Oh, and one confession: We're not really a wedding party. We're an advance film crew, scouting what we hope will be our next project, a story about Everest. Does a wedding feature in the last reel? Hey, who knows?

Director and scriptwriter Jen Heck and I began our trip, strangely enough, in Palm Springs, where we met up to film the shenanigans at Dinah Shore Weekend. After ditching our more impractical items (bikini, Bermuda shorts) in L.A., we're off to Kathmandu via Bangkok.

Once in Kathmandu, we establish our home base at the Hotel Courtyard in the Thamel neighborhood, the main tourist district. Our friend Kat Pankam, a fashion stylist, has taken the popular East Coast route to Nepal (via New York and Mumbai) and is already waiting for us, rested and ready for adventure. Although we have only a couple of days in Kathmandu, we soak up the sights and sounds as deeply as we can--exploring on foot and in motorized rickshaws, gazing at the architecture of Durbar Square and the pilgrims at Swayambhunath Temple, and eating everything from chicken curry on the cheap to Korean barbecue at a swanky rooftop restaurant (also ridiculously cheap).

"Kathmandu's jam-packed with every kind of experience," Jen says. "You can almost get run over by a rickshaw and then walk into a store with brand-new Macs."

We hate to leave, but our date with the Himalaya calls.

Except for our little tribe, we find that the mountain has yet to become a gay mecca, although at one teahouse we do meet a ladies' wrestling team from Canada. Of course, it's a little difficult to tell gay from straight through all our layers of fleece and Gore-Tex.

But Nepal itself, especially Kathmandu, is changing--and quickly. For one thing, a law that my 2006 Lonely Planet alludes to, one that forbids "any kind of unnatural sex" (used to justify police harassment of gay Nepalis), was stricken from the books in 2008.

In just a few years, this strategically placed nation of 28 million people has tossed out a king, moved from a Hindu monarchy to a secular state, and declared itself a democratic republic. Although parliament is still discussing the exact terms of a new constitution (the deadline for ratification is now extended until May 2011), the LGBT civil rights that will be enshrined in the constitution are not subject to any serious debate.

"At the end of 2007, the Supreme Court made this fantastic verdict ordering government to amend discriminatory policies against gays, lesbians, and transgenders. [Now] all the political parries are actively recruiting the sexual/gender minority vote," says Sunil Pant, who was one of the plaintiffs in the case that ended sanctioned discrimination, and who, just a few months later, was elected to the nation's parliament. He is now the first openly gay man serving in a parliament anywhere in South Asia.

Nepal's Supreme Court followed up by legally recognizing a "third gender" in 2008, and Pant predicts that the legalization of same-sex unions, which is currently under review and about "80 percent finished," is imminent in the next few months. By the end of the year, Nepal is likely to enact more comp-rehensive LGBT civil rights litigation than you'll find in any country nearby--in this respect Nepal will resemble the Netherlands more than its neighbor China.

And Pant is poised to take full advantage of this new state of affairs. He has started an LGBT-focused tourism company, Pink Mountain, and has the country's Ministry of Tourism squarely behind him, although he urges that they still must do more.

The Ministry of Tourism is planning a concerted outreach to LGBT consumers as part of its Nepal Tourism Year 2011 campaign--the goal is to more than double Nepal's yearly visitors, from 400,000 to 1,000,000 people--and Pant himself has been traveling abroad to gay travel conventions, spreading the word on Nepal and even envisioning the prospect of same-sex marriages at Everest Base Camp.

Pant is careful to note that gay and lesbian visitors won't find many gay bars or gayborhoods in Nepal. However, he hopes that what it lacks in a scene Nepal will make up for in something more meaningful: Its natural beauty and its friendly, spiritual people have been attracting the backpacker set since the 1960s and mountain adventurers since the days of Sir Edmund Hillary. In fact, Hillary came to love Nepal so much after his Everest ascent that he returned to found many schools in the countryside.

But about those Base Camp marriages at nearly 20,000 feet--they're probably not for everyone. No one in our triad has escaped a bout of altitude sickness by the time we finally drag ourselves into Base Camp (although our guides and porters seem fine). While the ill effects wane with time, and doses of Diamox, a drug that increases the oxygen in your blood, helps speed things up.

"It's worth the vomit," declares Jen.

Still, a nice day trip from Kathmandu, 7,000 feet closer to sea level, is what I might wind up recommending for your wedding party.
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Author:La O, Maria De
Publication:Curve
Geographic Code:9NEPA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Words:1052
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