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Humla’s protective isolation, though, had perhaps outlasted its utility. The poverty of far western Nepal made it a fertile recruiting ground for the Maoist revolutionaries, and the region was aching for some of the benefits that a more unified Nepal might bring. As Paul Stevens, a tourism adviser for SNV, told me: “Job creation is the best way of keeping ex-combatants as ex-combatants.”

Riksal’s eyes widened as we told him about SNV’s plans for the Great Himalaya Trail. Just as political power has traditionally been concentrated in Kathmandu, the lion’s share of trekking revenues has always gone to the Everest and Annapurna regions. The GHT would help put other equally deserving places on the international adventure map. “We need to tell the world about Humla so they will want to come here,” Riksal said. “We need more tourists.” I tried to frame a suitable, unpatronizing reply. But the rinpoche, as if sensing my thoughts, neatly shifted the focus to economic problems elsewhere. He had a radio, he said, and occasionally pulled in news broadcasts from the BBC. “What about this subprime mortgage situation?” he asked, eyes twinkling once more. “This is a real problem, yes?”

The slope got steeper. The bike picked up speed. The handlebars bucked, trying to spring free from my grip; the water bottle exploded in its cage, spraying me from knee to chin. I skidded to a stop, and Ranjan Rajbhandari, a guide for Nepal Mountain Bike Tours, rode up. He glared. “More slowly, please,” he said. His advice was sound, but the temptation was simply too great: a Himalayan slope pitched at 20 degrees, the bottom far below.

I was riding on the Annapurna Circuit, the legendary route whose incorporation into the Great Himalaya Trail was a no-brainer. Nearly two-thirds of the hikers who come to Nepal head for the Annapurna region, whose signature trek makes a 16-day, 180-mile tour around the glaciated giants of the Annapurna Massif. The trek boasts history—Herzog with his near-deadly climb in 1950; the pioneering trek of Roberts and Le Bon in 1967—and offers unrivaled scenic diversity. You start at 2,493 feet in subtropical forests and slowly climb to the snowy, 17,769-foot Thorung pass before plumbing the Kali Gandaki, the second deepest gorge on Earth after China’s Tsangpo. Along the way are top-quality teahouse trekking facilities, meaning you only need to tote a sleeping bag and a change of clothes as you travel from lodge to lodge. There are better routes for wilderness solitude, but other than that, the variety of the Annapurna Circuit makes it one of the best treks to do if you’re only going to do one hike in Nepal.

Rajbhandari and I had flown to the village of Jomosom to sample one leg of the circuit, a three-day, 6,000-foot descent through the Kali Gandaki gorge that is good on foot and even better (more thrilling, at least) on a mountain bike. The ride began in the high desert of Lower Mustang, at the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Leaving town, we rode into a tawny valley strewn with rocks and dotted with spiny shrubs and gnarled junipers. From our stopping place for the night, a small lodge called Kalopani, we saw a hint of the subtropical lowlands we’d soon experience: a monkey dangling from the branches of a lichen-shrouded tree. The next day we entered the heart of the Kali Gandaki. The triple massif of Nilgiri North, Central, and South loomed above the jungle green. Higher still stood Dhaulagiri (26,811 feet) to the west and Annapurna I (26,545 feet) to the east, each rising more than 18,000 feet above the valley floor.

When Le Bon passed through in 1967, he was impressed not only by the dramatic topography but by the hospitality for which Nepal has become famous. In Tukucha he met the provincial governor, riding on a white horse and being fanned by bearers with parasols. The attendants draped Le Bon with colorful garlands, and the governor insisted that Le Bon sit beside him on a wooden dais as he presided over a town meeting. The only blemish to the encounter came when the governor leaned over to ask if Le Bon was an agent of the CIA.

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