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This Himalayan kingdom, famous for staging ascents on Mount Everest, is home to eight of the world's tallest mountains, and more than 4,000 Buddhist and Hindu temples and monasteries, many within an hour's drive of Kathmandu. To encourage the steadily-rising tide of visitors (the government hopes to attract one million foreign visitors in 2011), Nepal is proceeding with controversial plans for paving a road around the Annapurna Circuit, a famed 128-mile track that previously required a three-week trek through jungles, terraced tea farms, and evergreen forests up to a sea of 20,000-foot peaks. Trekkers can avoid crowds on the newly mapped Great Himalaya Trail, which stretches 1,056 miles through Nepal on its 2,800-mile route from Pakistan to Bhutan. Must-visit sites include the ancient cities of Bhaktapur and Lalitpur and the Chitwan National Park; the lake district surrounding Pokhara is emerging as a high-altitude yoga retreat.
Know the backstory:
Nepal made headlines in 2001 when its crown prince massacred most of the royal family and then turned the gun on himself. In 2006, democratic political parties united with Maoist rebels to oust the former king's brother from the throne, ending a ten-year civil war and more than two centuries of monarchical rule. While the ceasefire has endured, the country remains fragile, due to an unstable workforce and struggles to agree on a new constitution.
Unless you are ambitious enough to cross the Indian border on foot or by bus, the easiest way into Nepal is by direct flight from Bangkok or Singapore. In Kathmandu, the heritage-focused Dwarika's Hotel was built to preserve the owner's collection of carved wooden pillars, doors, and windows rescued from old Newari-style houses. Ker and Downey Nepal offer 10- to 12-day treks based in five upmarket lodges on the Annapurna circuit. In 2011, World Expeditions launched exclusive treks on the Great Himalayan Trail.