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APRIL 3 , 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 13

Detour
By ED PETERS

  TRAVEL WATCH

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It turns out that getting bumped up isn't a byzantine process. Nor is it a popularity contest

Detour
At an altitude of 4,000 m and a visa fee of $700, the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang is a doubly steep proposition

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At an altitude of 4,000 m and a visa fee of $700, the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang is a doubly steep proposition. Perched on the remote northern border of Nepal, four days by foot from the nearest airstrip (in Jomsom), Mustang was inevitably dubbed Shangri-La when it opened up to foreign tourism in 1992. Its 600-year-old royal dynasty and 14th-century walled capital of Lo Manthang, set amid a starkly beautiful arid mountainscape, have made it a magnet for high-altitude adventurers.

To preserve the area's fragile environment, the Nepalese government has set an annual limit of 1,000 trekkers, who must travel on escorted, organized groups responsible for bringing their own food, fuel and accommodation (in the form of tents) and carrying out all their trash. Despite the price tag, there has been no shortage of applicants. Inspired by the these eco-friendly regulations, visitors hike happily through the kingdom, past tiny villages, fields of maize (the only local crop), lamaseries ringing with Buddhist chants and wayside shrines bedecked with gorgeous dream-like paintings known as tankas. For many, the highlight of the trek is taking tea with the King of Mustang, a gruff sexagenarian who occupies a four-story palace in the center of Lo Manthang.

Since tourism is so tightly controlled, its impact on the lifestyle of Mustang's 5,000 inhabitants has been relatively limited. The only downside to the surge of visitors, according to Crown Prince Jigme, is that the government in Kathmandu keeps the lion's share of the money earned from permit fees.

A 15-day trek to Mustang with tour organizer Tiger Mountain starts at $2,600, including visa fee. Contact the company at (977-1) 411-225 or visit their website, www.tigermountain.com.

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