Long before there were highways to Kathmandu from the plains, there was only one way in and the same way out: the Chitlang Trail. Everyone and everything from India to Kathmandu passed through this steep staircase trail that started in Bhimphedi, crossed an old iron bridge over the Kulekhani river and descended steeply down to Thankot.
The trail has seen them all: Indian pilgrims visiting Pashupati at Shivaratri, or herds of water buffaloes for the Dasain slaughter. And in the other direction would go Nepali students headed for school in Benares, or royalty in palanquins headed to the plains. The Mercedes Benz gifted by Adolf Hitler to King Tribhuvan, and other automobiles were physically carried up this trail from the plains.
Nepal’s rulers wanted to keep Kathmandu militarily impregnable from the south, and were therefore not in a hurry to build a motorable road. Today, ruins of Rana-era rest houses and disused stone stairs overgrown with vegetation are the only relics of this historic trail. The iron bridge and much of the trail have been submerged by the Kulekhani dam.
There are two roads that lead to Hetauda via Chitlang: the first is the Tribhuvan Highway, built in 1959 to finally link Kathmandu to India, and the newer road via Dakshinkali. But there is a third — adventurous and shorter — route that follows the old trail from Godam in Thankot over Chandragiri Pass to Chitlang Valley.
The steep switchbacks from Thankot to the pass are not for the faint-hearted driver or passenger, and the route is nearly impassable in the monsoon. A four-wheel drive is a must, and it will test every off-road skill a driver possesses. It is quite literally an uphill task.
But for a real weekend adventure getaway, forget the SUV, hop on your mountain bikes and go up and over Chandragiri to Chitlang. You can stop and admire the old trail, and remember our forebears who walked this route.
Chitlang itself is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic settlement, with a mosaic of Newari, Tamang and Brahmin-Chhetri settlements. This was the old trade artery to Kathmandu, and relics of that era can be found everywhere.
The final dive
The trail from right up the Chandragiri Pass to Kulekhani Lake (32 km) is ideal for mountain biking. Riding through villages, with views of green paddy terraces, waterfalls and pine forests, is an exhilarating experience. After a day of biking, the banks of Kulekhani Reservoir offer scenic camping sites. There is no better way to spend the weekend than to sleep under a starlit sky, with the scent of pine wafting through the air, blanketed in nature’s bounty. Because of the Kulekhani hydropower project, Chitlang Valley has 24-hour power — a matter of envy (and some hope) for visitors from Kathmandu.
What to eat
Chitlang’s famous goat cheese is not to be missed, nor is the Himalayan Plantations olive farm started by Hartmut Bauder. The area takes immense pride in its organic produce, which you may want to try on the spot or pack up for home. Shops and restaurants around Kulekhani Lake serve fresh fish delicacies.
Chasing the cheese
Ashok Kumar Singh Thakuri went to France to learn the fine art of making goat cheese 13 years ago, and came back to Nepal to produce goat cheese like it were going out of fashion. Thakuri buys goat milk from surrounding villages, and has set up the Chitlang Chandragiri Cheese Production Society, raising the cash incomes of hundreds of families. Thakuri’s cheese plant is testimony to what can be achieved in Nepal if people put their minds to it. Thakuri now supplies goat cheese to Kathmandu’s upmarket hotels.
Taking an off-road jeep from Godam (on the way to Thankot) all the way to Chitlang will cost about Rs 150 per person. You can also hire a jeep from Godam stop for Rs 4,000, depending on your bargaining skills. It’s a hair-raising ride, so you may prefer to just ride your mountain bike, or even hike.
Falling with water, Samriddhi Rai
Going underground, Samriddhi Rai