Chitlang village is a stone’s throw away from Kathmandu, yet it doesn’t see many visitors due to its relative obscurity. However, it wasn’t always so: before the opening of the Tribhuvan Highway in 1956, the settlement was the last stop before Kathmandu on the trade route from India, when goods would arrive by caravan. The first automobile to arrive in Kathmandu was portered from India via Chitlang in 1940. Walking the trail from Chitlang to Kathmandu, it is easy to feel swept away by history as you walk in the well-worn steps of those before you. Nonetheless, Chitlang hasn’t quite become the tourist destination it deserves to be — yet.
I had been living in Kathmandu for a couple of years before I heard about this historical settlement and made arrangements to visit. Although you can reach Chitlang by vehicle, I prefer to get to places using my own two feet. It is possible to walk to Chitlang and back in one day from Kathmandu, or you can reach the village as part of a weekend walking trip, incorporating an overnight stay in Kulekhani.
I started my walk from Kulekhani Lake after a delicious breakfast of masala chiya and sel-roti (a delicious Nepali doughnut made with rice flour, a particular favourite of mine). The trail led through quiet forests, and although I took a wrong turn, luckily I met two young Nepalis who were also heading to Chitlang. They were returning from Hetauda, where they had been to present documents to obtain their passport. Because they are from Chitlang, their passport documents must be processed in Hetauda, not Kathmandu, despite Kathmandu being closer to Chitlang. The bus being both expensive and inconvenient meant they had made the trip by foot. Like me, they had also spent the night at Kulekhani Lake, and the final 8km of their long journey would see them back home in Chitlang by lunchtime.
Our walking paces were very different, and it was difficult sometimes for me to keep up with them, but they patiently waited for me to take photographs of the attractive stone settlements we passed through, and proudly told me about the history of Chitlang as a trading settlement throughout the ages.
After a walk through the forest, Chitlang opens up into a semi-circular hidden valley. There, I said goodbye to my companions and went in search of lunch. I located the Goat Cheese and Wine Homestay, which I had already heard good things about from people who had stayed there. The owners seemed quite surprised to see me and didn’t really cater for an impromptu lunch. However, they did sell me some cheese, biscuits and some plum wine to wash it all down with, and invited me to consume it on the balcony of their homestay.
Chatting to the owner, he proudly showed off his certificates from various goats cheese training programmes in Western Europe. After my cheesy lunch, he showed me some of his goats and the plum trees from which his wife makes the wine. I was really amazed at the level of skill and expertise. Most of the cheese produced is sold to high-end hotels in Kathmandu, which explains why there is not more available on the local market.
After my lunch, I ambled around Chitlang, taking in the traditional architecture and the pleasantness of the fresh air and brightly coloured fields. Sheltered on all sides, its fertile soil yields rice paddies that were still lush and verdant from monsoon, yet the autumn had advanced enough for the mustard crop to be flowering yellow. Chitlang’s traditional buildings largely survived the 2015 earthquake, but there are no obvious temples here like in the more famous Newari settlements of Panauti or Bhaktapur, and for that reason you do get the feeling that it has always been a stopping-off point for people travelling through rather than a major settlement.
Nonetheless, Chitlang’s atmosphere is traditional, with its carved stone water spouts and wells, brick-built houses and patis with carved traditional wooden support beams. There are one or two modern concrete buildings that threaten to encroach on its charm, if many more are built. Less than 10km away from Kathmandu by foot, Chitlang feels worlds away from the bustling capital city, with very few motorised vehicles passing through.
It could have been very easy to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in peaceful Chitlang, enjoying the serenity. However I needed to get back to Kathmandu. So, fortified by cheese and somewhat compromised by wine, I set off back towards the city. The walk follows the old caravan route that has degenerated into a well-worn footpath. As a history teacher, I loved the feeling of walking in the footsteps of the past and, at times, I could make out the ancient cobbles under the vegetation. There are places where the jeep track (under construction at the time of writing) cuts through the old trail, but you can see easily enough where there are ‘shortcuts’. The jeep track itself was mercifully quiet.
The path up to Chitlang Deurali continues through the trees and is a steep climb through the forest. I was blessed by good weather and so, quite suddenly towards the top of the climb, I saw the white peaks piercing the sky to the north of Kathmandu. A little more climbing and I saw the city, contained within the hills of the Kathmandu Valley, opened out before me, with the mountains watching over it.
It was exhilarating to think that this would have been the first glimpse of the Himalayas that people traveling to Kathmandu from India would have seen, before the Tribhuvan Highway was completed in 1956. Wiped out by the climb and the views, I was happy to take a reviving break and enjoy some tea and channa (spiced chickpeas) at the teahouse at Chitlang Deurali, 2250 meters high.
My descent down towards Thankot was a mixture of trail-finding and road-construction dodging. The trail often took me through the forest and was quite steep in parts, so I had to be careful with my footing. This section of the walk takes you through a mix of traditional houses and settlements juxtaposed with new constructions as you get closer to civilisation, which, for me, is classic modern Nepal. Once you reach Thankot you can arrange a taxi or other transport back into the centre of Kathmandu.
The walk from Machegaun to Kulekhani, and then from Kulekhani to Chitlang village to Thankot, can be done over two days as quite a strenuous walk. There are also options to get to Chitlang by road from Kathmandu, and options to get to Kulekhani by road from Kathmandu, via Pharping.
Article and photos by Hannah Straw