A walk back in time: Chandragiri-Hatiban

Historic hike on the ridge from where Prithvi Narayan Shah first laid eyes on the Kathmandu Valley in 1767

WIDE HORIZON: The main summit of Chandragiri as seen from the east peak, with the Annapurnas and Mt Himalchuli visible in the background through the haze. All Photos: KUNDA DIXIT

It may come as a surprise to many that trekking in Nepal does not always have to be Everest Base Camp or the Annapurna Circuit. 

The mountains that ring Kathmandu Valley offer some exhilarating walks with stunning views. They range from leisurely weekend strolls and day hikes to strenuous ridge treks that can last several days. The really adventurous can circumnavigate the Valley rim with three-four nights of camping along the way.

For beginners, a good place to start is the Chandragiri-Hatiban hike. It is a good idea to take the Chandragiri Cable Car up to the summit at 2,579m and walk the 10km ridge trail to Hatiban. This obviates the need for a steep hard climb at the beginning of the trek, while offering a five-hour hike along the long ridge that spans Kathmandu Valley’s southwestern edge.

The trip begins with a 12-minute cable car ride that takes off from Thankot base station, and generally follows the ancient trade route between India and Kathmandu. The trail is still visible in places, but most of it has been ruined by a new motorable road with multiple hairpin bends that climbs up the impossibly steep flanks to Chitlang Pass.

This was how kings, soldiers, traders and students, used to go in and out of Kathmandu before the first motorable road to the capital, the Tribhuvan Highway, was built in 1957. The Bhimphedi-Kulekhani-Chitlang-Thankot trail along which the Ranas had their first automobiles porter-carried up and down the steep trails is now only a distant memory.

An adjacent pass still has relics of Nepal’s first cargo ropeway, built by British engineers brought in by Chandra Shumshere Rana in 1922. Later, the Americans helped build the 42km Hetauda-Thankot ropeway in 1964, to ferry essential items to Kathmandu from the plains. The rusted hulks of both ropeway towers stand like silent sentinels to history. Visible on a far ridge, the red gondolas of the modern cable car can be seen going up and down from Chandragiri.

The cable car company also runs Chandragiri Resorts (see box below), which has been partially opened, and can serve as an overnight base camp for the hike. Located on a spur, the resort offers a panoramic view of the city below and a sweeping 300km of horizon from the Annapurnas to Mt Everest.

The cable car terminal at the summit also has historical significance because this is where Nepal’s founder, King Prithvi Narayan Shah, stood in 1767 to look down at the kingdoms of Kathmandu Valley that he would soon conquer. The resort has put up a bronze statue of the king with one of his famous exhortations written across the base: ‘Let’s thrash those who take bribes.’

It is a good idea to take the first cable car from Thankot when it opens at 8AM and start walking from the summit terminal. Alternatively, you can take the cable car up the previous afternoon, spend the night at the resort, and get an early start after breakfast.

The trail descends along the ridge down to the first of four passes that it traverses during the hike. There is now a motorable road from Mata Tirtha to Phakhel that follows the ropeway routes.

From here, there is a pleasant 45-minute climb through meadows and along thick forest paths to a tea shop that also offers tented camping for the night. The owner has just completed a 10+2 in hospitality studies and has thoughtfully put up signs along the trail so hikers do not get lost.

The path then follows a steep ridgeline through forest and bush until you intercept stone steps that line the trail right up to our destination on the other side of the mountain. The next stop is on the buffalo-grazing meadow below the east summit of Chandragiri (2,500m) which is prominently visible from Kathmandu whenever it snows. From up there, the city looks a long away down, and the view of Langtang, Dorje Lakpa and up to Gauri Shankhar is awe-inspiring.

Descending along the stone steps can be excruciating on the knees, so it is advisable to take along a walking stick. The third pass now has a motorable road from the Pharping side, which has not yet connected to the trail descending to Machhegaun.

The trail then climbs again to reach the long ridge to the summit of Champadevi, and then down the other side. Another hour of descending steps and we are in the pine forests near Hatiban, festooned with prayer flags.

Pharping is a holy site because it is one of the places in Nepal where Guru Rimpoche is supposed to have meditated, which explains why so many monasteries are located here.

Hatiban is ideally situated for a belated lunch and refreshments before taking a jeep back down to the city.

Read also: Nepal’s Grand Trek Road, Kunda Dixit

The Great Himalayan Trail, Kunda Dixit

The hotel on the hill

When Hem Raj Dhakal was working in Malaysia, he used to travel to Genting Highlands on weekends, and often wondered why there were no resorts like that in Nepal where the scenery is even more dramatic.

On trips back home, he walked among the peaks and ridges on the Valley rim from Lakuri Bhanjyang to Sitapila looking for a site for a future resort. Eventually Dhakal found the perfect spot  — on the highest point on Chandragiri ridge, at 2,500m.

The Chandragiri Cable Car opened in 2017, and an adjoining five-star resort was planned on a ridge below the summit.

“As soon as I got to the top, I knew this was what we were looking for. The view of Kathmandu below and the panorama of mountains to the north was unparalleled,” Dhakal recalls.

The summit also had historical significance since it was the place from where Prithvi Narayan Shah gazed down at the Nepa Valley 260 years ago and felt the urge to conquer it. The cable car got built, but the earthquake and subsequent upheavals delayed the hotel project.

Although behind schedule, Chandragiri Hills Resort has had a soft opening, and even though only two of the four buildings are in operation it is already getting guests eager to get above overcrowded Kathmandu’s pollution.

The resort’s target group is Nepali tourists who take the cable car up and want to spend a weekend to unwind, Kathmandu-based expats and — when the facilities are completed — conferences and destination weddings.

“Just imagine flying to Kathmandu and taking the cable car up here when it is 46 degrees in New Delhi,” says Abhishek Bikram Shah, “or guests from the Gulf who want to know what a monsoon in the Himalaya feels like.”

Indeed, Chandragiri’s stunning location amidst lush, forest-covered mountains teeming with birdlife means that even if the mountains are not visible, it is a nature retreat that allows guests to recharge their batteries.

The buildings are named after the mountains visible from the hotel: Ganesh Himal, Gauri Shankhar, Manaslu and Sagarmatha. All rooms have private balconies that offer views of either the western Himalaya or the mountains to the east. In addition, the rooms also have views of either the city below or the surrounding forests, or both.

The hotel can also serve as an excellent overnight stop for hikers who come up on the cable car and want to cross over to Chitlang and Kulekhani, or are doing the scenic ridgewalk to Hatiban (see main article). Since the hikes are along heavily-forested trails, the region is also a paradise for bird-watchers.

Hotel Manager Shyam Tandukar says this is the most exciting property he has looked after: “We have a health centre and spa, but even if you just want to be with nature amidst the forests and mountains, this place has healing properties.”

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