Stairway To Heaven – A weekend in Chisapani and the Shivapuri Forest
Late autumn, winter and early spring, as everyone knows, are the perfect times to head to the hills surrounding Kathmandu, to view the mountains and “chill” out, and the favourite spots are Nagarkot and Dhulikhel. But with a little more energy and a smaller budget, why not try Chisapani? Sure, it is possible to drive there now, rather uncomfortably though, but it is the walk up and down the stairs from Sundarijal which make the end destination worth the aching muscles.
The northern part of the Kathmandu Valley rises to the sprawling forests of the Shivapuri Nagarjun Forest, upgraded to national park status in 2002 to protect the valley’s main water source, as well as 177 species of birds and numerous rare orchids. Butterflies were flitting in great numbers particularly near streams. This is one of the last areas of woodland left in the valley, and the forest is reported to support monkeys, barking deer, civets, mongoose, reptiles and even leopards and bears. Shivapuri (the word “Shivapuri” roughly translates as ‘Shiva’s hangout place’) National Park covers 159 square kilometers and the sacred Bagmati and Vishnumati rivers which run through the valley have their origins within this park. Shivapuri Peak is the highest point at 2,732 meters and is the second highest in the valley and climbing it is popular with locals and tourists alike.
The easiest and most popular way to Chisapani is to start from Sundarijal, at the foot of Shivapuri Forest in the northeast corner of the valley. From the Sundirijal bus park it is a stroll through the town past a few shops, cafes and resorts set amidst rocky outcrops, and a large Shiva lingum on the left hand side. After 10 minutes the trail is easily recognisable as it follows the water pipeline uphill. You are warned now that the hike to Chisapani is 90% uphill to a maximum elevation of 2,430 meters, then 300 meters or so downhill to the hamlet of Chisapani itself. It is not a difficult walk and the average walking time is 4-5 hours. However, don’t rush it and you will be rewarded with some of the prettiest hill views in the Kathmandu Valley area. The trail is well maintained with smooth steps and some short pleasant sections of soft earth, leaf strewn, through the forest.
After crossing the small dam by an ancient looking hydro plant, where much of Kathmandu’s drinking water is sourced, proceed upwards through the rhododendron forest to the Park entrance. The pricing structure changes frequently, but in November it was 500Rs per foreigner per day and for Nepalis 50Rs. Non-nepalis must have their passport with them and Park officers were very strict about that.
The main village on the trail is Mulkharka which spreads uphill for almost one kilometer. It is a traditional Tamang village with two storey homes made of stone and mud, often coloured a bright ochre which make them stand out amongst the terraced crops and the riot of vegetable plots. In November most homes still had fences of yellow and orange marigolds, men and women were at their seasonal chores – mushroom picking, honey harvesting from their hives; maize cobs dried under the eaves. Children and women herded goats along the trail and called dogs to order, and someone in every household was doing the laundry. At various places along the trail hazy views of the capital can be seen, and the hills of Shivapuri had a blue tinge. Mulkharka has a few small tea shops-cum-cafes serving the usual tasty Nepali favourites – dal bhat, chilli chicken, momos and so on, plus a few standard western dishes. And you could smell it before you could see the tell-tale wisps of smoke – raksi and chang were being brewed in small sheds.
Leaving Mulkharka the trail suddenly changes and Shivapuri comes into its own. The typical vegetation of the park is middle hill forest from 1,000-1,800 meters with common trees being chir pine on the southern dry ridges, and alder, Wild Himalayan Cherry and ring-cupped oak along streams. On the northern slopes it is more common to find oak, laurel and rhododendron. There are also myriads of creepers and ferns and, in November, growing in profusion on mossy banks and moss covered trees, a beautiful tiny mauve orchid. And although there is no settlement until Chisapani, it seemed that the forest was eerily silent; not even birdsong. This could, of course, be due to the laughter and chatter of happy walkers. The forest is cool, casts dappled light on the path, so welcome after all the stone stairs, and there are a couple of covered rest areas built by the Nepal Environment and Tourism Initiative Foundation where a breather can be taken, and the views enjoyed. The highest point of the trail is Burlang Bhanjyang La (2,430m). From there it is a 40 minute, 300 meter descent into Chisapani which is just a collection of hotels and chalets below the army post. But, oh, the glorious views of Himalayan Peaks including the Langtang Range, part of the Annapurnas, Gauri Shanker, Dorje Lhakpa and many more; sometimes if you are lucky with the weather, Everest can be seen.
Chisapani is, as its name suggests, cold. When the sun disappears the chill sets in. All the lodges are fairly cosy inside and have a selection of rooms to suit all budgets, from 250-500Rs per night, the higher price being with ensuite. Try and choose a room which does not look on to the inside of the complex as these can be dark and very cold, even damp. Our lodge owner was most surprised when we requested a two-night stay, as the majority of trekkers just pass through. It is nice to see more and more young Nepalis getting out of the city and enjoying the walk up the stairs from Sundirijal. Most Nepalis though, come on motorbikes on a badly maintained road, and if you desire peace and quiet I would not choose to come on a Friday or Saturday night. But their music, singing and laughter was infectious and I couldn’t help but join in the fun.
Well, now you are in Chisapani and you have seen the sun set on the mountains and the sun rise on the mountains, what do you do? Short walks are the answer. Perhaps in the direction of the Helambu and Langtang trails where there is a small cheese factory worth a visit, though it is closed on Saturdays and the mostly dirt goes through some attractive countryside. Another option is to go back into the park in the direction of Shivapuri Peak, and even if the summit is not your goal, the forest is tranquil. Remember if you go back into the Park you will be charged another entrance fee. Or you can saunter down the road towards Nagarkot for about 50 minutes to a wetland area known as Daap (2,076m). This small lake can be walked around on a very narrow path and there are pretty spots to sit and perhaps have a snack. However, even in November beware of leeches. And then return to Chisapani for the night and watch an even better sunset and sunrise on the Himalayas.
Most walkers return to Sundirijal via the same staired route, but this time my friend and I returned via the Nagarkot road going as far as a NETIF built water tap and rest area where an entrepreneurial man and his family have set up a small shop selling drinks and noodles. Here we turned right and headed downhill through an area of the forest which was fairly isolated but with lovely vistas of the thickly wooded hills, and followed a clear mountain stream where clouds of tiny Pea Blue butterflies fluttered above the water, and the brown and white Clear Sailers preferred the dusty areas. For over an hour we followed a rutted road with not a sign or sound of people, the motorbikes having long departed for the city. Then suddenly, down the valley, is the town of Sankhu, there are fields with animals, crops, and men making stone retaining walls. They kindly point us in the direction of Sundirijal through fields and private property until we once more join the descending stairway into Mulkhaka. The tranquil greens and browns of the forest give way to the bright colours and sounds of village life and before long we have waved goodbye to the Park guards and we are back in the big dusty city. It was totally worth it.
Author: Glennis Pallier