I had been on the lookout for a short but challenging trek. Since I had been to almost all the hiking routes around Kathmandu Valley and didn’t want to go very far from Kathmandu district, I couldn’t think of any appropriate trekking routes. Then, one of my friends suggested going for the Chepang Heritage Trail. As usual, I searched the internet and looked for information, but most of the sites suggested a trek of four-six days, starting from Kathmandu and ending in Chitwan’s Shaktikhor. And, even the names differed—some called it Chepang Hill Trek, while others called it Chitwan Chepang Hill Trail. But the mention of Chepangs, the once hunter-gatherer tribe, and Shaktikhor, was enough for me to pack my bags and jump at the proposition.
We started our trek from the Hugdi Khola bridge on the Kathmandu-Mugling highway, which is around an hour-and-half drive from Thankot. The trek, promoted by Tourism for Rural Poverty Alleviation Programme (TRPAP), takes you through Chepang villages to Hattibang and Siraichuli, one of the highest hills of the more than ten adjacent districts, and then to Shaktikhor of Chitwan. We had a sumptuous meal at Mauwa Khola nearby, since the eateries at Hugdi said they would take at least an hour to prepare the food. It was almost noon as we started ascending the steps from Hugdi Khola. There’s a big signage showing you the directions to Kathmandu, Mugling, and Siraichuli. We headed straight towards Siraichuli and followed the signages on the way. The trail passes through villages and is scenic. You’ll never feel tired or bored. Most of the villagers we met on the way asked us where we were heading to. I guess not many trekkers opt for this trail, that’s why they were so curious.
As we climbed uphill and passed some villages, we came across a primary school, Shree Chitrakala Prathamik Vidhyalaya, established twenty-five years ago. It should have been celebrating its silver jubilee, but instead, it was in shambles. While Jogimara village isn't too far away from Kathmandu, the villages in the surrounding and the school haven't benefitted from the development drive going on everywhere. It was recess time when we reached there; the students were playing, and a lone teacher was out in the sun talking with two students. We should have taken at least few notebooks and pens for the students, that’s what came to my mind when I met them!
The trek sometimes gets strenuous, and you’ll need to munch something to keep yourself going. Fortunately, we had plenty of dry fruits and bottles of water with us; the trek doesn’t have many shops on the way. However, the landscapes are stunning. We found a few decent shops as we reached Kot. It was a perfect stop for a cup of hot lemon tea. The tea and biscuits tasted heavenly after the long walk. Then, we resumed our trek to Hattibang.
It took us almost four and half hours to reach Hattibang from Hugdi Khola. Hattibang derives its name from a big stone on the premises of a school. As per the locals, in Chepang language 'bang' means a stone, and since the stone resembles an elephant (at least like its head, to me), the area is called Hattibang. It takes around five hours to reach here from Hugdi Khola for trekkers. However, the locals can get here in less than three hours. There are several homestays, the biggest one is run by a ‘Ramji’, and anybody in the village will show you the way to his lodge.
We had booked rooms at his place by phone from our starting point at Hugdi Khola. After arriving at his lodge, we dumped our bags, had tea, and went for a village tour. As you move farther from the marketplace, you’ll come across more traditional houses. And in fact, they look more beautiful. The Chepang houses were farther from the main bazaar, smaller than the other houses, and far from each other. However, the village looked vibrant, and people were talking in groups, laughing and making merry, which is hard to see in the city!
If you manage to get to Hattibang earlier, you can go around the village and talk to locals about their way of life. Since it was getting darker and colder outside, we returned to the lodge and spent the evening in the dining room. We had local free range chicken, rum, and honey before dinner. It took away all the fatigue and pain, and we slept like babies! Next day, we started our climb to Siraichuli early in the morning. As advised by Ramji, we carried enough water and snacks, since there are no eateries and water sources till you get to Shaktikhor. On the way, we came across many wild flowers and fruits. If you’re an Instagrammer, I’m sure you’ll end up clicking hundreds of pictures on this route.
Finally, after one and a half hours’ uphill trek from Hattibang, we reached Siraichuli, the tallest peak in the adjacent twelve districts, as told by locals. There's a temple, a building, and a platform with railings from where you can see the Himalayan range, Chitwan bazaar, and even Kathmandu. But, since it was a hazy day, we could only see the mountain range and the surrounding hills. So sad! However, getting there was the ultimate achievement for us. The cool gusts of wind blowing past our faces refreshed us, and we were off for another leg of the journey—descending down to Shaktikhor.
We had an option to get to Gadhi, but it would take us another five-six hours to get there from Siraichuli, and then again more than four hours from there to get to Shaktikhor, so we decided to skip Gadhi. We came across a Chepang house as we descended from Siraichuli. Two babies were playing on the premises with a goat kid. The mud and bamboo house with its thatched roof looked beautiful, but the babies had minimal clothing, even though it was still a cold day. Sadly, we had only one chocolate with us, so we asked the elder kid to share it with his sibling. I wished we had taken some baby clothes with us! But the house had a solar panel on the roof, and it brought a smile to my face.
As we descended further, we reached Jyandala, a beautiful village on the way to Shaktikhor. The houses there looked modern in comparison to the traditional Chepang houses. Talking with a farmer ploughing his field, we came to know that they also have homestay facilities in the village. But we didn't stop, we kept moving, as we had to reach Shaktikhor.
It was 9:54 a.m. when we reached Shree Siraichuli Rashtriya Prathamik Vidhyalaya, a primary school in Jyandala. It was neither a Saturday nor a public holiday. However, neither a single student nor a teacher had arrived. It was only six minutes for the school to start its regular classes, but there was pin-drop silence. This shows why people in this area are lagging behind. They've other priorities before education; rather than sending their children to school, they're compelled to make them work in farms, factories, and eateries. When will the little children be able to study without having the burden of earning daily bread for their families?
The trek route was full of scenic landscape, but it was sad to see wrappers of noodles and plastic bottles of locally produced spirits everywhere along the Chepang Trail, and at chautaris, the stop-overs with shady trees, there were scores of alcohol bottles. That’s the harsh reality of growing industrialization, too much packaging of products, so that the consumers find it easy to carry, and because of that single benefit you find litter everywhere. Can't we get back to the olden days of less packaging and do away with the polluting plastic bottles and wrappers?
The last stop before the vertical descent to Shaktikhor was a flat piece of hill. From here, we could see the town below clearly, and I thought it would take just half an hour to reach the foot of the hill, but it turned out to be much more than that, and exhausting it was! On the route we saw beautiful houses on the edge of cliffs painted with the red clay found abundantly in the area. The laborious people living there have turned the barren land into agricultural plots and terrace fields for growing crops. While we enjoyed the calm and peace of the walk in the less frequented trail, it was a soothing experience for our ears to listen to the music played on high volume in one of those houses!
As we continued our trek, we came across a hill full of dried fodder grass. Only when we asked a local, we came to know about its existence. The fodder grass was introduced to the Chepang village (on the way to Shaktikor) with the expectation that it would help lessen the deforestation. However, the villagers never used this grass as fodder; they continued lopping off tree branches, since their goats and cattle preferred the leaves. While the non-government organization promoting this grass spent a fortune on implementing the 'best practice' from somewhere else, its strategic advisors forgot that only 'best fit' activities work in a local context. While we talk about going global, we undermine the fact that every little strategy needs to be contextualized according to the local requirements.
Once again, we came across a beautiful Chepang village at the end of the Chepang Hill Trek. The village has transformed into a modern settlement, thanks to its proximity to Shaktikhor, a fast growing town, and a bridge linking Shaktikhor with the villages. However, we were saddened to know the source of prosperity—home-made alcohol business. Almost all the houses were distilling alcohol from the rice brought from Shaktikhor. They not only made money, but were quarrelling with each other under the stupor. And that's a real bad sign!
As we descended, we came across many Chiuri trees. Also known as Indian butter, the trees are culturally significant for the Chepangs. According to development worker Rishi Adhikari, Chepangs give chiuri trees as dowry to their daughters during marriage, and along with the tree, the bride and groom also get the land occupied by the tree. But, apart from this tradition, one can extract oil and butter that goes into herbal soap making. The honey collected during the chiuri flowering season has something special about it. So, why not promote this multipurpose tree?
Finally, we reached Shaktikhor after around six hours’ of continuous trek from Hattibang. We were tired, thirsty, and hungry, and back to the noisy city, but memories from the trek took away all the fatigue and pain!
Trekking the eastern region has been nothing short of pushing my limits. It has by no means been an easy...