I am obsessed with maps. Nepal’s terrain makes for especially interesting map reading. Villages that seem adjacent to each other as the crow flies might be separated by impassable ridges and valleys, rivers and ravines. After spending a few years hiking and running on the trails around Kathmandu, I was intrigued by a large body of water to the south of Kathmandu, past the ridge of hills that contain the Champadevi and Bhasmasur peaks and down the southern side: Kulekhani Lake. I asked around and learned that the valley had been flooded by way of a rock-fill dam to provide hydropower electricity for Kathmandu. My further research suggested that the reservoir was also used to store water for Kathmandu’s water supply, but that was inconclusive.
From my explorations I already knew how to get to the crossroad in the trail, from which I believed the lake could be reached. I only knew of people who had made the arduous trip by vehicle from Pharping, and I hadn’t heard of anyone who had reached the lake on foot from Kathmandu. However, road building is progressing quickly and by the time you read this, it might be possible to reach the lake by road from Kathmandu via Chandragiri.
I began my hike from the village of Machhegaun, behind Kirtipur. Knowing that I was heading into the unknown, I made sure I stopped for tea and sel roti (a delicious Nepali doughnut made with rice flour, a particular favourite of mine), to energise myself for the climb ahead. I set out from the village towards the hills that make up the rim of Kathmandu. I already knew the trail I was looking for, but it was a little overgrown from the monsoon rains, so took a little searching and help from locals to find. However, pretty soon the trail gave way to the familiar stone steps you often find on hiking trails in Nepal. How these stone stairways are made boggles my mind!
It’s a tough but rewarding hike through the temperate forest up about 1000 meters of stone steps. I was lucky to have clear weather so I made sure to take plenty of breathers to turn around and check on Kathmandu as it shrunk below me.
I was relieved to reach the familiar clearing in the forest known as Chaap Banjyang, which has a charming tea house and camping area. I’ve had many a delicious dal bhat here, often with locally picked fiddlehead ferns, known as neugro spinach, and I’ve sometimes been lucky enough to have milk tea made with fresh buffalo milk. Chaap Banjyang is a crossroad of four trails: with Kathmandu (and the path you have just climbed) behind you, there is the option to go left, up to Bhasmasur and Champadevi peaks. Another option is to go right, up towards Chandragiri peak, temple and cable car station. Both of these I had done many times before. However, this time I was excited to finally head into the unknown by continuing south, towards the village of Simpani and beyond.
The trail towards Kulekhani Lake winds through settlements of stone-built houses nestled amongst the vivid yellow of mustard fields in autumn and the vibrant red of chilies drying in the sun. It was so peaceful, with no motorised vehicles, such a contrast to the hustle-bustle of the large capital city, mere kilometres away as the crow flies, but separated by a large ridge in real life. The lack of motorised traffic combined with the traditional buildings was refreshing.
Locals were friendly and curious, out in the sunshine tending their kitchen gardens or drying vegetables to preserve them for the winter months ahead. Many asked me where I was going, which was a good opportunity for me to check my navigation. The trail was mostly obvious, with a little disruption from a newly constructed jeep track (so the peace and quiet might not last long!) Chortens, serving as both shrines and waymarkers, mark some of the passes over the hills, which were much smaller than the ridge I had scaled to get here. There were no tea houses or even shops on this stretch, so I was very glad for my two refreshment stops at Machhegaun and Chaap Bhanjyang.
As I was making this hike during the autumn festival season leading up to Dashain, there were some festivities happening at Phakel village. A colourful canopy had been erected, providing shade to some masked dancers. If I had known, I might have brought a tent with me to stay the night and enjoy the festivities, as they promised to continue well into the evening. But, in Nepal there is rarely advance notice of such events, which, to be honest, is all part of the charm. I stayed to watch for a little while before continuing on my way.
As I descended the stone steps from the historic village of Simpani, the views opened up towards Kulekhani Lake. The setting sun and late afternoon haze combined with a long day on my feet made me wonder, for a moment, if the lake was actually a mirage.
By this point it was late in the afternoon, and having clocked 25km from Machhegaun, I was keen to find somewhere to rest for the evening. Although there is no shortage of places to stay on the lakeside, it can be difficult to book in advance unless you already have a phone number for a hotel: not many feature on the common online booking platforms yet. As I often do whilst trekking, I kept on walking until I found a place that struck a chord with me, this time a friendly-looking family-run hotel with a cosy dining area and a panoramic view of the lake. I learned that fresh fish from the lake make for a delicious addition to a traditional thali set.
I made sure to wake up early for sunrise, drinking in the views of the lake as it transformed from shades of grey to blue, whilst enjoying sel roti and milk tea. For me, this trip was about the journey just as much as the destination. However, if you are keen to stay longer, there is plenty to do nearby, such as hire a rowing boat to get to Kulekhani picnic spot, where you can enjoy a panoramic view of the lake. If you’re feeling energised by the mountain scenery, there are many trails close by to explore, and it is even possible to swim in the warmer months between June and August. I, however, had plans to continue my hike towards Chitlang…
Article and photos by Hannah Straw