It’s 5:30 a.m. when my alarm rings out, waking me from my first night’s sleep in Nepal. Settling my head back against the pillow, eyes still closed, I can hear the faint caw of a murder of crows, still some while away. It’s a welcome sound, far more pleasant than the incessant barking of the neighbourhood dogs that kept me up earlier that night. It had been surprisingly cool when I first settled under the sheets and quilt, but I wake up feeling warm, comfortable and—for someone who’d been travelling for a day and a half and isn’t exactly a morning person, even on a good day—surprisingly rested.
The sun hasn’t risen yet and (unsurprisingly) the power’s out. It seems the hot shower I was promised will have to wait. I splash some cold water on my face, get dressed, lace up my boots, and feel around my pack in the dark for my headlamp. Taking a look at the map, the way seems fairly straightforward. Of course, it usually does.
I’m out the door by 6. The uniformed doorman opens the gate for me with a wide smile and a military-like salute, wishing me a good day. By now, there’s a faint glow in the sky, silhouetting the buildings leading down the street, crisscrossed overhead by the usual tangle of electrical wires. The crows are much louder now too, rousing the neighbourhood to wake.
The street pitches right and downwards, leading me past hole-in-the-wall shops readying for another day. Behind gossamer-like curtains, swayed gently by the early morning breeze, the dim glow of gas lamps spills out onto the street. Steps away, an elderly woman is bent over with a well-worn handbroom, laboriously chasing away dust and rubbish from one pile to another. A few steps later, an older man walks past me shouldering two heaping baskets of vegetables, hanging from a thick bamboo pole that seems ready to crack at any moment.
The sun is still inching below the horizon when I reach the main street leading to Swayambhunath. Before long, I come across the first of a couple of smaller temples along the way. More than willing to get sidetracked, I join the few early morning visitors making their way around, lighting butter lamps that illuminate their faces in the twilight.
A few minutes later, back on the way to Swayambhunath, I reach the Bijeshwori temple and climb the narrow stone steps leading to its walled entrance. Here, too, a crowd has assembled, lighting candles, reciting prayers and leaving behind their morning offerings. A man sitting on the ground at the temple’s entrance motions to me almost sheepishly, asking for money. Apologetically, I shake my head and start heading down a path at the left. “Monkey Temple other way, Sir”, the man calls out to me. No more than five seconds later, I reach into my pocket for some rupees, handing them to him with a sincere “dhanyabad“. (Fortunately, I would run into this man again on my way back and ask him for his photograph, which is among those I cherish the most from my stay in Nepal.)
Eventually, Swayambhunath comes into view, the hill upon which it sits rising prominently against the horizon. As if on cue, a Rhesus monkey casually ambles down the road towards me. By now, the call of the crows has given way to blaring car horns. Over the din, I can make out music and chants spilling over the temple’s walls, backed by the rhythm of loud drums.
Reaching the bottom of the hill, it’s clear that it’s a popular spot on a Saturday morning. Vendors and their stands line the streets of the busy intersection, selling offerings, garlands of bright orange marigolds, snacks and kitschy tchotchkes. Behind a few large Buddha statues at the foot of the hill, the steps leading up to the temple are dotted with groups of chaityas, the small Buddhist shrines that are so ubiquitous in Kathmandu. Among them, hordes of marauding Rhesus monkeys (for which the temple is famous) run amok, while others meticulously clean their young.
The stone stairway had been relatively empty when I first arrived, but before long, there’s a throng of people making its way up the hundreds of worn steps leading to the stupa. Groups of young men take the steps in twos and threes, running past seniors clutching the handrail as they ascend slowly, one step at a time. Those in groups chat excitedly, while others climb alone in pensive silence. Whole families are out enjoying what might well be just another Saturday morning. Grateful, I climb in silence, too.
The temple’s golden spire eventually peaks over the steep steps. Reaching the top of the stairway, the space surrounding the imposing stupa is teeming with activity, all under the watchful and wise eyes of the Buddha painted onto the base of the spire. Almost instinctively, I join the crowd making its way clockwise around the temple. Past more merchants selling butter lamps and incense, marigolds and offerings. Past the prayer wheels that encircle the stupa, repeatedly set into motion by those passing by, myself included. Past shrines and chaityas, candles and small fires, clouds of billowing smoke and thick, fragrant incense. The atmosphere is intoxicating, and I end up circling the stupa several times before I feel ready to see it through my camera’s viewfinder.
All told, I spent close to three hours circling Swayambhunath’s stupa: lighting my own butter lamps, spinning the prayer wheels, mesmerized by the candles flickering in the dark of the monastery, and eventually working up the courage to ask a few people for their photograph. Those few hours of my first morning in Nepal introduced me to some of its people: their piety, charity, kindness and generosity. In that sense, it was an auspicious introduction, wiping away any apprehensions I might still have had, and foretelling what awaited me in all of the towns and mountain villages I’d have the chance to pass through over the next four weeks.