I wake up at six with one word on my mind: Swayambhu.
Actually, that’s a lie, because I’m not waking up alone. As such, my mind is on more primal things. But I manage to put those urges aside and get us out the cottage door within minutes.
It’s become a little ritual for us now, our morning pilgrimage to Swayambhunath, better known to tourists as the Monkey Temple here in Kathmandu.
I run, Alice walks. She doesn’t need to lose any belly fat.
I gallop on ahead, down the hill from Thamel, past open meat counters, buses belching blackness, and never-say-die taxi drivers asking the jogger if he needs a ride.
As I cross the bridge over a dying river, I see a flock of kids practicing martial arts on the concrete bank below; the city both ugly and beautiful at the same time.
I run on up the hill towards the temple. I eventually pass a shrine jutting out from the roadside, just one of thousands in the valley where old and young stop by each morning to say their prayers and adorn their foreheads. For me, the shrine simply signifies that it’s time to stop running. I walk the next few hundred meters, saving some energy for the upcoming steps, my real workout.
It’s still before seven but the road is alive, almost swarming. Everyone gets up early here. Two months before I’d made it down to Patan for the sunrise, only to find a festival in full swing.
I get the occasional strange look as I walk — tall white dude sweating through shorts and a t-shirt, water bottle in hand — but it’s nothing compared to the stares I received in India. For the most part, folks just wander on by and don’t pay me a second glance.
As I continue on towards the temple, the scenery scale tips more towards the beautiful. I look out over a tiny plot of urban farmland to my right, taking in the mountains rising into the clouds and above. The sun has been up for near two hours and adds a dreamlike glint to everything. I breathe deep and take a moment to appreciate my life and my freedom, acknowledging that I’m truly one of the lucky ones.
Around the next bend and the temple comes into full view, adorning the fast-rising hill in front of me. Buddha’s eyes sit below a golden roof at the peak, keeping watch over the valley. Music and chanting emanate from the hilltop.
The stupa is said to be fifteen hundred years old, revered by Buddhists and Hindus alike. I’m not much for religion and mythology, but there’s an intoxicating vibe about the place.
I reach the gate leading to the steps and spy a tiny monkey scampering across the top of it while little old ladies sit beneath, surrounded by candles and incense.
Apparently there’s a step for each day of the year, starting at the gate and ending at the stupa. I climb the first dozen and stretch out alongside a fat tree trunk. A mother and baby monkey see me set down my water bottle and scurry closer, eying it up with delight. I snatch it back up before they get too close and move it to the other side of the tree. They circle around and approach again. I concede defeat with amusement and hold onto the bottle while I reach for my toes.
All stretched out, I begin my running ascent, pacing myself a little better than last time.
More monkeys emerge as I climb. The morning is the best time to see them here. Infants clinging to underbellies. Adolescents swinging from branches. I take another moment as I move to appreciate it all, knowing full well that in about two minutes I’ll be heaving too hard to appreciate anything but water and oxygen.
I feel a little bad as I overtake hobbled and elderly, like I’m showing off or something.
Beggars and touts are here, too, requesting rupees and showcasing singing bowls. The meaner part of me wants to stop and make a big show of pulling out my empty pockets, accompanied by a look that translates to duh in multiple languages. But instead I keep my head down and continue on, reminding myself that even the best salesmen on these steps likely earn less in a month than I do in an hour, and them with families to feed.
The climb hurts. I’m more crawling than running by the time I reach the rest area alongside the ticket booth, thirty-two steps from the top. Here is where I stop to catch a breath. While my panting subsides, I think about how we must subject ourselves to regular feelings of weakness in order to grow strong. In the name of looking and feeling healthy later, this morning I’m pushing myself almost to the point of puking on an unfortunate monkey.
After five minutes my legs are no longer aflame, and so it’s time to begin some self-inflicted torture inspired by a pair of random African dudes. First time I ran these steps a week or so ago, I saw them sprinting up the final stretch, walking back down, then sprinting back up. They did this multiple times. It looked so insane that I knew I had to try it for myself.
And so I begin.
I sprint up the final thirty-two steps, then turn and come right back down, beginning three steps lower for round two. I do this a half-dozen times, until I’m trying my best not to die as I climb the forty-seventh and final step for round six.
I take a seat right there at the top, feeling a strange mix of accomplishment and respiratory what-the-fuck.
It doesn’t help that the view from my perch is literally breathtaking. My field of vision framed by streams of prayer flags, I take in the sprawling, sparkling city below, seemingly devoid of anything more than a ten story building, occasionally interrupted by lonely patches of green.
After several minutes I make my way back down the steps, stopping at a cluster of benches and falling into an attempted meditation. It’s here that Alice catches up with me. I open my eyes in time to see her flashbulb smile approaching, one of those snapshot sights I’ll forever recall when I think of her.
A little while later we begin the two kilometer walk back home. Along the way we talk about relationships, beauty, and self-assurance, stopping only to buy two liters of milk at a dairy stand in Thamel.
It’s yet to strike eight when we get back to the cottage.
The day is off to an excellent start.