There is a peace that penetrates Kathmandu in the dark hours between midnight and dawn. A peace that is impossible to find at any other time. For the lucky, this peaceful, quiet time coincides with their out-of-whack, jet-lagged biological clock upon arrival in Nepal.
The reality of Kathmandu by day is of a large city choked with people, smog, machines, garbage, animals and noise. It’s a reality most can enjoy for about two days before checking the departure time of their flight to the Himalayas every 20 minutes. In those two days, the city is seen as energetic, exciting and pulsing with life. Photography comes easy for those two days.
Pictures of markets and monks. Pictures of commerce and cows. Pictures of goats and temples and traffic and the controlled chaos of it all. Compounded over the course of days, the effects can be draining in turn.
And that’s the reason to enjoy the calm of a first morning after arriving in Kathmandu. Wake before dawn and walk the streets toward Swayambhunath, a prominent temple complex on a hill overlooking a sea of Kathmandu lights. The sea is not endless for the valley containing the city ends and the foothills of the Himalayas being. An inland sea, finite but growing.
Walking the streets at 4AM brings to mind the story of Jack, after climbing the bean stalk, having to sneak past the giant in his own castle. Stepping softly through the garbage and mud and broken concrete, the houses and apartments may, at any moment, empty their nearly one million inhabitants as the sun starts to gray the sky.
Walking from the tourist hive in Thamel, the air is not fresh but it is fresher without a thousand diesel exhaust-belching cars and tuk-tuks to dodge. Sleepy cows, sacred to Hindus, lift theirs head and continue to chew their cud. Dogs bark here and there and sometimes a pack gets in a quarrel over invisible property lines.
Potholes are the biggest worry on a walk in the dark. The deserted road meets restless feet in jerks and bumps as the broken pavements undulates to the whim of the Earth beneath it.
Reaching the temple, with its 365 steps to the top, the bells of large prayer wheels are heard releasing their wish for compassion and an end to suffering for all the world to share. Monks start their morning prayers as the shadow of the temple paints a black holes in the clouds above. Butter candles and incense burn everywhere adding to the smog over the valley while purifying the air at the temple.
A few locals present offerings, recite prayers and circle the main stupa three times, but otherwise the complex is quiet and empty. Soak up what is missing at this hour on a perch above the city: the blaring of motorbikes and traffic police whistles and roar of airline jet engines. Soak up all the calm you can.
The sky slowly casts off its black cloak as monkeys run about the temple grounds looking for breakfast. The softness of the morning fades as the first car horns are heard below.
By the time the sun breeches the distant Himalayas, a market has sprung to life at the foot of the temple and it is busy trading goods and groceries for rupees. Shouts and horns and Buddhist prayers and two-stroke engines and large trucks carrying commerce.
The giant is awake.
It’s time to leave Swayambhunath and head back for a nap at the hotel, this time walking on the sidewalk as the street once again becomes a clogged artery of wheels and dust. It’s easy to get down on a large metropolis with the chaos and traffic and crush of humanity on every street.
But in those hours before the pulse starts again, Kathmandu can be an amazingly peaceful place to wander and explore and experience firsthand.