The sun comes up misty in Kathmandu, wreathed in swathes of pearly clouds like the breath of morning. The sky is clear and cold, pale yellow dawn fading into a deep halcyon blue so sharp that you can taste it in the back of your throat. Smoke rises in looping curls and lingers in the air, purple and perfumed with the heavy musk of incense. In the distance, beyond the sprawling rooftops, mountains ring the horizon, their shoulders bruised and frosted with ice.
The streets come awake with a distant ringing bell and a splash of cold water, thrown haphazardly from the doorway of one of the hundreds of shops lining Thamel’s labyrinthine streets. Prayers and flowers are offered, bright paint is smeared across foreheads and the feet of deities, rows of tea light candles are lit with long tapers. Thousands of small feet tread hundreds of steep steps, stone worn bare by devotion, climbing into that cold sky to send prayers engraved in bronze spinning upwards.
My morning is wrapped up in the scratchy warmth of a navy yak wool jumper; a hot cup of masala tea and a winter breakfast of fried eggs and bread served on a battered tin plate painted with mountain flowers. Around me, the streets begin to fill with a steady flood of traffic and people, kicking up a cloud of grey dust that floats pale in the air and settles to blanket the city in a faint sheen of earth.
I walk the streets, feet stuffed into hiking boots and thick socks, my breath visible in the frosty sunshine. The crowd parts with crawling traffic; beat up 40 year old cars peeling with rust red paint, hulking black motorbikes with hulking black leather riders; rickshaws adorned with plastic flowers and deities, pulled by age-spotted men on ancient bicycles. Sellers hawk jewellery at the side of the road, jade stones set in thin silver rings and heavy metal bracelets. Voices babble, music blasts from an open car window, children shriek. I buy a steaming bowl of samosa chat from a smiling street vendor and eat it, crisp and sweet and hot with spice, standing in the shadow of a crumbling tenement building strung with brightly coloured prayer flags.
Bulky women, bundled in red and pink saris and patterned wool scarves, their feet pigeon toed in socks and wedged sandals, sit cross legged on the ground amongst piles of vegetables; mottled green tomatoes and leafy greens and small earth covered potatoes. Tiny hole-in-the-wall stalls circle the cobbled square; crammed with baskets of garlic and ginger and dried chillies the colour of blood, huge burlap sacks spilling over with lentils and pulses leaning against the dirty painted walls. In an alleyway running off the square, blood soaked wooden tables hold trays of dark meat, buzzing with fat black flies underneath a single soot blackened lightbulb.
Amongst the chaos, the spitting, shouting, many-headed beast that swarms the streets; there is peace to be found within the cool, shadow drenched stone of the temples. Here is quiet; here is the beauty of prayer, the certainty of devotion. There is a calmness, a ritualistic meditation in the familiarity of movement. The paint daubed thumb to the brow, the fingertips against cold stone, knuckles standing out with the grip of the prayer wheel. All is slow, joyous, savoured; a low chant and a muffled chime hanging amongst the golden stupas, the slow bend of knees lowered and foreheads pressed to the cold ground. And outside, a rainbow of faith stirs in the breeze, sending a string of prayers up to join the murmuring voices, rising above the clamouring streets to echo in the vastness of the distant mountains.