The stairs are steep, cut into the side of the stupa like notches in a mountain. I use my hands as much as my feet, climbing on all fours. The red stone feels smooth, older than I can understand. The top is cramped and crowded with tourists. They're silent, eyes watching the horizon like a church waiting for its priest. A determined local clings to the side of the stupa like an acrobat, laying out wares on a blanket. His bare feet grip the rocks with smooth assurance, but I get vertigo watching him. The drop is sheer, and there are no safety railings. But he seems almost bored by the proceedings.
The rest of us wait, expectant. The darkness is stubborn. When the sunrise finally comes, it feels like a long, golden sigh. Distant silhouettes become craggy spires, then a whole kingdom of mist and beauty. It is like something out of Tolkien, or Rothfuss, or Martin. It does not look real.
But it is.
I wonder how many dawns have broken over these ruins. I wonder how many people have stood where I am standing and watched that golden light. For a long time, no one speaks. Then the sun climbs into a sky gone crisp and blue, and it is like a spell has broken. A babble rises, laughter, people talking about what they're going to do that day, where they're going to go. But it all happens in hushed tones, like conversations in a holy place.
We wait until the morning is well along before climbing back down. A crowd of hawkers have clustered around the bottom, with trinkets and postcards and pieces of artwork. For a moment, it feels obscene. Then I remind myself that I'm the visitor, that this is their home. And I wonder what it must be like to live here, to see this every day, to think of it as something ordinary.
I can't. So I will cherish this pearl of memory, this most extraordinary morning.