A fellow traveller, Ibon, and I set off to climb the hill. The climb is commonly done early in the morning. Visitors try to get to the top in time to watch the sunrise. We were told that they normally departed by 2 AM from the base in order to get to the top by around 6 AM. We felt this to be overkill. Both of us had trekking experience. Ibon has technical trekking knowledge, having trained on the Pyrenees. I have trekked at over 5,000m in the Himalayas and made many non-technical mountain treks in South East Asia. We decided to depart at 2:45 AM so that we would not get to the top rather early and have to wait very long for the sunrise.
We left our hotel at 2:50 AM and were at the base by 3:04. The area was lined with shops selling food and drink. We had brought our own water. I stopped at one of the shops to buy peanuts candied in jaggery. We started seeing steps and walked quickly: there would be flat ground for two to three metres followed by a couple of steps. We were not impressed. I was able to peel off two layers of clothes, stuff them into my backpack and take drinks of water all while walking. We joked about the feebleness of reviewers on Tripadvisor who warned that the trek was really hard.
There were surprisingly few people in sight. I figured that most would have gone up long in advance in anticipation of the long trek. We walked past a statue of a reclining Buddha and crossed a bridge or two and finally came upon other trekkers. After about half an hour of walking the steps started getting steeper. We saw flights of stairs heading a long way up and climbed. A monk standing at a little shrine called out to us. Ibon headed over and was given a blessing. The monk tied a little thread around one of his hands. We moved on. Shops became a rarity from this point on.
We started catching up with people. The foreign travellers seemed to be better equipped and more fit in general – people who were likely to have done similar stuff all around the world. The locals on pilgrimage were rather different. We came across many waiting, out of breath, at the spaces atop many flights of stairs. Stairs are no joking matter. Stairs allow for steep ascents and descents that can easily get one winded. They require no technical skill whatsoever, but some amount of stamina and willpower most of all. If you are struggling up a bunch of stairs, the simple way to handle it is to go up slowly, take breaks as needed and to just not give up.
My thighs started to feel the pain and my breathing became laboured. Ibon showed no signs of exertion. I kept up a slow and steady pace to cover the distance. We continued rapidly overhauling the local pilgrims and steadily overtaking the older tourists. “It’s impossible”, I heard a man next to me say to himself. “Just keep going”, I told him. At this point, the path was crowded and we spent a lot of time stuck behind slower travellers. We went past and occasionally got stuck behind monks and nuns on their way up. We took a few breaks at the occasional tea shop. The last tea shop was just 100 metres from the top. We waited there for ten minutes, could not wait any longer and headed to the top.
Concrete structures greeted us at the top. People were taking off their shoes. There were a set of long stairs to our left being used as seats. I checked my watch: 5:26 AM. Sunrise was another hour away. Ibon and I sat with our backs to the fence in front of the steps. We occasionally turned around to see if the sun was coming up. People had put back on the clothes that they had peeled off early in the trek. We whiled an hour away by chatting. I took out my peanut candy and we finished off what remained of it.
Somewhere in between we turned around to face the horizon. The outlines of mountains became more and more visible, covered in varying amounts of mist. The clouds started to get lit. Their edges were soon gleaming. The sun rose at 6:23 AM; the weather man was accurate. People had been clicking away for a while. That increased in intensity. Someone clapped briefly, but no one joined in.
People dressed in white now started a little procession around the temple at the top. We took off our shoes to take a look at the footprint. The prayers continued for a while and the tourists and pilgrims made it hard to move about. We eventually gave up on the footprint and left at 6:58 AM.
It had been a fun climb for us. The saner ones would have gone to bed for a good sleep, but not us. Ibon took a 20-minute nap. We packed, had breakfast, and left. Two more cities remained for visiting the same day. It was going to be a long one.