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The Smells of Kathmandu

There is little else that has the intense power to incite such simultaneous delight and revulsion in the nasal cavity than a walk through the streets of Kathmandu. On my daily walks through the alleys and lanes of the city, I often think that for a reader who has never been here to fully comprehend the sensory experiences of Kathmandu, a scratch-and-sniff is necessary to accompany an article or a photograph. The smells, which can be both tantalizing and horrendous, that bombard the nose are so plentiful and ever-changing that a short one-hour city walk could be considered the equivalent to taking the nose on a wild up and down theme park roller coaster.
A full day’s walk around Kathmandu could probably lead to a whole book’s worth of descriptions. Instead of describing all the varied aromas from a day, I shall use my walk this morning as a small case study on the phenomenal range of nose stimuli that can be experienced within an hour’s time. This morning I walked from my house in Sanepa to the tourist district of Thamel, a walk through the heart of the city that takes almost exactly one hour.
I leave my house at 9:30 just as Gita, my neighbor, was beginning the laborious daily task of washing the dishes her children’s clothes. She crouches at the water spigot that we share, scrubbing at the kids’ school uniforms with a bar of cheap, green soap that smells of ayurvedic shops and Chinatown. I wave goodbye and she gives me her customary goodbye greeting: “Enjoy today!”
Strolling down the narrow lanes, dodging taxis and private cars that whiz uncomfortably close to me, I pass the small neighborhood butcher shop. A goat was tied to a stake with a rope, chewing blades of grass and looking as though he were overcome with melancholy. His former compatriot lay severed in three pieces on the butcher’s table, hooves jutting into the air. The butcher shop smells permanently of flesh, a kind of earthy smell that is neither pleasing nor appalling. It is the bloody aroma of death that so many butcher shops in the city smell like. I walk by, smiling and waving at the butcher, while feeling sorry for the sad looking goat that will soon meet the same demise as his disconnected friend.
Just around the bend from the butcher is my favorite shop on the street to pass by: the spice grinder. A middle-aged man dressed in ratty t-shirts is perpetually sitting on a stool in front of an ancient-looking spice grinder, pouring in burlap sacks of cumin, turmeric, coriander and mustard seed. On turmeric days, his shirt, hands and face are tinted orange from the clouds of ground spice that escape that metal tubes. Today, he is grinding cumin. When I pass by the spice grinder, I often want to stop and fill my nostrils and lungs with the spice molecules that billow out from the man’s powdery burlap sacks.
I continue on, trying to inhale every last molecule of the spice grinder’s shop because I know the horrors that will meet my nose soon enough. On my way out of Sanepa (my neighborhood), I am blasted with the gritty exhaust of school buses that surely don’t meet the emissions standards anywhere, despite displaying a sticker on their windows that say they do. According to friends in the know, it’s easy for vehicles in Kathmandu to pass the required emissions tests: a few hundred rupees of baksheesh (bribe) will do the trick.
Now, it is on to Pulchowk, the main road that connects the city of Patan, or Lalitpur, with Kathmandu. On the main streets, the smells change almost every ten feet. I walk by a man selling sliced fruit covered with a red netting, which seems to be mostly ceremonious, as flies are feasting on the sweet fruit anyway. He is chopping orange guava, which smells like an over-ripe tropical vacation.
Down the street, in front of a construction site, idle men crouch on the curb and smoke cheap Nepali cigarettes while the sari-clad women continue to mix cement and move bricks from one spot to another. I try not to breathe in the spirals of cigarette smoke, as I consider how emblematic this construction site is of what I’ve seen in much of Nepal: inert men, often smoking and drinking, and busy women, earning money that probably funds their husband’s habits.

I continue on and pass by a street-side tea stall, which is centered around a metal pot that brims with boiling milk, black tea leaves and copious amounts of sugar. The steam from the tea smells rich and creamy like the beverage that will fill the small glass cups of the shop’s patrons.

Ten minutes on Pulchowk and I’m at the bridge that connects Lalitpur to Kathmandu and crosses over the Nepal’s sacred river, the Bagmati. The sacred river, which is meant to wash away sins if bathed in, doubles as a sewer, an easy place to dispose of trash, a car wash, a toilet and a place to do laundry. The areas that line the Bagmati are crowded with squatter’s residences, or slums. The massive rural-urban migration in the past decade has meant an explosion in squatters living by the river who have inadequate access to clean water or medicine. I recently read that a resident in the squatter communities in Kathmandu dies every ten to fifteen days, most likely a woman or a child.
The stink of the Bagmati is oppressive. But when crossing the bridge that spans the river, it is hard for me not to stop in the middle and look out at the mess. It is like a horrible car crash: it’s hard not to look when passing by. Today, a man walks through the middle of the river with a large sack slung across his back. He picks up bits of plastic and empty bottles that were floating down the river. The rotten smell of the river left my mind for a moment as I considered the situation he must be in to actually take it upon himself to forage for plastic in this river. To a visitor, it would be a surprise to learn that the Bagmati is a holy river, for the banks and small islands that dot it are piled high with decomposing trash heaps. Off to one side of the river, bloated and greyish, is a carcass of something. I ask two teenage boys if it is a pig.
“It’s a cow,” they inform me.

Cows walk across the Bagmati.


On the other side of the river, near a squatter’s colony, a man crouches with his feet submerged in the water, shitting in the flowing, brown waters.
I cross to the other side of the bridge and continue on to my destination.
Where the bridge connects to the main streets in Kathmandu are a number of women who bring woks and kerosene to the pavement and set up snack vending stations right on the sidewalk. I walk by and inhale the fumes of greasy, fried snacks, a welcome change from the putrid Bagmati. The plumes drifting off the bubbling oil smell tantalizingly unhealthy.
I walk past the street-side barbers who sit on worn stools next to mounds of snipped black hair on the sidewalk. Punctuating the exhaust fumes are the cloying smells of Indian sweet shops, which vend small, but deceptively rich treats with names like barfi and gulab jamun. Many of the shops, whose glass windows protect pyramids of snacks, are run by sullen-looking Bengalis with dark brown skin. The smell of baking sweets and hot ghee (clarified butter) are so enticing that every time I pass one, I feel a magnetic pull to enter and gorge on the sugary desserts.

Indian Sweets


Five minutes down the street, I pass a small temple, tucked between a greasy auto-repair shop and a veterinary medicine shop. An old woman, who looks about two centuries old, sits in front of the shop with her hand outstretched, begging for money. From the bronze hulk of the temple comes a sweet and smoky fog of incense, sticks of which are lit constantly for the gods.
Now I am at the point where I must cross a main street that flows with a never-ending pulse of traffic. I make use of my usual strategy when crossing major streets in Asia: latch on to a local and follow them across. Once safely to the other side, I pass by a momo shop: the ubiquitous Tibetan dumplings stuffed with chicken, vegetables or buffalo that can be found all over Kathmandu. A young restaurant attendant lifts the lid off an aluminum momo steamer and a cloud of spicy, meaty vapors reaches my nose. He plucks out ten and places them on a dented aluminum plate to accompany a tin of red achar (pickle). The doughy momos smell better than the most expensive perfume ever could, especially because the stench of the river still lingers in my nose.
I pass street vendors who are making popcorn. They make me remember the comforts of the Western movie theater. Then I walk by Ratna Park, the main bus central in the middle of the city, where someone has recently installed a “Mobile Toilet.” The Mobile Toilet is housed in the shell of a large truck and smells like the innards of a campground outhouse. Nepali women who walk by demurely raise a fold of their sari to cover their nose. I have no nose covering, so just try to hold my breath as long as possible.
There is a stretch of sidewalk that spans the distance between Ratna Park and Asan Bazaar that I cringe even thinking about. Even in the mid-morning, this particular piece of my walk is bathed in sun. I usually enjoy walking in the sun, but the rays produce an especially heinous effect here. For some reason, this piece of sidewalk is speckled with mounds of feces, probably mostly from stray dogs. During the night, this piece of sidewalk must also get a thorough bath of urine from dogs and humans. The warmth of the sun bakes the mounds of shit and heats the urine, which releases a distinctive and shockingly foul smell. Even the Bagmati smells like flowers compared to this stretch of sidewalk. I walk as quickly as I can, being careful to avoid the smears of feces on the ground. The suffocating smell of hot urine is so difficult to endure that I consider wearing a gas mask next time I pass by. This piece of sidewalk makes me feel like retching, even passing out. I hold my breath as long as I can, but when I start to feel dizzy, I am forced to take a deep breath. The acidic, acrid stench burns my lungs.
Thankfully, I reach the end of the rancid stretch of sidewalk and my nose is soon appeased by a another fried-snack shop. A man stands in front, pouring viscous dough into hot oil, which produces a delicious, warm fragrance that reminds me of fresh baked cookies. I stop for a minute and watch as the sweet maker curls the watery dough in a circular motion, which will eventually produce the saccharine-sweet jalebi snacks.
I pass the street that leads to Asan Bazaar and hop over some stagnant mud puddles. The next ten minutes are aromatically uneventful, just some repeat smells: fried snacks, Indian sweet shops, steaming momos and the occasional whiff of sewage. Finally, I arrive in the backpacker district of Thamel. Almost immediately upon my arrival to the neighborhood, I start hearing the sounds of chanting monks that blast of the speakers of music shops. They are the same CDs on repeat that have been playing for at least three years, since I was last in Kathmandu.
Immediately the smell of incense floods the streets. There is sandalwood, and nag champa drifting from the storefronts of shops selling fake North Face gear, bootleg movies and used books.
“Taxi, Madame?”
“You want trekking, rafting?”
“Tiger balm?”
All the usual suspects crowd the street corners, trying to sell their services or products.
Finally, I get to my destination, the Northfield Cafe. I order a black coffee and a waiter wearing a collared shirt promptly brings it to me, setting it next to my open computer.

And then, as if to cleanse my nose of the delights and horrors it has smelled in the past hour, comes the welcome aroma of freshly brewed coffee. In just an hour I’ve marveled at the smells of fresh ground spices, frying snacks, incense, momos and milk tea. On the flip side, I’ve wanted to douse my nostrils in the sterilizer after passing the Bagmati, baking urine, feces and sewage. After the last sixty minutes, the warm, comforting aroma of plain black coffee could not be more welcome.