Kathmandu: A City for Your Senses

The first thing that hit me was the smell. Through the open bus window the thick, pungent air rising from the valley smacked me in the face the moment we crested the hill.

I smiled. We are here.


Kathmandu has a unique scent. It’s like the smell of roasted peanuts combined with the tang of hot garbage and the sweetness of burning sandalwood. Occasionally, a whiff of urine, gasoline, or deep frying samosas creeps in too. It’s May, so the blooming flowers introduce the fresh aroma of nectar to the brew. The warm, spring breeze carries the full weight of the odor, prompting me to inhale deeply – and cough. My nose tickles and my lungs sting, but my heart feels happy from breathing in this special atmospheric concoction – all things sweet and all things sour of Kathmandu.


Entering downtown, we are blinded by color (and dust). The city itself looks like a half built land of multicolored Legos. Crumbling piles of red bricks lie around and between thin, towering concrete houses colored like sorbet. Lime, peach, strawberry, and lemon. Atop each flat-roofed house grows a garden of flowers and trees, concealing the dreary grey cement.

Down below, the streets swim with color as well. Flashy signs call our attention to the wall-to-wall shops of cashmere scarves, sparkling gems, hand-knit hats, bags of prayer flags, golden trinkets, and vibrant paintings. The women, each wrapped in saris of a different hue, weave a rainbow through the endless traffic of rickshaws, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles, dogs, cows, food vendors, and pedestrians. Every two blocks, we pass a small temple, stained red from centuries of animal sacrifices and tikka blessings, adorned with garlands of orange flowers, and ablaze with gold candles and incense.


And then the smells and colors of the city begin to swirl together as we’re swept up in the Kathmandu motion. Like an animal, Kathmandu feeds by day and rests by night. Waking with the deep rumbling of diesel generators, the city reaches its full roar by mid-morning. Buses with chickens and goats tied to the roof are whizzing by within inches of collision. Their circus horns are blaring. Rickshaw bells are ringing. Pots of steaming momos are hissing. People are violently hacking up loogies and shamelessly spitting them at the ground (whether my foot is there or not). In the distance, drums are sounding and tambourines are chiming. And every step someone is asking, rickshaw? taxi? trekking? tigerbalm? necklace? hashish? To which we reply ‘no,’ in varying degrees of politeness.


We are in the middle of it now, weaving through the twisted streets and alleys that make up this gridless city. Ducking through passages only tall enough for the person who built it, we discover quiet courtyards and broken down buildings tucked away from the chaos. Looking down as we walk, trying not to step on rotten food, manure or road kill, a banana peel that’s been chucked from a third-story window lands beside me. My eyes look up again in time to avoid the horns of a male cow, slowly sauntering down the road.

Feeling the sensation of hunger, we step off the streets and into a local restaurant for two orders of thakali khana. Food is served to us on a silver platter. White, yellow, orange, red, green, purple is the color wheel of our meal. Rice, lentil soup, potato curry, tomato chutney, spinach and eggplant: Mmmm….dal bhat and thakali curry. With my right hand I pour the lentil soup over the rice. Carefully mushing the hot food together with my fingers, I add a piece of potato and a little chutney. Forming the ball of rice in my hand, I use my right thumb to lift it into my mouth. (People don’t speak while they eat in Nepal because they are too busy eating.) When our plates have been emptied, refilled, and emptied again, we clean our hand. Yellow from the turmeric and sticky from rice, our skin in full of flavor. We lick our fingers clean.


By nightfall, the streets begin to calm. Darkness consumes the city as candles flicker inside glassless windows. In our musty room, I wipe my face with a clean tissue and turn it black. Diesel and grit has settled around my nose, mouth, eyes, and gathered in between my toes. All my senses are clogged with Kathmandu, and all I have left to feel is love.


Beyond the pure experience of just being in Kathmandu, there are so many things to see and do. I wanted to show Jeremy what I love most about this dirty/romantic city, so we spent our limited time visiting three of Kathmandu’s best attractions: Durbar Square, Pashupathinath, and Boudhanath.


Basantapur Durbar Square is a large plaza of temples in front of the old royal palace of Kathmandu Kingdom. We didn’t go inside the palace, instead we did as the locals do and just hung out. So much of Nepali time is spent sitting and watching. Durbar Square has become a central spot for teens, adults, rickshaw drivers and cotton candy-sellers to sit and watch the day go by. The people hanging out are mostly men (as the women tend to be kept busy with housework and cooking). As we sat, we noticed the visibly strong bond among Nepalese men: boys holding hands as they walked, arms and legs draped over one another as they sat. On the temple steps, we sat with them for a while, listening to the pigeons and watching the world go round.

One the other side of town lies one of the most holy Hindu temples in the world, Pashupathinath. However, those not of the Hindu faith are not permitted inside the Pashupathi temple, so after we paid the new (effective as of April 14, 2013) tourist fee of 1,000 rupees ($11), we skirted around the private temple to the edge of the Bagmati River and the main cremation site for all of Kathmandu.


Approaching the river, we were just in time to witness a chillingly unforgettable sight. We could hear the cries of women weeping before we could see their distraught, contorted faces. Stone steps sloped down to the river water – a viscous, grey-green liquid – and at their edge lay a prepared bed of flowers. We watched the ceremony for almost an hour as the family circled the bed, throwing offerings of what looked like rice, before the body, wrapped in bright orange cloth, was laid down to rest. Next, each person took turns blessing the forehead of the deceased with water before the body was moved down river for cremation.


The bone-chilling wails of the family echoed along the river as the wood was set aflame and the ashes were pushed into the water below. The scene was disturbing, but fascinating at the same time. Within seconds of one cremation ceremony, another had already started. Crossing the bridge and leaving the people with their sorrows, we noticed another beautiful plaza and temple. We were passing through the open gates when someone told us it was a home for the elderly. Makes sense, we thought, doing a 180 and turning our backs to the creepiness of imminent death.


A tip for fellow travelers: visit Boudhanath after Pashupati to keep your spirits high by ending the day on a positive note.

Boudhanath is the largest Buddhist stupa in the Kathmandu valley and is an oasis of beauty in the rundown outskirts of the city. Many legends tell a story of its creation, but none agree. What is certain, however, is the immense sense of peace and humility you feel standing before it. Once we had taken in the full scale of Buddha’s eyes, we began our walk clockwise around the base. Turning the spirit-purifying mani wheels as we passed. After experiencing the grimness of Pashupathinath, it was a relief to feel the tranquility of Boudhanath. Yet another reminder of how many faces this city wears.


All these years later, all these countries explored, and Kathmandu still tops my list of favorite cities on the planet. Nowhere else have I gone from crowded shops and buzzing tea shops, to Hindu temples dripping with blood and burning bodies, to the chanting of om-mani-padme-hum in a single day. No other place I have visited can compete with the full-mind and -body experience of Kathmandu. One day and this city consumes me; leaving me more alive than ever.