What a city! Walking the streets of old town is an assault on all the senses.
First and foremost, taste. Food is everywhere. Guys selling small crispy pani puris filled with chick peas and cold broth. Sweets shops which manage to make sweets sweeter than sugar itself. Tandori grills, samosa friers, Indian, Nepali, Newari, Mustang, Tibetan, Chinese, Italian, Israeli restaurants, and quite a passable steakhouse to complete the mix. And then there are the lassie stalls. This sweet yoghurt-like drink is heavenly and can be found in streetside stalls all over the city. We drank many glasses each day and never managed to tire of this ambrosia-like beverage.
The sights match the tastes. The old town is visibly… old. Dusty buildings line the narrow streets. Alleyways lead to hidden courtyards and temples. Ancient statues older than whole western civilizations stands idly embedded in buildings or little shrines. Elaborate wood carvings and priceless religious artifacts grace the streets. Life revolves around this all.
People are everywhere. The women wear colorful clothes. Dirty beggars mingle with men in traditional Newari hats. Red tikka dots adore forehads all around. Standing in a busy market square, you feel surrounded by so much humanity. It almost feels overdone and fake, as if you are on a Hollywood movie set and a director decided to place as much variety of people in one place, and have them mingle and go around doing their business.
The sounds are also there. There is constant honking and bicycle bell ringing as too much foot traffic mixes with too many bikes and motorbikes and the occasional taxi or delivery truck on streets built centuries ago. There are the tourist taunts, the constant chatter between customer and vendor, the revving of an engine, the squeak of worn break pads, and the occasional “om mani padme hum” mantra se to music coming from a knick knack shop.
Surprisingly, touch is also well exercised. You constantly bump into people as you make your way down the crowded streets. You have to lean against a building to avoid a car passing through. And sometimes you are not successful at dodging traffic and a bike gently prods you in your lower back to get you out of the way.
The least pleasant though are the smells. There is a lot of pollution and dust is in the air. Sewers spew fumes and garbage rots in the streets. Occasionally, you get a pleasant whiff of the cooking curry in a nearby kitchen or the aroma of the spices sold by a merchant.
The other thing you notice in Kathmandu is the people. There are so many different kinds of folks going around their daily business it makes your head spin. My favorite was the man who crouched on the quiet side street near our hotel and tried to sell us is wares, which included nail clippers, combs, brushes, lighters and cotton buds. We always answer “No thank you” to which he would always reply “Heh? No business? No business for me?”. And then there was the tour group from Hungary who were all dressed in male monk robes and went around the Swayambhunath temple, feverishly buying every trinket in sight, snapping photos of each other. When asked about their strange and inappropriate attire, they claimed “We come to study. It’s complicated. Difficult to explain.” It was hilarious, but did feel a bit bad for laughing as I am sure they were conned into this by some tour agency n Budapest promising authentic meditation retreats.
Kathmandu is a very vibrant city. It is loud, polluted and smelly. It is also lively, colorful, and enchanting. Sitting in the Durbar Square on a centuries old temple you watch life go about, just as it has for many hundreds of years before, right before your eyes.