The Scent Of China

Have you ever noticed that everywhere has its own distinctive smell?

I first realised this when I was about 8 years old. The Sister and I were friendly with a girl who lived a couple of houses down the street from us, and I remember returning from playing at her house once and making a remark to Mum about the “smell of their house”. Mum was a litte perturbed, and instructed me never to say such a thing in the family’s hearing, but I went on to explain that I didn’t mean it in a bad way. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell; it was just a smell. Our house had one, Granny’s house had one, my best friend from school’s house had one. I don’t know what it is – maybe just a combination of things like the washing powder the family uses, their shampoo, their air fresheners, the foods they cook regularly, the plants in the house. It all joins together to create a smell that you subconsciously associate with that place.

Well, anyway. It’s not just houses. Since I’ve been travelling, I’ve been keeping a journal of sorts, which I use to make notes for blog posts or as a record of my own memories of each place. In an effort to practise my descriptive writing skills, I start my notes on each new place with a “Five Senses” summary. It looks like… it smells like.. it sounds like… it feels like… it tastes like…

I can tell you what any city/country I’ve been to smells like, to me. I don’t know why anyone would ever ask me such a thing, but these things interest me! :) Sometimes the smells aren’t pleasant ones, and this is no reflection on how I feel about the place in general. For example, New York City is one of three contenders for the number one slot in my “Favourite places ever” list. I love the place, I want to live there sometime, I’m fascinated by it. But none of this changes the fact that the smell that I associate with NYC is a mixture of stale cigarette smoke, sweaty and humid subway air, and exhaust fumes. South Korea (or at least, the parts I’ve been to so far) smells like fish, seaweed, and malfunctioning drains. It really does. But I love it nonetheless.

Tallinn smells like sea air and roasting chestnuts and cinnamon. Nashville smells like BBQ chicken. Switzerland smells like freshly cut grass and coffee and flowers. Glasgow smells like yeast and hops. Budapest smells like rivers and rain and damp ground. Krakow smells like trees and doner kebabs. Amsterdam smells like incense and marijuana. France smells like wine and warm brioche and smoke.

And China? China smells like your favourite Chinese restaurant, or that delicious aroma when someone’s just arrived home with the Chinese takeaway and you can smell the food in the brown paper bags. I feel like I could write poetry about the smell of China. Exotic spices, smoky grill aromas, ginger and garlic, firey peppers, sweet honey sauces and marinated meats. On every street corner in the cities, vendors cook at their carts, and the smoke from grills and fires mingles with the sense-tingling blends of spices and the sweet scent of fresh mandarin oranges and deep red cherries.

I was a little sad when I got off the bus in Daejeon and took a breath of the crisp night air with its familiar aroma of, erm, fish bits and sewage. No place will ever smell as good to me as the country that is home to Peking Duck.

(But then I walked past my favourite dak galbi restaurant and remembered that Daejeon has its share of delightful scents, too…)

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6 thoughts on “The Scent Of China

  1. Jane says:

    What a novel way to remember your trips. Perhaps a title for your book….Travel Scents…but then again, not all are as fond of puns as am I ;) Lovely pictures, by the way, you have a particular talent to combine the word with the world!

  2. Grannymar – I think it’s one of those observations that everyone makes without even realising it. It just occurred to me to put it into words, that’s all!
    Jane – Travel Scents, I like it! And thank you. I have only recently discovered a hidden love for taking pictures, and while I know nothing about the technical details of cameras, lenses, and the art of taking a good photograph, I do enjoy getting a cute snapshot or two to go with my writing!

  3. Billy says:

    I was thinking about the smell of Nashville the other day, and I decided it smells like take-away food (BBQ chicken? Perhaps), exhaust fumes and something kinda sweet that I can’t put my finger on. I think Paris smells like popcorn.

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