Bistarai: A Trail of Gold Through Nepal

With the fire popping and hissing, the tavern owner leaned forward to caution the foreign visitors. His face, made ancient and timeless by the flickering light, was creased with concern as he spoke, “Bistarai, my friends. Tomorrow you must go dherai bistarai.” Seeing the confusion in his guests’ faces, he smiled and explained, “Slowly. When you go up the steep climb, go very slowly.”

Something about that moment up at Pikey Peak, a viewpoint for Mt. Everest situated in the middle of the Solukhumbu District, stirred a memory. It wasn’t until later in the night after a few hands of rummy and a generous helping of Khukri rum that I remembered where I had heard the word “bistarai” before.

I am ashamed to admit that in all my years of being an Indiana Jones fan, I had never paid enough attention to the opening scene of the franchise to realize that Marion Ravenwood’s bar is in Nepal!

While I can’t pound through shots of raksi (akin to Japanese sake) like Marion can, the rum and yak blankets generously provided by the owner of the guesthouse warmed me during my first high altitude slumber party.

What a difference 400 meters can make!

We began walking as the sun started to tint the sky grey, just my boyfriend, our guide, and myself. The climb from the guesthouse to the top of the mountain took almost 1 1/2 hours. I’d be lying if I said that I enjoyed going up. I usually excel at physical challenges, but for the first time in my life, I was at the back of the pack. Altitude sickness doesn’t care whether you are relatively fit, under 30, and extremely competitive; everyone has to take time to adjust or suffer the consequences.

Dizziness and shortness of breath forced me to stop and rest many times. I fell farther and farther behind my boyfriend and our guide, but we remained within shouting distance and they encouraged me to go at my own pace. The summit of Pikey Peak (4065m) was the highest I had ever been in my life, every frosted minute of the ascent made worthwhile when I stood eye to eye with the tallest mountains in the world.

As I drank in the dazzling view and sipped some much-needed water, I reflected on how the many aspects of Nepal contrast with each other. At this point, my boyfriend and I had been volunteering in the small village of Son Lasa in the valley below for a month teaching English and art. We had seen some of Kathmandu’s grandest sights, such as the Boudhanath Stupa. But smaller stupas like the delicately painted one above can be found all over the mountainsides. They impressed me more than the well-known tourist sites. Their cheerful colors and fragile spires stand out, alien in this land of dark stone and thick jungle.

Feeling the ache in my knees, I recalled how the smallest members of our host family had proven that grueling climbs can be made manageable with the right attitude. Earlier in the month, we had tried to catch a glimpse of Everest by climbing to another viewpoint, a monastery named Japre. The clouds stubbornly remained thick in the sky that day, but the young girls’ enthusiasm for turning the golden prayer wheels boosted my mood. I couldn’t help but join them in praying, especially when so much giggling was involved. Heading back down the slopes of Pikey Peak, I smiled again. With their frilly dresses and sequined shoes, those girls were way tougher than me.

The following day we said goodbye to the students, teachers, neighbors, and friends we had met in our time in the valley before starting our 10-day trek to Jiri. We had planned a quick namaste, in and out of the school in a few minutes, but the teachers would have none of that. They abandoned their schedule for the day to wish us well on our next journey.

Person after person draped bright yellow and white prayer shawls over our heads until we were covered up to our ears. After many handshakes and a few high-fives (we had been working on that with some of the younger kids), the head teacher shouted for us to get organized for the final photo and we all clumped together, half on the porch, half off of it.

The highlight of the trip for me was building what I hope will be lasting relationships with people whose lives are different from mine.

Skipping the high profile sites and taking the time to enjoy everyday moments with the Nepali people connected me to the country in ways that I will never forget. I believe that it’s extremely hard to achieve this kind of connection unless you can devote a large chunk of time to becoming a part of a place.

Our journey through Nepal has proven to me that slow travel is the way to go for those interested in finding the smaller but more authentic treasures that this world has to offer.

Go bistarai.

My partner and I are on a year-long journey to explore as much as we can. It started with 3 months in Nepal. Since he keeps a diary I want to try this because for once my handwriting will be better than his.

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