Soaring between the mountains
We humans have always been intrigued by the flying birds and many men gave their lives in desperate attempts to learn to fly. With the advent of physics, we learnt about aerodynamics and this finally helped us to defy gravity. I remember as a child, at the sound of an approaching aircraft, rushing out of the house looking at the flying objects in the sky. Have we all not wondered and desired to fly like birds in open. Have we all not wished to have the magical carpet of Alladin or the witch’s broom or to fly with a fairy or to meet Superman in person. Alas, these are all fictional. Finally, fiction transformed into reality when like a madman, I ran towards the edge of the cliff. As your feet leave solid ground, gravity comes into action and you begin to descend. And, then you realise the paraglider that is attached to you is pulling you away breaking your fall, ascending higher and higher like an eagle. You are not inside an aircraft but this time in air not controlled by machinery but we humans.
Our trip to Billing, Himachal Pradesh back in June 2012 took a backseat when we decided to go to Chakrata instead for spelunking. This was a long overdue trip. Billing is a famous paragliding destination in the world, second to a site in Philippines. Indian festivals tend to create long weekends, and such opportunities are not to be missed. The Diwali of 2012 was on a Tuesday, which meant that if you take one day off on a Monday, one ends up with at least 4 days to roam around the beautiful planet we call home.
The mighty beast- our new Scorpio was a recent addition to our home (06/November/2012) and this added a set of bells and whistles to this trip. We started our journey from Delhi along with my Mom, Brother, his fiancée. My dad backed out last minute. Mom had recently joined a teaching at the Sherab Ling Monastery and thus, we were to stay at the monastery guest house. We took Una – Palampur route to reach Baijnath. On the Baijnath-Joginder Nagar road, one has to take the road leading to Bhattu village and drive for about 7 km before you are greeted by the Tibetan prayer flags. Keep moving till you approach a setup which transforms into a scene from a fairy tale; ones that start with “In a land far far away, in the middle of a dense forests lived few monks. Their forests had prayer flags all over the road which lead to their temple. The monks believed that these flags will guide the lost souls to their abode.” Of course Google Maps is of little help on this road.
The Palpung SherabLing Institute just pops out from the middle of no where and it boasts of an architecture worth admiring. We reached this place after dark and being a lone establishment – there is nothing much you can do after the natural lights go out. We ate at the restaurant/canteen of the Palpung Institute and then retired to our rooms.
Delhi and it’s surrounding cities were under a blanket of a dense smog which was adversely affecting the lives of the residents and my sweetheart Neha also came under the influence of the gas chamber. She was experiencing breathing troubles which simply vanished when we reached Sherabling. The air is super clean and our lungs were in for a treat.
Aloo paranthas (freshly baked bread stuffed with mashed potatoes) can be obtained anywhere anytime. They are like this cross cultural food adopted by all. During all my travels, local cuisines may not be available at a particular hour, you never fail to find aloo parantha readily available. While we were having breakfast next morning at the Stupa Guest house, we saw two gliders flying. The entire family got pretty excited for the adventure sport we were about to undertake.
Before starting for Bir, we got the number of the paragliding operator from the manager of the SherabLing Institute. Kamal & Pinku (+91-9816925470) were the operators we were referred to. Pinku had a podium finish in the October 2012 paragliding championship which was held in Billing. On the way to Bir, we stopped multiple times for several Canon & Nikon moments.
We had some trouble finding the Bir landing site – we had bypassed it as the direction boards are misleading. It is better here to ask the locals about the landing site. We parked our vehicle at the landing site and took their Innova to the take off point. The take off point at Billing is about 14 km by road and it takes a good 25-30 minutes to reach there. It was warm at Bir and we made the mistake of leaving our woolens in the car. Even at Billing we did not anticipate the bone chilling cold that was in store for us once we were airborne.
At the launch site, we saw many foreigners undertaking solo flights, wearing special suits and geared up with GPS and other gadgets. We all anticipated that we might feel a bit cold in the air. Some local shared that these solo fliers fly for hours at a stretch and thus they need to be geared up and for a short tandem flight, we need not worry. Worrying wouldn’t have helped either – it was impractical to climb down 14 steep kilometers and then bring the warm clothes back here.
Soon we were ready for take off – Mom was the first to fly, followed by me, then my brother, then his fiance and Neha was the last one to fly with the best pilot of the lot, Pinku. We had one GoPro camera with us, which I mounted on my helmet and we hired one GoPro camera from the operators which Neha took along with her. The DSLR and the point and shoot were of little use here.
The moment I was airborne, I felt funny in my belly – it is the same feeling that one gets on a roller coaster. Within a few seconds the feeling goes away and then you begin to ascend, taking advantage of the thermals which peak between noon and 2 pm. The increase of altitude results in sudden decrease in temperature and along comes the realisation – why I am under-dressed! It’s too late to complain so I decided to enjoy every bit of it.
Many times during my flight, I was flying above the birds and twice an eagle was flying so close to me that I could do a morphology study on the avian. My pilot took me for a cross country tour of the area and we covered two ridges. Couple of times, I spotted my brother whose red helmet was visible from quite a distance, but I could not spot Neha in the several gliders flying around. My pilot told me that the best time to glide is late September, October and early November as the weather is quite stable during these months.
During my flight, my pilot wanted me to have the experience of some stunts he liked to show off – and then after taking my consent, he began to roll the glider. I could feel the increase in the G forces and we began to spin rapidly. This lasted for a few seconds. Paragliding is very noisy; the sound of the air is near deafening at times. At the end of this so called stunt, everything went quite for a moment and I felt completely weightless. An awesome feeling. After about 35 minutes or so, the pilot took us towards Bir’s landing site. We were still at a great altitude and then he said it again – ” Shall be repeat the stunt”, but this time it’s going to be much more fun”. I consented to it once again as I thought it would be just the same. And boy, was I wrong! We began to spin with immense speed. The G forces were clearly felt this time. I could feel blood rushing to my feet and the pressure of the blood rapidly increasing in my legs. Within a split second, I remembered all the shows on Discovery and Nat-Geo where they talked about fighter pilots passing out due to extreme G forces. At one point, I felt that my legs could no longer bear the outward pressure of my own blood and will burst out. I just hoped that I pass out before that happened. But nothing of that sort took place. I did not pass out nor did my legs explode. What happened was, we descended too quickly. We landed in the next five minutes and I enjoyed every bit of the flight
Mom had already landed. The cold and the flight made her sick so she rested while others landed. I could only spot Neha when she was landing and took a video of her landing. Each one of us, had an awesome experience of the flight and unanimously we regretted not taking the warm clothing along with us. Hereon, we went to have lunch. The trio – Mom, Bro and his fiance had to leave for Delhi by bus the same night from Baijnath. Later that evening, Neha and I came back to our room and we went into a deep slumber after an exhausting day.
Next morning, we headed for the Sherabling Monastery where a monk gave us a personalised tour of the place. After the monastery tour, we headed for Barot.
Barot is famous for its trout farms and is a famous angling destination. It is about 35 km from Baijnath on the Baijnath Mandi road. We reached Barot by 3 pm only to find out that the trout farms are closed for breeding season and angling is not permitted till March 2013. While we were contemplating on heading back to Delhi, we spotted a nice wooden hut of the PWD Guest House. Upon inquiring from the caretaker about the accommodation, he told us that the rooms need to be booked well in advance from Jogindernagar. He suggested that we should call up the booking office and attempt a telephonic booking. We did and we got a room – of course we had to get a room, there were no tourists around a day before Diwali. The caretaker, then advised us to go on a drive 14 km ahead of Barot and admire the scenic beauty. We spotted couple water falls on the way, a minor water crossing and grazing grounds. We were back in Barot before the last light of the day disappeared into the approaching night.
Ate trout fish for dinner from one of the local restaurants and then headed back to our room. It was very cold in Barot – at about 8 pm, the temperature was around 4 degrees Celsius. We started back home next morning around 5 pm and we were back in Gurgaon for Diwali at 3 pm. This was by far the best Diwali vacation we every had.
Though paragliding is now checked off from our bucket list, we would certainly like to do it again – this time with proper clothing and a two way radio strapped on to us. We really missed each other for that 1 hour we could not spot each other. I found out today that there about several paragliding destinations in India, Billing just happens to be the best of them. It is a very safe sport, especially if it is done along with an experienced pilot.