13 June 2017

Travel: Experience Paragliding in Bir Billing, Himachal Pradesh

Experienced paragliding for the first time in my life two weeks back in Bir Billing, in the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh. Paragliding is an experience like no other, it’s a feeling that cannot be described in words, that overwhelms you, that stuns you, that leaves you awestruck and you almost choke with tears (I went all the way and shed multiple of them). It’s thrilling, it’s adventurous, it’s beautiful, it’s uplifting (both literally and as a person), it opens your mind to newer ways of travel, it is definitely one of those things that need to be on your bucket list, and then ticked off it ASAP!!

Now that we’re done with the emotions, I will get to the technicalities. But if any of you know me even remotely, emotions, feelings and experiences are what I am full of, so we will have them accompany the details many a time as you read on.

What is Bir Billing and how is it different from Bir/how far is it from Bir? Bir is the landing site, Billing is the take-off site, hence it’s called Bir Billing. Billing is 16 kms upwards from Bir.

Bir Billing is among the top 10 paragliding destinations in the world!! And then we say India doesn’t have anything. You need to move beyond the cliched options and look! Not just that, Bir Billing also hosted the world’s first ever paragliding world cup in 2015. Riders from all across the world had come to participate, and we won’t get into the reasons as to why Bir Billing was chosen as the destination, but to cut it short, I’ll only say the wind currents, climate and the likes, are all favourable for paragliding.

So the day I reach Bir people tell me there won’t be any paragliding taking place today. I was extremely upset to hear this, because in my itinerary, paragliding had to be done on day 1 so the rest of the days we were free to explore Bir. But God had other plans. The person telling me this went on to say today you might still have ‘some’ chance, but the next couple of days paragliding is shut for sure because of some routine tests that need to be done on the equipment by the authorities. Nobody can even imagine what I went through then. A trip I had been planning for months, that only revolved around paragliding, was suddenly left without any meaning for me.

Long story cut short, by a miracle that God graced us with, we were able to go paraglide the same day. What nobody mentioned in their blogs while I was researching, was the scary ride to the top. Narrow roads, sharp curves, bumpy roads, but what an exhilarating ride! Imagine you’re going for an adventure sport like paragliding, and the build-up itself is so intense. At about 5 occasions I thought the jeep was going to fall off the cliff and we were going to die even before we could experience paragliding. But thankfully, we reached the top in one piece. More problems await us there.

View from Billing

Giving the problems a break, I want to spend a few lines to describe the view. This was around 5PM, and the view was that of a sunset which was absolutely stunning! Hues of blue, purple, pink, orange, white, all blending together in layers, and only clouds, greenery and mountains wherever you turned. It was mesmerizing to say the least!

To be able to paraglide, you have to wear a harness and a bag, and a helmet (see the picture below). This bag is what becomes a seat for you when you’re in the air. I always thought how someone could paraglide standing- wouldn’t a person get tired? But all my doubts were resolved when my rider told me this would be my seat in the air! It all made sense then. Haha. Also, it’s very difficult to walk around in their harness wearing that bag.

The air currents weren’t in our favour so we moved to the opposite side of the hill and changed our direction for take-off. The riders are damn sweet to each other- without any excessive communication, they just know they have to give each other way and take off one by one in turns. While I was standing and waiting for my turn, I was watching other riders take off. All you had to do to take off was run. Run to save your life, run like it’s the end of the world- is what the riders say, in a joking way of course, to keep the mood light. You need to run till you’re not in the air. And to be on the safer side, let your feet move and paddle till you’re actually airborne.

A rider taking off before me stopped running right when he had reached the edge of the hill, and down he fell and tripped over himself. The hills on the takeoff site aren’t ‘hills’. They’re those small curves with grass on them where you will even find a herd of sheep every now and then. So you can’t trip over there and die. The maximum that will happen is embarrassment to have fallen in front of so many people, not even any bruises. But that is damn scary to look at right before you take off! And that’s when I panicked, and asked my rider if that will happen to me. My rider's name was Chhotu. A sweet chap that he was, he told me to just run and not walk briskly, and leave the rest on him.

So when you run, the rider and your harness are tied together. The rider is behind you and he handles and controls everything throughout the flight. All they want you to do is run for those 8-10 seconds in the beginning. Except for that one guy, nobody else screwed this one up.

And then came my turn. Run run run, I actually ran like I had my life dependent on it. Took off, and literally 4 seconds later, I was so damn comfortable! Paragliding, I’ll tell you, feels natural literally 4 seconds after you take off. It’s the most effortless adventure sport, because you don’t have to do shit. Just sit and enjoy the experience. But after those 4 seconds we crossed the take-off site gradually, and entered the space where my 360 degree view was clear. And that’s when it struck me hard that I’m actually doing this. I have actually been able to do this. I am literally in the air right now. I AM paragliding. And that’s when I just let the view soak in, looked at the sky in front of me, not above me, and had tears rolling down my cheeks because of the sheer enormity of where I was. I was in the air, without any gear to protect me, not in an airplane but all by myself. And I was sailing. I was floating like a bird. I will end the description of my personal experience here. I think this is enough to make any of you want to go to Bir and experience paragliding.

My rider asked me if I liked “zig zag”. I instantly knew what he meant, and with glee on my face and an instant shine in my eyes that he couldn’t see, I said “YESSSS!” Then started the BEST part of my paragliding. My rider made us go left and right and up and down and right again then left then round then swirl. I was being a bond in the air, and believe me, I have never experienced a rush like this before in my life. Never. I asked him to stop after 20 seconds, and I could not stop smiling after that. Unbelievable experience! It was too much to take in, too much happiness to soak in. See the picture to get a glimpse of my "zig zag".

Our ride was only for about 12-13 minutes because of the air current not being in our favour. If I thought take-off was nice and easy, landing was a hundred times easier than that, no kidding. You just go and stand on the ground, and your rider makes sure your speed while landing is negligible so you don’t fall. I still did. Haha. See the landing site in the below picture.

After the landing, the view was altogether different now. The sunset was more crisp, the shades in the sky were darker, it was even more beautiful than before the take-off now. Took several pictures (of course), paid for our ride, and headed back to our resort with the paragliding company’s driver.

Important things you should know when you go to paraglide in Bir:

1. Cost of paragliding: Rs.2500 is the norm everywhere, you may rarely find anyone giving it to you for cheaper, but people may try to sell it for Rs.3000 too. Stick to Rs.2500 and use your bargaining skills!
2. Camera/GoPro: How does everyone take pictures mid-air? The riders give you a GoPro for an added charge of Rs.500. This GoPro is tied with a string to your bag, so you don’t drop it in the air. Don’t forget taking this with you! You will have memories for a lifetime! After the ride they give you your video in a cd, or you can get it transferred to your phone too (which is what I did). The file is at least 1.25 GB in size, so make sure you have enough space in your phone. Take screenshots from your video and they become your pictures.
3. Best time to paraglide in Bir: October-March according to websites, but extends till early June according to the riders. Going in winters is more lucrative to people because of the view of snow-capped mountains.
4. When is paragliding in Bir shut? During monsoons. Mostly July-September.
5. For how long can you stay in the air? Depends on the different deciding factors like the wind speed, pressure, currents, etc. We stayed in the air for only 12-13 minutes because the weather wasn’t as favourable, but in the peak season around October November, people even stay in the air for as long as an hour.
6. How do you know if a rider is safe? You don’t. So call up Jyoti when you reach Bir and he’ll send a car for you wherever you are, and will drop you back as well. Jyoti is the most renowned and the safest rider in Bir. He has even been featured in Limca Book of Records. 3 people recommended me his name, so I thought he has to be better than the others. Here’s his number: +91 9805412392. But I obviously don’t take responsibility of your life if you choose to go ahead with him. I’m only helping you based on my own experience. There are riders who are not even trained over there, don’t even have certificates, and not being a local or an expert in paragliding, you wouldn’t even know which one to trust.
7. What should you wear to go for paragliding? Comfortable clothes. No tight jeans because you gotta run! No short tops because you gotta run! The temperature dips when you reach the paragliding take-off site, so wear a full sleeves shirt even if it is summers. You feel chilly mid-air too. Do not forget to wear shoes! No slippers, only shoes!
8. Don’t carry big handbags or cameras with you if all of you are going to paraglide. You will have no place to keep them, even though they give you a bag on which you sit. You don’t want the overall weight to get too much, so keep your stuff to bare minimum.
9. Paragliding alone is called Solo Paragliding, paragliding with a trained rider is called Tandem Paragliding.
10. How far is Bir from Delhi? About 500-550 kms

For any other help, please feel free to reach out to me at thetastingfork@gmail.com. Will be happy to help 😊
More about Bir, places to eat at, things to do, where to stay, how to travel, time taken, etc. is coming soon!

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