By Dielle DSouza for BigRush
The wind whips around carrying wisps of cottony clouds across clear blue skies. It is warm in the Himachali town of Bir these days, despite the 1500-metre altitude, but those clammy hands and light beads of sweat could be put down to the adrenaline and nervous energy associated with paragliding, an increasingly popular sport here. Colourful banana-shaped canopies soar above, interrupting the view of the Himalayas in the distance, still snow-capped, and jagged like the musings of a child’s pencil.
Now and then, one of those colourful wings will lose altitude fast, swooping down, swerving intentionally to catch a draft, sending its pilot into stomach-churning twists. Other times, they descend towards the ground, partly brown with hay parched during the winter and partly green with fresh grass resurrected with the spring.
Bir is a nature lover’s paradise, filled with jaw-dropping views, tiny hamlets and twittering birds. But it’s a paraglider’s sanctuary, offering a space to connect with one’s own, learn more as a beginner or take risks as a pro.
From a non-descript town more famous in the 90s for its Sherabling Buddhist monastery than its thriving potential for adventure sport, it has grown now to be one of India’s best known spots for paragliding.
A cluster of houses in the valley of the Dauladhar mountains, Bir lies about 535 kilometres from Delhi, in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. Barely 14kms away is Billing, almost a sister town at 2,400 metres from which soar paragliders, coming back to solid ground at landing sites in Bir.
It’s located on the first ridge of the mighty Himalayas, running for nearly a hundred kilometres for extended flying pleasure.
A handful of paragliders in the know have been coming to Bir for decades, perfectly happy with the solitary chai shop, warm locals and simple dal-chawal. They trekked everywhere and made do with a few basic necessities, a rather telling reflection of the modest ways of the town’s several hundred Tibetan refugees.
Bir-Billing shot to the spotlight after a tireless effort to organise the Paragliding World Cup late in 2015 which saw around 150 top pilots from around the world and 500 free-flying pilots soar across its clear skies. Local authorities boosted infrastructure with well paved roads, hotels for budget and luxury visitors, camp sites and other amenities.
The locality’s vast tea gardens stretch for miles, undulating with the terrain, and offering adventure enthusiasts a variety of sport options particularly mountain biking. The cookie-cutter tea shrubs in disciplined rows make for a stunning vista against the haphazard jumble of homes in the towns, mountains in the distance and native tree clusters.
Ideal paragliding conditions require winds that create an uplift, much like an airplane taking off. In Bir-Billing, the average thermal of 5 metres per second ensures sufficient uplift during paragliding season. Winds average between 8km/h and 13km/h from October to March, and hover at around 20km/h or a little higher before the wet season hits in July, creating safe conditions for beginners and adding a little more excitement for the pros as the gusts pick up speed.
The cloud base is normally around 4,000 metres, which means pilots get good thermals and many make the highly satisfying 100km flight to Dharamshala and back, with further crossings over Manali for the brave hearts.
Landing and take-off sites in Bir and Billing are kept free of debris and rocks, and these days, jeeps and taxis offer alternatives to trudging along with a 15kg craft pack strapped to your back.
The fastest way to get to Bir is by air. Air India and SpiceJet fly directly from Delhi to Kangra, just under 70 kilometres away. You’ll easily get a taxi to cover the remainder of the journey to your hotel.
Rough it out with an overnight bus from Delhi that leaves early in the evening or a direct two-hour ride from Lower Dharamshala (twice a day). More frequent buses ply to Baijnath 12 kms away.
If you choose a train, take one to Pathankot, from where the dainty little toy train trundles through spectacular countrysides that more than make up for the painstakingly slow journey of eight hours.
Or simply skip the drama, and rent a car or hop into a taxi.
Following the increase in popularity of paragliding, Bir now offers a host of accommodation options to choose from. You can opt for anything from clean budget rooms in guesthouses for as little as Rs 300 (Chokling Guesthouse and Bhawani Guesthouse), dorm rooms for Rs 500 (single bed at Zostel Bir) to something more spacious and luxurious (Colonel’s Resort at Rs 2,500). An hour away in Palampur, you can soak in heritage luxury at Taragarh Palace (Rs 8000 onwards). Try glamping with Camp Oak View (Rs 6,600) at the edge of the forest, or for a taste of the traditional, live with one of the many families who have registered their homestays with the Dharmalaya Institute.
For those with a little experience, one of the best paragliding outfits to fly with is Sky Safari. Veteran pilots John Silvester and Eddie Colfox who regularly fly across the Hunza Valley in Pakistan, the Dolomite mountains in Italy and other places around the world head this company which insists on a low guide-to-pilot ratio – most often 1:1.
PG Gurukul run by acclaimed competitive pilot Gurpreet Singh Dhindsa is a great place to start at, with tandem flights, introductory to advanced courses and pilot assistance.
Top Indian pilot Debu Choudhary’s Fly Bir Billing, as well as Travel Bir Billing and Skylark School of Paragliding are others offering graded courses in the area.
Bir isn’t just about paragliding, although that’s one of the main reasons most visitors make the meandering journey here. During autumn and late spring, a pair of binoculars reveals a host of bird species with shocking hues.
The many twisting non-motorable roads are excellent trails for mountain biking, ultra-running or trekking. Just watch out for the horse riders around blind bends. A number of local companies organise treks to tribal settlements, including an eight-day walk to Bhara Bangal in Chamba Valley 180 kilometres away.
For something a little more laid-back, volunteering in eco-friendly construction, organic farming or permaculture at the Dharmalaya Institute can be fairly eye-opening for city folks. There are also excellent institutes for yoga and meditation, and options to tour tea factories or nearby monasteries.