The peaceful towns of the north of India are a stark contrast to the melee that was Delhi.
We took a night bus north from Delhi to Bajinath in the state of Himachal Pradesh, and from there chartered a taxi half an hour to the town of Bir, where Bruce lives.
Let’s see if I can find a map for you.
There we are, up in the north between Punjab, Kashmir, Pakistan and China (Tibet).
Bir is an interesting place. Bruce lives pretty much within the Tibetan quarter of Bir. Around there most of the population are Tibetan refugees who’ve been there since the early 60s. Dotted around the area are numerous beautiful Tibetan monasteries. Most of the businesses are owned and run by Tibetans. So it’s more like being in Tibet than in India.
<cue photo of Tibetan stuff>
Bir sits at 1500m altitude nestled in a green valley in the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s early spring and it’s warm enough for shorts and T shirt during the day, but it gets a little chilly at night.
As well as the Tibetans there’s also quite a few expats around, mostly for the paragliding scene. Since it’s early spring the season is just beginning. It’s fair to say that Bruce is the Godfather of the paragliding scene in Bir. He’s been living there permanently for like 10 years, has taught lots of locals how to paraglide and they now make nice livings taking tourists on tandem rides. This flows on into other areas of the economy, for example the taxi drivers make nice livings dropping paragliders at the top of the hill. Hotels, restaurants too of course.
Bruce flies solo
So our first day in Bir and Bruce was quite keen to go for a solo flight since he hadn’t had one for a few weeks. We rode his Enfield 500 up to the launch site at Billing (2440m) 14km away. I watched as Bruce mingled at the launch site, greeted old friends, asked other paragliders the about the weather conditions (“bumpy”), and was greeted by the some of the local Indian and Tibetan paraglider pilots, many of whom past students of his.
Many of the pilots were cautious and waiting for the right conditions, but some were taking off anyway. Not always successfully – their chute (or wing in paraglider terminology) would inflate and rise above them for lift off, but then it would get blown sideways into the ground.
The view from the launch site at Billing
After a bit of waiting Bruce decided the conditions were right so he unpacked his chute and and off he went. I stayed on the hill quite a while watching him circle upward to 4000m and chatted with the other paraglider pilots, then rode the Enfield back down the hill into Bir and around town a bit.
The next day Bruce’s tandem paraglider arrived from nearby Manali so we went up to Billing for a tandem flight. This was it! This was what I came to India to learn how to do!
Conditions weren’t exactly ideal, the wind was gusting a bit so we sat at the launch site for about half an hour waiting for it to die down, mingling as before. The wind seemed to blow for about 10 mins and then die for about 1 or 2 minutes and then start to blow again. Bruce’s girlfriend Petie went up first and although she hadn’t paraglided in a month she did a nice reverse launch and in less than a minute she was circling 100m above us, whooping with joy.
Bruce strapped me in to the tandem paraglider which are much larger and stronger than a solo glider. He pulled on the strings to lift the glider above us, while I was instructed to sprint forward as fast as I could. Unfortunately the first launch didn’t go exactly as planned, the chute went straight over our heads and crashed in front of us, and we went down in a pile of dust and grass stains. The same thing happened again, but on the third go we decided not sprint forward straight away, and that time the paraglider was strong enough to lift us straight up off the launch site and we were away!
Wow, it’s a lot noisier in the air than I expected, with all the wind noise and the wind whistling past my helmet and through the paraglider’s strings and the chute itself. Duh, really noisy!
Woah it’s actually scarier than I expected too. To think we’re only held in the air by strings and fabric. And we’re fucking high – we’re flying at about 3000m altitude, and the town of Bir is 1500m below us.
It’s quite cold too, duh, but I’d been told to expect that.
What a view though! I’d thought the view was wicked from the launch site, but the higher you go the more you see, and now we could see over more and more mountain ranges and behind every range was a new green valley dotted with houses and towns.
Then we descended a bit and looked at a house Bruce was building just out of Bir – I hadn’t seen it at ground level yet.
Petie was miles away from us and Bruce was wondering what she was up to, since it was her first flight since she’d broken her wrist. So we gained altitude by riding the wind up, and then headed over to where she was. But she was just having a ball, practicing “wing overs”. We flew towards her and she flew under us, whooping some more.
Every now and then we’d get blown around a bit and I’d feel a bit queasy, like airsick. Bruce said that can happen.
We descended to the landing site and made a nice landing. Petie came down behind us and overshot her landing slightly, landing in the barley fields growing at the edge of the landing site.
Now that you’ve read my version, here’s the video:
So overall verdict was it was scary, but amazing. Mum, try to relax, OK: Billing is an intermediate to advanced site, and the day we went up many pilots chose not to go because it looked a bit rough. Bruce knows the area and the wind patterns like the back of his hand so he knew where we could fly safely. I won’t be starting my training at Billing! I may not even get good enough to fly off it. I’ll be learning at much smaller training sites nearby.