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Paragliding in Bir: Chaos and clarity in the Indian Himalaya

Tuesday 14 January, 2003


Paragliding in Bir, India

Ian Blackmore goes flying in Billing, one of the wildest paragliding sites in the world. Published in Cross Country magazine in 2003

When the phone call came, I was out in a field, trying to work out the details of photographing our review hang glider from the back seat of a microlight.

“How do you fancy going on the ultimate paragliding assignment?” the boss asked.

“Where to?”

“The Himalayas.”

“Oh, ok.” My mouth went dry. “When?”

“In about a week, we’ll sort it out on Monday morning.”

And he hung up.

I first heard about Billing from a couple of Indian pilots I met in Goa many years ago. It sounded awesome. A 100 km long mountain range on the southern edge of the Himalaya with 5,500 metre peaks, and eagles and vultures to lead you to every thermal.

Xavier Remond flew a world record 134 km out-and-return from Billing way back in 19’92. Considering he set that record 10 years ago on a glider now considered antique, the place obviously has potential. And for once I was to discover that the reality proved remarkably close to the myth.

Apparently, the original plan was for a few local pilots to organise a fun competition at one of their local sites. Namely, Bir-Billing in the Himachal Pradesh province of India. Then the Free Flight Association of India became involved, and finally, the Himachal Tourist Board. With government assistance, Air India became a sponsor and the end result was a rag tag collection of top pilots and scruffy journalists being invited to attend a full-blown Pre-PWC.

HELL ON FOUR WHEELS

I was delighted to discover I’d be travelling with Scotland’s Ulric Jessop. Ulric had travelled through northern India before, so I hoped he might advise me on how I might best avoid my greatest fear, getting ill. On arrival in Delhi we met Australia’s Stewart Dennis and English DJ Sam Moffett, whereupon Ulric immediately blew his image of ideal companionship material by suggesting a competition to catch the worst illness. Ulric’s philosophy turned out to be this: expose himself to as many germs as possible and hence build immunity. We declined the challenge.

We landed in Delhi at night to discover a pleasant temperature, a calm and airy airport and even some of the organisers meeting us after we’d been through customs. Could everything I’d read about India’s chaos have been scare-mongering? We hopped into our taxi and set off for a day out in Delhi.

Instantly on leaving the airport we entered hell on four wheels. Dark, dense smog, vile smells, giant potholes and far too many vehicles. Everyone was driving too fast, too close, with very few lights and no discernible rules. I’m sure there’s hardly a single pilot who’s not at some time been go-karting. Imagine, if you will, go-karting at night, with hundreds of other competitors, and half the field racing in the opposite direction round the same track. The reality is far, far worse.

The rules of the road in India are few, and simple. Drive on the left, and might is right. The bigger vehicle always has right of way. The only fault that renders any vehicle unroadworthy is a horn that doesn’t work. Bald tires, no lights, broken exhausts are all quite irrelevant. So long as the engine turns and the horn is loud, that’s all you need.

There is apparently a driving test, but everyone I spoke to had ‘bought’ theirs and simple Darwinian selection removes those not up to the job. You need quick reactions to avoid running into an unlit cow at 2 am. Cows, although slow, obviously have right of way due to size and Buddhist belief in their sanctity.

We spent the next day exploring old Delhi. It’s sort of a rite of passage. You don’t really want to go there, but everyone does and you don’t want to be left out.

“What did you think of Old Delhi?”

“Errr, I didn’t go,” just doesn’t cut the mustard.

The streets are narrow, heaving with people and everywhere you turn there are sights that take you back to the Dark Ages. There are modern facilities such as running water and electricity but in old Delhi both are more of a hazard than a convenience. Since I was to be sharing a bathroom with Ulric I restrained him from sampling some of the local culinary delights. Over the space of a morning we wandered through areas devoted to the sale of spices, the printing of papers and the slaughter of goats before embarking for Bir.

After a marathon 400 km overnight drive, during most of which our taxi driver had us so close to the lorry in front we were actually underneath the back of it at times, we finally arrived in Bir. Once in Bir it’s a further 45 minutes up a road similar to Olu Deniz (only narrower, twistier, and with steeper drops and faster drivers) to take off at Billing. The only blessing are more trees to stop you if you go over the edge.

As always the horn is essential and could just be heard over Indian pop music playing full bore through three broken speakers. As well as the sound effects, all taxis have a little shrine on the dashboard with flashing LEDs that light up at night. Writing this now I’m tempted to fit one in my own car –despite my lack of religious belief, I can think of no other reason we survived the Indian driving.

PEACE AT LAST

Finally, with one last blast on the horn, we arrived on Billing launch and I enjoyed my first moment of silence since leaving Heathrow 48 hours and 7,000 km ago. For a while nobody spoke, content just to breathe in the clean mountain air and absorb every detail of the scenery laid before us. As we looked around, we spotted the first hawks cruising low past launch. Down the spur, Himalayan Griffon vultures circled lazily in the house thermal. Ravens and crows occasionally broke the silence with the odd squawk, the bigger raptors silently patrolling the skies, seemingly never struggling for lift and only descending to investigate a possible snack.

I’ve always been a flatland flyer at heart. For whatever reason, having terrain right next to me just doesn’t seem right. I might be a full 1,000 metres from anything solid but the fact there’s still higher ground around I find disturbing.

When it came, my first flight in the Himalayan mountains was a bit of a shock. The vultures’ lazy thermalling and the calm winds on launch had lulled me into expecting smooth conditions, but on arriving over the house thermal there was a tremendous rush of wind, the glider pitched back hard and I was straight into a good 5m/s climb… but only for about half a turn.

Although Billing has thermals popping off just about every ridge and knoll in sight, smooth and well formed they’re usually not. The lower you are, the harder it is to turn in constant lift. After centering for a couple of 360s in solid lift you can be sure the core will wander off pretty soon.

Perseverance and watching where the birds go are key to flying in Billing – keep turning, keep adjusting, and the higher you get the smoother and better formed the lift is. Ever so slowly, the vista changes from an almost alpine scene of trees and valleys to harsher rocky slopes and jagged peaks.

Ulric summed it up well: “The climbs are quite fast but they go on forever because the mountains are just so huge!” As you climb, rather than the mountains starting to drop below you, all that happens is that even bigger ones come into view, opening a stunning contrast between south and north.

Look north and you’ll see a magnificent vista of rock and jagged peaks, look south and there’s a thick inversion and the plains a very, very long way below. Only by looking down at the plains can you actually gauge any sense of the altitude you’ve gained.

Low cloudbase often frustrated our attempts to penetrate deeper north no matter how high we climbed, the mountains behind launch were perpetually in cloud. Instead we blasted up and down the back ridge. The favourite cross-country from Bir is towards Palampur and on to Dharamsala, ridge hopping as you go.

Scratching low in gullies and little gorges, you often round a spur to encounter tiny houses or temples clinging to the hillside, and someone always appears to wave and cheer. When the clouds started to look menacing it was usually prudent to wander out over the plains in front. Every available spot in the valleys is given over to growing crops –the terraces of the paddy fields follow the contours of the land perfectly– and the overall impression is of a giant aerial map.

On the first practise day I spotted Fly and Glide photographer Felix Wölk cruising around, apparently at random. We’d both planned to make our way out over the plains and wait to film the competitors racing into goal from above.

With no sign of the racers yet I moved in closer for company and spotted a huge eagle cruising in formation mere inches from a grinning Felix. Clear of the mountains we three had an enormous expanse of sky to play in, allowing Felix to lie back and concentrate on filling the viewfinder with his feathered friend.

Obviously keen to feature in a more international magazine, his friend decided to follow me for a while, much to Felix’s disgust. As time passed during the comp, conditions improved daily, cloudbase rose and with our growing understanding of the local conditions we started to venture closer to the main peaks and contemplate going deeper into the big stuff behind.

THE COMPETITION

With practise over, and keen to be on launch early for the first comp day, we grabbed the very first taxi – which promptly broke down in Bir. Another reminder, as if we needed one, that we were in India. Waiting for a lift in Bir I ran into Elvis. Obviously not using his old name, I can assure you that The King is alive and well and working as a steward for Indian Airlines. Elvis had heard of the event when drinking in a Bombay bar and had travelled for two days to Bir to come and see something other than cricket.

Forty-five minutes later, same launch as the practise days, same pilots – just an extra thousand spectators, some TV crews and government officials. Any sport other than cricket is a rare and curious thing in India and they went wild for paragliding.

People had travelled by bus, scooter, motorbike and even motor rickshaws or tuk-tuks. If it had two or more wheels, or four legs, it was parked somewhere on launch. Not surprisingly, the launch area during the comp was a complete zoo, needing a whole platoon of soldiers to beat back the crowds who surged forward and cheered wildly whenever anyone successfully took off – and also when they didn’t.

Once clear of the chaos on launch the competition rabble set off daily on multi turn-point tasks of around 70 to 80km going as far as Dharamsala (45km to the west). The goal field in Bir was a series of terraced fields with giant spot-landing circles painted on to the mud. It effectively became party central for every adult, child, monk, and of course Elvis within 50 km and further.

Even landing miles away from an official landing field couldn’t assure a peaceful arrival. The day we arrived we found the Czech pilots checking their lines for damage on the hotel lawn. Every one of us got mobbed on landing. Typically from about 300 m up you’d start to see a gathering swarm of people racing across the fields to your anticipated landing zone. The lower you get, the more there are and the denser they get.

By the time you’re down to 10 or 20 metres there are usually 50 to 100 kids racing across the terraces to where they think you’re going to land. By the time you get low a large crowd will have gathered directly where you plan to land. At this point it’s always wise to dodge left or right to an adjacent field. No time for resting and admiring the view on landing– gather the wing up as fast as you can. Failure to do this will result in kids slamming into the glider and lines at truly Olympic speeds before it even hits the ground.

Despite this, wherever we landed the people were amazingly friendly and helpful, the kids helping you pack and carry your gear to the nearest road where someone always invites you in for chi, or offers a lift, three up, on a scooter to the nearest bus. As a westerner you’re always the centre of attention and often end up sharing your seat on the bus with Tibetan monks, grinning schoolchildren and the odd goat.

Ultimately German superstar Norman Lausch managed to resist the urge to take photographs, concentrating on the tasks in hand better than his competitors, and so winning overall. Top amongst the locals was Debu, one of the guys who first told me about Billing back in 1999. Chris Muller stunned us with his aerobatics, Dave Snowden stunned everyone with his dancing and the Indians delighted us with their charm and overwhelming hospitality if not always with their driving and organisation.

After a mere seven days in Bir we sadly had to leave, via Manali, prior to once again taking the highway to hell back to Delhi. I left India with only one nagging question other than when I could return. Considering we’d suffered over 70 hours of highway hell without seeing one collision, why are there no Indian drivers in Formula One?

FLYING – THE LOW DOWN

Other than dodging the vultures, flying in Billing is technically fairly easy. Simply wait for the vultures to start going up beside launch, fly to the house thermal and get as high as you can. Once high you can then either set off to the next spur to the west and repeat the process, or, head further up the launch spur to the back ridge behind launch.

From there you can go east, west, or if you dare, north into the boonies. The prevailing winds are usually light and switch from easterly to westerly during the day. By 4 pm, afternoon thunderstorms often kick-off on the higher peaks along the main ridge.

Mindful of the tragic loss Joel Kitchener (who earlier this year disappeared into a thunderstorm, never to be seen again) it was often necessary to work further forward toward the plain. Fields for out-landing are plentiful but always terraced and with plenty of power lines.

So long as you keep a careful eye on the cloud development and don’t cross over the back ridge into the bigger mountains, flying in Billing should prove no more dangerous than, say Annecy, France – and is far more spectacular.

The main practical difference between the European Alps and Billing is the lack of rescue provision and poor vehicular access to many areas. As a result, a simple broken leg has the potential to be a life-threatening injury and turn you into a leopard’s lunch or a quick vulture snack.

WHEN TO GO

September to May is generally flyable, but the best period is October-November. December, January and February are still flyable but weaker. In March and April it starts to get stronger but is OK for experienced pilots. Visit in July or August and you’ll get soaked for your efforts.

HOW TO GET THERE

Going from Delhi to Bir you have several options:

Bus: 12 hours then a one hour taxi from the bus to Bir. Cost: 10 Euros.

Train: 11 hours to Pathankot, then a five hour taxi to Bir, varying classes on the train but all are sleeper berths and fairly comfortable. Cost: 10 to 40 Euros.

Taxi: 10 – 11 hours. Cost: 126 Euros.

Internal flight: A one hour flight and then a two hour taxi to Bir. Cost: 158 Euros

INDIAN TIME

Remember that in India nothing is certain. Returning to Delhi at the end of the trip, from Manali (410 km by GPS and supposedly a 13 to 15 hour trip) took nearly 20 hours, partly due to a little brush with bureaucracy. Always leave plenty of time for breakdowns, accidents etc.

INDIAN BUSES

There are two types of bus in India: tourist buses and public buses. Tourist buses look like luxury coaches but the ride is nothing close to Western standards. A public bus is the same but without the luxury padding, so hitting the ceiling simply hurts more. Public buses are also much cheaper, stop a lot, and half the passengers are likely to go by the names Flossie, Billy or Jemimah and converse in baas, bleats and quacks. You can catch a public bus from just about anywhere to anywhere, if you have plenty of time on your hands and a strong faith in Allah.

WHERE TO STAY

There are lots of basic guesthouses in Bir. And no, you won’t be able to book in advance. If you want that kind of a holiday, head for Olu Deniz.

MONEY

There are few ATM machines in Bir, so cash is fairly essential. The local currency, the Rupee, can be exchanged for US dollars or Euros at the airport or most towns. British Sterling is not popular – so much for the British Empire.

CONTACT

Debu Choudray at skydebu@hotmail.com

FINAL WORDS

Billing is not just about flying, it’s about the whole adventure of travelling through, and flying in, one of the most stunning countries in the world. India is a total onslaught to the senses. You will never forget the sights, sounds, smells and friendly open attitudes that you’ll come across.

• Got news? Send it to us at news@xccontent.local. Fair use applies to this article: if you reproduce it online, please credit correctly and link to xcmag.com or the original article. No reproduction in print. Copyright remains with Cross Country magazine. Thanks!

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