I am on a snow covered cliff, 8200 ft. above sea level. Video recording of my phone is on. Icy cold winds are flowing, almost freezing my bones. Dense clouds have engulfed the whole cliff giving signs of a heavy rainfall. As per the locals, the area had witnessed snowfall two days back only and yesterday there was a heavy rainfall. The place is surrounded by snow capped mountains all around. Had it been some other day I would have been taking a lot of pictures of the picturesque scene. But today, there is something else in my mind that is making my legs weak. It’s hard to decide whether it is the cold winds that are making me shiver or is it the thought of the imminent events. A voice from behind came, “RUN!!!” and I started running. I am running at full speed but the pressure of the winds is slowing me down. I continued running… The end is approaching… Oh God!!! What if I slipped off?? Is it my last few moments of this life?? Now there is no return. I started cursing the time when I had agreed for this dangerous endeavor.
THREE DAYS BACK….. I was sitting in the hall of my PG in Gurgaon watching Bollywood movie WAR on the television when Kshitij one of the inmates of the PG came and switched off the TV. I stared at him angrily and retorted, “What is this nonsense? That was a crucial scene. What is the urgency?”
“Oh! Sorry Bro. I will tell you the story. Right now there is something urgent I want to ask?”
“Go on.. I am all ears.”
“Are you interested for a short excursion to Bir Billing, Himachal Pradesh?”
“The famous Paragliding spot of India?” I asked enthusiastically. My anger was mellowed down. I had heard about the national/international paragliding competitions that take place there in the month of September-October.
“Yes, exactly. Are you willing?” He again asked.
I took a pause for few seconds as I was bit apprehensive. It was not that I did not want to go but my apprehension was because of me being an acrophobic, although a minor one.
Kshitij, sensing my thoughts, said, “Don’t worry nothing will happen. I have planned everything. We will be leaving tomorrow night. It’s a 10 hour journey by road to Palampur from Delhi. We will stay in Palampur and from there we will go to Bir which is just an hour away. If you agree I will book the tickets.”
The plan seemed to be perfect. With a strong grit I gave my affirmation. Kshitij was very excited. Within next half an hour our tickets were booked. We were travelling by an overnight Bus. While he was booking the tickets a thought came to my mind. I asked, “Kshitij, what about the weather report? This is February month and weather in Bir must be awful.”
“Yes, I have already checked the weather report. It is showing rain for Friday, the day we will be reaching Palampur. But on Saturday the weather seems to be clear. Hence, upon reaching Palampur, we will plan accordingly. Moreover, I am not going to cancel our plan because of the weather.”
“I am not asking you to cancel. I was just wondering that there would be no use of visiting Bir if the weather was not suitable.” I explained. Kshitij was so engrossed in googling Bir that he ignored me. I also continued my movie.
The next day everything went as per our plan. Our bus left Kashmiri Gate bus stand, New Delhi at around 10.00 PM. It was a sleeper bus. We found our seats and settled ourselves. I took the window seat. I was excited and at the same time scared as well. In my mind I had decided that I won’t be going for paragliding. Anyhow ignoring the negative thoughts I plugged in my earphones and started listening to my favorite music.
I could hear the voice of Kshitij in the background calling my name. I briefly opened my eyes and realized that Kshitij was standing at my head trying to wake me up. I could not recall the moment I drifted off. The battery of my phone was completely drained may be because of the music. The time was 08.00 AM and we had reached Palampur Bus Stand.
Kshitij had stopped an auto rickshaw. The weather report was correct. It was indeed raining. We reached Neugal Café within 15 mins. It is just 3 kms away from the bus stand. It is run by Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation. They have few cottage type rooms. Since it is government operated the rooms are not very well maintained but for youngsters like us they are decent. We checked in and took our room keys. Our whole day was spent in our room only as it was raining heavily. The place has a very picturesque outdoor sitting area that we could not enjoy. In the evening, when the rain subsided, we decided to visit the local market. We got ready and were at the reception enquiring about the famous places to see when it started drizzling again. We had to cancel our plan. We ate our dinner early and went to bed hoping that the next day would be clear otherwise our trip will be wasted.
Next day when I woke up I could feel a ray of sunlight finding its way between the curtains and kissing my cheeks. It was 8 AM and Kshitij was still asleep. I wake him up and went straight to the bathroom to freshen myself. I don’t want to waste the day. By 8.45 AM we were both ready. Since the last day I was craving to sit outside in the open area and enjoy my meal. Neugal Café provides variety of food options. I won’t say that the food was very tasty but yeah, it was decent. While waiting for our food I indulged myself in capturing the beauty of the place. The café is surrounded by the beautiful views of Neugal Khud and Dhauladar Range. The view of the snow covered peaks and pine forests were mesmerizing. There is an artificial small stream also that flows outside the café, adding to the overall ambience of the place.
Just as we finished our breakfast one of the waiters informed us that our cab has arrived. We had asked the manager to arrange a cab for Bir Billing. We picked our small carry bag, containing a pair of shirt, umbrella and some snacks, and left the café.
It was one hour journey from Palampur to Bir. While we were entering Bir I asked our cab driver, “Bhaiya, except paragliding what else is famous here?”
“Sir, Bir ish famoush for itsh shenic buty. You bill find lot of monashtries here. Sherab Ling Monashtry is very famoush. People here phollow Tibetan culture….” He replied in his broken English.
While we were roaming in Bir we could very well see the pinch of Tibetan culture everywhere. We crossed an Army cantonment area and finally our cab came to a halt. We had arrived to our destination. It was a large open ground dedicated for landing of all Para-gliders. Our cab driver showed us the way to the taxi stand and said, “Sir, you will have to hire that jeep to reach the spot. Thish ish the Bir Chougan area 4500 ft. above shea and ish the landing site.”
We thanked him and headed towards the taxi stand. Upon reaching, we found numerous service providers offering packages for a round of paragliding. The rate was more or less the same. We went to one of the provider and enquired about the package. The complete package costs Rs. 2500/- per person that included pick-up and drop facility and the fees of paragliding. If you want pictures, it costs Rs. 500/- extra. My fear of height resurrected. Thinking about the altitude I lost my confidence and insisted Kshitij to go ahead without me.
“Come yaar Madhur. Kuch nahin hoga (Nothing will happen). I am with you. I am not going without you. We have come so far. Moreover, according to me this is the best chance to get rid of your fear. I am paying for you also.”
“No no.. Wait.. Ok I will go.” I hesitatingly agreed and paid for the package. I thought Kshitij was right. I need to get rid of my acrophobia. But there is one thing I fail to understand that it’s we who are risking our lives in such adventurous sports then why we are ask to pay for it? Are our lives so cheap?
Anyhow, the plan was, a jeep will take us to a spot from where we had to trek for around 30 minutes to reach the top of the peak. There we will meet our assigned guide who will help us to paraglide. It was then that I came to know that Billing is the takeoff site for paragliding and Bir is the landing site; collectively it is known “Bir Billing”.
My guide-cum-pilot shouted, “JUMP!” I closed my eyes, blatantly following his directions and jumped. In my mind it’s confirmed that I will not be alive to narrate my experience. Within next few seconds we are in the air and the cold breeze is hitting my cheeks. There is a lot of air pressure on my body. Breathing is becoming difficult. My eyes are still tightly shut. I think I lack the courage to look down. My pilot says, “Everything is fine. You can open your eyes. I don’t think you can afford to miss this view. Just relax and open your eyes.”
I briefly open my eyes. The view below is something that I cannot explain in words. The ground is not clearly visible as the dense clouds have blocked my view. The feeling is like a free bird let loose in the sky. The chains of materialistic desires are unshackled. I am free from all responsibilities. I want to fly off to some distant place. There is no fear at all. My acrophobia disappeared. Today whole of the sky is my yard and I can go anywhere without any restrictions.
For a brief moment I have forgotten that someone is tied behind me. “Hold the camera tightly. I am going to play around.” My pilot laughs. I gave a nod.
The paragliding equipment is such that it has huge wings attached to the harness that can carry two persons at a time. I am sitting in front and the control is in the hands of my pilot. I am just holding a selfie stick with attached camera to shoot myself. My pilot hover the glider right, left, upside down making me enjoy every moment. The experience is something that I would suggest everyone to have once in a lifetime.
“If you are willing can I perform some more stunts?” My pilot politely asks.
My heart wants to continue, but my body has started draining. Moreover, I am feeling short of breath. I convince myself to return back. “I think we should return back.”
Pilot agrees and starts the process of landing. He tilts the gear and we are descending downwards. As we are about to touch the ground my pilot says, “Do not stop immediately. Continue running until I say to stop otherwise you will injure yourself.” I nod.
With the able guidance of my pilot we manage to land efficiently without breaking any bone. We land at the same place where the cab driver had dropped us. A few minutes later Kshitij also lands. We thank our respective pilots, collect our photos and head towards the taxi stand to go back to Palampur.
“Thank you Kshitij for bringing me here. I had an experience that I will cherish my whole life.”
“This means that my friend is no more an acrophobic.”
We both started laughing loudly.
Finally, we bid adieu to Bir Billing, the “Paragliding Capital of India.”