“I’ll have what he’s having,” she told her Tibetan waiter after they heard the loudest, most triumphant whoop from the sky. A spinning paraglider was seen giving the winds a run for their brazenness. Between momos and thukpas in the rolling meadows of Himachal, Namita Kulkarni talks about her experience at the Paragliding World Cup in Bir Billing, India.
The clear view of a canopy cartwheeling down the sky had given my modest lunch a massive upgrade. Curious spectacles such as these routinely peppered the skies in the days leading up to the Paragliding World Cup in Bir in the month of October this year. Anytime you’d care to look up, you’d see humans filling the sky like a summer holiday home. And once the World Cup was underway, there even appeared to be traffic jams (of the least offensive kind) between clouds.
A World Cup in the Sky
Organized by the Billing Paragliding Association and the Himachal Pradesh government, a total of 130 pilots (including 8 Indians) representing 35 countries converged in Bir-Billing for the event – the first Paragliding World Cup ever in South East Asia. In another notable first, GPS-aided Geo-Augmented Navigation (GAGAN) was used for live tracking of the pilots. This technology was developed by our very own ISRO and the Airports Authority of India, the latter being the main sponsor of the event.
Recognized as one of the best paragliding spots in the world, Bir-Billing drew pilots from countries as varied as Argentina and Uzbekistan for the event. Ajay Kumar and Gurpreet Dhindsa, two of India’s best pilots, were part of the Indian contingent. Japan’s Yuki Sato and Switzerland’s Michael Küffer emerged as the overall winners in the open category.
This World Cup was the last leg of the World Cup Tour 2015, after Brazil, Portugal, Switzerland and Spain earlier this year. All of these will culminate in the 2015 World Cup Super-final to be held in the aptly named Valle de Bravo, Mexico, from January 12 – 23, 2016.
Flying in Bir-Billing
526 km north of Delhi is the aero-sports hub of Bir-Billing. The take-off site at Billing stands at an altitude of 2,325 m and the landing site at Bir at 1,360 m. While the former offers great views of the Kangra valley, the latter is famous for its not-to-be-missed sunsets. Back in 1992, the world record of an out-and-return flight of 132.5 km was set here.
Given its unique shape and size, nature might well have custom-designed Billing as the perfect launchpad for the two-legged to scoot off into the sky.
“The sky was the stadium, humans the new eagles and nobody was chasing around a ball.”
I watched on as equipment-stuffed rucksacks were being hauled up by pilots who’d packed in all they needed to explore the skies. Canopies ruffled around in their attempts to get to know the winds, and human chatter in various languages weaved through the mountain air.
During my two-week stay in Himachal, I observed in awe how the event stirred up the quaint, unassuming town of Bir into a colourful frenzy of canopies and windcheaters, ATM vans and laughter-filled cafes. There were whoops from above and shutterbugs below. The monastery-studded Tibetan colony nearby lent a peaceful air to the proceedings, while the local dogs barked at anything that moved. ‘Welcome to Bir’ jaunty locals called out to foreigners walking by, understandably excited by the sudden influx of visitors to their quiet town.
Taking a Tandem Leap
In a country that reserves the lion’s share of its enthusiasm for cricket and Bollywood, the buzz around the Paragliding World Cup came as a breath of fresh air. Though it may not have infiltrated our big cities as much, word on the street and social media did get around a good deal, drawing in visitors from around the world.
Being the closest I could get to being a bird, without any training whatsoever, I did try my hands at tandem flights. Tandem flights are a good way to get initiated into the sport, as long as all safety measures are in place. Closer to the finale of the World Cup, tandem flights saw an upsurge; the presence of international pro paragliders sure did pump up the amateur spirit; more power to that.
When the sky is the stadium one doesn’t need tickets to witness the action. But a closer perspective from the take-off point mountaintop definitely made for unmatchable views. And while I flew across the vast emptiness, I knew then that I would never look at the sky – or the earth – in the same way again.
Namita Kulkarni is a nocturnal creature who sunlights as a writer, Yoga teacher and artist. She loves going where she’s never been, having (mis)adventures, dancing with words and music, learning new languages and stories. Tabasco, sunshine, poetry, the night sky and words are some of her many loves. Lucky for her, they are location-independent and tag along wherever she goes. She bares her soul at http://www.radicallyeverafter.com, tweets @namitakulkarni and instagrams @namita_nefarious