Paragliding and the art of Flying like an Eagle!

Now, Its been four months that I haven’t blogged, which is a shameful thing for someone who is a writer. But sometimes the journey is so exhilarating that words fall short. Infact life has changed 360 degrees, more on that later.

Coming to the part where I left off, I went to Mcleodganj in October and one of the most important part of my trip was to jump off from the mountain which is popularly called Paragliding.

A lot of places in India offer tandem paragliding, which basically means a professional will take you for a whirl, but there are long courses too but nothing can come close to jumping from Bir Billing Valley.

Its a feeling, its an emotion that one has to feel when they are right up in the mountain. While I was at The Bunker at Upper Dharamkot people who were coming back from Billing had varied stories to narrate. As the season was just about starting, due to rough weather only a few were able to fly and rest were coming back with disappointment and hence I was very clear that I wanted to take the first jump which starts at 7.30 am!

So there I was packing my bag to go to Bir and thanks to Ishan ( he owns The Bunker) who found fellow travellers to Zostel Bir I managed to cut my costs and happily shared a cab to the hostel.

Bir is a quaint town living in its own world with a huge Tibetian settlement and monastery around. After crossing the tea plantations of Palampur we reached Bir after sunset and couldn’t believe our eyes, for none of us had ever seen so many stars in the sky glittering like a milky way. Even though I was freezing I just could not stop staring at the sky while a traditional song was being sung at a far away settlement.

But we had things to do, and the manager at the hostel slotted all our rides and I jumped and said,’I am going first at7.30′

Like an excited child i sat outside waiting for the jeep and boy o boy I couldn’t contain my excitement when I was asked to sit in the back of the open jeep while it speeded in circles climbing up the Billing valley.

The Billing valley paragliding site is often quoted as the second best site in the world and many world championships have been conducted here for the thermals are very good and you can easily fly in the air for long.

When you stand atop the valley and look as far as you can the only feeling that i felt was how miniscule we are in the scheme of things called nature and life. Somehow I wasn’t scared I was raring to run and jump and scream my heart and so I did!

My instructor is an ex-Indian army fellow and he literally took me inside a floating cloud. Now imagine, someone who is scared of turbulence in a flight and who rarely takes flight out of choice is now taking a whirl inside a little passing cloud, like a neighbor who has come to say hello.

We were in the sky for over 20 minutes where me and Harish, my instructor shared our faith, lifestories, how he learnt paragliding, his daughter who wants to go to an english school and so much more.

He also taught me how paragliding is nothing but following an eagle’s flight as the eagle always knows where the winds direction moves. All you have to do is follow the tail, quite simple? Not really but he made it sound so simple and easy and just as i blinked he started air stunts and I screamed my lungs out and landed on the offsite!

For every person who does this ride those 20-25 minutes in the air mean something personal to each one of them. Something to let go, or something they seize in that moment! For me I screamed goodbye to my fear of flying that day, that’s a lot for a day!

Here is the quick takeaway:

Stay: Zostel Bir

Cost: Rs 500 per night (depends which bunkbed)

Pragliding through Zostel Escape: Costs Rs 2000/-

Go-Pro videos-Rs500/- directly goes to the gliding instructor

Upper Dharamkot to Zostel Bir: By cab, Rs 1500/-

Most important- The best alloo prathas at Zostel Bir and yes, say bye to your fears!

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Iran Sojourn: Part III

I sincerely apologise to my readers and my dear friend who took time out to write about the beautiful journey through Iran. As promised, this is the third and final piece from my friend. Please read on and send in your queries and feedback, we would love to help you if we can 🙂

Here, I want to share some possibly useful tips from my 10-day experience in Iran.

 Iran: Some useful tips for travelers

 Language

I do not know Farsi and I was fine and faced no major hurdle. Nevertheless, I would recommend at least learning the Farsi numerals (they are written in the same way as in Arabic or Urdu), because often menu prices in restaurants or in other places are only written in the local language. It would be better if you can count one to ten in Farsi, especially when you haggle while hailing a cab. It should not be very difficult for Indians as the numbers sound very similar to Hindi. 

This brings us to the issue of managing currency, which can be a little bit difficult at first because of the confusion between ‘rials’ and ‘tomans’. Iranian currency is officially known as ‘Rials’ and currently (in May 2017) one US Dollar can buy more than 32,000 rials. One rial is equal to 10 tomans and most prices in shops are written in tomans rather than rials. However, in actual conversations and haggling, the last there zeroes of the tomans are often omitted. So when a cab driver quotes a fare of five tomans, he most likely means five thousand or ‘panjhazaartomans’.

 Commuting within the country

Although a railway network does exist, you need to book tickets well in advance. In hindsight I am glad I failed to get train tickets as it allowed me greater flexibility. Overnight buses appear to be a popular mode of long-distance travel within the country and the buses and terminals are quite clean and well-maintained. I found buses to be a cheap and comfortable mode of travel. An overnight journey from Isfahan to Shiraz, almost same as Mumbai to Ahmedabad in distance terms, cost me 18,500 tomans or Rs. 370, in a semi-sleeper 3-seats-in-a-row (2+1) bus.

 Airfares also seemed much cheaper than fares in India. I booked a flight from Shiraz to Tehran – equivalent to a Mumbai to Bangalore flight – which cost me only 128,000 tomans or around 2,500 Indian rupees, despite booking just one day in advance and that too in Nowruz season. 

Things to do in major cities

In Tehran, the entire stretch from old Bazaar to Golestan Palace to the National Museum would be a good starting point to acquaint yourself with the history of the country; the entire area is well connected to the Tehran metro network. Also, I would recommend a visit to the Milad Tower, which offers a good panoramic view of Tehran.

 Isfahan is a great heritage city and the entire Naqsh-a-Jehan square and the surrounding area should be part of your itinerary. Also, it is a nice place to buy traditional Iranian delicacies like ‘Gaz’ candy (you can also buy it from Tehran International Airport on your way back home). I would also recommend a visit to the Vank cathedral in Isfahan, which stands in testimony to Iran’s history of religious tolerance. If you are interested in history and would like to see and know more about the Armenian genocide, then Vank cathedral and the accompanying museum would be good investment of time.

 If you plan to visit Shiraz, I am sure that Persepolis, the ancient capital city which was attacked by Alexander, would be in your itinerary. However, bear in mind that the local name for Persepolis is ‘Takht-e-Jamshid’ and that is likely to be the only name by which taxi or bus operators identify that place.

 Finally, you should know that alcohol is banned in Iran (except for maybe some religious minorities). However, there are tea houses and places where you get hookah.

 Although there is little to worry, but please be on your guard

I have already discussed how easily I found help, often more than asked, whenever needed. I did not discern any tendency to fleece tourists. My hotel in Isfahan helped me with my onward bus and airline tickets and I have no reason to believe they tried to make any extra money. On one occasion, I had forgotten my mobile at a restaurant in Isfahan and got it back when I went there after about an hour. Nevertheless, I can recall atleast two instances where I suspect street vendors tried to fleece me. Also, I was never sure if I was paying the correct fare for taxi because there does not seem to be any concept of paying by metre. Thus, while there is no reason to be paranoid, it is better to be on your guard.