Bir had delivered. More than I had expected and I had my fair share of flying time and had clocked many kilometers in this magnificient area. But after a couple of 200+ out and returns I had seen what there was to see for now and the time had come to move on.
My friend Kubo Beno from Slovakia, a power of nature and generally good hearted person had asked me to join him on a mission to explore the inner Indian Himalayan ranges with his own jeep. Two indian friends would accompany us on this adventure, as drivers, translators for the hundreds of expected police and military checks on the way and as chefs for some quality indian food. The driver’s name is Bablu, the son of Chachu who owns the famous Chai shop on launch in Billing. The other was Lambu (a nickname that means ‘the long one’ as he was quite tall) who’s main job consisted in rolling ‘Motivation’ for the driver. Both of them are professional tandem pilots in Bir.
We wanted to drive over the famous mountain pass Rohtang, which connects the foothills with the big mountains, but it was closed for anyone who hadn’t Lahaul & Spiti license plates on his car, due to environmental issues. So we had to take the long way. The really long way. It meant three days of driving all day long through the boiling hot and humid Punjabi flatlands, into the sketchtown and remote mountain roads of Kashmir. Three days if everything would go smooth sailing. Smooth sailing doesn’t exist in India. Never.
As soon as we left Punjab to get back into the foothills, there was the next hurdle. A couple of well sized rocks had blocked the road. Landslides aren’t something very uncommon in these parts as we soon would find out. This one took maybe two hours to remove, which is in Indian time immediately. But after every landslide removal there will be a nearly unsolvable traffic jam since everyone wants to be first to get through. But everything will move eventually, especially if everyone uses a lot of honking power.
The foothills turned into very deep valleys, at times two kilometers vertical drop into a raging river from the road. It amazed me, where people would build settlements. It seemed that only one wrong slip on wet soil would mean a 6000 foot fall into the abyss.
We would drive for another two days in this unreal world of a single gorge until we’d reach our first stop Gulabgarh, where we’d hope to get permission to find a suitable launch and get permission to fly. The three consecutive days of driving all day and late into the night over bumpy roads and eating in the sketchy roadside eateries had finally taken a toll on me. My belly started doing the Indian dance and I desperately hoped for a toilet. But in these remote parts there was no such thing. And even not for the locals I would find out. So this meant for me running every half an hour into the close-by boulder field, trying to identify the human feces landmines in the dim light of my head torch, and then heading back to our sleeping spot, the Hindu temple at the entrance of town, where we’d sleep amidst the local dog party. Not yet the nicest set-up and I started to feel the urge to call an emergency helicopter to fly me back to Switzerland.
Kubo had been here a couple of weeks before and had gotten permission from the local Chief of Police to fly here. So our hopes were high to fly the next morning, even though my intestines were still doing their private psy-trance party. On the way to the Police Headquarter Kubo showed me the single only real landing field in approximately a hundred square miles, the cricket field. I started to grow a little pessimistic. We arrived at the Police with all our documents, where we would be greeted by the Chief outside in his trainers and sporting RayBan Aviators (If you’ve been to India recently, you know, that everyone who thinks he is something better, will wear those bloody Aviators). And another thing. It wasn’t the same Chief like a couple of weeks ago. And this one said… no. Explaining we would only need to go back to Kishtwar, which was only a mere six hours drive back the way we came from, on one of those Kashmiri death-defying roads. Six hours for 42 kilometers… It’s not really a highway that road. All arguing and begging wouldn’t help and we would have to jump back into our trusty old Jeep and drive all the way back to Kishtwar.
If you ever had to deal with official India, you know it can break a man. Now we started the dance of bureaucracy. First stop Superintendent of Police. No sir. you have to go to the Deputy Commissioner at the other end of town. Ok sir, we might give you permission but you have to go back to the Superintendent of Police, so he can say if there is any safety concern. Ok sir, here is my answer, bring it back to the Deputy Commissioner so he can get you the permission. Ok sir, here is the permission… and can we add you on Facebook? This process obviously took all day, since there has to be a LOT of considering, many chais to be drunk, explaining to EVERYONE what you want to do. four times. And even the guy that cleans the windows needed to check our passports.
But finally we walked out the officials dungeons with an official permission to fly at Gulabgarh. We jumped into our Jeep, gunned the deep roaring engine and drove too fast a mile high on those sketchfest road into freedom and adventure. And… landslide. A big one.
Obviously. No problem, sir, tomorrow. I was already getting past being frustrated at this point. So we hung out, watched, helped a little bit and played cards with some locals.
It is always astounding how nothing can withstand Indian hands.
And so that monstrous landslide was gone by 11 am the next day and we were able to continue.
Now we were able to properly set up camp and scope out possibilities for launching our paragliders. We had build our tents at the far end of town, next to the river, hoping to be away from the main bulk of locals. Gulabgarh wasn’t exactly a main tourist hub, especially not for foreigners and some here had never seen a non-indian. We hadn’t realized we were basically camping in the public toilet of this part of town, which meant a constant flux of locals. So I got my full experience of how Indians respect privacy. I could even hide in our tent in the night and there would be locals opening our tent door to have a small peek at us or have a little chat. At some point the local marriage agent brought over a good dozen of young women and even my escape into the car and locking all the windows and door wouldn’t stop him harassing me. Somehow he would find a way inside the jeep to get me into a conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a social person. But there was a certain limitation to how much Indian I could take.
Gulabgarh is at the spot where to large rivers join together, basically bang in the middle of three valleys joining. It meant weird winds and I would have expected nuclear valley winds in the afternoon. But there never actually more than normal. But until Mr. Valleywind came to say hello, you could never be too sure, which katabatic flow was stronger. So it was always weird and mixing at our landing field but at least never too strong.
Another peculiar thing about Gulabgarh was the mix of cultures. Like the three valleys joining together, there is an even percentage of three major religions. You hear the call of the Muezzin from the mosque, urging his disciples to turn towards Mecca and a little later the deep sound of the horns, blown by the buddhist monks in their monastery while the Hindu’s walk towards their temple to pray one of their many gods. Very interesting cultural mix if you think that Gulabgarh is only small town with few thousand inhabitants.
We had found a spot to launch a couple of hundred of meters above the valley floor, but it seemed much too low. The next spots were basically brutal bushwacking another vertical mile up the mountain so we had to cope with this. And yes. It was too low. Kubo got at least one good flight of our many attempts from there, lucking out on mini convergence from the arriving valley wind. He got up to nearly 6000 meters and flew to around 35 kilometers north into some wild country, obviously absolutely no landing options anywhere, apart from maybe on top of a 5500 meter peak. After flying into the lee of the meteo wind he suffered a bad cascade of events, so he quickly returned to Gulabgarh with his tail between his legs. We realized that the local school had just finished when he landed, because there were literally hundreds of kids coming to greet Mr. Skyman.
Of course it felt like it opens a large gap between the rural people and us foreigners when we came sailing down the mountains to land in their village. Many times they would love to hear our stories of flying, but would comment also on the fact that it is something that is completely inaccessible to them. So one day we took Lambu, one of our indian companions with us, to launch. We had brought an additional glider with us for them, in case they felt like flying, instead of playing cards and smoking their brains out with the locals. Lambu flew over town and landed in the cricket field where they just had a match, so naturally he had a lot of spectators. They would think, that it was just another foreigner flying his expensive rig, but when he took off his balaclava and they could see that he was in fact an indian like them… Well, he made an impression. Just what we hoped to achieve.
After another couple of failed attempts we gave up. Too many bomb outs and a massive lack of privacy did it to us. So we started driving back towards Himachal Pradesh into the region of Lahaul & Spiti, hoping to have similar luck with the authorities as in Kashmir.
But first we had to drive on the ‘second most dangerous road of the world’. Yes, when I said the roads before were death-defying I hadn’t seen this beauty yet. It was basicall like they would cut a tight dusty single lane road into the side of El Capitan in Yosemite. For anyone driving a vehicle a pure nightmare. Skitting around on slippery rocks next to a vertical cliff face that plunges right into one of those deep milky howling rivers makes you religious if nothing else will. We were very lucky to not have anyone coming the other way. But apart from a couple of headsized rocks that hit the side of our jeep, nothing bad happened. Oh, and maybe one or two busted suspensions.
Next goal was Udaipur to get permission for the stunning Mayiar Valley where Kubo had flown a year before and captured stunning footage of flying over the Mayiar Glacier. This region is absolutely beautiful. After the tight and high gorges of the last 10 days finally the valley opened up to green pastures and beautiful vistas of the surrounding Himalayan peaks. Also the people were a little more accustomed to foreigners, so we weren’t being hassled non-stop anymore.
Now this is where I have to be careful not to turn hateful and angry in my blog. I thought that the day long procedure for permission in Kashmir was bad, but I had no idea what was coming towards us now.
I’ll try to keep it simple. It was the most kafkaesque situation I had ever been in. If you think Eastern Germany in the 60’s had bad bureaucracy, try Lahaul&Spiti. Six days(!) went by running from one office to the next and back, driving from one village to the other and back. High ranking officials were lying into our faces, too afraid of taking responsibility, too afraid to loose their little perks being someone who can wear a fine uniform and sport a (bloody) Rayban Aviator. Many promises were made and nothing held. At the very end of those six days after the final ‘no permission’ I may have slammed a door or two, I may have thrown a couple of things around, I may have shouted curse words that made some virgins blush. I actually nearly cried. As said. Official India can break a man. And it nearly did me too. Because obviously at the same time cloudbase was at 7000 meters, no winds aloft and low valleywinds. At least we were able to go do some altitude trail running at up to 4800 meters to get our fitness up. Also at this point it became clear that Kubo wanted really join my adventure up in Central Asia. He was always my favourite partner for this endeavour, but I knew he had different plans… Well. Let’s say, he just got too envious about my plans. He just couldn’t resist asking me to let him join. And I couldn’t think of a better partner than the Zohan himself.
It was time to leave as fast as possible this cursed land but not with a promise to come back with bigger weapons. There was no landslide this time when we left Keylong, but… another broken suspension. Ok, it started to be funny again.
The summary of nearly three weeks trying really hard was a couple of sledrides, one good flight for Kubo and a very large portion of cultural experience in our face. Next time we either come with a letter of authority from Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi himself or just stop giving a f&ck about permissions and do as paragliders always did in this parts and go partizani style.
I desperately needed some flying. So we decided to head back to the parts we knew best. On the way out we had one scary and unsatisfying flight in Manali, a place renown for its nuking valleywinds. And when you land at 11:30 am and you’re doing only single digits forward speed on bar you know where this valley has it’s reputation from.
At this time of the year Manali starts to develop into one of the worst tourist traps on the planet and we all wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. But instead of driving straight to Bir, we decided to drive up to Perashar Lake, a holy place for the Hindi and generally very beautiful. It’s also great place to launch your paraglider from… There isn’t really anywhere to land, but this is like hometurf. Flying the front of the Himalayas is just magic, bombing out is an extreme exception.
But I admit, I was still a little nervous when I launched, but a good hearted vulture showed me the way out of the trouble and I sighed with relieve when I got propelled towards cloudbase. It’s still one or two transitions into headwind without real landings, but we were two and Kubo knows the place like no other.
And soon we were flying in the dreamland of the high mountains, scratching cliffs while being at 5000 meters altitude. Finally we got the redemption we had seeked for. We had really tried hard to fly these last couple of weeks and had fought and jumped many hurdles without success. So this felt like a the nicest present of all. We were circling again high above reality together with our feathered friends in a dreamy world of ice, rocks and snow… and a lot of sky.
After a couple of hours playing in the back of the range we toplanded back in Billing, where would stay with Chachu for the next ten days in his little chai shop next to launch. This was also a much better situation to be, as down in the town of Bir. It’s quiet, for free if you help out a little in the shop and Chachu is a phenomenal chef. Bir had become too touristic now, as all the Delhis tried to escape the incredible heat of the big city.
To make it short, since flying in Bir is business as usual. We flew as much as we could, which is easy when you live on launch. We tried to get into the back as often as possible, before the overdevelopment would close out the high mountains, did some mini volbivs and went trailrunning every day, as I had to train for my mission in Tajikistan and Kubo wanted to give the Hike and Fly World Record another attempt when he would return to Austria.
Bir had again delivered. And now it was time to move on again to my last part of training. I needed acclimatization. And there was no better place than the northern Himalayas. The plan was to go trekking the high mountains of Ladakh with my girlfriend Sarah. But to this in the next blog.