Guide to Bir, India

  • Fly the front ridge of the mighty Himalayas – or back into the big peaks.
  • Soar to Dharamsala with huge Himalayan griffon vultures
  • October to November gives reliable thermalling, March-April for stronger conditions
  • See monkeys, golden temples, and Buddhist monks on motorcycles
Bir offers alpine style flying, but in the Himalaya. Photo: Marcus King

Bir offers alpine style flying, but in the Himalaya. Photo: Marcus King

WHY GO?
A choice of easy or committing mountain flying, with a dazzling array of ancient cultures.

WHERE IS IT?

WHAT’S IT LIKE?
Bir offers a fantastic and relatively safe introduction to flying in the biggest mountains of the world in an adventure that immerses you in one of the most diverse and fascinating countries and culture on the planet.

Bir is a small Tibetan colony that sits at the bottom of the first ridge of the Himalayas. The ridge runs continuously for almost 100 km and offers a great out-and-return adventure on even a half decent day.

Take off is a 40-minute taxi ride away at a beautiful grassy meadow served by a chai shop where food and refreshments are available. Top landing is simple, but nevertheless take care as you wouldn’t be the first to crunch in a bit too hard. Some Indian hospitals are as appealing as a dose of typhoid and to be avoided as much as possible – although the big cities have top-class facilities.

The main route heads west, with a choice of soaring the higher back ridge or hopping spine to spine along the front. Every flight is accompanied by a flock of vultures who peer curiously at you and your wing.

Behind the main ridge the high mountains glisten and gleam, painting the horizon with an inspirational backdrop, reinforcing the feeling that you’re flying in the Himalayas.

Most pilots head west towards Dharamsala (50 km away). Whether you make it that far or not, you can ride the afternoon westerly back to Bir with much greater ease than the journey out.

The landing in Bir is often crowded with kids all keen to pack your wing for a few rupees, then it’s a two-minute stroll into town for a chai or a beer and a bite to eat.

FLYING CONDITIONS
Classic mountain flying in good thermals that form on almost every spine, with a cloudbase that’s normally around 4,000 m, but often drops during the day as the moister air from the plains is drawn in. The plains out front are very stable and harder to fly in.

Heading northeast towards Manali offers fantastic but committing flying in high mountains with difficult retrieves on foot or by mule.

WHEN TO GO
Pre-monsoon in March – May when it’s stronger, higher, but less reliable.

Post monsoon in October – November when it’s more stable but very consistent.

ALTITUDE
Cloudbase: 4,000 – 5,000 m
Launch: Billing 2,428 m
Landing: Bir 1,525 m

HANG GLIDER ACCESS
Taxis will take HGs to launch, and the take off is suitable.

MUST BE FLOWN
Dharamsala and back for a simple but satisfying 100 km out-and-return.

Cross the high mountains to Manali – wild and committing, but a flight of a lifetime.

DANGERS AND ANNOYANCES
Overdevelopment has led to several accidents here with pilots going missing. Treat big clouds in Bir with great respect.

Don’t over fly the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, and the soldiers at the Yol military base nearby get a bit shirty if you land there.

Be very careful going over the back as the terrain is committing with gorges, big walkouts and often strong valley winds.

ACCOMMODATION
There are several cheap Indian and Tibetan lodges and some rooms in local houses. Better accommodation is found at the Colonel’s Resort www.colonelsresort.com, a traditional local-style place in a tea garden. Or the new French place www.namlanghimal.com, right next to the traditional landing field. Half an hour away is the Taragarh Palace, a stunning ex-Raj residence owned by the Prince of Kashmir. www.taragarh.com.

GUIDES AND COURSES
Himalayan Sky Safaris is the guiding service run by the well known Himalayan pioneer John Silvester, with longtime Bir resident and Hindi speaker Jim Mallinson, and UK instructor Eddie Colfox – www.himalayanskysafaris.com

Steve Purdie of Airworks runs lower level courses every year. www.airworks.co.uk

TAKE THE FAMILY
Trekking, horse riding, hot springs, monasteries and temples and all the other crazy cultural experiences India has to offer!

RAINY DAYS
Visit Dharamsala and meet the Dalai Lama, or wonder at the temples and monasteries nearby.

WEATHER INFO
You’re on your own here. Look out of the window and make an assessment or try a local pilot.

GETTING THERE
From Delhi international airport it’s a 14-hour bus ride to Mandi, followed by an hour and a half in a  taxi. Some buses have bunks. Flights may also be available to Amritsar international airport, about five hours’ drive from Bir.

Dharamsala has a small airport serviced by Deccan Air, but tickets can be hard to book without an Indian credit card, or through an Indian travel agency. Or take the train to Pathankot and a four-hour taxi ride.

USEFUL CONTACTS
www.himalayanskysafaris.com has lots of information on flying in Bir.


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