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Taking to the Air

The author reminisces on her experience in Pokhara before taking to the skies above Kathmandu.

A few weeks ago, someone mentioned that companies were now offering paragliding here in the Kathmandu valley. My reaction was much the same as everyone else I mentioned it to in the days that followed: “What? Really? Are you sure? I didn’t know that.” Like most people, I guess, I associated paragliding with only Pokhara, though I’d also heard of it happening from Bandipur more recently. But here, in Kathmandu? The idea that paragliding could be something one could do on a Saturday, rather than on a longer holiday, sounded appealing. Was it true? I decided to find out.

It was years ago now, in Pokhara, that I first saw them. What looked like a small collection of colorful insects, silhouetted against the mountains that fill the horizon everywhere you go in that city on a clear day. After a few wondering inquiries, I learned they were paragliders. Paragliding was in its infancy in those days, and the numbers then were low, with skilled and experienced pilots and companies few, and prices were high. None of that mattered to me, really, because just looking at them was scary, and I had no interest whatsoever in going up there. Years passed, and each time I returned to Pokhara the number of fliers had increased. I watched them soar, spin, and move on the breeze. I watched them land by the banks of Phewa Lake. Slowly, I began to think that it might be something I’d like to experience, too. But I still hadn’t gotten up the guts.

Two years ago I nearly went paragliding while in Europe, on a spectacular sand dune by the ocean in France, but last minute travel timing changes meant I wasn’t able to take the opportunity. Then, my sister and niece visited Nepal last year, and we of course paid a visit to the lake city. While wandering up and down Lakeside, shopping and eating, we popped our heads into the many paragliding outfits that have proliferated there these days. Before we knew it, we were making plans and signing up for a half-hour trip. The idea of being up there had somehow moved from scary to exciting.

On the appointed morning, we drove up to Sarangkot in the company’s jeep. It was a good opportunity to interact with the pilots whom we would be flying with—talking with them helped me to feel relaxed and at ease. They were clearly extremely experienced, and I trusted them. Unfortunately, though, the company had neglected to tell us the night before to avoid a lot of liquids before the flight. As someone who is very prone to motion sickness in most any sort of moving vehicles, it had never occurred to me that this would apply to paragliding, as it is open air, but it did, and I was to deeply regret the large coffee and other morning beverages I’d consumed. On the plus side, though, that queasy feeling was the only unpleasant part of the experience—the rest was not at all scary as I’d feared it would be.

Okay, I admit, the actual run-and-jump-off-a-hilltop into the air part was a bit scary, but once I’d made the leap—safely strapped into the seating harness, with an experienced flier sitting behind me—that was all I had to do. Faster than I could have imagined, that part of it was over, and we were up, up, and away: suddenly I realized there was nothing to fear at all. Instead, what I experienced was a wonderful feeling of floating, of peace and silence, air and wide vistas all around me. The Annapurnas weren’t clear that day, but it didn’t matter, the lake was beautiful, and we could see Lakeside on one side of the hills and Pokhara city on the other. I relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Previously, I’d thought of paragliding as only something for very athletic, adventurous people, but now I saw it differently. I could understand why people would want to be up there, every day, soaring high above everything, sometimes going above even the birds.

Back to now, in Kathmandu: curious, I did a little research, and lo and behold, it was true; there are in fact at least two companies I found out about that do it at the moment—one of them, Kathmandu Paragliding, flies from Godavari, the other, Shankarapur Paragliding, takes off from just nearby Nagarkot. Intrigued, I decided to check out the closest of the options, Kathmandu Paragliding.

The office was just over nine kilometers after crossing the Ringroad at Satdobato. I was later to find that for an extra 1000 rupees, the company will pick you up from the city—and this is a pretty good deal, considering the road and the distance. But whichever way you choose to get there, once you arrive, you’ll be taken in the company vehicle, as we were, for the rest of the way to the jump off point. I was impressed both by the sturdiness of the vehicle and the driver’s competency, because the road we turned onto was little more than a track cut out of the hillside, if I’m honest.

We drove past many weekend picnic revelers, but before too much time had passed, we were the only vehicle on the road, driving higher and higher up the switchback trail on the hill up to Chepakharka, right alongside Pulchowki. When we reached an altitude of 2,150 meters, it was time to get out, climb a small distance to an open area, and prepare to take off. I’d already been through the drill in Pokhara, and so the steps were easier for me to follow this time. The pilot, Bijay Chaulagain, who also flies with Shankarapur Paragliding, had been flying for four and a half years, and I was happy to see him conscientiously go through all the equipment safety tests and checks before we strapped in.

This time around, our jump-off was much easier for me; that first time in Pokhara, I tripped, sat down when I shouldn’t have, and my poor pilot had to set up the glider all over again. This time, we took off without a hitch, and instantly started to soar. Before long, the hill we’d taken off from was far below us. Overall, the experience felt different from my first time, I’m not sure why, perhaps the air currents were stronger, or the wind was colder because of the time of year, but I could feel the altitude more, and it felt more adventurous, less mellow, but no less wonderful. We soared higher than I expected, above hills thickly covered with trees and bushes, passing a small village, waving at a large group of people that shouted to us from a hilltop, and then over open, unpopulated countryside. It was a cloudy day, so again, as with my first time, the Himalayas were not visible, but I can only imagine that on a clear day the view would be tremendous. 

For a moment the thought came to me that I’d had the first time: I’d like to learn how to do this and do it more often, maybe even learn to pilot. However, after about fifteen minutes, the thought was interrupted by my body telling me quite firmly, as it had before, We need to get back down to earth, now.

I’m not really a leaps and turns kind of person, what I really enjoy is watching the world from that angle, like a bird—but even higher. In fact, as we moved over the patchwork of fields far below us, our glider cast a shadow over the yellow mustard flowers below, and I saw a white bird, possibly an egret, far, far beneath. It was an amazing feeling. Seeing the valley from that angle is something I’ll never, ever forget. And the silence—all you can really hear is the wind; other than that, there’s a complete and utter lack of the noise and clutter that usually fills our lives on the ground these days.

Before long, we landed in a small field designated for the purpose among the cultivated sections. Some children and a cow were waiting to see us land. I’d enjoyed the flight immensely, but I have to admit that I was very grateful to feel the solid earth beneath my feet.

Contact information: Kathmandu Paragliding, Tel no: 01-5174031; Rs.5, 500 for Nepalis, Rs.8, 500 for foreigners, with Rs.1, 000 extra for transportation from downtown; GoPro video and photo extra. Prices current at the time of print.