Last Stop On The Way Back
Our journey to Bir was my last trip while staying in India. At that moment I was already in between destinations. In my mind, I was already telling a story of going home as much as a story of further exploring. It was such a weird time because everyone was already tired, missing beloved ones that are left at home and already mentally packing the suitcase. However, at the same time, every and each of us was carrying this desperate wish for that last kick. Something worthy of gloriously finishing our big India experience.
I wasn‘t expecting much because me and all of my friends kinda split – everyone had their own plans. My plan was hardly a plan – to stay near mountains, relax and wait patiently for something cool to happen. Bir was brought up by one of my friends who was so excited to go there, that she was whining about it since the start of our trip in Delhi. Bir is a village located in the west of Joginder Nagar Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh, northern India. It is a popular center for ecotourism, spiritual studies, and meditation. In fact, it is also a home to a Tibetan refugee settlement with several Buddhist monasteries and a large stupa.
For my friend, the huge deal about Bir was paragliding. In fact, as we have learned much later Bir has the second highest paragliding spot in the world. So, that friend of mine had booked a tandem paragliding there. Of course, that sounds cool but I knew right away it wasn‘t for me. Generally, I‘m a person very much concerned with death, mainly with ways how to avoid it. One of the best tips in this area is „Don‘t jump off cliffs in the Himalayas“. However, I decided to accompany her on her way to Bir quickly. I knew that nature was going to be amazing. That there will be only a few people and the air is going to be fresh (you only appreciate it after you have spent 8 months in Agra).
My friend Catia got some extra money from a friend and decided to join us on our trip to Bir. After one pint we got a little tipsy and I was much less preoccupied with my personal safety concerns. That is how my friends Zhanina and Catia persuaded me to join them in tandem paragliding. We all thought that flying over the Himalaya would definitely be that last kick and an appropriate goodbye to India.
Exploring Local Restaurant
Later that night we went to Mc’Llo restaurant in the main square in Mcleodganj for a beer. In fact, I sincerely think that this place is worth of having a separate paragraph written about. It‘s a big restaurant extended through maybe three floors. First of all, when you enter you are greeted by a picture of Pierce Brosman eating at that same restaurant. Which is, of course, an undeniable sign of honor.
Authentically Indian Interior
Secondly, the interior. As a former student of Indology, I feel that Indian interior aesthetics should be a separate subject in Indology departments. Since we stayed on the rooftop, I mostly remember that floor. It was decorated with pictures of white people hanging out in that same restaurant. Now, I do not know if those people are some sort of celebrities. Although, even if so, then they‘re at best some cricket players from Australia or England. More likely they‘re just random white tourists that went to eat there at some point during their stay in Dharamshala.
The music was a weird mix between sort of modern techno and good old 90‘s jams. Since my friend Catia is a major 90‘s music lover, she was excited. Prices, in general, there aren‘t very high but I was extremely broke at that moment. Broke in that weird way where you actually have money but every cent (or every rupee) is counted. Buying something extra you‘re ruining whole fiscal scheme on which your survival in India for the last month is based. Despite that, I made a sin and ordered a beer, as it was a time for a small celebration. I have to add that my friend ordered some shahi paneer with some garlic naans and it was super delicious. So, even though, I’m making fun of them a little bit but foodwise I definitely recommend that place.
Staying in Zostel
Next morning super early we headed out to Bir which was about 4 hours away from Dharamshala. I‘m not a morning person, definitely not a 4AM person, so I was really grumpy and only half conscious. The bus ride to Bir was smooth. As smooth as it can be in India – no delays or flat tires. The first glimpse of Bir was very heartwarming. At that point, I was missing my home quite deeply. Therefore, seeing lots of green spaces and cabbage fields made me feel very cozy.
We stayed in Zostel. I really love that place. If you‘re somewhere in India, staying in unknown place, always stay in Zostel. They will take care of you as mamma bear takes care of her cubs. Also, they will always provide useful information what to see and do around the place that you‘re staying. Even if you’re just passing the time until your morning train or bus, you can still go there and take a nap on a couch or have a cup of chai at any time of the day. It’s usually a bit more expensive than the local hostels and guesthouses but the service is always more reliable too.
When we arrived at Zostel it was already lunch time, so, we had our lunch there. I don‘t know if all their hostels have kitchen open from morning to evening but in Bir they do. Food is ok, the price is also ok. During the whole stay, we would usually order something from the „continental”. I must admit, it wasn’t phenomenal but sandwiches in India will never taste the same as they do in countries where people generally eat sandwiches, so ordering it is at your own risk.
Buddhist Settlements in Bir
The first afternoon we went to see Buddhist Dzongsar Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö College of Dialectics , which is located in Chauntra, east of Bir road. It‘s a monastic college for advanced Buddhist studies. The size of the complex struck me, as it was colossal compared to the size of Bir and its population. Also, because this place is quite remote, sort of in the middle of mountains and forests. Basically, there isn‘t much to do there, you just walk around. Truth is that we went there spontaneously without any prior planning. Therefore, maybe there are some possibilities to engage in their activities – maybe to attend any lectures?
We did a slow circle walk around the place. I did manage to slip inside the temple, although it was very unclear whether we can or cannot go there. It was truly magnificent and breathtaking. So spacious and silent that you can hear your own breath coming in and out. In the middle, there is an enormous statue of Buddha in the blessing position. I must admit that I adore Indian sense of religious aesthetics. For them, the size of any kind of representation and intensity of religious experience seems to have the direct connection. It may sound a little primitive but it actually works. Especially when you catch yourself standing alone in that temple, staring at a 100 times bigger than you statue of Buddha, it definitely creates an aura of tremendousness.
When I walked out of the temple, I joined my friends who were sitting on the stairs. Students of the institute started gathering in front of the temple and sitting down on the ground. We looked at each other with a question in our eyes “should we be here?” and decided to remain sitting there to see what happens next. They started what I assume was their evening prayer. Funny thing is that I always had this narrow-minded stereotype about Buddhists being somewhat pre-nirvanic beings, very modest and focused. But what I’ve witnessed there was completely the opposite. A lot of them were merely teenagers. They were whispering and joking with one another, trying to avoid the all-seeing eye of teachers. Just normal kids like anyone of us someday was.
Afterward, we went to have dinner in Garden Café. My thoughts on this place are cluttered. On one hand, the food is delicious and the environment is very cozy but, on the other, we had to wait for our order for more than one hour. They brought us drinks half an hour later after we had placed our order, which is really a bit too long for 4 glasses of instant Indian coffee. So, I would only recommend this place not if you’re hungry but if you know you’re going to be hungry in an hour.
On the second day, we had our morning coffee and then headed out to the paragliding site. Our way there was truly half of the experience. We had to go up to this enormously high hill, have in mind Indian roads and Indian drivers, moreover, us, the tourists, were seated in an open trunk of a jeep. So, you could say that it was a sort of extreme sightseeing tour.
While going up the hill we had a great chance to enjoy an absolutely amazing panoramic view of Bir and its surroundings, which included a herd of wild (not sure though) horses majestically nibbling grass on the hillside. When we had reached the top of the hill, we had about half an hour just for walking around and taking pictures, while everything was being set up. Then we were handed out helmets and backpack-seats (do not know the actual name) to which the pilot attaches himself.
Being called first
Me and two of my friends had an agreement. Since I was the one who’s super afraid of flying off the hill, we agreed that my friend Catia would go first, I would go second and our friend Zhanina would go third. This way, I’m not the first, not the last and somehow being in the middle was a bit comforting. Sadly, I was called in first. A guy who gave me the backpack-seat thing was already setting his parachute on the cliff, he pointed at me and said: “Now you, madam”. I looked at my friends with angst and confusion in my eyes “this madam??”
I had to go first despite our little agreements. I kept telling that the cliff is too close, the strings of the parachute are too thin. Nobody seemed to care. One guy told me “don’t worry, I’m here with you” to which I nervously responded “you being here won’t help me anyhow when I’m in the sky”, everyone just laughed. I knew right away that there was no going back because literally every second person that has to jump says same exact stuff: I’m so scared, I’ve changed my mind etc., to which they’re more than prepared. That’s what I’ve been told by my friend Zhani who’s been doing paragliding at pro level for many years. Gladly, when we took off I immediately felt how amazing it was. Of course, for about 2 minutes I was still worried that we’re going to die but this feeling eventually went away.
Everything from up there looked so beautiful and the ground with all the trees and crop fields seemed to be so soft that even in the case of an accident you would land as if on a comfy bed (you wouldn’t though). The flight took maybe around 20 minutes. And I don’t know what was more exciting – the flight or that great feeling afterward. Not only because the ground is my favorite place to be on but also because I’ve done something that’s so not me, that I’ve overcome myself. I guess, it’s the combination of both that was so thrilling.
Since I was the first one to land I had to wait for my friends for maybe half an hour sitting on the landing site. There were not only people landing but also few people learning to control the parachute. I believe, not only tandem paragliding as a form of entertainment for tourists but also learning to do it on your own is many times cheaper in India than in Europe.
Go Pro video
For a tandem flight that came with a go pro video, we paid around 2500 rupees (around 35 euros). I assume, prices are more or less the same everywhere except maybe for Darjeeling since it’s one of the most popular places for all kinds of extreme (not only) sports. In Darjeeling, most of these experiences will cost a couple times more, either it’s paragliding or hiking. Everything of this sort is actually very popular among foreign and local tourists in northern parts of India and is easily purchased everywhere via tourist offices.
When we went back to Zostel we had royal breakfast which we’ve earned and just chilled on the rooftop for the rest of the day. Later we went to visit Palpung Sherab Ling Monastery which is located in Bhattu, west of Bir. We had dinner and on the next day, we headed back to Dharamshala. From there we had to take a bus to Delhi, then to Agra, where we were staying. I still have a couple more things to add to whole Bir experience. Because of its location in the mountain region, Bir doesn‘t have rickshaws. You have to take a taxi wherever you want to go.
When we went to the Buddhist monastery and had dinner, later on, it was the first time during the whole stay in India that the driver didn‘t try to cheat us. Instead, when asked how much do we owe him, he said: „pay me whatever amount you think is right“. Which to my mind, is way better strategy than bluntly asking for a ten-times higher price. When you‘re shown kindness you naturally want to answer with generosity.
Safety in Bir
About an hour after he dropped us off at the restaurant (it was around 10 pm) the same taxi driver runs inside the restaurant, quickly approaches our table and hands me his mobile phone saying: „it‘s for you“, which, having in mind the circumstances, was pretty weird. I mean, who could possibly be looking for me in the middle of the night, in the middle of India via that guy’s phone??? Luckily, it was the manager of Zostel in Bir. He told me that during the nighttime lots of wild dogs roam on the road and, for our safety, he would like to pick us up after our dinner. To which I immediately said “yes, please”.
Moreover, on our way to the restaurant, one of those dogs tried to jump inside the car through the window. Thanks to him and the taxi driver we got to our beds safely that night, without becoming somebody else’s dinner. These two examples of kindness and, of course, other great experiences will remind me of Bir for a long time. We had nothing but a great time there.
We Thank Gabija for sharing this amazing experience in India!