Ancient Greeks would have been better to have thought of this area of the Himalayas near Pokhara as their home of the gods. Mount Olympus has got nothing in comparison. Three of the world’s top 10 tallest peaks lie here, dramatically rising over 7,000 metres. Here, it is believable that gods and beasts lurk in the high peaks that cast a shadow over the city. At the same time, the mountains line its pockets from the many travelers who come here to trek or just enjoy its tranquility. Until the 1960s, the only way to get here was by foot, making it even more of a notable and mystical getaway than the Kathmandu beloved by followers of the Hippie trail, and in the face of mass tourism, it still retains some of that mysticism. There is the lake and the mountains and the legions of Tibetan refugees who have made this part of Nepal their home, most of whom live in four refugee camps around Pokhara, each with their own schools, monasteries and temples. While the road for travelers is much easier than it used to be, getting here still has its difficulties. You go on buses that only just justify the name that lurch through canyons, perilously close to the edge of huge chasms, along roads that are only barely just roads, one-laned, tight cornered, pot-holed graveled behemoths that test drivers and better quite a few based on the vehicular carcasses that line the road.
|Graffiti on the wall at one of the Tibetan settlements we visited.|
It’s an adventure getting here and adventure is to be had here. While a large part of the lure of Pokhara is based on trekking, an increasing number of tourists come to enjoy the other adventure sport opportunities offered in the area. Paragliding is one of the more prominent and popular activities on offer, giving you the feel of a latter day Icarus, but one who is confident in the fact that their wings won’t melt as you soar high into the sky. Most of the paragliding ventures start off from a viewpoint known as Sarangkot (a trifling sized hill at 1,600 compared to the monoliths in the area). The views are stupendous, over the lake and over to the mountains. But we didn’t go up for the views, no, we were going to run and jump off a cliff (luckily, we went tandem and my guide was an experienced paraglider from Britain who followed the thermals worldwide). It seems absurd to jump off a cliff, supported by nothing other than a few belts and buckles and thin, plastic wings. I guess it is no less or no more absurd than jumping off a bridge with rope tied around your ankles or jumping out off a plane, both things I had previously. Adventure sports all have their quirks, especially when it comes to feelings of danger. As we approached the edge, last minute instructions and last minute equipment checks done with, I could only think to myself in a type of mantra, feet don’t fail me now. My fear was that I would face plant myself on the ledge. Embarrassment inspired more emotion than possible death.
|Last minute check or maybe regret.|
Once I had ascertained that I had made it off the cliff, it took me a few moments to relax. Unlike skydiving where you rather sedately came to ground after your freefall is halted by the opening of the parachute, paragliding is all about fighting gravity, trying to stay up in the air as long as possible, using wind and knowledge to accomplish this end. You are only held on to your guide and therefore the glider by a few buckles, your feet dangling precariously below you, houses, terraced farmland and trees far beneath you and getting further away, the lake and mountains in the distance. You know that children are watching you from the ground but you are so far up that they are barely visible. It’s quiet up here, just the chatter of your guide, the occasional rustle of the wings of your glider, a creak from the strings tensed against our combined body weight. The only thing keeping us up in the sky, beside the skill of the guide and the seemingly thin sheet of brightly coloured plastic, are the thermals, warm air rising up from the earth. The thermals were weak this time of year, meaning that we had to do tight circles to get enough lift. These tight circles led me to wish that someone had warned me beforehand that paragliding can give you a serious case of nausea. Six weeks traveling through India and Nepal hadn’t exactly done wonders for my stomach (although I did get to know the bowel motions of my sympathetic and similarly stricken travelers quite well).
Birds of prey, eagles, kites and vultures utilize the same thermals. Some companies have pioneered the use of raptors in their paragliding, in a twist known as parahawking. People can fly with specially trained birds (Egyptian vultures and Black Kites); feeding them strips of meat when the bird alights upon them in mid-air. However, our company wasn’t in that line of business but sometimes in life and in travel, you get lucky. After all, up here, maybe 2000, maybe 5,000 feet off the ground, we are in the raptor’s environment. From up here, they can glide effortlessly, taking their chance to snatch up birds from the air or mammals from the ground. There are some big birds floating around up here, steppe eagles, griffon vultures, birds with huge wingspans. One griffon vulture seems to not know we are here or maybe it’s playing chicken. Either way, it seemed to take all the skill of my guide to just avoid a mid-air collision between avian and glider.
After a while, my guide let me have a go controlling the glider, turning sharply to the left, to the right. He then does a few tricks, which unfortunately, play tricks on my stomach. 30 minutes of daredevilry has me wanting more but has also resulted in quite a nasty upset stomach. I want more but I don’t. It’s a smorgasbord of want and desire. Anyway, my time has to end and after almost entirely mangling my landing, I’m on solid land again.
|About to hit terra firma.|
I can look up and admire the heights from which I descended, admire paragliders still in the sky who are feeling the same emotions as I did. This is one hell of a way to enjoy one of the most impressive places on Earth. For a while, it seemed as if I had the power of flight, high above places that even Gods should fear to tread.