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Fort Kochi

I arrived in Kochi after a 2 hour flight from Delhi. The immediate thing that hits you – apart from falling coconuts, is the intense heat and humidity. Kochi in the state of Kerala is lush, tropical and relaxed – after Delhi a blessed relief.

Fort Kochin where I stayed is small former colonial garrison – first of the Portuguese, then the Dutch and British. The tourist trail is easily completed in a day by rickshaw. So the following day I hired another driver with strict instructions not to be taken anywhere he’d normally take a tourist.

Over the next 3 hours I was treated to the rambling backs streets and more traditional life of the Malayallam people in Kerela, with a brief stop at his mosque for his morning prayers, it was far more interesting than another Catholic church or crumbling colonial building that dot the area.  Though my bent for taking strange photographs of the people & streets bemused Nassar my driver! I took his statement that I wasn’t like a normal tourist to be a compliment ;-)

At the ginger factory

I spent the next 2 days wandering the streets and port area aimlessly, enjoying the heat and humidity, and not having to re-pack my bags or discover the timetable of the next bus or destination.

The beautiful Taj

The first glimpse

My penultimate day in Delhi was to be to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. Although trains are available, I opted for an easier & speedier option for the trip down with an A/C taxi, at around 4 hours. I had already decided that this would be my one luxury and so had booked into one of the 5* hotels in Agra.
My goal had been to arrive for a sunset visit that evening & then an early morning start for sunrise as well.

On the outskirts of Agra – about 2 hours or so before sunset, my taxi broke down.

It was already rush hour and time and traffic were now against us.  After about 40 minutes we discovered that the A/C was perhaps causing the engine to fail.  Though the sceptic in me did wonder if this wasn’t just a convenient excuse to sell me the services of an “official guide” that happened upon us.  I had already decided that having some guide yapping in my ear was the last thing I wanted as I visited the most beautiful building in the world, so having declined his polite advances, we finally got underway again.

Google reliably informed me that the Sunset that evening was 5:43, so with over an hour to spare I dropped my bags at the hotel and drove the 5 minutes to the entrance gate, to discover the part neither Google nor my Lonely Planet had bothered to tell me was that the Taj shuts at 5pm.  With the sun now firmly setting into the evening’s pollution, the traffic in chaos & no where near the East gate that allows you to cross the river, I reluctantly gave up on a sunset visit and decided to focus on an early start the following morning.

When India does luxury, it does it with bells on, and so I spent the evening enjoying the opulence of my hotel with a few single malts to help me sleep.  Not that I needed it, my bed was the size of small 5-side football pitch, whose pillow cases had no doubt been plumped by virgins.

Whether it was the whiskey or pillows; my bed wouldn’t let me free the following morning, and so didn’t leave the hotel until 6am.  Having intended to be the early bird, by the time I arrived at the east gate, I discovered about 6 coach loads of German and Spanish tourists had eaten my worm.

With about 300 people in front of me, I grabbed a chai from a nearby stall and waited in line.

As the queue progressed, I discovered an unexpected benefit to travelling light. The queue divided in men’s & women’s to pass through a security check, and many of the female tourists had felt the need to bring handbags – all of which needed to be X-rayed. Begrudgingly, the male partners were forced to mill around in the outer court yard waiting for the makeup bags and various other female accoutrements to pass security.  This left me to make a bid for freedom!

With now so few people in front of me, I was able to reclaim some my early worm and set off into the inner courtyard.

It is a staggeringly beautiful building, and watching the colours changes from white to ivory as the sun rose higher was exquisite.  After moving through the compound trying to get the pictures I wanted, I forced myself to put my camera away and just look as the mist on the river behind slowly cleared.

By 9am the ambiance had gone and the place was now heaving with tourists falling over themselves for their turn, so I wandered out past the multitude of salesmen selling key rings and t-shirts various other unfortunate cheap tat on offer, and treated myself to breakfast at the Oberoi Villas – a 6* hotel with a view of the Taj itself.

The most beautiful building in the world

After breakfast and then a dip in the pool back at the hotel, by lunchtime it was time to leave.  As I struggled to place my bag in the boot I noticed two enormous speakers and a sub-woofer weren’t helping.  Discovering my driver was a fan of Punjabi music which has a heavy drum beat, with a pumping bass we killed the problematic A/C, wound down the windows and turned up the volume for the drive back to Delhi leaving the beautiful Taj behind us.

The whole world is my village

Like many things in India, Delhi is a city of contradictions, yet like a grand experiment in self-organised chaos, the mass of humanity that populates it is forever busy and industrious & seemingly organised. From chai wallahs and food stalls to barbers & mobile phones stands. Between the gaps that set them apart, bicycles, mopeds, rickshaws & taxis rush at breakneck speeds going about their daily business.

Take a deep breath and climbs aboard – welcome to Delhi.

Sunset in Delhi

My first stop was Indra Ghandi’s former residence where she was assassinated, which houses a small but moving museum to her and her son Rajiv Ghandi, built around her former government offices.  It documents both of their lives & achievements, and many of their speeches are printed on large posters, one of Rajiv’s struck me the most:

In the heart of a truly non-violent person, there is a profound belief, that hate can only be driven out by love, that anger can only be conquered by compassion, and that fear can only be overcome by courage.

He was assassinated in 1991 by a bomb blast.

A 5 minute walk away, is Ghandi Smitri, Mahatma Ghandi’s last residence and also place of assassination. The quiet and solitude here was in remarked contrast to the Indra Ghandi museum, which had been packed with local tourists shuffling through swiftly & obediently.  Here I had the place almost to myself. Set a little back from the road, once inside the compound, the traffic and pollution faded to a serene & peaceful setting, birds & squirrels my most frequent companions.

Here again, many of his speeches & philosophies were available to read, one of which has become my travel companion:

For my material needs my village is my world, but for my spiritual needs the whole world is my village.

It seemed an apt summary of my travels in Asia, though the one poster that caught my attention the most was this one:

The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth. The dominant impulse in India under British rule was that of fear – pervasive, oppressing, strangling fear; of the official class; fear of laws meant to suppress and of prison; fear of the money lender; fear of unemployment and starvation, which were always on the threshold.  It was against this all-pervading fear that Ghandhi’s quiet and determined voice was raised; Be not afraid.

Was it as simple as that? Not quite. Yet fear builds its phantoms which are more fearsome than reality itself, and reality when calmly analysed and its consequences willingly accepted, loses much of its terror. As fear is a close companion of falsehood, so truth follows fearlessness.


Down to Delhi

Walking into the village

With the mountains towering almost 4000m all around you, Himachel Pradesh is an amazingly beautiful & peaceful area, but the time had finally come for me to swap the serene beauty of the Himalayas for the bustling mass of humanity in Delhi.

Goats on takeoff!

I had already delayed my departure by two days to postpone the inevitable journey back. So I had booked a “Deluxe A/C coach” from Baijnath to Delhi instead of the original taxi. Reclining seats in air conditioned comfort seemed worth 800 Rs. My nativity was rather misplaced… to describe it as “Deluxe” was most certainly an exaggeration, and whilst the seats did recline, I wasn’t overly keen on sitting in them for the fear of contracting something I hadn’t been immunised for.

I had planned to read on the journey down & plan my next leg, but even in an “air suspension” coach, the roads – especially down the mountains, are just too rough. Though whether there was any air in the suspension might be open to debate, but the A/C certainly worked overtime, and I was glad of the extra layers I had to hand.

At 5:30am, after 10 hours and a few brief pit stops along the way, we were unceremoniously dumped on the outskirts of Delhi, much earlier than I had expected having shaved almost 4 hours off the journey up to Bir.

Some brief negotiations with a tuk-tuk driver persuaded me over the Delhi metro. With all my kit crammed in the rear with me, I was treated to an open air early morning tour of Delhi. The city was bustling already, much of it looked like it had just never bothered sleeping in the first place, as we passed bars, cafes & even a fairground already open and busy with people & dogs.

Similar driving techniques are used here – white knuckles & judicious use of horns over indicators.

Having now slept & showered, had a few very good espressos, I am now back in big city mode, and feel ready & willing to take on the delights of Delhi. Tomorrow I start with Gandhi Smriti where he spent his final days.

Arboreal adventures

Playing with trees is an occupational hazard paragliding, cruising just above them can provide that crucial piece of lift to clear a ridge and climb up and out into the next thermal.

It was for that reason that I found myself scratching about 10ft above the treetops, a ridge before my final glide home. Determined not to be forced into another “out-landing” I squeezed a little lower… Normally always facing down slope for an easy getaway, I allowed my wing to swing across slope as I reached the edge of the ridge. With little warning I hit sinking air, and dropped 10ft in a less than a second… now faced with a large set of trees directly in front of me and as well as further down the ridge to my left – I was trapped, and both sinking air and a sinking realisation hits you that you will be landing in a tree.

I am reliably informed that the only pilots that haven’t landed in a tree, are the ones that will be landing in a tree in the near future, though that is little comfort as the top branches of a 60ft tree loom large at around 30Kph. With preparation the only option left, the goal is to ensure you land as thoroughly in the tree as possible, as the only real danger is in not doing so and falling back out again.

Trees are surprising soft and gentle places to land, especially at the top, as I came to a rapid but embracing stop. With the wing being allowed to fly over the top of the tree, I found myself firmly wedged between branches & suspended about 60ft up on the side of the ridge.

With pilot pride the only noticeable injury, I confessed to my comrades over the radio about my poor landing choice, and placed my order for the obligatory evening beer penalty for poor flying performance. I am also reliably informed my language may have breached “The Radio & Telecommunications Act”.

“Err Neil, is that you in that tree?”

Mine’s a case of Kingfisher then

Climbing a tree never fazed me as a boy, but this was the first time I had had to climb down a tree I’d hadn’t actually climbed up. This poses some interesting challenges, not least extracting yourself from your harness, reserve chute & flight deck, disconnecting all the lines from the harness to allow the wing to be retrieved, then slowly climbing to the ground – all without letting go of your friendly local branch.

So how do I get down from here?

After about 25 minutes & various attempts, I finally climbed across to a lower tree with branches all the way down & finally I was on the ground again – though with my rather expensive wing still 60ft up in the tree.

It was shortly after this, that two enterprising local teenagers appeared further down the ridge. The nearest village was about 8km away – almost straight up, and like a pair of mountain goats had walked up in about 30 minutes!

Examining the pilot with a strange look of bemusement, one boy kicked off his flip flops and began to climb the tree, whilst his friend continued up the ridge to a mountain spring to refill my water bottle with another younger boy that had also appeared. What had taken me 25 minutes to climb down, Sunil had climbed back up (in bare feet) in less than 3 minutes. Stepping on the flimsiest branches high above the ridge, he proceeded to untangle my wing & the lines from the tree top.

After 3 hours, much sign language, and confusion on their part as to why I wasn’t married (I explained my mother felt the same), Sunil, who had remained up in the tree for the entire time dropped my now balled up wing from the tree and climbed down – a hero in my eyes.

It is quite humbling, to own all latest technology money can buy, yet to be rescued by two 14 year old school boys with little more than bare feet & courage.

We moved a little further down the ridge, to a smooth grassy knoll, where were able to lay out the wing and untangle the rats nest of lines and finally pack it away.


The rescuers.

Despite the fact I have a lightweight mountain harness, fully packed with wing, helmet and reserve, it easily weighs 20kgs. My protestations ignored, Sunil swung the pack easily onto his back, put his flip flops back on, and began back down the path with me in tow.

It took about an hour to reach the village at the foot of the ridge, I was constantly lagging behind despite carrying nothing but myself. As we walked through his village to the bus stop, he proudly wore my backpack as if returning from a hunting trip with some strange animal in tow. He got lots of deserved admiration, particularly from one pretty little girl.

Arriving to a little group of villagers waiting at the bus stop, the two boys got some quiet admiration from the men folk, and I summoned them both for my thanks and their reward for saving me and my glider.

I hope Sunil got her phone number too – it was the very least he deserved.

Vultures & ‘The Big Face’

The poor weather over the past few days had really made it only flyable in the morning.  By lunchtime the clouds were up over take-off and we were forced to land.  After heavy thunder & hail storms yesterday cleared the air, we were greeted to a totally different take-off scene

Waiting on take-off at Billing

Breaking through the inversions, we had a chance for some great thermals and cross country at least as far as “The Big Face“, a large eastern mountain edge that is tricky to cross on the way to Dharamsala 80 Km further down the valley.

We had to wait until mid-morning before the thermals began properly, but after climbing out of take-off, we all quickly gaggled together and began to cross ridge after ridge.  “Ridge 1” to “Red Temple“, then back up onto the “Golf Course” and then across to “Hyrdro“.  Then an attempt onto “The Big Face“.

The thermal stack

Climbing higher and higher, we could now see the mountain ranges stretching for hundreds of kilometres beneath us.  We were then joined in the thermals by vultures who began climbing with us.  It was amazing to be so close to these huge birds as they swooped, dived, circled and then promptly out climbed us.

Company in the thermal

A smaller part of our group were high enough to go for “The Big Face“, leaving a spur high above “ridge 2“, we made a dash for the spur leading up from the valley beneath, where we hoped we would find a thermal to allow us to climb back out of the valley and onto the bowl of “The Big Face“,  then from there on to the “Shark’s Fin” at its’ peak.   Exhausted now, after almost 2 hours aggressive flying, a loss of concentration results in missed thermal turn points and an “out-landing” with a long bus ride home.

After climbing out of the valley, and up onto “The Big Face” itself, I was now level with the “Shark’s Fin“, as the weather began to turn, and the clouds came rumbling over the mountain tops.  The clouds immediately began sucking us higher as they formed, and so we all reluctantly turned and began the journey home.

Thermalling over Kangra Valley

Kangra Valley

Gliding from such a hight is very peaceful, especially after having spent so long battling to stay in the thermals and maintain the right glide slope for the next way-point.  I obviously lost concentration along this path, because I began to sink on my approach back to “Red Temple“, a key way-point that allows you to glide straight to home and landing once you are higher than it.  After 10 minutes of trying to regain my height for the next valley crossing, it became obvious I wasn’t going to make it, and I would be out-landing in paddy fields.

Flying as far up the valley as I could, would get me closer to the bus home.  Small thermals frequently bubble off the valley floor from houses, fields and even river valleys, making landing more complicated, so I chose two harvested paddy fields – one if I came in short and one if I was going to over shoot.  After missing my short landing field I lined up for my long one, and glided straight in.  The farmer in the next paddy was obviously much less impressed than I was with my landing, as he came over and told me in Hindi – what I presume was – to mind his rice that he had just harvested and was now drying out in the field.

Personal Bests:

Take-off: 1460m
Max Altitude: 3089m
Duration: 2h 46m
Distance: 39.8Km

Day 1 of 102

“Breakfast will be at 8am, we leave at 9am” was the last thing I remembered before I fell asleep on the first night, and the first thing I remembered as I found myself waking up alone at 10:30 that morning.

Assuming they’d left me to sleep in, I stumbled towards the shower block, bumping into fellow pilots along the way, it seemed no one had made the ambitious breakfast start!

After the actual breakfast we went to inspect the various landing sites around the village of Bir, paying especially close attention to the location of thin power lines strung across roads & paddy fields…

After that it was a very bumpy trip up to launch to see if we could get a late afternoon flight in.  The monsoons were late and longer than normal this year, so the humidity is still quite high (though not uncomfortable).  It does mean that clouds start forming above the thermals earlier and grow much more quickly than when the air is drier, flying in cloud is never a clever idea.  After waiting for the clouds to clear a little, there was time for a quick “top-to-bottom” before the mountains closed in for the day.

Hello World!

After a very painless flight, and a some minor entertainment trying to get the luggage on the roof of our vans, we finally left the airport at 12:30 to begin our journey up through northern India to Himachal Pradesh.

Leaving Delhi, initially our journey was slow and torturous as our little convoy weaved it’s way trough the city’s manic lunchtime traffic.
After a few hours, the built up areas around the road gave way to wide expanses of lush green paddy fields as far as the eye could see.

Slowly, the traffic on the road changed from tuk-tuks & motorbikes into enormous trucks & trailers, all decorated as if for a parade, and none sure which lane they were driving in. Effective use of the horn is a must.

After a brief if delicious late lunch, we continued on during the afternoon, and mile after mile of paddy fields, crossing fords washed away by the monsoons.

As dusk fell, the monster trucks turned on their decorative lights, looking like something from close encounters of the third kind – though it didn’t improve their driving. Not that our driver helped much; overtaking overloaded speeding trucks at night on blind bends makes for a white knuckle ride.

By 9pm we began a more bone jarring journey as the tarmac road gave way to a rather more bouncy un-cut road leading up into the mountains.  Stopping briefly for a chai & a late night biriani, we began our ascent into the mountains proper.

Pitch black, and twisting and turning higher, passing through dimly lit villages and isolated houses, ocassionally greeted by barking dogs. We were all secretly grateful that we couldn’t see the drop off into the ravines, as our drivers threw the jeeps around the hairpins bends.

We finally arrived to a cold beer at exactly 2am after a 14 hour trek.  The worse part now is knowing we have to do it again in reverse in two weeks time!