The two weeks I spent in northern India and Nepal during winter vacation gave me an endless supply of unforgettable experiences, but the single chunk of time that stands out most vividly was the half-hour I spent paragliding over Pokhara. Pokhara is a backpacker’s haven; nestled in the foothills of the Annapurna mountain range and flanked on one side by Lake Phewa, it’s the perfect base camp for extended treks and other adventuring. If you just want a small dose of adrenaline, though, a tandem paragliding flight is the activity of choice.
I love heights. Whenever I take off to a new place, I’m always hankering for a bird’s eye view. Some of the most memorable views I’ve seen around the world have been from several hundred feet in the air. Whether it’s looking out over Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, surveying London from the top of the O2 Arena, gazing out over Macau from the Macau Tower (and then bungee jumping off of it), or taking in Paris from the Eiffel Tower, the higher I am, the happier I am.
And paragliding in Pokhara thrilled me to no end. I was basically drunk with euphoria at the end of my half-hour flight.
Most paragliding flights take off from Sarangkot, a nearby hilltop that overlooks Phewa, and soar up to 1700m. One minute you’re standing with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Your pilot tightens snaps a heavy harness that’s all nylon straps and clinking clips. And the award for “Most Unnecessary Instructions Ever” had to go to my pilot for ordering me seriously, “Don’t unbuckle any of these while we’re in the air” as he tightened and adjusted a myriad of straps around me. Yeah…hadn’t really been planning on it, don’t worry! The preparations seem to go on forever.
And the next thing you know, your pilot is urging you to start running. You think to yourself, “Run? I’m on a cliff!” But your feet are already moving and after a few seconds, your legs are churning in the air. Then your parachute catches the wind and the next thing you know, you’re soaring. Lake Phewa is below you, the Annapurna are within sight, and suddenly you think that birds – some of which fly within fifteen feet of you – are the luckiest creatures on earth to enjoy this view every day. I could not help but let out what one of my fellow gliders later described as “an almighty scream” that was equal parts joy, adrenaline, and incredulity as my feet left solid ground.
When I told my pilot hat he had the best job in the world, I wasn’t kidding. To get paid to soar around all day, hundreds of meters in the air, in a place as beautiful as Pokhara sounds like a dream come true. For the most part, I was content to take in the view in silence, and I think my pilot took that as nerves or discomfort. He asked me multiple times if I was all right, and each time, I assured him in a totally blissed-out state of happiness that I could not have been better. I’d taken my camera with me to snap pictures, but after only a few minutes, I was content to lay my Canon in my lap and drink in the view without a lens in front of my eye.
Paragliding is one of the most popular recreational activities in Pokhara, so you’ll never have the sky to yourself…but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment one bit. The multi-colored chutes, as they wheel and soar over the forests and terraces that surround Pokhara, make up the strangest and most beautiful flock of birds you’ll ever see.
When you paraglide, it’s an odd mix of calm and thrill. It’s seemingly effortless to catch a thermal and soar up to a higher altitude, and the silence that encompasses you as you look out over the lake is totally serene. (Unless that reverie is briefly interrupted by your pilot’s iPhone ringing, as it was for me. Thankfully, he heeded my request that he not answer it while we were in the air.)
Once you start doing corkscrews and other heart-pounding acrobatics, though, that tranquility is disintegrated by the wind that whips through your hair and the way the world tilts so you’re suddenly unsure which was is properly up. It’s a thrill junkie’s dream come true. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. It’s not as if I had feared for my safety, but when you start whipping around like a drunken whirling dervish, it’s a little difficult to keep your cool. Pro tip: just don’t eat beforehand or banshee shrieks won’t be the only thing coming out of your mouth. As much as I loved the acrobatics, my stomach wasn’t as crazy about them. I was very happy that I’d decided to eat lunch after our flight, rather than beforehand.
There are plenty of companies that run daily flights from Sarangkot, and most will offer you a choice of half- or one-hour flights with an additional charge for pictures and videos. I flew with Take 5, the company recommended by our tour guide, and our pilots were an awesome group of young guys that seemed more like brothers (who loved to razz on each other) than co-workers.
Most companies offer three flights a day, and it’s a good idea to avoid the morning flight at 9 a.m. Mornings in Pokhara are usually hazy, and you’ll be better off waiting until one of the later flights when the sun has burned off the fog and you can get a clear view of the surrounding mountains. That being said, even if you book one of the later flights and the weather still isn’t cooperating you don’t have to fret. We originally were supposed to fly around eleven in the morning, but our flight got pushed back an hour because of the clouds. That extra hour made all the difference.
Pokhara’s beautiful no matter what your vantage point. But when your feet are dangling more than a thousand meters up, the afternoon sun is glinting off the lake below, and the Annapurna look close enough to touch? There’s a whole different sort of beauty to a view like that.