The first thing that’ll strike you when you enter the quaint Himalayan village of Bir, driving down the narrow, winding road amidst tea gardens are the colourful prayer flags fluttering in the air. And a board that says ‘Welcome to the World Paragliding Site’. This is after all the best paragliding location in Asia with superb flying conditions. Take a minute to glance up – and there you will spot them, fliers with their colourful gliders dotting the sky.
So if your idea of a perfect day is to soar into the blue sky leaving the mountains behind and then dive into one of most gorgeous sunsets in the world with streaks of purple, pink and orange blending into each other – then perhaps Bir should be your destination pick this summer. Wait, there’s more. Besides being an attraction for gliders from across the globe over the last few years, Bir has been gaining popularity as an art, culture and spiritual hub. Add to that a blend of cafes and restaurants whose setting amidst snow capped mountains and food with fresh flavours will make you want to go back for more!
It’s an exciting melting pot that serves up as a unique destination, far from the touristy summer destinations and din. Quaint walks, monasteries and tea gardens flanked by breathtaking Dauladhar mountain range add to this intriguing mix!
So here’s what you can do once you’re in Bir.
Within a drive of about fourteen kilometres, uphill from Bir is Billing – the paragliding take off site, which is Asia’s highest and the second best site in the World. In fact, in 2015 – the first World Paragliding Championship in Asia was held here, putting this obscure village of Himachal Pradesh on the map for adventure sport enthusiasts and solo fliers.
If you’re not a trained and licensed flier, the only way for you to enjoy the thrill of paragliding is through tandem flying, where a pilot accompanies you manoeuvring the glider in the sky. Be prepared to feel a million butterflies flutter in your tummy as you run in speed, along with your pilot, glider and go pro in tow and jump into the sky from the take off site. Literally. To put it mildly, it’s an unmissable, exhilarating experience.
A flight of about 20-25 minutes depending on the flying conditions, will test your nerves and give you an experience of a lifetime. Thousands of feet above in the sky, with the world below your feet, there’s not much you can do but just sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s your zen moment. Let go and take it all in.
And even if you are not one to take that leap off the mountains – a drive to Billing, the precarious winding road notwithstanding would be worth it! Simply because the view from the top is spectacular and so is just being there. Picture this – windy, lush green slopes, surrounded by snow capped peaks on one side, which seem to be just at an arm’s length. If you do look down, you will spot the cluster of fliers and the forests and villages dotting the valley.
Tip: Once in Bir, head to the paragliding landing site on ILU Road (Yes, that’s the name), you will easily spot the tent with the instructors who arrange the paragliding trips. You can book your spot and time as per your convenience. One trip could cost you between Rs. 2500 – 3000 approximately.
Peak paragliding season is in October- November when professional solo fliers from the world over head here. It’s next to impossible to get an available room at that time, but you could try.
Disclaimer: Paragliding is an adventure sport, subject to weather and flying conditions. So choose this option, knowing the risks associated with it.
Stay in a place straight out of an Enid Blyton book
If you’ve spent your childhood lost in the world of Enid Blyton books, then a stay at Colonels Resort in Bir will come very close to reliving those moments This is a place where you can wake up to horses galloping on the green slopes in front of you – an enchanting view right out of a book, straight from your room. Smell fresh tea leaves and peach blossoms from your window! Your sleepy afternoons can be spent with the two very friendly dogs Frisky & Dash at the resort. An open courtyard near the dining room is that perfect quiet place to write that book you’ve been thinking about for years! In the evenings, tea and cake is served here. Frisky and Dash will probably still be around snuggling at your feet. Time stands still. And you don’t seem to mind.
As the night takes over, there is a bonfire lit under the starlit sky with drinks served on the side – a perfect place and time to catch up with other residents of the resort and exchange some travel notes.
The rooms here are large, roomy and well maintained with most amenities provided (it’s really a plus given how remote the area is).
Tip: Ask for the newer rooms with wooden flooring overlooking the green fields and tea gardens! There are cottages as well to choose from – right in the middle of flower bushes and trees, and you could well find yourself waking up to a bed of white blossoms right outside your room.
Make your own pack of Kangra tea
While at Colonels Resort, you can arrange to walk through the charming tea gardens and do some tea leaf plucking of your own, which can then be processed at their own tea factory to give you a pack of fresh, Kangra tea leaves to take home!
Other places to stay
About 18 kilometers from Bir, enroute from Palampur is the Heritage Property Taragarh Palace Hotel. You could certainly check it out as an option. Or just step in here for some evening tea with banana fritters in a heritage setting! Make sure to check out their incredible photography collection.
If you’re looking for something even more exclusive and quiet, with most essentials provided for – then head to 4Rooms, an ecological boutique hotel in Gunehar village in Upper Bir. The tastefully done up mud house rooms here certainly look very inviting. And so are the surroundings – with a river nearby where one can go fishing.
Note: There are a number of other hotels and home stays in Bir that are quite popular. Choose your options depending on the facilities best catered to you.
May and June are also the months that witness an Art Festival right here. This year the 4 Tables project has its residency art festival ShopArt ArtShop 3 coming up from 15th May to 15th June, inviting artists from different artistic disciplines to live in the village for 24 days and work openly on the year’s chosen art concept in the public places offered by the village. With the final, village wide art festival from 8th to 15th June.
Meditation & Workshops at the Deer Park Institute
Back in main Bir, is the Deer Park Institute which is a must visit. A center for classical Indian wisdom traditions, the institute was established in 2006, on the campus of a former Buddhist monastic institute! It’s here that one can attend various Buddhist meditation courses and retreats that are offered throughout the year, as well as opt for photography, filmmaking, Japanese art, calligraphy, classical music and writing workshops. Believe me, one cannot recommend a better atmosphere to douse yourself in. Make sure, to note the Institute’s sustainable living and waste management projects which are really worth imbibing in one’s life! They even grow their own organic produce in their gardens and have a mouth watering range of baked goodies, breads and jams at the institute kitchen. Deer Park Institute also has its own rooms for people availing their courses, which have to be booked in advance. Give this place a shot and come away very enriched.
Another must do when in Bir. Walk Walk Walk. Walk through the ILU road for a stunning view of the mountain ranges and the most sensational sunsets you have ever witnessed. The Paraglding landing site is also here, giving you a chance to spot a number of landings and share the excitement and thrill of those having just taken the plunge.
If you’re adventurous enough walk through the fields off the main market square, you will find yourself navigating through fields of yellow mustard flowers, peach blossoms, more butterflies than you’ve seen in your lifetime and of course prayer flags.
Note: Do keep in mind, village dogs here are not to be petted. They can get a tad ferocious.
Monasteries and Temple visits
Bir, also a Tibetan refugee settlement has a couple of monasteries within the village that can be just walked to. There are other highly recommended ones that one can drive to – Dzongsar Monastery in Chauntra and Sherabling Monastery in Keori. Also a must visit is the ancient Shiva temple at Baijnath.
Over the last few years, a range of fascinating cafes and restaurants have mushroomed in and around Bir, a far cry from the limited options one had about a decade back. Other than the sumptuous food, the atmosphere and mood are an added attraction.
A must stop is the Silver Linings Cafe, down ILU Road – they have a range of salads, sandwiches, desserts and drinks. The mood is vibrant and relaxed in this little cottage like cafe in the middle of a garden, surrounded with green fields and open spaces to sit in as well.
Across from Silver Linings is the Gliders Pizzeria – their alfresco seating is very enticing with bamboo chic canopies and the pizzas are delectable. Sit here and watch the sunset and the colourful cluster of gliders dotting the sky from the take off site.
Also check out Ara Cafe for an alfresco experience bang in the middle of the green fields. Visit Garden Cafe for the pasta, oven baked pizzas and sandwiches and Vairagi Cafe for the momos and hot ginger lemon honey.
Make time to book a cab to Gunehar Village to dine at the 4Tables cafe. The ambience is unique in a home setting and the food really special. We went for a three course meal with soup, mains and dessert and it totally was an outstanding experience with signature dishes like Himalayan trout, zuchini soup, roast pork, grilled prawns and a sinful dessert of mini pancakes with dark chocolate sauce and fresh berries. With a background score of a gurgling stream, this is a leisurely, personalised fine dining experience in the mountains. 4Tables has pizza and movie nights on Fridays and the three course meals can be made spontaneously depending on the availability of the day and the mood of the chef!
There you have it, the little Himalayan village of Bir that offers a pot pourri of experiences that makes it a must visit for the discerning traveller. Not to mention, the interesting people you end up meeting here and perhaps striking up friendships for life!
How to get here
Bir is a 7 hour drive from Chandigarh.
The nearest airport is Gaggal (about 2-hours drive), with flights available from Delhi.
One can also take the train to Pathankot station and drive down from there (approx. 3 hours).