You would be surprised by the vast number of clandestine suburbs Himachal Pradesh is an abode to. While places like Kutla, Barot, and Bhunbuni are few where natural bounties are copious, there are also few destinations in the ‘dev bhoomi (Land of God)’ of India where the mountains kiss the sky, which are meant to fly, and I mean that quite literally! Tucked away in the valleys of Kangra in Himachal Pradesh, are the hamlets of Bir and Billing; and even with a treacherous mountainous roadway of 14 kilometre between them, these towns are almost always referred to as one, and for a good reason too!
Back in 2015, Bir-Billing witnessed the International Paragliding World Cup. Ever since, these towns have attracted colossal crowds. However, Bir-Billing are more than just paragliding destinations; for me, I will often remember this place as the home to some of the most serene locales – some poised and placid meadows, a multitude of engrossing and enticing adventure activities, and perhaps, some of the finest cultural heritages in the state!
All in all, Bir-Billing is a huge Tibetan community which lies in the subordinate parts of the Kangra valley. The upper Bir village is inhabited by locals and farmers who now run the business of paragliding, and they are, indeed, quite passionate and extremely good at it! Bir-Billing is known as the second-best site in the world, and perhaps, the best in Asia for paragliding. Billing (at altitude of 7800 feet) is about an hour away from Bir by road and is the take-off site for paragliders. However, if one is feeling particularly adventurous, there is also a pristine, uncluttered, and off-beaten trekking route winding through the Himalayan pine forests, which connects Bir to Billing.
The heavenly views of the Dhauladhar ranges and the nonchalant Buddhist culture in this outlying hamlet make Bir-Billing home to some fascinating adventure sports, scintillating monasteries, serene backpacking options, meditation studies centres and eco-tourism establishments!
The renowned English poet, William Blake, famously said: ‘Great things are done when mankind and mountains meet!’ Hands down, without a dispute, Bir-Billing holds up to that reputation.
Adventure Activities: Treks and Mountain Biking
I did a multitude of treks in and around Bir, and if I would have extended my trip and explored the surrounding area further, I am sure I would have discovered ample more too. The trek to the semi-nomadic villages of Raj Gundha and Kukkar Gundha is of longer duration, and is by far, the most surreal trek I have done!
With beautiful views of the Kangra valley on your left and the magnanimous Raj Gundha valley on the right, this is the kind of trek that gives Himachal the natural affluence that it is known for! One can easily trek from Billing to Raj Gundha in about four hours (and that includes ample photography and selfie breaks; trust me, you will need those). Once you reach Raj Gundha, one may end the journey, camp at the pristine village overnight, and come back the following day; or the way I did, you can continue further to Kukkar Gundha, which is just a kilometre away from Raj Gundha. The trek is absolutely stunning in every way possible – scenic and laced with rhododendron all along, oak and deodar trees planking the narrow route under the forest of the Dhauladhar wildlife sanctuary.
The overall trekking experience in Kangra Valley is exceptionally dazzling and overflowing with agrestal, unscathed and immaculate Himalayan nobility!
Both, Kukkar Gundha and Raj Gundha, are known for their wildlife and nomadic style of livelihood. The native villagers live here for 8 months a year. In the chilly winters of the Himalayas, starting some time in November, they move to lower places along with their cattle, where the weather is less harsh. These villages take you many a decades back in time – the old traditional houses are made up of stone and mud, there is no road connectivity, and the villagers still rely thoroughly on cattle rearing and farming.
On my way back from Kukkar Gundha, I took the other route – one that passes from Channa ghat. From Channa ghat, you can experience the stunning view of Thamsar peak and Billing on the other side. This trek is pretty neat, not really rigorous and in less than 3 hours, you can reach Billing. The trek of Raj Gundha and Kukkar Gundha reminds you of the multitude of lesser known trails in the heavenly Himachal that most trekkers are not aware of; and it is the fact that masses don’t know them, that they are still unblemished!
The other notable trek I did was the Hanumangarh Trek. This footslog takes you to the ancient pilgrimage site of Hanumangarh. The trek starts from Bari village through the forests, it is a simple trek with neatly carved mountain-ways; the path isn’t too arduous and should be easy for most people. The Hanumangarh Fort is situated at a height of 3200 metre amidst some scintillating views of the Dhauladhars. One can easily reach Hanumangarh in less than four hours, and unlike what I did, it is recommended to stay overnight and embrace the spectacular views of snow-capped peaks in the distance! All in all, this trek is a facile one, but long, and may get tiring for beginners. It is not as challenging as the Raj Gundha trek, but then, every trail recites a different anecdote, right?!
The other adventure sport you should definite give a shot at Bir-Billing is mountain biking. There are numerous scintillating nature trails in and around Bir-Billing that let you pass through picturesque forests, around hills, isolated barren meadows, monasteries, temples, and villages. There are numerous tour facilitators for mountain biking. Most of the paragliding operators provide mountain cycling equipment, and quite economical too. A rental bicycle will cost you around INR 500 for 5-6 hours, and the possibilities of the bike trails you can enjoy are nearly endless! Some roads are still un-metalled and great for off road biking. Most of these roads are only used by locals for internal movement from one village to other, and cycling along these trails is a wonderful way to learn the ‘way-of-life’ of the locals here!
The Kangra valley is full of mountain biking trails, and one is only limited by their courage, fitness and imagination as to the paths you can take. Two of the finest trails (and perhaps, my favorite ones) are:
1. Sansal mukutnath temple – Bhattu road – lower bhattu – Bhattu – Palpung monastery – Bir road – Bir Billing Camping site – 23 km. (easy – moderate).
2. Sansal mukutnath temple – Palpung monastery – Bir Paragliding landing site – Bir – Bir Billing Camping site – 17 km. (easy).
When I went to rent my bicycle, there was a quote framed in their office, saying: ‘I don’t have a bucket list but my bike-it list is a mile long!’ It only struck me after two whole days of pondering around in the hills on the bicycle, about how apt that quote was!
Your visit to Bir-Billing is never complete unless you finally tick off paragliding off your list! There are a ton of packages available to satiate everyone – the naïve, the beginner, and the expert! A 15-30min paragliding experience (one that most people opt for) costs a mere INR 2000/- in the peak season of May and June, while the prices can shoot up to INR 15000/- for a three-hour paragliding session!
Now, believe me when I say it, but paragliding in the mountains, with nothing but cool, tranquil and crisp zephyr is indeed, a heavenly experience! At Billing, where one takes off for Bir, the sky is usually full of paragliders in the peak season in May and June. Every now and then, a paraglider zooms right above the head. From the distance, it looks terrifying, but it is the adrenaline rush that makes this sport so radiant!
For a majority of people, you are never alone when you paraglide, a professional pilot accompanies you, unless, of course, you are a professional yourself. Once I was properly strapped to the paraglider, I was told how to take-off. It basically involves running till the edge of the cliff and jumping at the end. I barely managed to make it to the edge and almost had a mini heart attack as we lifted, and seconds later, we were off gliding over the lush green valleys, hundreds of feet above the solemn lands of Kangra!
You can see whole of the Dhauladhar Mountains in all their majestic glory and no words can do justice to the adrenaline rush and excitement that I felt at the same time! You feel like a free bird flying in the open skies, you are far away from everything – the land is a thousand feet below, and in my case, home was a thousand miles away! With nothing but few turbulence jerks, the nippy wind gushing around my arms and the view of the snow-capped peaks in the distance, paragliding in Bir-Billing has to be the most exhilarating half an hour of my life! Most pilots try to make your flight as thrilling as possible by engaging in simple paragliding acrobatics, and it is a truly amazing experience. Throughout the flight, my pilot did many such maneuvers, so make sure to hold on to the straps tightly!
Believe me, time flies when you do. You won’t even realise when the landing site in Bir comes into view!
It was much like a dream come true for me. As an exhilarating journey of 25 minutes came to an end, I was contented – I had touched the skies, I had breathed possibly the most invigorating air one ever can, a long-term resident in my bucket-list was finally ticked off!
Trekking, mountain biking and paragliding are perhaps the highlights of Bir-Billing. However, this place is also known for its many monasteries. This is maybe the reason why Bir has a very unflappable and peaceful vibe in the air!
The Paplung Sherabling Monastery is the largest monastery in this area. While driving from the Palampur side, you would start catching glimpses of this monastery from the road itself. It is stationed in Bhattu village, about 5kms from Bir. Situated in the pine forests, with the backdrop of the remarkable Dhauladhar Himalayan range, it has a serene ambiance! The atmosphere in this monastery, and many others like this one, is indeed nonchalant – one can hear the hymns of Buddhist prayers from every nook and corner, with the sublime view of mountains around, it felt to me as if I was standing on the entrance to a heavenly town, if there would be any.
The Chokling Gompa is another well-known the monastery of Neten Chokling Rinpoche, a reincarnate lama in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan architecture and large stupa are the main attractions for casual visitors. In addition to its ongoing programmes for its full-time monastic students, the monastery periodically hosts Buddhist ceremonies open to the public. Located in the central part of Tibetan colony, this is the most beautiful monastery in Bir. In Bir, this was my most-visited destination – I would visit the monastery often just to sit on the lawns in front of the monastery and observe the monks performing their rituals, the kids playing in the lawns and the paragliders flying over the monastery.
One of the most revered experience of travelling to any serene mountain destination is staying at an exquisite, lively, and yet an amiable place. The Hosteller, Bir, is one such staying option that is constantly abuzz with plenty backpackers all over the world, at a rather economical price; and trust me, travel is what you make it with your companions! The Hosteller is conveniently located near the Bir bus stand, right besides the Nyingyang Monastery, and is a walking distance from most of Bir’s highlights – dying to take a bite of some of the finest food in Bir? Head towards the Garden Cafe, just five minutes away; or would you rather lie down in the meadows, and watch the paragliders fly over your head, while the cool breeze brushes your hair? Head down to the Landing Site, just a kilometre away from The Hosteller. This backpacking hostel is a perfect concoction of everything – the in-house cafe serves rather sumptuous cuisines, and just to make your life a tad bit simpler, they provide pick-up and drop service to the paragliding take-off site in Billing.
Bir is among the few destinations, which is ideal for staying for a couple days, weeks, or even months! And yet, and the end of your stay, after experiencing the several charms of this hamlet, I can guarantee there would still be some hidden trails lurking in the distance, and some veiled monasteries you would miss out on; and yet, the multitude of memories you would have made during your stay will bring a smile to your face till kingdom come! There are ample accommodation options in Bir for short and long term stays. Backpacking hostels like The Hosteller provide stay options which are apt for every possible plan you can make – big and small!
Bir is indeed the heaven on Earth. My limited stay in this blissful place in the Himachal meant that I could not explore all monasteries, hikes and biking trails. It has been three years since I visited Bir-Billing, however, I can still feel the ardor in my veins when was hiking my way to Raj Gundha, I can still feel the nip in the air when I was flying a thousand feet from Billing to Bir, I can still remember the vibe of insouciance, sitting on the lawn of the Chokling Gompa monastery!
They say travel opens up new possibilities, new windows and new perspectives. Who would know this better than the explorer who has wandered in Bir-Billing?!