Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lesser Known Himalayan Destinations - Bir, Billing, Barot and Baijnath

A View of the Dhauladhar Range From Bir At Sunset

Mountain View
Mountain View from Bir.
The trip to Allahabad, Varanasi and Bodh Gaya, on the occasion of the Kumbh Mela; gave the  author a surfeit of religion. Returning to Delhi one got back into the daily grind of life, alas so essential for making a living!. With summer getting into its stride and Delhi sweltering in temperatures of 40-41 degrees centigrade, the siren call of the mountains reached a crescendo.

A day tacked on to a long weekend provided an ideal opportunity to get away. Gurmeet, having things to do and anyway not being a votary of unplanned travel, declined the opportunity to go 'drive -about'. 
Jai Singh and our Trusty Steed

So subscribing to the phrase, 'Just Do It', the author and a friend, along with our trusted 'Mahout' Jai Singh got on to our trusty wheeled steed and gave it it's head towards the Himalayas. 
Paragliding Bir.
A short and spirited debate as to where to go, was resolved in the favour of Bir and Billing in Himachal Pradesh, as the author had very fond memories of the world hang gliding championships held there in 1984, where he had been involved. A quick search on the internet evoked a fast response from Colonel J.P. Singh of Colonel's Resort and we were set, with stay and rooms confirmed.

Views from the Highway
The grand trunk road from Delhi leads one towards Himachal Pradesh, an early morning start ensured that we missed the worst of the traffic in Delhi, Panipat, Karnal and Ambala. A short pit stop at a famous Dhaba (Road Side Restaurant) in Murthal to have tea and early breakfast, ensured that we reached the mountains in good time. 
Road! What Road?

The Hill section starts from Bilaspur, unfortunately, this stretch of the so called national highway was being widened, and in the best traditions of road works in India, comprised of a series of deep pot holes irregularly connected by the odd bits of tarmac, with large, loose coconut sized rocks strewn about randomly to add variety. Apart from jolting us till our teeth rattled and backs gave way, our speed was reduced to a crawl at about 20 km/ hr. This state of affairs continued for almost 75 kms, till Mandi and delayed our arrival at Bir by at least 2 hours. Jai Singh was probably the least affected as he was in front and had the steering wheel to hang on to! The poor car, however, acquired a few rattles and squeaks. 
Bad Road, Nice Views.
The Resort at Bir

It needs be said, that this highway, when in good repair, is picturesque, with pine forests on both sides and constantly changing panoramas. We, however, were not in the best frame of mind to enjoy the views. All the travails of the journey were forgotten when we reached Bir and drove in to the Colonel's Resort, a lovely family run place set in nice gardens, mature orchards and tea plantations. 
Our Cottage.

A hot bath, a cup of tea and some bracing mountain air later, we were visibly relaxing and thinking about a sun downer or two or three. 

Bir and Billing

Known as the ‘Paragliding capital of India', the village of Bir in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, is sheltered by the mountains and surrounded by tea gardens. Bir is located at an altitude of about 1700 mts. ASL. It is the gateway to the meadow at Billing, perched at 2400 mtr ASL,14 kms away by a steep road; which serves as the take off point for hang glider and para-sailing pilots. 
Billing's other claim to fame is the distinction of hosting the very first Paragliding competition according to the rules of Federation Aeronautique International (FAI), in 1984. The author was a part of the team that made local arrangements for the event. 

Para-Sail Pilot Landing at Bir
Landing Ground at Bir

Bir and Billing are known internationally to aficionados of hang gliding and para-sailing for offering one of the best places in the world for these sports. The altitude, thermals and clear air, allied to lack of aircraft traffic, allow experts great latitude 
to practice their trade in pristine surroundings. It is no wonder that many international hang gliding competitions are held here, with the 2014 world championships scheduled for October next year.

The Dhauladhars from Billing
Bir and Billing, especially the latter, have spectacular views of the Dhauladar range which runs from Dalhousie in the North West of Himachal Pradesh, in a curving arc south-east to Mandi. 
The Dhauladhar's have an average altitude of 4000 meters, with the highest peak Hanuman Tibba at 5180 meters. The range rises abruptly from the plains with very few foothills and has the most easily accessible snow lines in the Himalayas. 

The Take Off Point Billing.
The meadow of Billing lies about midway between Dharamsala and Mandi and to the south west of Manali and Kullu. The range runs all the way to Dharamsala from Billing, separating the Kangra and Chamba valleys. There are high peaks to the north and Plains to the south of the meadow. If the weather, wind speed, direction and cloud base at 4000-5000m conditions are right, one can make a 'Cross Country' distance flight from Billing to Manali or Billing to Dharamsala. 
The 'Control Tower' at Billing!

The flying is generally 'ridge-hopping' i.e. getting a 'thermal' or rising wind lift from the ridges or cliff edges running down from the main spine of the range. 'Ridge lifts' are caused by wind hitting a hillside and 'Thermals', are columns of hot air, that are used by pilots to rise higher. Experts fly the Billing - Dharamsala route of about 80 Km utilising updrafts from 15 or so ridges. 
Aerial View-Ridges for Updrafts and Thermals

'Thermalling' is an essential skill for flying in Billing. Here, thermals are found regularly over a temple, which can be identified from the air by a red ribbon tied to a tree, halfway down the eastern spur running down to Bir. Pilots, partly in jest, refer to the deity in the temple as 'Thermal Devta', i.e. the God of Thermals. 

An Aerial View of Bir from the Para Glider.
The straight TTB (top to bottom) drop from Billing to the landing meadow at Chaugan in Bir is about 1 Km. This is the normal 25-35 minute tandem flight taken by most intrepid visitors. 
Scared! - The Author
The author, too, put his life in the pilot's hands. A couple of false starts, because one pulled up at the last moment due to sheer terror; believe me it requires a great 'Leap' of faith to jump off a precipitous meadow, into a sheer drop of a 1000 meters. Pun intended. 

An Aerial View of the Tibetan Monastery.
Tandem Paragliding.
Finally, one took a running jump and things improved from there on. We caught a nice thermal by following the soaring of some Himalayan eagles and came down in Bir after a 40 minute flight. 
After the initial apprehensions had receded, one got a few nice aerial photographs during the sortie.

Para-Sailors at Billing.
A word of caution, while paragliding is much safer than it used to be in its early days, it is still an extreme sport, therefore, accidents can happen. Please have adequate insurance with an 'extreme sport' rider included; otherwise your normal policy may exclude cover for this activity. 
After Landing Safely, the Pack-Up.

Those who do not want to indulge in such activities, rest easy. There is enough to do without risking life and limb. The approach to Billing, from Bir, is extremely pretty, passing through terraced fields initially; these give way to Oak forests and above 7000 ft the Rhododendrons come into their own. When we visited in May, the last of the blooms were visible on the trees. 

In March and April the Rhododendrons forests are a sea of red flowers, which are used by locals for making jams and squashes. The views of the mountains, along the way are also great.
Mules Grazing at Billing.

The meadow at Billing may not be the greatest in itself, as it is a series of hillocks with some level ground, covered by coarse grass, there are only a couple of huts and one tea shop, and the flyers share the meadow with grazing Angora Goats and Mules of the tribal Gaddis. 
The Mountains from Billing.

There is no tree cover except for a lone Rhododendron tree, so please wear a hat and cover your arms as the sun is very strong. Carrying your own water is advised. What Billing lacks in creature comforts, it makes up in views. The panoramas on a clear day are stunning to say the least. On three sides you see the majestic snow covered Himalayas and on the other the plains of northern India with Bir being clearly visible. 
 Harvesting by Hand.

Nearer home, in Bir one can undertake easier walks and short treks, depending on ones inclination. It is lovely to walk through the tea gardens and small hill villages where the smiling hill folk go about their daily life. As wheat is sown late at these altitudes, the crop was just being harvested. The fields being terraced and land holdings small, the reaping is done by hand as it has, over millennia. 

Tractor Driven Community Thresher
Tractors are used only to run threshers to separate wheat from chaff, both of which are then stored as food for humans and animals respectively. One tractor thresher serves many villages, as each holding only yields a few sacks of grain. 
Milking by Hand.
Many villagers eke out a living from milk of cattle and goats.
Carrying The Harvest To The Thresher.

Other interesting places in and around Bir are:-

Ahju Temple & Fort
The Devi temple and fort ruins are located on a long, flat-topped hill south of Bir, this spot offers great views of the surrounding area. The village of Ahju is an easy 45 minutes walk, with only the last stage being slightly steep. 

The Chokling Gompa.

The Tibetan Colony or Bir Colony, a Tibetan refugee settlement in the village of Chowgan. It is worth a visit as you can cover Tibetan monasteries, the Handicraft center, a Tibetan Children's Village school and the Tibetan Medical & Astrological Institute. 

The Chokling Gompa is the monastery of Neten Chokling Rinpoche, a reincarnate lama in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. It is known for fine and detailed sand mandalas that are made here.
Other monasteries worth a visit are Palyul Chökhorling Monastery, Bir Dirru Monastery and Drikung Dozin Theckcho Ling Monastery.

The Deer Park Institute.
The Deer Park Institute is an interesting place to visit. It is a center for the study of classical Indian Buddhist Wisdom traditions. It draws inspiration from the historic Deer Park, the ‘Mriga Dava’ in Sarnath, where the Buddha first shared a spirit of bias-free enquiry into the nature of the human mind, existence and suffering. The Institute conducts programs to engage the local community in ecology projects. The institute is open from Mon-Sat: 9am - 12pm & 2pm - 6pm.
Bird Watching.

Palampur, Dharamsala and the heritage town of Paragpur are within driving distance for those making a longer stay with Bir as their base camp. A recommended option as it serene and peaceful and one dare say less expensive than staying in the tourist cacophony of these popular hill stations.

If you do not want to exert yourself in any way, just lounge away in the nice gardens of the resort or the verandahs of whichever place you stay; reading a book, or watching and listening to the profusion of colourful birds twittering  away in the fruit trees. At Colonel's Resort, the resort dogs Frisky and Dash are a delight and the friendly White Mare Nayama has the run of the place. 

Wherever you stay, stretch out, relax, sip on an ice cold beer or a tall cold drink, as fancy strikes you and feel your stress drain away.


A small town, at an altitude of 1,830 mt,40 km by road 

The Reservoir Headwaters Barot.
Male Monal Pheasant.
from Joginder Nagar and just12 km by the haulage trolley, Barot is the base for a range of outdoor activities. A trout breeding centre, near the reservoir of the Joginder Nagar Hydel Power Project makes it a wonderful place for angling. You can buy fresh trout here.

Across the River Uhl is the Nargu Wildlife Sanctuary - home to the Ghoral (Mountain Goat), Himalayan Black Bear and a variety of Pheasants.

Forest Trek.
A trek route through thick forests links Barot to Kullu. There are rest houses at Thaltukhod and Silbadhwani in the Nargu Wildlife Sanctuary.
Kothi Kohar a market village about 12 kms from Barot, is a centre for education for the nearby tribes. The market is known for the sale of out of season exotic vegetables grown throughout the valley. 

On The Road To Barot.

The road to Barot, from Joginder Nagar is through thick Deodar forests with lovely vistas of streams and ice covered mountains. It is steep and rough in parts, but worth the drive. Unfortunately, Barot does not have any decent hotels but there are 3 government rest houses which can be booked for an overnight stay. However, some locals offer home stays at nominal prices, an option for the hardy.
Barot Vistas.

The dam and water reservoirs for Joginder Nagar power station in Barot are worth a visit. An electric trolley connects Joginder Nagar and Barot, but is currently not in use. It takes the visitor up a steep, rocky face of 2,500 meters-high mountain and drops sharply on the other side to Barot, where the reservoir is located. It shortens the journey to 12 kms as opposed to 40 kms by road. There are plans to augment this link to a cable car in order to promote tourism. As to when it will happen, your guess is as good as mine.

Baijnath Temple.
Baijnath Temple 
At about 15 kms from Bir on the main Pathankot highway stands Baijnath Temple, a revered shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. Inscriptions on the walls show that Baijnath Temple was built by two merchants namely Ahuka and Manyuka, in 1204 A.D. Two other long inscriptions state that prior to the building of the present temple, there existed a shrine to Lord Shiva at the same spot. 

Idol in Alcove
The structure of this temple is known as the 'Nagara' style of temple and has been influenced by the Orissan style of temple architecture. This is an uncommon style in Himachal Pradesh or any of the hill states as it is prone to collapsing during earthquakes which are common in the hills. The exterior of the temple has numerous alcoves with images of Gods and Goddesses from the Hindu pantheon. 
The temple was damaged in a earthquake and was repaired by king Sansar Chand in the early 19th century.

Sanctum Sanctorum.
The fortified temple has a large 'Mandap' (sanctum sanctorum) in the centre and two huge balconies on either side. The two entrances are in the north and the south of the complex. In front of the Mandapa, there is a four columned porch having a huge sculpture of Nandi, the bull used by a vehicle by Lord Shiva. There is a very nice view of snow covered peaks from the courtyard of this temple.
View from Baijnath Temple Courtyard.  
Lord Shiva is worshiped here as 'Vaidyanath', the Physician God, it is for this reason that the main sanctum is oriented towards the West, which is not customary for Indian Temples. The water used to wash the 'Lingam' (The Phallic Manifestation of Lord Shiva) is reputed to have medicinal properties. Legend has it that Ravana, the King of Lanka, worshipped Lord Shiva in this temple.
Offering Prayers.

This belief in curative power of the water here is the reason that, Baijnath Temple receives thousands of pilgrims every year. 
'Nagara' Baijnath.
Shivratri, the birthday of Lord Shiva is the major festival that is observed at this temple, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flock to worship Lord Shiva and carry away the holy medicinal waters.

We made a halt at the Baijnath Temple on our way back to Delhi, as my friend wanted to conduct a Pooja (special prayer). Prayers offered and blessings obtained we hit the road to Delhi.

Pathankot to Joginder Nagar Heritage Narrow Gauge Railway
A Gorge on The Kangra Railway.
We spent a very pleasant afternoon following the Pathankot - Jonginder Nagar, Kangra Railway along some of its length.

The Kangra Valley Railway, planned in May 1926 and commissioned in 1929, covers a distance of 164 km (101.9 mi) from Pathankot , Punjab to Jogindernagar in Himachal Pradesh, India. It is one of two mountain railways that run in Himachal Pradesh, the other being Kalka-Shimla Railway, which has been designated as world heritage site by UNESCO.

Baijnath Station.
Both of these railways currently run on the 2 feet 6 inch narrow gauge. The Kangra Valley Railway is on the tentative list of UNESCO world heritage sites. 

The highest point on this line is at Ahju station, near Bir, at an elevation of 1,210 meters (3,970 ft). The terminus at Joginder Nagar is at an elevation of 1,189 meters (3,901 ft). 
The railway has been aligned by an engineer who obviously had an eye for beauty. It is set out with picture postcard perfection. 

Gentle Turns, Lovely Vistas.
This unique line has just two tunnels, one of 250 feet and the other 1,000 feet in length. Instead of boring his way through the mountains, the railway engineer skillfully avoided running head first into the hillside. Instead of following dizzy curves, he cleverly chose to avoid awkward corners and straighten his turnings. This railway is all about bridges and views. 
Setting Out.
The traveler can gaze on the ever present panorama of snow-clad ranges and the gold green fields undisturbed, without being swung round every few minutes on a narrow arc. The stations are pretty and filled with flowering bushes.
Trains That Pass In The Day.
The scenery through which the train passes compensates for the extra distance covered, and time taken, as compared to getting there by road. The stretch of 30 Km from Mangwal to Kangra, for example, lies through country unsurpassed for its majestic grandeur with the Ban Ganga gorge and the deep Kangra chasm as the focal points. 
Approaching Palampur, the vista of a 15,000 -16,000 feet high chain of snowy peaks, barely ten miles away, is breathtaking. From here to Joginder Nagar, the line runs parallel to the Dhauladhar range and much nearer to eternal snows than any other railway in India. 

View From The Train, Near Baijnath.
Unfortunately, the railway does not make money and hence is neglected. A few years ago, a tourist train called the Kangra Queen was run on this route, but had to be withdrawn because of the lack of traffic. May be a new initiative with better awareness and advertising will help preserve this heritage line.

Stay Options: There are a limited number of stay options in Bir. 

The best place to stay, by far is the Colonel's Resort. It is ideal for a weekend getaway or a long stay. The rates are reasonable and there is a wide variety of rooms and tents to suit every budget.

Cottage - Colonel's Resort, Bir.
The Resort is no doubt good, but there are many such hotels, what sets this Resort apart from others, are the owners, Mrs. Prathiba and Col. JP Singh. In constant action, they adopt all visitors with genuine hospitality.
They go far and beyond mere 'Call of Duty'. Any wish expressed, is smilingly acceded to and all requests catered for. While Mrs. P. Singh supervises operations, Col. JP Singh is busy organizing, Paragliding, River-crossings, Horse Riding,Treks, Outings and any other action active activity that the guests desire. 

Col. J.P. and Mrs. P. Singh.

The couple are truly gracious hosts, and, completely won over the Author, who as a Tourism Professional fully understands how difficult it is to provide this level of smiling service. They are fully knowledgeable about the area and offer excellent advise on points of interest and suggested pass-times and activities.
Tea Gardens.

The staff taking their cue from the owners is always smiling and willing. That being said, it being difficult to get trained staff, there may sometimes be difficulties in them understanding the guests requirements, so a smile and some patience on the guests' part will go a long way.
Tea Factory.

The food in the resort is good, home-style cooking, the variety is very good. A lot of Organic Vegetables are grown in the Resort's own gardens and green houses. The Orthodox style Organic Tea from the Estate is very good, and you can buy it here.

This endorsement stems from the fact that the author, as a hospitality professional, feels that such places and people should be acknowledged. They welcome travelers but send back friends.
Rs. 1200 to 3600/Room. Ranging from tents to cottages. Tariffs normally include breakfast and dinner. Email id: colonelsresort@gmail.com, Web:www.colonelsresort.com ☎ +91 98055-34220

Monastery Entrance.

Other Hotels, Guesthouses Accommodation in the Bir-Billing Area

Bhawani Guest House: A quiet place in Upper Bir, with a ‘homely environment’. Has nine comfortable rooms with attached bathrooms. Serves Indian meals on advance order.
Rs 300-700 for double rooms. Email: bgh.bir@gmail.com ☎ + 91 (1894) 268025, 98574-60215, or 94180-15525

Chokling Guesthouse: Near Chokling Monastery. Sixteen rooms with attached bathrooms and solar-heated showers. Reasonably quiet setting facing the impressive Stupa of the monastery. Restaurant serves decent Tibetan food and veg sushi in a quieter setting than most eateries in the colony.
Rooms start at Rs 250. ☎ +91 88942-32589 or 88941-12325

Threshed Wheat For Home Use.
Dzongsar Guesthouse: An eight-room guesthouse near Deer Park Institute with somewhat cavernous rooms. Has solar-heated water for showers. No restaurant on premises, but Chokling (above) is nearby. 
Singles Rs 200, Doubles Rs 250. ☎ +91 (1894) 251-787

Emaho Guesthouse: Has a few rooms with attached bath.
☎ +91 (1894) 268-197 or 98162-12678

Palden Guesthouse: Electrically heated showers. Nice hostess and husband. Very clean. Fast food outlet with Wi-Fi facility. 

Rs 250 for double and Rs 200 for single bed room.

Harvesting Wheat.
Hotel Surya Classic: Modern budget hotel with 14 rooms with attached baths, and Wi-Fi internet.

Bir Resort Hotel: An older place with 12 rooms, hot showers and a restaurant.
Rooms for Rs 400. Web: www.birresorthotel.com; Email: birhotel@rediffmail.com ☎ +91 (1894) 268-367 or 98106-85753.
Cattle And Tea Gardens.
Sangrai Guesthouse: Nice, small, family-run place tucked off the main Colony Road amidst tea gardens and thus a bit quieter. 
☎ +91 (1894) 268.669 or 94184.49669

Tented Accommodation.
Dharmalaya Institute: Perched on a hillside with breathtaking views of Bir and the surrounding mountains and valley. Accommodation for volunteers and visitors currently in comfortable tents, with traditional adobe buildings now under construction. Serves good vegetarian, mostly organic food when there’s an organised programme running, and when there’s not, you can cook for yourself or with whoever else might be staying there please note the kitchen is vegan. 
Shared tent accommodation is on a donation basis, with private tents priced on a sliding scale. Web: dharmalaya.in.
Carrying The Harvest Home.
Ghornala Resort: Set in a verdant valley with mountain views, Ghornala Resort is run by a local family who are gracious hosts. There are presently three double rooms, all with attached baths and a common dining area. Please note: The Ghornala Resort has few rooms, so please enquire before you show up.

Sherab Ling Monastery’s Guest House: Another option, though quite a bit further than Ghornala Resort, and probably too far for most people to walk to Bir every day, is the very comfortable guest house at Sherab Ling Monastery. The facilities at the Sherab Ling guest house are some of the best in the greater Bir area. It’s usually easy enough to arrange a taxi between Sherab Ling and Bir/Ghornala if the beautiful (long) walk through the forest does not appeal to you.
For details, see the web page of the Sherab Ling Monastery.

Beautiful Mountain Vistas.
Home stays and long term rentals are available and many paragliding enthusiasts prefer these for extended stays. The Dharmalaya Institute has a list of such accommodation, which they are very good about sharing.

Our short break over, we set out on our journey back to Delhi. As advised by Colonel J.P. Singh, after the prayers at Baijnath, we took the route via Nagini, Hamirpur and Nangal; which though 65 kms longer, had good roads throughout and was faster than the potholed national highway via Mandi and Bilaspur.
The Long Road Home

Negotiating traffic along the grand trunk road we reached home in Delhi after a drive of about 12 hours, which included a 45 minute halt at Baijnath Temple and two additional pit stops en-route, for refreshments and food.

The memories of the mountains stay in one's subconscious mind for a long time, and, these would have to suffice until the next visit to Himalayan kingdoms afar, a story for another day......!

All Tales Of Hills And Dales,Of Valleys Green And Clear Streams.