Free As A Bird: Paragliding in the PRD
On a warm spring day, the HERE! team drove into the mountains to see what it was like to fly…
Human fantasies are almost boundless, but of those that are printable on the page, perhaps the most deep-seated of our desires is the urge to fly. And it was with this in mind that the HERE! team set out to Heyuan early March to try our hand at flying, more specifically paragliding.
In its modern form paragliding has existed since the 1980s, but parasailing which involves being towed by a boat or land vehicle existed for 20 years previously; in fact, for as long as parachutes have existed, people have tried to modify and guide them so as to cause flight. In 1954, flight enthusiast, Walter Neumark wrote that soon a man with the right equipment would be “able to launch himself by running over the edge of a cliff or down a slope…whether rock-climbing in Skye or ski-ing in the alps.” And this is exactly what we did in Heyuan, albeit minus the rock climbing and ski-ing. The uninitiated, thank goodness, are not allowed to fly solo without considerable training beforehand, so we went up by way of a tandem fight whereby you are attached to an experienced paraglider by way of a harness.
Our flights barely lasted ten minutes, but under the right conditions paragliders can sail through the air for hours at a time, travelling hundreds of kilometers, at altitudes of several thousand meters. Flying with nothing to power you but warm updrafts of air and what, more-or-less amounts to little more than a reconstructed parachute sounds terrifying and, frankly, dangerous. But aside from the fright of lift-off and the mild terror induced by landing, it is remarkable how, once in the air, safe it actually feels.
He was a relaxing presence and even sang a Chinese rendition of happy birthday to the HERE! editor as they calmly sailed through the sky at some 300 meters altitude.
Tandem or not, running of a cliff with nothing to save you other than what ostensibly looks like nothing more than a giant sheet of plastic is enough to give anyone the fear, though this was lessened when we were told that our tandem instructor, a broad shouldered man called Li Tiemin, was probably the most experienced paraglider in China, with 25 years’ experience under his belt, and the former coach of the China Paragliding Team to boot. He was a relaxing presence and even sang a Chinese rendition of Happy Birthday to the HERE! editor as they calmly sailed through the sky at some 300 meters altitude. Li is paragliding obsessed and his wife, daughter, and son in-law are all either competitive paragliders or coaches. “I once did a single flight for more than 8 hours, in 1998 in Austria in a cross country competition. There was no bathroom, and I had chocolate to eat during the flight” he says. Asked if he will ever quit paragliding, he is blunt, “No. This is my mission. ”Of course, he often goes on tandem flights with his wife and I can’t help asking who does the driving when they are in the air together, “Of course me,” he says.
Li’s attached to a harness behind me, and he tells me to run straight off a cliff, perhaps fifty paces in front of me, disregarding the 300-meter drop to the ground. The owner of the paragliding club, Daicy Xiang tries to put me at ease, “Don’t worry, just keep running and everything will be ok. No need to look down.” This is not nearly as reassuring as it should be, and I’m reimagining something my mother used to say to me when I was a kid, “If Li Tiemin told you to run off a cliff would you do it?” The answer was always a sheepish no; I guess I lied, because that is what I am going to do. The pressure is unbearable, and I start running with Li attached behind me, and Daicy’s words seem to keep ringing in my ears, “Keep running and everything will be ok.” And I do. I run. For a split second I close my eyes as I get to the edge. Before I know it I momentarily become a cartoon Road Runner: I’m way over the cliff, and my legs won’t stop running, but I’m not falling … I’m flying.
It probably doesn’t have to be said, but it’s mind blowing. Other than the very slightly uncomfortable feeling of a harness digging into my crotch, I feel almost weightless. Below me there is a giant (or is tiny?) lake, and I can see mountains and thousands of trees going on for miles and miles. At times we seem to not move at all, other times we rise slightly then swoop down and turn suddenly. Li even casually takes a couple of selfies of us mid-flight. I can’t quite believe what is happening. Looking down, my sense of distance is confused, at some moments the ground looks miles away, a change of angle and it looks just 20 meters away and I’m slightly panicked. I guess this is how Alice felt when she ate the mushroom.
Landing is strange too, I’m expecting us to hit the ground like a badass paratrooper and do some kind of commando roll. Instead it is more like mary poppins holding her umbrella, and I’m plopped gently on the ground barely above walking pace.
Landing is strange too, I’m expecting us to hit the ground like a badass paratrooper and do some kind of commando roll. Instead it is more like Mary Poppins holding her umbrella, as I’m plopped gently on the ground barely above walking pace. Adrenalin is shooting around my body, and our group instantly sets to discussing if we should go on a course and learn to fly for ourselves. I really want to.
After the flight, I sit down with Daicy. I imagine it is not too common for people to wake up in the morning and start a paragliding school, and I’m eager to learn how it came about. “I had a shoe factory, but my husband was in paragliding production for a long time, so it made sense. Doing this allowed me to spend more time with my husband, before we were in different cities for ten years, only seeing each other on the weekends,” she says. “And I get to fly all the time now, so it is much better.”
Daicy’s school has been open about two years and is really beginning to take off (sorry). Though, paragliding has been around for twenty years in China, it has only started growing recently as people have become richer. In China there are currently only about 6,000 registered paragliders, which is nothing when compared to a country such as France, which has over 25,000. Nevertheless, the market is huge.
To become a paragliding pilot, you need to go on a series of courses. The A course will get you started and takes about five days, including a full day studying weather, airflows, understanding how the glide works; three days on the ground learning the skills and techniques to land, take off and steer, and learn about potential dangers; and at least one day is taken on a small hill practicing taking off and landing, which you will attempt about at least 30 times; only if the instructor feels you are ready will he let you take a flight from a much higher altitude. The A license costs 8,000 RMB, but it is the B course where things get serious: this takes at least six months and usually sees you take solo flights at least fifty times. This also costs 8,000 RMB, but most people bundle the A and B courses, which together are discounted to a cost of 12,600 RMB.
The real costs come with the equipment. The entire kit, which includes a paraglider, a harness, and an emergency parachute (as required by law) costs from 30,000 RMB, making it far from the cheapest hobby. “After people have taken a tandem flight or two, people don’t care about the cost, they just want to learn to fly,” says Daicy. “And the flying itself is such a wonderful feeling. Sometime birds fly alongside you. I remember flying right beside an eagle, just a few meters away. He was looking at me. He thought I was just a big bird. It was amazing.”
Fly Paragliding Club
Yuanzhong, Puqian Town, Yuancheng District, Heyuan