Soaring with Himalayan Vultures above the Tagong grasslands

The Tagong Nunnery

Eyes ablaze in Kangding City after returning from my first paraglide exploration in the hills outside of town, I tried to describe to my girl Caroline what I had found.  The proprietor of our sanctuary at the Zhilam Hostel suggested the nearby town of Tagong as another area worthy of investigation, so we decided to head up and check it out.

Again blasting Tibetan pop music in a minibus hurtling over the pass the next morning, Caroline was quick to learn the words to the chorus and the accompanying dance.  Together with the driver they performed in unison as we screeched around corners towards the desolate emptiness of the mountains.  We did a mini-bus transfer in Xinduqiau, and spent a bit of time haggling out another ride onwards to our destination.  Arriving in the village of Tagong, we found a room in a magnificent old Tibetan house where we were welcomed in with tea and fresh apples.  Dirty and disheveled as the place was, it was overpowered by the vibrant murals on the walls, the splendid form of its ancient structure, and a deep homely atmosphere.

Posing with my poles along the hike

I dropped my bag in the room, grabbed my wing and Z-poles, and headed out in search of flight.  Based on the wind direction and flow, I chose the prominent flag-covered hill at the head of town.  In a race against the remaining light of day, I pounded out the steep hike in the high thin air.  On the summit the wind was very strong but not quite overwhelming, so I quickly kitted up, clipped in, and layed out.  When I inflated my wing and pulled it overhead, I was immediately plucked in to the strong, hallow air.  Sliding backwards and quickly up, it took full acceleration to get penetration into the wind and away from the hillside.  Every moment produced more lift so that I found myself hopelessly climbing out while the light was equally quickly draining from the day.  I had a decent ‘over the back’ option where I could turn and run if the flow was too strong, but it would put me miles down a desolate unknown valley in the dark, so I hung on to my position and set up to dive.

It eventually took 4 rounds of aggressive spiral diving, separated by full-acceleration flight in to the headwind to gain clearance from the hill, before I finally dug down below the layer of strong lift.  I made my way out in to the fields in search of a landing, terrified of the various wires that I had identified in earlier light but that were now playing tricks of hide-and-seek in the dusk.  Using every ounce of mind-vision-control, I chose a clean spot to bring her down next to the river.

Diving to get down in a race against the light

Upon landing, several terrified teens that had been watching my struggle came rushing forth to attack the horrible orange beast that had plucked me off the ground and held me captive in the air.  I reassured them (in tones) that the beast was actually my friend, and demonstrated by pulling my glider back up to kite it in the wind.   They screamed in terror and grabbed at my risers to save me!  Again I reassured them in tones, directed them to stand back and watch at a distance, and pulled up my glider to kite – hopping, moon walking, and ground-winging – so that they were eventually convinced that the Orange Beast and I truly were in union.  In the last drops of light from the day, they came and hung on to the risers while I kited so that they could feel the texture of the wind through the canopy and into their hands.

Flying over the grasslands

The next morning the wind direction was similar but the flow was more mellow.  I climbed the hill again, and launched in a much more manageable wind than what I had experienced the night before.  After soaring for a while, I was joined on the ridge by an enormous Himalayan Vulture with a wingspan of 2 meters or more!  Soon thereafter, more of the same joined up so that I was soaring this small, prayer flag-covered hillside with 8 Himalayan Vultures.  I was completely blown away to be having this experience in a distant foreign land, and it is an image that will be burned in my mind for the rest of my days.  After briefly flying a tight pattern together investigating each other’s strange appearance and tendencies, the vultures made the crossing to a nearby hillside, and then disappeared into the hills beyond.

The vultures can be made out as tiny specks – slightly larger than the speck of my body under the wing, flying together above the top of the hill

I was later to learn of the significance of Himalayan Vultures within Tibetan Buddhist society.  They are considered to be extremely sacred, as they perform one of the only available means of body disposal after the spirit has departed for other realms.  In the high, frozen plateaus of Tibet, there is very little available wood with which to cremate bodies.  The ground is frozen for the majority of the year so burial has not historically been an option.  Sky Burial is therefore one of the most common options, wherein the bones are crushed and the body cut to small pieces by a ceremonial leader while a flock of vultures gathers overhead.  Chunks of flesh are then tossed in the air to be consumed by the vultures and carried in to the heavens or returned to the cycle of life.

Accordingly I received a very interesting reception after landing from this flight on the prominent decorated hill at the head of town where many of the villagers came out to watch.  The reception I received was a mix of admiration, adulation, fear, anger, and overall confusion.  Who was this strange orange vulture man?  But after a few awkward minutes we were sharing a big smile, touching the orange fabric of my canopy, and trying to wrap our collective mind around this new experience.

Local kids playing with my wing

Stupas with mount Yala in the background

The next day, we took the opportunity to explore the valleys surrounding Tagong on a small rented motorbike.  We fueled up at the ‘gas station’ – a lady on the corner with a basket of old plastic bottles full of petrol – and headed out.  Our explorations that day provided some of the best visual and spiritual stimulation of the trip.  We stumbled across a small nunnery community, which was surrounded by a prayer-flag-covered-hillside that dwarfed any we had yet seen.  With a mind only recently tuned in to wind currents through learning to fly, watching the invisible thermic breezes bubble up the slope through the prayer flags provided a brilliant illustration of the elusive movements of thermic wind.

Thermic bubbles rippling up the prayer-flag covered hill

The Buddhess, freshly brazed

Up the road was a nunnery temple that was in the process of re-construction.  Stepping over ladders and boards on our way inside, we found half-complete carvings of tremendous intricacy, craftsmen painting scriptures on the temple pillars, and a beautiful bronze Buddhess (that’s right, she had tits!) just recently brazed together.  Set against the backdrop of the sacred mount Yala, this temple secured our Tagong grassland experience as an absolute stand-out from nine months of profound travel experiences.