Valley of adventure

S Kaur
Fly, fish, amble, climb, or bike on trails canopied by oaks, pines and deodars - Dharamsala, in the Kangra Valley, has a lot going on alongside the cricket

Participants at the AAI Paragliding World Cup, in Bir © Getty Images

For a seasoned cricket fan, Dharamsala's spectacular stadium and the town's laid-back attitude towards it might seem incongruous. The residents - Himachalis, Tibetans, and an assortment of "creative types" who have migrated here from Indian cities - might even seem nonchalant on encountering cricketing celebrities who would cause a stampede elsewhere. This doesn't imply a lack of interest in sports; it's just that in this Himalayan corner, a lot of the action also takes place outside the stadium.

The terrain defines the pace of life. Vehicles move slower than pedestrians, weekends blend into weekdays without fuss, and there is always time for a game of snooker in the evening with friends. Monks in maroon can be seen huddled around carrom tables on McLeod Ganj's main street, flanked by shops and restaurants. Games of carrom are played in the narrow pathways that branch off into a dense web of guesthouses and homes graced with the ubiquitous Buddhist prayer flags. The local community of sports enthusiasts has granted football its unanimous approval as their passion of choice, and a number of venues rise to the occasion with live screenings during the World Cup. Dharamsala has hosted football tournaments such as the Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup in the past, and has its own Tibetan national teams to cheer for.

The terrain, to a certain extent, also defines the pace of sport here. Dharamsala does not offer a gradual ascent like other popular Himalayan towns such as Manali or Shimla; it goes straight from scorching plains to the fringe of the Dhauladhars. You could be sauntering through an alpine village in the morning and navigating a glacial moraine by nightfall. Those looking to participate in a sport alongside all the cricket excitement, take your pick from these mountain-special pursuits.

About 67km away from Dharamsala is a smaller Tibetan hamlet called Bir. Somewhat to its surprise, an international hang-gliding rally held here back in 1984 placed it on the sporting map as one of the highest natural paragliding spots in the world. By the '90s the locals had taken to the idea, with many becoming trained pilots, and by 2015 the place was considered important enough to host the Paragliding World Cup.

Bir is a clear landing spot that makes it ideal for aerial sports. The other part of the story is Billing, the take-off point, 14km away, that offers a smooth ridge lift and great thermals. Come flying season - March to April, and again from October to December - the sky between these two is busy. Under good weather conditions an experienced pilot can glide from Billing all the way to Manali. While the year-end is better suited if you're looking to take up a proper course in paragliding, early spring is great for tandem rides. A 20-minute joyride will set you back by Rs 2000-2500, and there are plenty of organisers to choose from.

Mountain biking
Cycling and marathon-running have gained substantial followings across Indian cities in recent years, but mix the two activities and set them in a Himalayan landscape and what you get is an Iron Man-level endurance challenge. The Hell Race combines mountain biking and running in exactly such an event in Himachal. The Bir-Billing Half Marathon on April 16 is a 21-km run that anyone with basic fitness levels and a liking for grassy knolls can participate in. For biking enthusiasts, there is the MTB Challenge Dharamsala on April 29 and 30, which is far more demanding, with a distance of 72kms to be covered in eight hours. Follow them here. And if this sounds too adventurous, they also organise mountain biking tours in the neighbouring areas on request, complete with gear.

A woman walks up a path from Dharamsala towards McLeod Ganj © Getty Images

Trekking and climbing
You can begin with walking. Do it by yourself and it will still bring you eye-to-eye with the snowline. The simplest stroll goes uphill from Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj, past the Bhagsu waterfall, the vipassana centre of Dharamkot, and on through a rhododendron forest towards what is undoubtedly the most popular day-trek destination in the region - Triund, a lofty plateau of a peak, home to a beautiful old oak tree. You can camp here or, still without much exertion, take up any of the numerous paths beyond that lead into denser forests, to lakes like Kareri and valleys such as Chamba and Ravi.

Higher up are passes and glaciers that reward the more perseverant trekkers. Along the way are also unmarked boulders and some excellent rock walls awaiting professional climbers. For both forms of climbing, you can try Enchanting Himalaya, which has been organising treks since 1998. ABVIMAS Manali has a Regional Mountaineering Centre in McLeod Ganj, where certain courses can be undertaken with prior registration.

Fishing and angling
Less challenging but equally satisfying are the pastimes involving the lakes and rivers of the region. Pong Dam (also known as Maharana Pratap Sagar), about 60km south of Dharamsala, is a man-made reservoir into which the waters of the Beas bring mahseer fish in abundance. It is an important food fish on a path of slow decline due to an onslaught of power projects that hamper its migration and breeding patterns. Yet the mahseer remains an angler's dream, and local associations regularly organise anglers' meets, as well as conservation initiatives.

The famous trout - introduced by the British and still turning up regularly on grilled platters in tourist ghettos and on locals' picnic menus alike - can be found in the waters of the Uhl stream in Barot, a four-hour drive from Dharamsala. Trout season begins in March and closes along with mahseer season on June 1. Carry your own equipment and remember to obtain an angling licence from the nearest Fisheries Department office.