THE BALLOON LANDED WITH A THUD in the middle of nowhere. It first hit the floor, our balloon tips over, rested briefly on the ground, dragged a little and finally stopped. A storm of dust enveloped my face, hair and camera. I tried to find my balance as I was lying on the wooden basket on ground, my back facing the ground, my legs up in the air. Kind of 90 degrees! My co travelers, who were the next door neighbors a while ago, were now occupying the first floor of the ‘apartment’. A group of villagers, young, old, kids came rushing to us as the balloon stopped and inflated, like a giant monster destroyed by a superhero. Windy landings are common if the weather is not favourable. It is safe even if the basket tips over. All you need to do is follow the instructions of pilot diligently.
Richard (from Sri Lanka, in pic below), our pilot said, “I have piloted Hot Air balloon in one of the most exotic locations in the world but I enjoy flying in India the most. The reason is nothing else but the sheer warmth of people and the excitement it builds at the landing place. Every single time!”
I couldn’t agree more with him. The moment we took off from the P.A.C ground in Agra, we were constantly accompanied by a strange cacophony. Nothing like I have heard before. As I looked down from the balloon, I saw small dots waving at us, screaming with joy and abandon. Each one of them was looking up; the kids playing on rooftop of their houses, the ‘ghoonghat’ (veil) clad women on the streets, the shopkeepers and vendors. It was the first balloon ride for all the 6 journalists and bloggers, including me. While we were ecstatic to participate in our first ride ever, the people below were excited just to see us fly.
As we floated lyrically in the air, our happiness found an extension in their happiness. The constant bird’s eye view of the iconic Taj Mahal, one of the 7 wonders of the world made it memorable; once-in-a-lifetime thing. The early morning ride made it amusing for me to see people start their daily routine viz. women drying clothes, school kids readying for school, shopkeepers opening their shops, a group of unruly monkeys jumping across rooftop boundaries of adjoining homes.
We covered a distance of 10 kilometres in 17 minutes. Another balloon had landed near our landing spot. It was a scandalous site. The balloon stood tall, its fabric poetically waving in the air. Before it collapsed, it attracted the attention of villagers, young and old alike. Young kids ran from all directions, initiating little dust storms. Senior citizens from the villages showed restraint and yet found it hard to hide their excitement! They looked at the balloon in awe, agape mouthed, cracking jokes and sharing good cheer. I sensed that they would perhaps discuss it all day, maybe even all week. This is how a sleepy village comes to life in India.
It was one of the most memorable mornings of my life. I value it even more because I was unable to fly the previous morning. Owing to bad weather (strong winds), I was supposed to be in one of the 5 balloon rides which were cancelled out of 15. Our lady pilot from Malaysia apologized for cancelling the ride. “I am sorry, I shouldn’t be flying today. The winds are too strong. It is my first time in India and I can’t take the risk. You can still hop in the balloon and take selfies though.” Me and my co traveler, were disappointed but understood that it’s better not to fly than to risk it all. Never mind, the sumptuous breakfast (delicious South Indian) at The Grand Imperial was still waiting for us.
I was supposed to leave Agra the same day but I extended my trip for one more day, to give it a shot the next day! I decided to relax the entire day at my comfortable room in Samovar hotel Agra, sometimes sleeping, sometimes gazing at the Taj Mahal from my room. I just happened to get lucky the next day despite the warnings of strong winds again!
My extended stay was a blessing in disguise as I got an opportunity to be witness to the special Night Glow Show of hot air balloons dancing to the tunes of western music. In this event, all the 15 balloons were tethered to the ground and visitors were given a taste of what the real ride would be like. The constant firing gave it a dramatic look especially to those balloons shaped like a cartoon character, Smurf being the most popular one.
Kudos to the Uttar Pradesh government for coming up with such initiative. Despite such diverse landscapes and important sites, a Hot Air Balloon scene is conspicuously missing in India. Thanks to companies like E factor and Sky waltz, one can have such experiences in places like Jaipur, Agra etc. Samit Garg, the CEO of E factor told us, “I had a memorable Hot Air Balloon experience in Germany. I wondered why it is not happening in India. So, I decided to introduce it in some destinations in India with much success. Taj Hot Air Balloon festival is a seasonal event and we hope to make it a permanent activity, increasing the present count of 15 to 100 in coming years. We have already grown from 3 days event last year to a six day event this year.”
Tushar, the energetic marketing personnel from E factor told us, “It is a safe activity. Indians now get a chance to explore the world class aviation and adventure sport right in their backyard. It’s really rare that anything goes wrong up in the air. In our history, we have not had any such issues. The visibility is much better this time. Last year, due to smog the view of Taj Mahal from top was cloudy.” E-factor Adventure Tourism Pvt. Ltd. runs commercial hot air ballooning flights in India. It promotes and hosts Hot Air Ballooning events in other destinations too.
Accomplished pilots from India and countries like Malaysia (female pilot), Sri Lanka (Richard, our pilot), USA, UK, UAE, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Germany, Netherland, Switzerland, Belgium helped make the dream come true for many.
CHECK OUT THE VIDEO OF THE FESTIVAL. CLICK HERE
YOU CAN DO IT TOO:
If you are lucky, you might end up winning a lucky draw and do the ride for free. Those interested may submit a form to the tourism office. A lucky draw will be held each evening based upon which winners will be finalized. There is a fixed quota for domestic and international tourists.
When to go: The second edition of Annual Taj Balloon Festival is a 6 day event commencing from 25th November and ends at 30th November. If you missed this year, do give it a try next year!
How to reach: make a 3 to 4 hour long road trip/train ride from Delhi. Agra has an airport. Feel free to book it via Sky Scanner.
One can fly to Delhi and make a trip to Agra or fly to Agra Airport.
When: The 2nd edition is from 25th Novmber to 30th November. In case you miss this event, keep an eye for the dates on UP Tourism website for next year, mostly in November.
Where to Stay: Samovar Hotel is comfortable, luxurious and in central location. The meals (I sampled Veg Burger and Stuffed Parathas) are good. There were some issues in TV which was sorted immediately by the maintenance person. Best part: You get view of Taj Mahal all day from your (soul) window. I often lazed around eating and gazing at the Taj from the comfort of the room. Much like how Shah Jahan must have longingly stared at Taj Mahal when he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Red Fort. If only Shah Jahan had an option to view Taj from top. I stayed in room number 412.
- In case your ride is cancelled, please do not argue with the organizers and nag them for a ride. Safety is most important and the weather condition is in nobody’s hand!
- If you have taken a ride already, don’t ask for another one. There are people waiting for same since the number of people who can ride is limited. This year it was just 400 people.
- Strictly follow the instructions of your pilot. If he says keep the camera in your bag and sit on the floor of basket, then do it. It is for your own safety.
- Don’t bend from the basket when it is up in the air.
- Don’t walk over the deflated balloon. Some of them cost more than Rs. 90 lakhs.
- Don’t demand a flight over the Taj. No flights are allowed till a certain distance from Taj.
The view from my #SoulWindow makes me speechless!
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