“Run as fast as you can. Go straight. Run fast.”
Those were the only directions I got as I prepared mentally for my first paragliding ride. Was that really all there was to it?
My stomach knotted and my heart began to pound as my instructor readied our gigantic nylon parachute. I clenched my jaw and snuck a glance over the edge of a cliff towards the sheet of sprawling farmland below. I waited for more instructions – and perhaps a little encouragement – but the words never came.
“You ready?” he said.
I glanced back at him, gulped, and nodded my head. Now or never. Clipped into the same parachute, we ran towards the edge of the cliff as fast as my wobbly legs would allow. The chute rose behind us, we lifted into the air, just as the ground disappeared beneath our feet.
And, just like that, we were flying.
Just a couple of days prior, I had been lying in bed and staring into my computer screen in my Chengdu apartment. SEO, social media, web design, photo optimization, support forums – I was tangled up in the early stages of getting my blog off the ground. I had no idea that in just 36 hours I’d be running off a cliff with a stranger strapped to my back.
But then I got the phone call. It was Keri, my girlfriend, and she had an intriguing question.
“Hey. Do you want to go paragliding on Saturday morning? It’s free.”
“Uh, yeah?” I replied, “How… What… Who invited us?”
“Another teacher. I can’t go with you, though. I have to get off the phone now, I’ll tell them you’re in.” The phone went silent.
Well, that was fast. I guess I was going paragliding on Saturday.
Escaping City Life
Saturday came, and my conversation with Keri replayed in my head as I gazed groggily out the window of a minivan that was heading farther and farther away from Chengdu. The thick grey smog from the city was fading, and muted blue skies began to emerge. Farmland appeared on the horizon, and chilly, clean air rushed in through the windows. It felt so good to get out of the city.
The minivan belonged to Panda Experience, and thanks to my quick-thinking girlfriend, I was one of two lucky passengers from Chengdu headed for a free paragliding ride. The whole idea seemed a bit crazy, but I went with it anyway. That’s what you do in China. You go with it.
The Bird’s-Eye View
After a couple of hours in the van, our driver stopped at the end of a bumpy dirt road on a hillside above a rural Sichuan farming town. I paced nervously around the flat hilltop, snapping photos and soaking in the panoramic vista of a hazy mountain range on the distant horizon.
As the instructors began to unload the minivan of all the paragliding gear, it hit me: I was about to run off the side of a f*%#ing cliff.
I hope I survive this wild impulse. That would be ideal.
I stood silently with my arms stretched wide as the instructor dressed me head to toe in protective gear. He buckled my helmet, clipped my harness onto the parachute, handed me a selfie-stick/GoPro combination, and hit the record button. I couldn’t back out now; there would be video evidence.
Paragliding to a Rural Chinese Village
Once we made our mad dash off the cliff and the parachute hoisted us safely into the air, hope dawned on me — maybe today wasn’t the day I was supposed to die. Perhaps I’d make it back to Chengdu in one piece after all. My heartbeat slowed and a broad smile spread across my face. I was soaring.
We hovered over wide-open fields of rice paddies, sprouting crops, and tangerine trees. Farmers tending to their fields dotted the landscape below. Green farmland stretched out in every direction as we glided towards the small village in the distance.
It was hard to believe that just hours before, I’d been deep in the heart of Chengdu, a bustling megalopolis with twice the population of New York City.
After eight minutes of blissful floating, the farmland below drew rapidly closer. We pointed ourselves towards an open field and stuck out our legs as we readied for landing. When my shoes hit the ground, I lost control of my footing, fell sideways, and we skidded to a bumpy halt. We got up and dusted ourselves off. I was giggling like a child, in relief and joy.
After our crash landing, the instructor plucked a few fresh tangerines off a nearby tree. We ate them and watched the other paragliders make a far smoother landing than our own. After packing our gear, we walked into the tiny village to await our ride back to Chengdu.
Greeted by the Locals
A man in a bloody white shirt pushed a rusty wheelbarrow loaded with a freshly slaughtered pig down an alley. Chickens pecked at our feet as their chicks chirped closely behind. Curious villagers wandered down the dusty dirt road to investigate the four strangers who’d just flown into town.
Immediately, we were the center of attention. Little children ran up to us, giggling and shouting. We posed for photos, grinning and throwing out the ‘peace’ sign for the friendly townspeople. A middle-aged man with missing teeth walked up and offered me a cigarette. The whole day felt surreal.
But soon the minivan pulled around a corner, signaling an end to our short-lived immersion into the village. I high-fived the children and waved goodbye to the locals as we loaded everything into the car and pulled away. It didn’t take long for me to nod off to sleep in the backseat, exhausted from the thrill of soaring through the sunny Sichuan skies.
Paragliding Chengdu With Panda Experience
Panda Experience, and adventure company based in Chengdu, was kind enough to take me paragliding for free. Everyone involved in the process was extremely professional and friendly. Good times, good people. Next time you’re in Chengdu, look them up.
Plan Your Next Trip: Travel Tips & Resources
Book Your Flight
Use Booking.com — my personal favorite booking website– to reserve hotels and hostels in Chengdu. Search Hostelworld to browse a gigantic database of affordable hostel options. Book with Airbnb to rent apartments, houses, or rooms from locals.
Rent a Car
Protect Your Trip
Travel is unpredictable. Use World Nomads to insure your trip against illness, theft, injury, and cancellation. They’re widely trusted among backpackers and travelers worldwide.
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Have any questions about my experience paragliding with Panda Experience? Are there any other heart-racing activities around Chengdu that you recommend? Let me know by leaving some feedback in the comments below!