The most important part about riding a hot-air balloon is not the balloon," said veteran pilot Chris Dewhirst, as he checked his equipment on the eve of the first Taj Balloon Festival held in Agra last weekend. "It's the wind," he explained, half-philosophically. "It doesn't have a steering wheel like in a car, oars like in a boat and engine like in a plane... You change the altitude depending completely on the wind and use your hands to make the landing. In a sense, it's a pure experience—you give yourself up to the natural elements, and because you can't control much, like go faster or slower, you actually ride the present moment."
A dozen countries participated in the three-day hot-air balloon festival held around the world famous monument, as an initiative to boost tourism in Uttar Pradesh. Australia, which Dewhirst represented, the US, France, Brazil, Germany, Spain and Italy were among the dozen who came together through a private initiative in collaboration with the state's tourism ministry. "The idea was to do something different around the Taj monument," said Avinash Mishra, deputy director, UP Tourism. "Luckily, inter-department issues got resolved and permissions came through from the defence ministry in July. It's a popular sport in Mexico. We hope to make this an annual event here."
It was difficult to get permission since Agra is controlled by the Air Force, and the Archaeological Survey of India has a big list of don'ts, said Samit Garg, who organised the festival. “It's a big tourist attraction in Cappadocia in central Turkey, bringing in hundreds of people.” There are about 3,000 balloonists across the world.
How is the experience in India different from others? “People here are friendly and get excited when they see a balloon landing. Some even offer you a drink and food if you land in their village!" said Steve Trieber, the US pilot who holds a world record for flying across the United States and has flown in India earlier. "In the US, people are like, get off my property!"
On the first evening of the festival, 14 gigantic balloons came to life at the PAC ground in the city, including a buzzy monster balloon from Missouri and a bee-shaped one from Brazil. Each country was assigned a numbered balloon, with half a dozen assistants [some in jeans and T-shirts, some Rajasthani villagers in dhotis]. They gave a hand as the balloons were given a shock of cool air and then a fiery blast of fuel made of propane and nitrogen, and held the ropes tight during the short tethered rides, while songs of the band Indian Ocean played. "The cool air opens up the balloon first and the hot blast elevates it," explained a sombre-looking young French pilot. An Indian onlooker explained that in other countries, usually just the pilot and co-pilot would set it all up within 15 to 20 minutes. However, the morning of the hour-long 8km flight, across the Hathi Ghat near Taj Mahal to Baroli Ahir, came as a bit of a disappointment as heavy smog enveloped the city.
What's the best part about the experience? "Walking away from a successful landing!" said Dewhirst, the first balloonist to fly over Mount Everest in 1991. What happens if the wind suddenly changes direction or intensity during a flight? "Well then, you just have to go with the flow,” he said, and added with a smile, “Much like life.