Beijing paragliding instructor finds rich life beyond the clouds

Paragliding instructor gives his students a higher appreciation of their world, but warns that this growing sport is not without risks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:39am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:39am

To fly like a bird may be a dream for many. But it's routine for Zhao Meiyuan, founder of the Super Wing Paragliding Club in Beijing, the mainland's first officially registered paragliding school. The sport has blossomed across the country in recent years, Zhao said, as more people can afford the equipment or can at least try out the exciting flying experience. Although he had received many offers to open clubs in other cities, Zhao is cautious about accepting any of them. The 47-year-old Beijinger also said the extreme sport still had its risks, even for those like him with many years of experience.

How did you come to love paragliding?

I got to know the sport in 1996. One day on my way to the office, I saw people in the street playing with a radio-controlled paraglider. I asked what they were doing. The next day, I joined them, learning how to paraglide in the mountains outside Beijing. A week later, I took my first flight. To be honest, I had no special feelings about paragliding at that time. It was not until my first ascent - when I flew over the top of the mountain, broke through thick clouds, saw the crystal-clear sky and breathed the cool and fresh air - that I became hooked on the sport. It's at that moment that you realise how rich life can be.

You have paraglided in many places. Which impressed you most?

It's hard to say which one is the most beautiful. In Europe, the Swiss Alps are beautiful and also the cradle of the sport. In Australia, there are no really high mountains, but you can still feel you're really flying when you see huge farms spread out one after another below - it really makes you feel like an eagle. In Guangdong, it's a totally different experience, having green mountains on one side and blue sea on the other. They are different landscapes, but equally thrilling and heart-thumping.

How many hours do you fly and what's on your mind when you're in the sky?

In my early years, I flew more than 100 hours a year. I flew as long as seven hours at a time without landing. But, ironically, running the club in recent years has left me with less time for flying. When you're flying, most of your thoughts are concentrated on maintaining your height and climbing higher. You need to pay attention to airflow and air pressure. There's not much time to think of anything else.

Have there been changes among paraglider fans?

Yes, things have changed. In the 1990s, most paragliders were in their 40s. It was beyond most people's reach to pay US$2,000 to US$3,000 for a paraglider. Starting around 2005 and 2006, many white-collar workers took up the sport. They are not very rich but really love it. We now have 30 to 40 students who are young, energetic and fond of outdoor activities.

How has the sport developed in the mainland?

Paragliding has grown very fast in the past two years. Today there are about 4,000 registered paragliding members across the country, with 700 to 800 of them flying regularly. I've been asked to open clubs in quite a few places. At present, I'm considering starting a club in Zhuhai . But I really don't want to expand too fast. Paragliding is still a risky sport. There are accidents from time to time, and the death of my good friend who had more than 10 years' flying experience changed how I think about the sport. The longer you fly paragliders, the deeper you will understand them.

As a veteran, do you feel fully in control in the sky?

I'd say I can control about 70 per cent of my safety at most. There are always uncertainties even if you fly in the same location day after day. Airflow, temperature, cloud height and air pressure - all can be different. But that's also the charm of the sport.

What do you think is the most important skill?

Some instructors teach students a lot of techniques. I try to tell them how to prepare themselves psychologically for the sport.

What other destinations would you like to visit?

I want to visit the desert at Dunhuang , in the far west of Gansu province. Another place I've always wanted to visit is Chile. But I am too busy.

What interesting things have you seen when flying?

Many times I've flown with eagles or other birds. I've got used to them and they've got used to humans in paragliders. Once I saw several boars hiding in a haystack. Suddenly, they ran out. I just dived from the sky and chased them like an eagle. It was quite funny.

Will you teach your son how to paraglide?

He already tried when he was eight. Then I didn't let him go up again because it's a risky sport, after all. He is 20 years old this year. Recently he became obsessed with downhill cycling - riding a special mountain bike down steep, rocky mountain slopes or even cliffs at high speed. After seeing that, I asked him if he would reconsider taking up paragliding.