How a Shivering Dilliwala Learned to Love Winter in North India

If you know where to look, chilly weather can bring warm cheer.  
Winter in North India
After much R&D, the writer established that the best way to complement (and combat) winters in the mountains is with pots of hot ginger tea—or generous splashes of rum. Photo: Hari Mahidhar/Dinodia Photo Library

I had spent six years living in Mumbai, periodically scoffing at Mumbaikars who pulled on sweaters the moment the temperature dropped below 18°C. This isn’t winter, I’d claim with Dilliwala arrogance, recalling the sweet smell of the kadamb flower that wafts through the capital’s streets early in winter, the sight of the watchman huddled around his tiny bonfire late at night, the afternoon picnics, the evening barbecues, the warmth of a cup of coffee in my hand.

When I finally moved back to Delhi in 2011, I wasn’t prepared for karmic revenge. In the last week of October the weather was pleasant, but November snuck up on me with the full brunt of winter arriving, almost overnight. I chased sunbeams around my house, trying to stay in the warmth as much as possible. I was soon digging in old, forgotten trunks to salvage woollen clothing unused for six years, and drinking dozens of cups of piping-hot coffee, tea, and soup to defrost my bones. It was one of Delhi’s coldest winters in years. Darkness descended by 5 p.m., chilly winds always managed to find the gaps in the doors, and the windows fogged up when I cooked. Living in a corner of Gurgaon, I rarely left the house. This was not the winter I had craved.

When March reared its sunny head, my husband and I took a break from the city and headed to the hills. We plotted a journey through the back roads of Shimla district, stopping at small towns and smaller settlements. We saw greenhouses full of mushrooms in Solan, and the buds that had just begun to show on the apple trees of Rajgarh. The mountains seemed to be shrugging off the cloak of winter, and tiny rivulets carried melting snow and ice down the slopes. I soaked up the sun sitting on the back of our motorcycle as we rode through towns like Dibber, Sainj, and Kotkhai. Our destination was a tiny, three-lane town called Kharapathar that I’d randomly selected for its location in the orchard-draped Pabbar Valley, and because it had an HPTDC hotel.

But as we gained altitude, the warmth slowly slid away. The higher reaches were still firmly in the clutches of an extended winter. Tiny banks of snow began to appear by the side of the road. Cars struggled on the slushy ice. The biting chill made me hide behind my husband for protection on the motorcycle. As we rolled into Kharapathar, the sun seemed to completely give up and was little more than a distant, pale orange circle. The town itself was so tiny, its few shops still shuttered, that we might have missed it altogether if it wasn’t for the sight of the Giri Ganga Resort, whose staff was rather surprised to have visitors in this weather. The hotel hadn’t yet opened up as winter was still in the air, but a room was quickly prepared for us. The staff advised us to have a quick bath before the evening chill set in, and buckets were filled for the morning because the pipes were likely to freeze overnight.

I was shivering and not very happy. Sensing my distress, the friendly hotel manager set about making me comfortable. Placing a sofa in front of a large window, he brought a giant pot of ginger tea and some steaming pakoras. As the cold edged out of my body, I began to see the magic of a cold winter evening in the mountains. A stillness filled the valley before me as the fog lifted into the folds of the mountains, wrapping itself around the tops of the deodar trees. Dispersed lights twinkled in the distance, and when I leaned to look closely, my breath fogged up the glass, making them disappear altogether. A spicy rum toddy followed. Snuggling up, my husband and I sipped the warming liquid and watched the trees and the valley disappear in the moonlit fog. Winter was suddenly attractive.

The pipes didn’t freeze that night. And although the morning was frosty and crisp, the manager talked us into hiking up to the Giri Ganga temple. A little picnic lunch was packed and we set off on the trail. Pine needles covered the path, crunching softly under our feet. A troop of monkeys eyed us curiously. Halfway up, soft snow began appearing on the trail and soon it was completely covered with a white blanket. Dramatic icicles hung from exposed roots of trees and somewhere below, I could hear the rush of a noisy river. The temple complex was covered in snow, with nary a soul in sight. All around us it was silent and still, sacrosanct without the summer crowds. Bright red flags and old, grey stone cut a dramatic picture against the dazzling brilliance of the snow. We clambered up the hillside to the source of the Giri Ganga river, filling our bottle with the cold, sweet water.

On the way down, we slid and rolled, shrieking with delight as the snow got into our hair and jackets. Being outdoors and active in the icy weather was invigorating, especially since we knew we would return to mugs of delicious ginger tea. Over the next two days, in the unexpected sharpness of frosty mornings and the stillness of chilly evenings, I rediscovered my love for winter.

Appeared in the December 2013 issue as part of “In Praise of Winter”. 

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    Neha Dara is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.

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