Winter-scapes make you wish you were a poet or a painter gifted enough to capture their ephemeral beauty in words or on canvas. Indeed the cold season is the time when the world seems to hibernate, to return to the dawn of creation and emerge renewed and more beautiful in spring.
As we drove from Srinagar to Gulmarg, the Himalayas rose like terrestrial tsunamis - white, vertical, and plain awesome.
In contrast to the soft appealing beauty of Srinagar and its limpid Dal Lake, we were confronted en route by muscle-flexing banks of snow that reared on both sides of the narrow road like snow-peaked surf. We got out of our car to briefly caress the hard ice and the freshly fallen flakes -white and unblemished, and to inhale the crisp fresh air laced with a piney fragrance.
The days sped by in Gulmarg, the country's ultimate winter getaway, in a blur of sub-zero temperatures and rides on the gondola, the longest and highest ropeway in Asia, crammed with skiers in neon gear. We enrolled for some basic skiing lessons, stumbled, fell, and tried again even as around us, skiers from all over the world schussed down powder-packed slopes like graceful ballerinas on skis.
On our last morning, a wan sun painted the slopes outside our room with brush strokes of violet, pink and lavender. We decided to try our hand at snowboarding and building a snowman before heading back to Srinagar.
That is when we decided that we would return the following winter too.
Nainital in the winter months of December, January and February is like a born-again destinationâ€¦ white, unruffled, and at peace with itself. At the heart of the Lake District of Kumaon (Uttarakhand), Nainital in winter is alluring because noisy tourists in search of frenetic activities like boating, pony rides and strolling down the crowded Mall, have departed.
In winter, we had Nainital almost all to ourselves barring tourists who had come in search of fresh, lightly-chilled-like-wine air, in the day; and for the starry nights of winter when one may sit in front of a crackling fire in the lounge of one's hotel to keep the bone-chilling cold at bay.
We walked arm in arm around Naini Lake which threw up reflections of snow-dusted peaks; trekked up to Kilbury forest, swung up in a cable car up to Snow Point, where the snow-clad seismic hump of the Himalayas flaunted its slopes of sparkling snow. We went lake-hopping -Sattal, Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal - blue-green lakes that glimmered in a Chronicles of Narnia landscape.
Set against a fairy-tale forested backdrop beyond which rose the rugged snow-knuckled Himalayas, we enjoyed quiet picnics and explored desolate churches nestled in pine forestsâ€¦ Life's good, we exulted.
The drive to Thanedar, 80 km from Shimla, unfolded like a fairy tale - minus the witches and ogres. Stunning mountain vistas spread out round every bend, and were followed by a happy ending at our destination - the Banjara Orchard Retreat where the protagonists of a play or a story could easily live "happily ever after".
Our four-day stay in this peaceful, prosperous sliver of Himachal Pradesh, located at an altitude of 2,350 m, and enfolded in apple and cherry orchards, was ideal for a midlife reboot. We would sit on the balcony of our log cabin and gaze at snow-kissed deodar slopes unfurling in the distance and, beyond, at snow peaks etching the horizon like a child's scrawl.
It was a chilly December and snowfall was expected in January and February. We travelled to Kotgarh (12 km away), to the genesis of Himachal's apple story when Samuel Evan Stokes, the scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family, planted a few apple saplings that he had brought from the US in the early 20th century.
The Red and Golden Delicious variety of apples bore fruit and ensnared the taste buds of an entire nation. In Kotgarh, we stumbled on the quaint, atmospheric 19th century St Mary's church, and next morning, drove to Hatu Peak, where a beautiful slate-roofed temple with an exquisite wood-carved faĂ§ade beckoned.
Back at our resort, the interplay of looming mountains hemming a sleepy valley and a sky more vast than the ocean, took our breath away.
Mussoorie has to a certain extent remained inviolate, unfazed by the persistent attempts of the 21st century to get a toehold into its pristine environs. Cocooned within the amphitheatre of the Garhwal mountains, the Queen of the Hills yet exudes a colonial air.
Yes, there are some garishly designed hotels but time sits lightly on this Himalayan hill station. As we ambled around one winter, we caressed the snow-dusted wrought-iron railing that rims the Mall, gawked at the snow-draped bandstands, ornate look-out points, and at the elegant library with its trellised balconies. Vintage palaces and heritage hostelries beckoned us into their warm interiors.
And slender-spired Christ Church, with its restored stained glass windows and sad memorial plaques, was a beacon in the untrammelled white landscape.
In winter, the Queen of the Hills offers a bouquet of fun activities - camping, paragliding, trekking - for the intrepid, and walks along the quiet looped Camel Back Road for stunning views of the Himalayas.
But the icing on the cake is Musoorie's winter line which appears on the horizon from mid-October to January, post-sunset. A deep orange glow meets slashes of mauve and red caused by a refraction of sunlight at a particular angle and visible from mountain areas in the west.
What we enjoyed most was sitting on the terrace bar of our hotel in the evening, watching the play of light on the mountains, inhaling the crisp Himalayan air that succours the deodars and the wild flowers, and absorbing the time-stopped calm of Mussoorie's winter nights.
Despite the feverish metamorphosis of Shimla from the laid-back summer capital of the British Raj to a state capital in independent India, the Himachali hill station's ageless beauty still sparkles.
We were there one December, when the spirit of Christmas was just beginning to tinge the soft winter air. Studded with mansions of former maharajas, Gothic churches and grand public buildings, Shimla in winter has an undeniable frosty charm.
We walked down Mall Road, where stately Punjabi beauties and pink-cheeked Himachali lasses admired the snowy vistas around them. Children built snowmen and threw snowballs at each other while a red-robed monk with lowered eyes, turning a prayer wheel, slipped silently past. Ice skaters spun and twirled with the grace of light-footed ballerinas at an ice skating rink.
Bakeries showcased delectable breads and pastries; ice cream parlours and low-slung, slate-roofed homes jostled with shops that sold woollies, caps and mittens. The Town Hall with the recently restored Gaiety Theatre and the wood-panelled Shimla Amateur Dramatic Club were time capsules. (Come December 25, Mall Road becomes the focus of a heady Winter Carnival.)
Finally, we drove to Observatory Hill crowned by the Viceregal Lodge, now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, one of the most flamboyant edifices of the Empire.
Later, we retreated to our cosy hotel room to watch snowflakes flutter down like confetti and mantle the town in a downy layer of white.
We were so engrossed in the snow-draped mountains that punched at nomadic clouds hovering over the horizon that we might have missed the little hamlet of Chaukori in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. Thankfully, our driver pulled off the twisting mountain road and headed into the driveway of the state-run lodge.
Located at an altitude of 2,010 m, 173 km from Nainital, the little village did not have the buzz of a hill station, which was what made it so delightful. Mountain gazing was the prime activity here. Sure, we took a short trek to nowhere, ploughed through snow drifts, strolled past the ruins of a British tea planter's cottage, its roof sagging under its burden of snow, and listened to the trills of winter birds. But the towering Himalayan peaks were like a bratty kid demanding our undivided attention - they blushed when the sun bid them goodbye, and blushed even more when the first rays of daylight planted a kiss on their snowy cheeks.
Before moving on to the next destination on the Kumaon circuit, we stopped to explore the cave temple of Patel Bhuvaneshwar (36 km) where, holding onto a metal chain, we descended into the bowels of the earth. The many-chambered cavern at the bottom of the narrow passageway was strewn with images of a plethora of gods. We like to believe our guide that they were fashioned by nature.
No twitter of birds. Not even the whisper of the wind. The world around was enveloped in total silence. And then a thunderclap ripped apart the all-embracing void. Avalanche, our host whispered. A distant mountain roared in pain as a bank of snow tore off its face; a cry that rumbled on and on as its echo bounced around the surrounding mountains. Silence once more.
We were the only souls at Y Junction, the farthest point civilians are allowed on the Chinese/Tibetan border outside Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh. Our host released the brakes, and the tyres of our vehicle crunching little icicles on the road exploded like machine-gun fire.
We cruised past a cluster of frozen lakes and pulled up on the banks of one on the lower slopes. As we warmed ourselves with cups of tea made from snow melted over a wood fire, the water of the lake fielded the reflection of a flaming sunset. The outpost town of Tawang in the valley below started to sparkle in the gathering dusk.
Early next morning, we stopped by to offer a prayer of thanksgiving at Tawang Monastery (the largest in India) which towered over the town like a benediction.
The car slowed as the first banks of snow appeared on the side of a twisting mountain road. "Ice," our driver voiced his concern. Almost on cue, we hit a sheet of ice on the road. The vehicle seemed to have a will of its own and veered around. Our driver let it have its way for a while and reined it in once its tyres crunched the asphalt.
Patnitop, a little hill-resort town mid-way between Jammu and Srinagar in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, was the ideal place to calm our frayed nerves. We set off on a trekking trail that cut a pathway under snow-burdened pines that stabbed at a deep blue sky. Suddenly, a gust of wind swept through the forest which started to whistle and howl. Trees dusted themselves of snow, giving the illusion of snowfall. And then the wind dropped and calm returned to the forest.
In a clearing ahead of us, a camera crew fluttered around the star of a commercial. Reflectors in place, the camera started to roll and the model eased into a series of yoga asanas. Yes, it was the perfect setting against a backdrop of pine forests and snowy mountains for whatever they planned to sell!