Winter Highs: 8 Ways to Embrace the Season in India
Come winter, and the Himalayas shed their foliage to don a surreal winter trousseau, most of which remains largely undiscovered. The northeast puts on its festive garb too; its rivers turn teal, and birders flock to the region to spot winged creatures rarely found elsewhere. There is no dearth of options to embrace the chill in India—we’ve cherry-picked eight guaranteed to take your breath away:
Birdsong and Bikes, Arunachal Pradesh
The lush rainforests of Arunachal are a delight to explore in the winter, humming with birders who come for a glimpse of the hornbill, shrike babbler and the endemic Mishmi wren-babbler, found only in the Mishmi Hills in the state’s east. The bird, with its black-and-brown streaked body and rust neckline, is one of the star attractions of this biodiversity haven.
Another unique way to explore Mishmi Hills and the surrounding Dibang Valley is on a mountain bike; the gently sloping terrain combined with rugged roads makes for a fine winter adventure (except during a rare, heavy snowfall). One of the best routes is the one going to the town of Anini, about 220 kilometres north of Roing in the Dibang Valley, and a three-day ride away. Apart from alluring mist-kissed forests, landscapes that leave you agape, and fabulous birding opportunities, a slow ride and some off-the-trail exploration opens doors to spot the rare red panda and hoolock gibbons, and the possibility of spotting the unique ungulate, the Mishmi takin. Tine Mena, northeast India’s first female Everester, leads mountain biking journeys to Anini, and hiking and angling trips (firstname.lastname@example.org; 8974299357). Local conservationist and passionate birder Jibi Pulu runs the Mishmi Hills camp in Roingand leads explorations in the area. (98628 56981; doubles from Rs2,000)
To New Beginnings, Northeast
Home to a significant Christian population, the northeast truly shines during Christmas. Squares across towns and cities in the eight states fill with roly-poly Santas, and midnight masses grace colony churches large and quaint. The festive cheer rings high right up to New Year’s Eve. Even Manipur, which has a large Hindu population in its Meitei community, brings out the conifers. In the hills of Ukhrul, the Naga community of Tankhuls flaunt their traditional attire and gather for mass at the church on the first Sunday of the New Year. Jowai in Meghalaya’s West Jaintia Hills has its own style of ringing in the New Year. Locals across the town form large groups and stay up until the wee hours, crooning originally composed songs around bonfires, one-upping each another on the best tunes. On January 1, the revelry continues in the form of large buffets of local delicacies.
Sea of Ice, Himachal Pradesh
A slow rise up a frozen swathe, the axe gingerly finding a foothold, crampons crunching into the snow—ice climbing is for those who take their love for winters to the next level. The sport may not be for novices, but those familiar with climbing and yearning to amp it up would thoroughly enjoy it.
This January, India hosted its first edition ice climbing festival in the Spiti Valley. Piti Dharr became a playground for those who love the sight of a frozen waterfall or ice-covered cliffs, allowing the sport to reach a wider audience. Adventure companies such as Rimo Expeditions lead ice climbing expeditions to the Zanskar valley in the Ladakh Himalayas and spots around Manali (www.rimoexpeditions.com; expeditions are usually 8-10 days ex-Leh; price varies with expedition. Piti Dharr takes place between January 5—10 2020; open to all who meet the minimum requirement of beginner level skills; email@example.com).
Ride to Remember, Uttarakhand
Unlike many mountain escapes in the north, Uttarakhand’s eastern part of Kumaon remains blissfully tourist-free in the winters. The long journey from the foothills of Kumaon to Munsyari could seem daunting, but it is worth the crisp views of the Kumaon Himalayas that float alongside on a sea of puffy winter clouds, and the spectacular 360-degree snowy expanse from Khaliya Top that awaits those who take the time.
Split your drive into two, and begin your ascent from the foothills around the Corbett region to get initiated into these majestic mountains. Drive half the 300-kilometre distance past major towns like Nainital, and break your journey in the wilderness of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. Go further only if you are confident of long-distance driving in the mountains, to places like Chaukori or Berinag as your overnight hault. Mountain views come in to focus as early as from Almora, about a 100 kilometres into your journey, and grow larger than life as you move towards Chaukori, where Neelkantha, Chaukhamba, and other 7000ers take the stage.
Continue the following morning, with the Nanda Devi peaks, main and east, Nanda Ghunti, and more, emerge. Go all the way up to the Kala Muni ridge, then begin the descent to Munsyari, a little township facing the grand Panchachuli peaks that are believed to be the spiralling path the Pandavas took on their final journey to heaven. There are limited accommodation options in Munsyari, but Himalayan Glamping Retreat in the outskirts has plush tents, cosy dining and fun board games (www.himalayanglamping.com, doubles with meals Rs14,000 plus taxes). Visit the weavers in Darkot, five kilometres away, to see how they create timeless rugs, hats, shawls and bedspreads. At the end of the day, watch the setting sun glimmer like gold over the snowy tip of Panchachuli.
Chasing the Siang, Arunachal Pradesh
The arrival of winter on the Siang river bids goodbye to the muddy torrents of monsoon. A major tributary of northeast India’s longest river, the Brahmaputra, the mighty Siang is gorgeously blue at this time of the year. Drive along its banks, all the way from Passighat to Boleng, and take in its sweeping, azure curves. Stop on its rock and silt-filled beaches, or cross one of the traditional bamboo bridges spanning its width. An amazing architectural feat of sturdiness and technique, these bridges are the lifeline of the region, connecting several villages to roads, and smaller settlements with each other. Hear your heart beat to the sound of the Siang, for these sky-walks swing wildly. The dynamic Yabur Tatin runs a homestay in Boleng with her husband, and has great insider tips for the best spots by the Siang (94024 26343).
The river is also a favourite with rafting lovers, and winter is an ideal season to go down its length. Aquaterra Adventures organises rafting expeditions on the Siang (www.aquaterra.in; 12-day expeditions between Nov-Dec Rs1,20,600 plus tax). Along the length of the river you will also find locals selling Arunachal’s famous oranges, the state’s biggest cash crop that also lends its name to the annual winter Orange festival in Dambuk.
An Igloo near Manali, Himachal Pradesh
Swap a regular hotel stay for an igloo, a one-of-its-kind offering in India’s Sethan village in the Hampta valley near Manali. For a night or two, think of yourself as an eskimo, and combine the experience with fun activities like snow tubing. Learn to build your own igloo with compressed snow blocks, an activity that engages adults and kids alike. It’s like having the Arctic in your backyard. Your adventure begins with the 4WD drive that leads up to the site, surrounded by stunning Himalayan views. The area also has gentle slopes ideal for skiing, should you want to try that out too. Snuggle around a log fire with a mug of hot chocolate under the stars, and go to bed in a cosy sleeping bag that will keep you coccooned from the cold. Keylinga Himlalayan Adventures’s packages come with winter sports such as snowboarding and snowshoeing, along with the stay (www.keylinga.com; Rs5,500 per person with meals).
Hilly hikes of Paradise, Himachal Pradesh
The Jubbal region of Himachal Pradesh remains relatively unexplored, a mere shadow to Tirthan valley, Triund, and the Hampta circuit, and wears a surreal cloak of white in winter. Go beyond the regular haunts to hit trails such as the Giri Ganga route in Jubbal, and you will be floored by the near-private outdoor experiences it offers in the winding mesh of its deodar forests. Throw in overnight camping and go all the way to Kuppad meadow, where you can spot the iridescent Himalayan monal or the elusive state bird, the western tragopan. The latter is one of the rarest pheasants and is found only in pockets of Himachal’s undisturbed forests. Chanshal peak, a five-hour drive from Baral in Jubbal, is another great option for birding. If you do not have the luxury of a multi-day hike to its top, drive from Baral to Larot for about three and a half hours and then hike four hours through virgin forests and meadows to reach the Chanshal ridge. Local operator Ashish Kalta organises these hikes and runs an apple farm homestay here with with his Ladakhi wife, Kunzes. Their cultural backgrounds come together in their kitchen. Dig into their spinach and cheese momos served with bulka, a local dish of wild greens with poppy-filled bednis or bread (firstname.lastname@example.org; 9129033323).
Walk on Ice, Himachal Pradesh
In winter, Gulmarg attracts skiers by the busload, so if you want to stray from the trodden slopes, try Narkanda. Few associate it with skiing, except the locals and a handful of travellers who have already discovered it. Guided lessons for beginners and rented gear are available here, and veterans can go to higher slopes closer to the Hatu peak.
A 30-minute drive from Narkanda takes you to the Shilaroo Project, a site for learning pottery and yoga, run by sisters Virangana and Shubhangana Kainthla. A quiet alternative to the popular Andretta, a weekend workshop enables guests to learn the art form along with farming and other community work. Masters in their respective art forms—pottery and hatha yoga—the sisters created this haven to seamlessly integrate physical, mental and spiritual equilibrium. It also offers stays with shared and private options, which could be your base for your Narkanda skiing adventure (theshilarooproject.com).