By: Miriam Zamani
As autumn slips silently towards winter there is a discernible fragrance in the air: the sharp tang of crisp, evening cold, the earthy aroma of falling leaves, blue drifts of spicy wood smoke and the invigorating pine-fresh stickiness of newly fallen cones which coat your fingers with tart resin when you stoop to pick them up.
At this time of year the mountains are alive with the natural vibrations that summer tourists completely miss, visiting as they mostly tend to do during the humid dampness and rain of summer. As daylight hours shrink, the haunting luminosity of brilliant azure skies sharpens the scenery; each and every single pine needle performs a shimmering autumn dance and distant mountain ranges hover higher and closer in an optical illusion of unparalleled beauty.
The apple and pear harvests are in, corn cobs have been stripped and the kernels either stored or ground into flour, swathes of dry grass are mounded into high stacks wearing weatherproof caps of plastic sheeting or much used canvas and the business of the day is that of gathering firewood for winter heat and cooking.
Voices ring out from house to house, the sound carrying clearly through the chilly atmosphere as after-school children play raucous games of cricket and shell prickly horse chestnuts to use as marbles.
The swifts and swallows are long gone to warmer wintering grounds whilst permanent resident birds root nosily through mounds of fallen leaves, the leaves yellow, red, orange and brown, in search of tasty sustenance to fuel them during the freezing months ahead.
This is a special time: a time of stoic preparedness all round, a time for humans to soak up mellow sunshine before the skies overload themselves with heavy, snow bearing clouds, a time for foxes, jackals, monkeys, sheep, goats and other animals to luxuriate in their glossy winter coats and for birds to preen their plumage.
It is also a time for people, local residents and the light smatter of visitors who are prepared to brave plunging temperatures, to sit over steaming cups of tea at roadside cafes as they nibble on hot parathas, fried eggs, chholay, curry, nihari or bubbling, thick haleem in between stocking up on blankets, sweaters, scarves, hats, gloves and heavy overcoats. The lingering weeks of late autumn into early winter invoke a deceptive atmosphere of ease in the hills and mountains, gilding everything in golden timelessness in the spent wake of summer season which is too crowded for comfort.
Everything seems to slow down in readiness for the fitful hibernation that real cold and heavy snow bring. Autumn gifts the very relaxation summer visitors seek out yet often fail to discover. As this bountiful season unfolds, scarlet rose hips festooning the forest, white berries of mistletoe crowning stately trees and bracken flowing smoothly downhill in a surging tide of golden amber, the solace seekers of June, July and August are sunk back in the hectic city scene missing out on nature’s incredible splendour.
Sunsets as only Turner could paint them, herald night after invigorating night of shooting stars as owls echo their own kind of music to moons of magnified clarity on which surface details are seen as if through a telescope. These whispering hours of darkness are brimful of magic and the distant, flickering lights of human habitation ring the mountain slopes in surprising density.
December comes and daylight hours are shorter still. People rise in the brisk cold of dawn to make the most of daylight before it fast fades in late afternoon and now there is a heady sense of expectation, each approaching cloud formation carrying the pregnant suggestion of snow. Life picks up pace once more, people hurry about their business wanting to reach home before the first soft flakes come drifting down to close roads, disrupt power supplies and phone connections and, as always, after the first fall, visitors once more flock to the hills to experience the joys of winter fun, of frozen cheeks, hands and feet, of building snowmen and having snowball fights and the long, entrancing spell of autumn is broken for another year.
Note to tourists
Autumn is off-season in the hills therefore prices of accommodation plummet from an exorbitantly expensive summer high to far more affordable levels. Transport is easier to find and prices are lower too. Popular tourist spots are largely deserted but still open for visitors. Bazaars are far less crowded and shop keepers more amenable to bargaining.
Restaurants, however, remain exactly the same. Prices zoom back up immediately after the first snowfall, dropping back down as the snow melts and staying reasonable throughout what is often a fickle spring. The best times to visit the hills, particularly if you have natural beauty and a modicum of peace in mind, are September to November and March to the middle of May.