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This winter, babus head for the hills
- Snowfall after five years endears northern heights to the ‘cold-feet’ Calcuttan

Take one, at a popular café in Darjeeling in December 2001: Tranquility, with a few visitors sipping steaming coffees and munching on freshly-baked croissants.

Take two, at a popular café in Darjeeling in December 2002: People queuing up to buy sweet somethings, chattering tourists (clearly from Calcutta) milling around, hunting for chairs and gobbling down mutton cutlets.

Braving the North Wind, rather than seeking southern comfort, is the route the Calcutta — or rather Bengali — traveller is taking this winter. For Discovery Travels and Tours, the newest destination in demand, after Darjeeling and Gangtok, is Kathmandu. For Peerless Travels, too, Darjeeling and Gangtok are hot this winter.

“There has definitely been an increase in bookings in winter this year, all domestic, and a large number of them are Bengalis,” says Shubhana Rai, senior manager of Windamere Hotel, in Darjeeling. “Some of it has to do with the visit by some Bollywood stars a while ago. The snowfall, the first time since 1997, has also played a part. People have been ringing up and asking about it.”

A spokesperson for Eastern Railway confirms the ‘off-season’ northern rush: “The waiting lists on north Bengal-bound trains, like Darjeeling Mail, Kamrup Express and Kanchan Kanya Express, clearly suggest that more Calcuttans have gone to New Jalpaiguri this time.” It’s honeymooners, couples and a few families who have been making a beeline for colder and quieter climes. “I have had about 40 to 60 couple-bookings for Darjeeling and Gangtok in December-January, and only a handful of families,” says Prashant Binanny of Discovery Travels. Rai of Windamere confirms that the most popular room has been the honeymoon cottage.

There are factors aplenty, favouring a trip to the nearby hills, confirm operators. “It’s easy to get to north Bengal and Sikkim for Calcutta travellers,” explains Binnany. “One can get a decent room for Rs 500, making it economically and geographically viable for a weekend or week-long trip. And then, there is the snow this year.”

The snow, feels writer Sunil Gangopadhyay, is the “main attraction” for the Bengali traveller, who is no longer “sheet-kature” (afraid of the cold), along with the “romance of the fireplace” after enjoying a clear view of the Kanchenjunga all day long.

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