To wintry Siliguri, through the grand Bengal highways

The Iron Bridge across the Balason River on the way from Siliguri to Mirik in Bengal | Picture: Joskutty Panakkal, Manorama

The highways in West Bengal are magnificent; some of them are 6-lane highways. But one can’t get too far ahead without some kind of a roadblock. There is intermittent flyover construction in progress on various points. Road blockade here is a regular event no matter what route one takes. One of the bigger challenges, when you get stuck in one, is the dust storm it kicks up. Sometimes, good guesses of the route forward will be the only guiding force.

However, when the mind recalls that the destination is towards the hills of Siliguri and Darjeeling, the dust and fear on the roads hardly seem to matter. There’s a small town on the way called Mirik. It’s at an altitude that has to be reached via many passes. There isn’t much of the upcoming election rush going on in this place. This can be said to be the only place in West Bengal where tribal politics still exist. But it doesn’t seem to be of much concern to the many people who live on the hilly terrains. They stay far away from the valleys and focus largely on their everyday lives. 

Around 20 km away from Siliguri town, you will find an iron bridge in a small hamlet called Dudhia. Once this bridge is crossed, the climb up the mountains begins. The bridge is on the Balason River. Around 28 km from here, lies the town of Mirik. To get there, one has to travel through narrow roads that rotate the hills, but there are fences built of concrete and iron around the gorge for added security which also makes it less dangerous to travel on these roads.

Bengal winding roads from Siliguri to Mirik | Picture: Joskutty Panakkal, Manorama

Big vehicles don’t ply on these roads, as there is no space on the narrow hilly roads for them. People take mini-carriers for travelling on these terrains, and usually, there are a lot of tourists here. The signboard behind vehicles that say, “Horn OK Please” comes handy here as vehicles that usually ply on these roads tend to go faster and their drivers are quite the daredevils. 

In Siliguri, the summer heat was on. But it wasn’t so bad; while going up the hill, one could feel the weather slowly changing and the heat coming down. If you leave the windows of the vehicle open, you can feel the fresh air surging in while travelling uphill. The umpteen curves, the distance and the altitude; try not to let your mind calculate it all. Just let your gaze wander through all the picturesque beauty around. The paths that you already covered will seem like a rope going around the hills. Every now and then, the fog settles, and you won’t be able to see through the misty screen until it clears. 

Most of the hills have tea plantations. There are women carrying a basket with a head strap plucking tea leaves. They not only carry a basketful of leaves but also a few other bags where they store other essential things for their day in the field.

A few more curves ahead, we get to a big signboard that says “I love Mirik”. There is a huge crowd of people next to it trying to click pictures. We could feel the late evening chilliness descending upon us slowly. Down below, there are a few homes among the many layers of the hills and a few shops. 

View point at Tingling on the way to Mirik | Picture: Joskutty Panakkal, Manorama

In the town of Mirik, houses and other buildings are constructed by causing minimal or no damage to nature. The people here do not raze hills to make homes; they design homes keeping the structure of the hill intact. So, one house may have two or three floors depending on how the hill is shaped. The home and the hill co-exist by beautifully complementing each other. 

There are more than a few ways to reach the peak of Mirik. Even though it gets chilly, the sights on offer have a pristine beauty to them. A little before getting to the top of the mountain, the road splits into two. There are policemen on the way to guide tourists here. 

Picture: Joskutty Panakkal, Manorama

From here, one gets to the banks of Mirik Lake, and that marks the end of the Mirik journey. The water in the lake during the summer season does not look clear; it has a coppery tint to it. Owing to Covid and Summer, there is no boating available as well. 

A large ground, a bridge to cross over to the forest area that lies on the other side of Mirik Lake and horse riding—these are the major attractions here. There are stalls that sell woollen clothes, head caps and curios. The little shops are seen bustling with people who are collecting memorabilia from the trip. There are small restaurants with friendly staff that serve good food. 

Entrance to Mirik Park | Picture: Joskutty Panakkal, Manorama

And as we gazed on, the sights seem to vanish for a few seconds as dusk and chilliness get ushered in. Once we got accustomed to it, we could see better, but the chill had found its place for the night on the banks of the river. Lighted vehicles will take us down the hill amid light chilliness and slowly descending darkness, as we reach the end of the journey. And, as if to bid goodbye, the chill accompanied us till a few curves on our way downhill. 

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