Darjeeling and Mirik: A Drive By
What can you do in Darjeeling in a few hours? I spent the time lazing in the Chowrasta Mall and taking a walk on the Mall Road. Chowrasta Mall is a flat land in the hilly town where several roads meet, usually described as the heart of the hill town. The Mall Road starts from the Mall and goes around Observatory Hill to join the Mall from a different side.
Darjeeling was a part of my journeys through North Bengal landscapes. It was a brief destination before I moved on to the next stop, Mirik. This was my third trip to Darjeeling and second to Mirik.
We drove from Jalpaiguri town through Siliguri (via National Highway 31) to Darjeeling (via Rohini and Hill Cart Road) (Distance: Siliguri to Darjeeling - 80 kilometers, Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling – 120 kilometers). Relentless views of fields, military encampments, tea gardens, distant hill ranges, jungles and human settlements on the way, one after the other, left us almost breathless and asking for more.
We had an argument – one of many in this journey – over the identity of a thorny tree of medium height with small thin red flowers. In local parlance it is known as Madar. The driver of our car helped in settling the debate by pointing out a real Madar Tree. We saw another tree with Madar-like flowers. It remained unidentified.
Before reaching the Mall, we stopped at Batasia Loop – one of several loops of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – five kilometers before of Darjeeling town. At the loop, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway or the toy train as it is popularly knows takes a 360-degree turn to make a sharp descent towards Darjeeling town. The spot offers a panoramic view of the town and the ranges around. A war memorial has been constructed at the spot. It has been constructed in memory of Gorkha soldiers in Indian army who lost their lives in different wars after India's independence*.
Darjeeling is at an average height of 6710 feet (2045 meters) above mean sea level. The road from the parking space, where we kept our car, to the Mall had some huge construction sites and is filled with shops on the either side. The Mall is a meeting a point of people, a shopping area, a tourist attraction and a viewing point of distant snow-capped mountains.
Contrary to our expectations – fuelled by prediction of the Met Department of possible rains - the weather was good. It was bright, sunny and pleasant. People were out in hordes just standing around. I sat in the Mall for a while with my aunt – we sipped tea and watched life move around us. We saw women in traditional Bhutanese and Nepalese attires, a lady sweeping the Mall, boys and girls from schools, and perhaps colleges hanging about, locals lounging and tourists looking around.
There were stores including some really old and heritage book and other kinds of shops bordering the Mall and stretching beyond - on the streets around the Mall. Other attractions in Darjeeling, which we did not visit this time, are a few parks, temples, botanical and zoological gardens, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, a few other institutions, a cable car and tea estates.
People seem to like clear skies over cloudy sky while they are in the Himalayas. There were faint and dark clouds crowding nearby hill tops and distant mountain peaks. I heard my travel companions commenting more than once that it’s a pity we could not see snow-capped peaks including the world’s third highest peak – Kanchenjunga. I did not mind the clouds, however, as these added a touch of dreaminess and a layer of drama to the landscape. A few weeks before our visit, a Rhododendron festival was held in Darjeeling. Not surprising as, while walking on the Mall Road, we saw dozens of rhododendron trees with various hues of red and pink flowers on the slopes above and below us. The season for rhododendrons was not over yet.
The drive from Darjeeling to Mirik via Ghum and Sukhia Pokhri and the return journey from Mirik to Siliguri (Distance: Darjeeling to Mirik – 49 kiliometers, Siliguri to Mirik 55 kilometers) were even nicer than the first leg of the trip. The routes have miles and miles of pine and fern forests, tea plantations, occasional habitations, military cantonments and gorgeous views of distant ranges. This part of the journey evoked mixed feelings of eeriness and romanticism. I took some videos with my mobile as I had a feeling still photography would not do justice to the scenery.
Mirik – at an average height of 5810 feet (1700 metres) - is well known for its lake fed by perennial rivers. The lake – said to be 1.25 kilometers long - is surrounded by a dense forest on its west side, which lends its water a green hue. In winters, migratory birds visit the lake. A board next to the lake claimed this year Siberian Cranes had been there. I took pictures of a few Great Comorants, sitting comfortably with an air of grandness about them, in the middle of the lake. There are a few restaurants and small eateries by the lake. At one end of the lake, people had gathered to feed colorful fish, the kinds you would see in aquariums, only bigger than average aquarium varieties.
Mirik seemed more run down from what I remembered from my last visit – about 20 years ago. My companions corroborated that the hill station has lost a bit of its past glory. In spite of this, the scenic beauty makes the place special. Other attractions in Mirik include a monastery - visible from the lake but we did not have the time to visit, tea gardens and orange orchards.
I probably spent about 45 minutes at the lake. Soon it was time to head back home. It was a day well spent. We were content, happy and extremely tired.
Text and photos: Sanchita Chatterjee 2015