Want to go to Imphal? You have to go via Dimapur and Kohima!
This is what I have known for ages and so has most other people, although the map shows another route from Silchar to Imphal. Every time I asked someone about this other road, only horror stories were offered regarding the road conditions. This summer, I returned to Manipur again for the Shirui Hills Trek, following the same old route via Nagaland from Guwahati. However, after the trip, I absolutely did not want to take the long way back through the same route and wanted to try a different road, even if it sounded risky.
My contacts in Imphal also informed me that a new road has been built now and it is not that terrible now (In fact, it is one of the new National Highways of India). However, even they had no first-hand experience and only telling me what they had heard! I was doubtful, but I decided to try it anyway. So, this story is not about any place but about a the ride through the road usually not taken.
I was told that the shared cars on this route leave from a point near the Ima Keithel and I did find a counter and booked a ticket for the next morning. At 700 per head, it sounded a bit exorbitant for a distance of 250 KMs but on such roads you can’t argue much. After the ticket, I felt a bit relaxed, and walked around the market. I have always had a fantasy of buying local stuff at a market in Manipur, because most of the things available here are exotic for me and can’t be found elsewhere. However, language barrier makes it difficult to ask and negotiate, nevertheless, I managed to buy a few colourful corns.
Imphal to Silchar: The Ride Begins
The next morning the ride started at around 5.30 am and to my horror, I was given a middle seat, with no access to the window! There were at least four people on each row, making it hard to move. Taking the camera out was not an option and even phone-photography looked difficult!
Anyway, the ride started smoothly. Originally, it took the road going towards Moirang, that I had taken before to reach Loktak Lake. However, it took a diversion at Bishunupur, and kept moving westwards. We were still on the plains, the road piercing through emerald green paddy fields, but the hills were now visible at the horizon. Somehow, I was still worried that the roads will deteriorate as soon as we start driving up the hills.
However, to my utter surprise, the road remained smooth even as we entered the hills. Most of this stretch passes through the hilly Tamenglong district, which, I am told, hides a lot of unexplored gems. These hills are sparsely populated and most covered with dense, sub-tropical vegetation, dotted with occasional roadside towns and markets.
The progress was only halted by several checkposts on the way, rather than the road conditions, which seemed spotless throughout. It is noteworthy that the law and order situation in these regions, owing to the existence of various insurgent groups, used to be precarious till the last decade. The situation is comparatively better now and most of these groups are in decline but nevertheless, these checkpoints remain as a reminiscent of a more difficult past. Don’t get worried though. Generally these posts are there mostly for formalities and the driver completes most of it. Especially if you look like a typical tourist, nobody bothers you.
Eventually, after more than 4 hours, we reached Nungba, somewhat the midpoint between Imphal and Jiribam. It is a busy marketplace, somewhat bigger than I expected. Food is available but limited in options. However, they are also cheap. For a mere INR 10 I got a plate of deep fried puris and a watery gravy of yellow peas. More importantly, it was a welcome break form the congested seat for half an hour.
Along the Barak
Barak is a major river in Assam. The entire part of southern Assam is basically Barak Valley and we learnt that in school. However, somehow it never occurred to me, at least not before this day, that it originates somewhere in Manipur. After leaving Nungba, the landscape got even more desolated and eventually the sight of Barak welcomed us at once point. Barak is almost blood red in these areas, probably due to the red soil of the hills around it. The contrast of red river and lush green hills was excellent and once more, I was left lamenting my seat.
This was also the time where for the first time in the day, we encountered a problematic stretch. I think there was some construction going on and the car had to cross a shaky bridge over the river. It was all muddy and slippery, but only for a short stretch. After 10 minutes, the smooth road was back again!
Jiribam to Silchar
Finally, after around 8 hours, the car came out of the hills of Manipur and descended down to the plains and entered Jiribam, which seemed like a very busy frontier town. The change in geography as well as demography was evident here. It is located in the border of Assam, and looks similar to any small town in Assam. The market is also dominated by the people from the plains. In fact, the market was so crowded that tehre was a traffic jam in the iddle of teh town.
For the uninitiated, Jiribam is important because it is the only functioning railway station in Manipur as of now. It is connected to Silchar with a rail line and eventually the plan is to link Imphal with a railway line. However, that also means that the line will pass through the hills that I just crossed, so it is going to take some time.
Anyway, it was an easy ride after Jiribam. Some people from the car got down in Jiribam itself and finally I also got the window seat! The weather was sunny till then but we were welcomed with delightfully stormy weather and cold breeze as we entered Cachar district. We crossed sundry tea gardens too and eventually reached Silchar by 4.30 PM and I proceeded to the railway station for my Guwahati-bound train.
My elation at the very existence of this road, that too at a reasonably good shape, is born out of my past experiences. The all too familiar remoteness, and infrastructural deficiencies of the region is not really a secret. Every time I try to explore any area in NE, my plans tend to get affected by such infrastructural challenges. This is why a road like this shows us the possibilities. It is a stretch of 250 meters that used to take ages to cover and was not even considered safe. However, it is no longer the case. Similarly, there are various other stretches where highways are being built or are at least being planned along with railway networks wherever feasible. It is a welcome-change after decades of inaction due to various reasons. It also opens up another route for Manipur, which has an unfortunate history of conflicts and road-blockades with neighbouring Nagaland.
Imphal to Silchar Guide
The shared cars to Silchar leaves from one point near Ima Keithel (Mother’s Market) in Imphal. You can locate it the previous evening and book a ticket for the next morning. It costs INR 700 per head.
How much time does it take to reach Silchar?
It took almost 10 ours for me to reach Silchar. More than the road, the times takes due to numerous checking points where the cars have to stop and register due to security reasons.
How is the Imphal to Silchar Road Condition?
You may have heard horror stories about this road but it has recently been improved and now bulk of the road is smooth and at only one point it was muddy due to some construction. However, I did it during early summers and during teh rains it may be completely different.