DESTINATION SIKKIM

When I was in my teens, I found an old military survey map, paper glued on a canvas backing. It covered Darjeeling and neighbouring Sikkim. It intrigued me with its interesting contour lines and the nature of the landscape it encoded. Five decades have passed since my curiosity about Sikkim began. Today, what I had wondered about so long became reality.

Our host in Darjeeling drove us to the shared taxi stand near Chowk Bazaar. We paid for two seats to Gangtok and were led to a parking area filled with Tata and other makes of jeep. We were told that our Tata jeep would only depart when another 8 passengers were found. Soon a young Bangladeshi couple joined us. We waited and no more people turned up. Eventually, the Nepalese driver, Deepen, appeared. He told us that if we were happy to pay a modest supplement, the four of us could have the jeep to ourselves and, more importantly, depart immediately. We and the Bangladeshi couple agreed and we set off.

At first we drove along the Hill Cart Road, following the Toy Train tracks to beyond Ghoom, where we turned on to the road to Sikkim.

Most of the four hour journey is downhill along an often steep winding road with many hairpin bends, as Gangtok is at a far lower altitude than Darjeeling. We saw many beautiful flowers and ferns with huge leaves growing by the road as well as small forests of trees with very tall trunks. Occasional sloping tea gardens punctuated the luxuriantly verdant landscape. Many stretches of the road through the part of West Bengal through which we were driving are surfaced with tarmac from which numerous small hard stones project to make them safer when wet. I did not notice this type of road surface after we entered Sikkim.

For quite a distance, from Melli to well beyond the Sikkimese border town of Rangpo, we drove through the beautiful valley of the River Teesta that flows down from India into Bangladesh. The clear turquoise waters flow between wide white sandy beaches. From Melli to Rangpo we drove on the West Bengal bank of the river, looking across at Sikkim on the opposite bank.

After passing under a decorative arch with the words “Welcome to Sikkim”, we entered Rangpo and parked near to the visitors’ registration office. There, we showed our permit that we had obtained at Sikkim House in Calcutta and our passports. All three documents were stamped and their details entered by hand in a large book.

We continued our journey through a part of Sikkim in which the scenery was less spectacular than between Darjeeling and Rangpo. Also, the architecture of most buildings we saw lacked in aesthetic merit. Many of them are several storeys high.

Our road left the Teesta valley and began winding upwards through unattractive small towns in the environs of Gangtok city. As we approached the latter, the traffic became heavier. Most of the buildings we passed after entering Gangtok have at least 5 storeys and do not look particularly old. If Gangtok were on flat ground, the place would look nondescript. However, because the city clings to steeply rising hillsides, the vistas resulting from the piling of rows of buildings one above another are picturesque and impressive.

Some of the places we drove through were designated “ODF Village”. At first, I was puzzled by this. Then at one place, I saw the words “Open Defecation Free”. This means that emptying bowels in places other than toilets is forbidden.

The shared taxi stand in the centre of Gangtok looks like an ill-maintained multi storey carpark. We drove into an upper storey which was crammed full of jeeps. Some of them, including ours, shuffled back and forth like pieces in a badly made rubik’s cube in order to access a parking space. A lot of shouting accompanied these difficult manoeuvres.

Our drive unloaded our bag. He had driven magnificently with great skill and care, sometimes with his mobile phone in one hand. When we boarded, I had tried to put on a seat belt. He and the local taxi drivers we used on our first day in Gangtok told me that there was no need to use safely belts. It seemed to me that using a seat belt suggests to the drivers that I am not confident that they are going to drive well.

A local taxi delivered us to our hotel. Soon after this, we took another one to Lal Bazaars in central Gangtok. There, we ate lunch in the first floor Potala Restaurant. Some of the tables on one side of this unpretentious eater, were in compartments with curtains that could be closed to provide a degree of privacy. The steamed pork momos I ate were delicious. They are like Chinese dumplings but larger and with thicker doughy coverings, more like polish piroschki. Beneath the restaurant and under a metal roof, there is a long line of shoe polishers and shoe repairers, all sitting on the floor and very busy.

After eating, we climbed a long staircase with many landings. This is lined with all kinds of shops except for food sellers. The staircase leads to MG Marg, a wide almost level pedestrianised shopping street lined with many upmarket shops and a variety of cafés and restaurants. Many people were milling about, looking at shops or just enjoying themselves. Although not nearly as picturesque as the Stradun in Dubrovnik or the Pedonalja in Albania’s Berat and Shkodër, it serves the same purpose: a place to promenade.

After sunset, we returned to our hotel to await dinner. I am pleased that I am fulfilling my long held wish to visit Sikkim, but my first impression of Gangtok is that it is not nearly as attractive as Darjeeling. Despite that, it is beginning to grow on me.

An automobile in Albania

KRUJA small

This is an extract from my book “REDISCOVERING ALBANIA” (ISBN: 978-1326807108). The extract describes a visit to a historic town and problems with a rented car.

“When we have hired cars in the past, we have been presented with a car which is almost new and totally flawless. This was not the case with Enterprise at Tirana’s airport. We had ordered a Tata Indica car – I had chosen it because of the price and also because I had not driven an Indian car since 1994, the first and only time that I ever drove in India. Our Tata was distinctly tatty in appearance. It was covered in scratches and dents, all of which were carefully noted and photographed by the Enterprise representative and me. The upholstery was clean but looked well worn. He told us that the car was “quite new”; it had “…only done about 32,000 kilometres”. Dubious at first, I realised later that this unprepossessing vehicle was just the job for the terrain that we were going to traverse.

I had not driven for two years, the last time being when we hired a car in Palermo (Sicily) in 2014. However, I soon got into the swing of driving. I was pleased that we had not hired the car from an office in Tirana, where traffic is heavy, but from the airport where traffic is light. Soon, we left the main Tirana to Shkodër ‘highway’, and then began winding our way uphill to the small town of Krujë, which is where Albania’s hero Skanderbeg had his headquarters while he was combatting the invasion of the Ottomans.

Skanderbeg, the son of a noble-man called Kastrioti, was taken forcibly by the Turks to Turkey as a young boy (as many Christian youths were in that time). He was converted to Islam, educated as a soldier, and became a good fighter in the Ottoman Army. In 1443, aged 38, Skanderbeg along with several other Albanian soldiers abandoned the Turks. Soon, he took command of the Castle at Krujë, which became his headquarters from where he harassed the Ottomans, who were trying to invade what is now Albania. After many military exploits both in Italy and in Albania, Skanderbeg finally succumbed to malaria in 1468. This is a very brief account of the career of a man who saved Western Europe from becoming part of the Ottoman Empire. Albania did become part of the Empire, but in the words of a guidebook published in 1969 by Albturist, the state tourist agency of Albania:

Although their heroic efforts were not crowned with final victory, the Albanian people did not kneel down. Throughout the centuries that followed, our people continued their resistance against the Ottoman feudal regime.”  

The road became steeper and steeper until we entered the town in which level ground is a rarity. We parked the car on a steeply sloping street and made our way to a café, whose terrace provided a great view of the town’s castle, which overlooked us, and the old bazaar, which was several metres below us. From where we were sitting we saw one or two elderly people wearing what looked to us like traditional costumes, but most people were dressed in modern clothing.

We made our way along the shiny cobbled street that runs between the two lines of shops that make up the old bazaar. This has been extended since I saw it in 1984, but the extension has been made to look as if it were original. As in 1984, all of the shops in the bazaar are selling goods aimed at tourists: everything from tasteless ‘tat’ to some very lovely antiques. One particular shop contained superb examples of traditional Albanian handicrafts, some pieces including some wooden cradles for babies were quite old. Some weeks later in Tirana, we met, quite by chance, the shop owner’s cousin, the daughter-in-law of one of Albania’s foremost artists. Although the bazaar resembles what I remembered from my first visit in 1984, the town is filled with new buildings, including mosques and churches, which might have existed before Enver Hoxha destroyed them, but are now reconstructed or entirely new. Many but not all of the old Ottoman era buildings that made Krujë so attractive to me in 1984 have been demolished to make way for newer mostly less-attractive constructions. Nevertheless, Krujë, nestling in the wooded hills that surround it, is still a lovely place to visit.

After stumbling through the cobbled market, we began climbing the path that leads to the castle complex. On our way we passed an old (Ottoman?) structure that housed what must have once been the outlet for a spring. It was filled with fragments of old carvings including an eight-pointed star, and just above the outlet for the water two animals (lions?) facing each other.  Nearby, two young boys selling small round green plums asked where we were from, and then tried to sell us some of their fruit. Just before we reached the entrance to the castle, we came across a man sitting on a wall selling books. He was the author of the various volumes that he had set out for sale. We said hello to him, and told him that we would have a look at his books after we had visited the castle.

Parts of the vast area of the interior of the castle walls are still inhabited. Much of the space is covered with ruins of what had originally been Skanderbeg’s castle and then later the Ottomans’. These ruins include a solitary watchtower and the base of a large minaret. We had read that there was a Bektashi mosque, the Tekke (‘teqe’ in Albanian) of Dollma, in the grounds. A young man offered to guide us to it. Because the way to it was extremely rough and Lopa had a bad ankle, she decided to wait for me while I went to see the mosque. The young man explained to me (in good English) that he is a Bektashi, a member of a ‘sect’ of Muslims (although many Muslims disclaim them) that is halfway between Shia and Sufi. It is particularly popular in Albania, Bulgaria, and Anatolia. Unemployed as so many Albanian graduates are, he spends his time looking after the tekke and its surroundings. On our way along the path to the tekke, we met a woman, aged about 30, with her small child. She spoke some English, but mainly gossiped in Albanian with my new acquaintance. We stood next to what looked to me like an Ottoman hammam or bathhouse. It was, but it has been heavily restored with bright new roof tiles that detract from its character and beauty. After the woman left, he explained that when she had been orphaned, his family had informally adopted her and brought her up as a daughter.

The 18th century tekke is in good state of preservation. By the way, a tekke is a gathering place for Sufi and Bektashi believers. Its interior walls and ceilings are covered with delicately painted frescos and lines of Arabic or Turkish calligraphy. There are several tombs of dervishes within the mosque, and also some outside it in its grounds. Near the tekke, I saw some old stone fragments that looked as if once they had been part of an earlier structure, maybe a church. My guide introduced me to an elder man who lives in a recently built circular meeting place next to the mosque. The old man, I was told, had spent 12 years in prison during the Communist era simply because he was a Bektashi adherent. Some years ago I showed my friend Bejtulla Destani, an academic from Kosovo, pictures in a book by Albert Mahuzier who visited Albania in the early 1960s, in the years before Enver Hoxha outlawed religion. The book included a photograph of the imam or priest of the tekke in Gjirokastër. Without hesitating, Bejtulla said that it was most likely that that man would have been killed by Hoxha’s people soon after 1967.

The visit to the tekke took rather longer than I had anticipated. As we were making our way back to where I had left Lopa, a security man came rushing towards me shouting: “Mister Adam?” I nodded, and he led me not to where I had left my wife, but instead to the Ethnographic Museum, where Lopa was passing the time and also becoming concerned that I might have been kidnapped or worse. After being reunited, I took a look around the museum which was not only interesting on account of its exhibits, but also because it was housed in a very old Ottoman era building.

Our way back to the castle entrance took us past the impressive but incongruous fortress-like building, built in 1982 by the Communists to house a museum or mausoleum to honour Skanderbeg. I did not enter it in 1984, and not on this visit (because it is closed on Mondays). When we emerged from the castle, we stopped by the man selling books. He introduced himself as Professor Baki Dollma (he was related to the Dollma family after whom the tekke is named), a professor of history. Most of his books are in Albanian. We bought a couple that contained some English and were related to the history of Krujë. When he learnt that I also write books, the professor became very friendly, and kept addressing me as ‘Professor’.

We left the amiable professor, and returned to our car. I turned the ignition key, and nothing happened. I tried several times, and then assumed that we had been given a dud hire car. I rang Enterprise, and explained the situation, and was told that someone would ring me back in a few minutes. When this happened, I was asked if I had used the remote control. I told the person on the ‘phone that I had not the remotest idea of what she was talking about. I was told to look under the driver’s seat where I would find a little box on a cable, and that I should always press a blue button on it before starting the car. It worked. However, it would have been helpful to have known about this security feature when we took possession of the vehicle.”

 

Enjoyed the extract? Then read more!  Buy a copy ofREDISCOVERING ALBANIAby Adam Yamey. It is available from on-line bookstores such as Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and as an e-book on Kindle