::The Traveller’s Log::
IV : Tushemisht
Finding him wandering in the deep darkness of the night, his friend asked Khoja Nasruddin what he was doing. Khoja thought for a while and replied, ‘Good question. If I know the answer, I would have gone inside and be in bed.’
[Oral Islamic tradition]
The train conductor, a kind-hearted man that he was, had already told the restaurateur that we needed a taxi to get to the small settlement of Tushemist, where the Albanian custom post is located, that morning. I merely mentioned Tushemist and Macedonia, and he was already on his way out to find a friend whom he said would drive the taxi. While we waited outside the restaurant, we took pictures of the town, deep in snow. The town people were welcoming it too. A few circles of men in long black, woollen dark coats and hats, stood happily outside, chatting and puffing out smokes from cigarettes, while a few kids, multicoloured gloves and snow caps on, played on pieces of cardboards that served as slides.
This was the first time snow appeared during our travel. Although it was high winter, the weather in Albania had been great for us; sunshine was plenty and rain, if it ever happened, was short and slight.
The restaurateur came back but without his friend. ‘Soon he will arrive,’ he said. We took pictures with him and waited some more. Five minutes went by and finally the taxi came. ‘Pay him 5 Euro,’ the restaurateur told us and waved us off.
We left Pogradeci behind, and passed rows of houses, and then rows of farms and trees, and then forested areas, all covered in snow. The taxi driver wanted to chat but I could not even recognise the language he spoke. At last, we fall into silence again. It was frustrating for me. Never had I found such great difficulties with languages in my other journeys. Previously, I could always fall back into the few basic words of Arabic and the beginner’s French I have learnt at secondary school. In the Balkans, the second language seems to be Turkish, followed by Italian or German, none of which I knew. The only English-speaking individuals we have met here in Albania was the son of the hotel owner in Berat, and an Albanian religious student of a Syrian madrasah we encountered by chance at the Edhem Bey Mosque in Tirana. Entering Macedonia, another country with a different language, and in addition to that, an unfamiliar writing script, suddenly was a great, daunting challenge.
What am I doing here? I began to question myself, again. Had I wanted holiday, I could have gone to one of those Western countries where tourist facilities are modern and many people speak several different languages. Transport system is great with clear timetable and definitely not rickety trains.
Alternatively, I could have gone to Algeria as was originally planned. The country was also just being opened to travellers, so adventures would be in abundant, especially I desperately need one, not to mention the advantage of being able to practice speaking French again and picking up a few more Arabic words. Trains and buses are as good as Tunisia and Morocco, they said. And although most Westerners are adviced not to go beyond Algiers, I was rest assured by many Algerians that trip to Mostaghenem and Tlemcen, both great centres of the Shadhiliyyah-Alawiyyah Order, would be trouble-free for Muslim. That sounds perfect to any self-proclaimed, spiritual, barakah-hunting traveller, right?
So why am I here? Just for the sense of adventure and freedom? Being footloose and fancy-free? Or, as one friend put it point blank, ‘simply trying to be stupid?’
I turned to my companion, who had been quiet today and looking morose. I had been doing most of the talking on this trip, while he busied himself with picture taking. He had mentioned, by comparing to his short solitary trip in Italy, from where he joined me on the ferry from Bari across the Adriatic to the Port of Durresi, how he enjoyed Albania more. Travelling with him was great; he made it clear that he did not want to involve in decision-making and would follow whatever I thought good. I did solicit his opinion now and then, more for courtesy rather than feeling compelled to ask. Being easy-going, his manner today was quite unseating. Have I done anything wrong?
“No.’ A short reply. Quite typical of him.
“Do you think we are too rushing?” I had promised him last night before going to bed that we would take a walk around the lake in Pogradeci before leaving. But I did not know it would snow.
“No lah. OK.”
“If everything is OK, then why do you look so gloomy? Cheer up.”
“No mood lah. This snow, and cold, makes me sick. Pening. Otherwise I am fine. If only I can get some sleep.” I retreated and let him took the rest he needed.
Soon, we arrived at Tushemisht. I half-expect it to be a large area, but apart from one wooden restaurant, a shop and a few small café, there was nothing else. The whole settlement seemed only to serve the few travellers and locals who crossed the border, and as it was winter, and snowing, none of them was opened.
I paid the taxi driver 5 Euro, suspiciously thinking that he would ask more by claiming a different charge for our baggage, a tactic employed by a minibus driver in Berat, but no, 5 Euro was all he wanted. That was about £2 each, for the 15 minutes drive; big money already for Balkans standard.
We walked to the small, border control which was manned by two armed soldiers. Both were smoking, unsurprising for people in the Eastern Europe, the Balkans included, are known as heavy smokers, and in the case of Albanians, chain smokers. I handed over our passports. The soldier inside the miniature box hardly ever looked at it, and let us through. I almost complain of the smoothness of the whole process. No questions asked? That was unbelievable. Is not Albania supposed to be hard to get in, hard to get out? That was what one entry at a traveller’s forum warned us about.
Between the Albanian check-point to the Macedonian, there was a stretch of about 2 kilometres walk, on a new tarmac road, along the southernmost periphery of Ohrid Lake. We passed the ‘No Camera’ sign, and walked on until we reached the actual border marked with two welcoming signposts, one each for both republics. Fortunately, the weather had obscured the view, and feeling certain that guards on both end would not be able to notice us taking pictures beneath the signposts, we posed and snapped pictures of the historic moment.
The road that we were on was not part of the Roman trading highway, Via Egnatia, serving the Port of Durresi, on the Adriatic shore, to the port of Saloniki (modern Thessaloniki), on the Aegean Sea. That road, after leaving Elbasan, went via the northern side of Ohrid Lake, to Ohrid city before moving on to Bitola.
However the route that we were on could have been used by the celebrated Muslim traveller and geographer, al-Idrisi, during his travel in the Balkans. He had left Durresi to go to Gjirokaster in southern Albania before visiting Ohrid. In his travelogue, part of Kitab al-Rujiyya, (Book of Roger; so named in honour of the Norman King Roger I of Sicily, in whose court al-Idrisi served as a favourite royal scholar) which today is the top medieval historical reference on the region, he wrote,
‘The road from Durresi to Gjirokaster leaves Durresi on the Adriatic Sea and pursues an inland route in the direction of Constantinople. It passes over Tabarla (??), a distance of two days. This is a town located on a summit of a mountain and it is four days distant from Ohrid. Ohrid (Ukhrida) is a mighty city. It is amply housed and populated. Broad in its scope in trade and in commerce. It is located above pleasing mountains. Near to it is a lake wherein fish is caught by fishermen in skiffs. The lake is situated to the south of the city. It takes three days to circumvent the lake and some of the city is situated by the lake side.’
Idrisi provides valuable information about the Adriatic coast of Yugolavia, including such ports as Kotor, Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Trogir, Sibenik, Zara and as far north as the regions to the south-east of Venice and Trieste. He also supplies an especially valuable itinerary inland from the Albanian port of Durresi towards Constantinople.Also interesting in his account are references to Black Sea coast. A number of these routes meet at key localities, whether the final destination be Belgrade (Bilghradun) or Thessaloniki.
The thought remained a fanciful imagination. Idrisi certainly did not mentioned Pogradeci or Tushemisht in his travel book; both only got mentioned in modern maps and literature after the establishment of Albania and Macedonia borders in recent times.
While I had the chance, I tried to take pictures of Lake Ohrid, one of world oldest lakes. They were all no good. Though it looked great through our eyes, capturing a lake enveloped in thick fogs was a surmountable challenge in my amateur hand. My companion, despising having to wait unnecessarily longer in the snow, sulked and nagged,
‘Wei, hurry up lah. That’s enough lah!’
‘OK, OK,’ I gave up after a few more tries. Ohrid, here as I saw it in its natural settings was grand, and I know very few outsiders passed here to witness Ohrid’s winter beauty. It is no wonder the Miladinov brothers, the Macedonian nationalists fighting for the revival of Macedonian language, wasted no praise for Ohrid,
‘No, no, I can’t live here (Russia); I’m not
The one to fight these choking fogs.
But give me the strength of eagle’s wing
With the majesty to make that homeward flight
To Ohrid’s lake and Struga’s stream.
Where even dawn is warmth to the soul
And the setting sun kindles the peaks,
Beauty itself is native thing
The crystal lakehas a milky cast
Or the wind puts all in an ink-blue shade.
Regard that field and the leafing hill
To see their splendour all aglow.
If my heart could skip to the piper’s notes
As the sun goes down - my dying would be easy.’
T’ga za Jug (Longing for the South)