Train Travel in China – things you need to know

Nanning East Railway Station

Nanning East Railway Station

As I’ve recently made a number of long train journeys on the Chinese Railway system I thought it might be useful to record some information that might make it easier for others to do so in the future. At times doing anything independently in China can be daunting but perhaps up-to-date information, without (hopefully, too much) negativity will help ease the pain. What makes China difficult is the language, the lack of signage that helps when you really need it and the seeming impossibility (at the times you most need it) to find out where to go for the information you are after.

Perhaps the first thing to mention about train travel in China is the fact that the railway stations are becoming vast, huge structures that make European main line railway stations look like small town stops in comparison. Although older stations were big those that are being built now dwarf those of the past and can become a problem for unwary travellers. Added to this is the increase in the number of indigenous travellers (the reason for the huge stations) and a perceived security threat which means that both persons and luggage undergo a check before anyone can enter the main building concourse. (Similar, but not as vigorous, security checks also take place on all the stations of the Beijing Metro system.) This can lead to long queues to even enter the station before you have to look for, and get to, the relevant waiting area/platform.

Nanning East Railway Station - What you can and cannot have in luggage

Nanning East Railway Station – What you can and cannot have in luggage

Buying tickets

The process of buying tickets has improved vastly in the last few years – thanks to the internet. The queues in railway stations used to be interminable – and can still be long – and the system was very confusing (and lack of anything other than Chinese characters over the windows didn’t help). Now you can find out timetables, book and buy tickets on your own computer/smart phone. One site I’ve used with no problems whatsoever is Ctrip. You pay a percentage commission on the ticket price but it saves a lot of problems and the commission is not that great – Chinese railways being relatively cheap compared to those in western Europe.

There is, however, the matter of picking up the actual ticket itself which can be very dependent on the location of the station – some seem to be better organised than others. If you are faced with a seeming infinite number of ticket windows and you haven’t encountered a friendly and helpful staff member then look for a sign in one of the windows that says ‘The dining time is 12.30 – 13.10’ – in English. The actual time might differ slightly but this is the window to which foreigners were directed in the past, before the advent of internet booking. (In Guangzhou Station, for example, this is window 82 in Ticket Office No 3.) Present the printed out voucher (or whatever is on your phone via the app) – a 9 digit number preceded by an E – plus your identification, normally a passport, – a photocopy will do – which has the same information that you filled in at the time of booking.

This process shouldn’t really take that long, it all depends on the queue so it makes sense to arrive at the station in enough time to take account of contingencies.

As even the locals are using the internet for booking tickets there are more and more automatic machines being installed in the major stations. Unfortunately all the instructions are in Chinese and you have to present your ID to an electronic reader. I doubt whether it would accept a foreign document. The installation of these machines is the main reason that queues for tickets no longer go around the block.

The ticket office is sometimes outside of the actual area identified as secure – it seems to very much depend upon local preferences – but be prepared to show ID to enter to get your ticket (and depart if on another day). At some time before getting on to the actual concourse you will have to go through a security scan – of both yourself and your luggage. This might also be before or after your ticket has been checked, either manually or by a machine. I’ve not come across any standardisation in the process. However, it doesn’t normally take too long as there are enough people to process the crowds that go through major Chinese Railway Stations. You will all have read or heard about the ‘greatest migration in human history outside of war’ that takes place every year during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) but that movement goes on every day in numbers which are unimaginable in Europe.

Guangzhou Railway Concourse

Guangzhou Railway Concourse

At the station

Once on the concourse you can normally forget any helpful signs in English and you have to depend upon your own wits and common sense. It seems as if all the signage up to now has been designed with the distinct aim of trapping you into a sense of complacency. Apart from anything else watch what others do – and on your first time through a station arrive in plenty of time so you can learn enough of the basics without getting into a panic as the clock ticks.

Use the combination of the train number and the time to identify your particular train and to learn the number of the platform. The barrier in the waiting room won’t be opened much more than about 20 minutes or so before the train’s scheduled departure time. Once it does there will normally be a stampede but as seats are allocated you don’t have to join the rush – as with the rush to get on planes this panic is so that people can store their luggage in the limited space.

Depending upon the age of the station there will possibly be two gates, one with a blue notice and one with a red one above them. These refer to the colour of your ticket. Blue is for the vast majority of travellers. The red is for those who have requested some sort of special assistance or who fall into the category of being accorded a privileged status. This includes the elderly and the disabled. As a foreigner it would not be considered amiss if you counted yourself in this category and would normally pass through the red channel without difficulty. In China foreigners are considered to be not quite complete people and together with the idea that you are a guest in their country this situation creates a strange relationship. The red tickets are checked manually and the blue (normally) go through the automatic gates. The gates are likely to close 5 minutes before the train’s scheduled departure time.

Although, from my experience, the trains in China are quite reliable I did encounter a couple of cancellations. That would have been less of a problem if I had been able to understand the signs. If you see something similar to that in the picture below, or a board with a paper sign appears the other side of the barrier where you expected to leave, then head straight to the booking office to exchange your ticket for the next available train. Any delay might mean you will find that seats are limited or non-existent on the next train to your destination. Although the railway company must know of these cancellations long before the train is due they tend to leave any notification of this to the very last minute.

Cancelled Train Notice

Cancelled Train Notice

Once through those gates the ticket will not be checked as you get on the train UNLESS you have a sleeping berth. That ticket will be checked by the attendant standing smartly to attention at the door of the carriage. In the sleeping carriages, soon after departure, you will hand your ticket to the attendant and you will be given another card in its place. This is so the attendants know exactly where you are getting off. This can be very handy if you are due to arrive at your station at three o’clock in the morning. You effectively get a knock up call just in case you oversleep. The returned ticket will then allow you to exit the station.

At intermediate stations the passengers who are leaving the train will get off before the new passengers are allowed on the platform – at least at the larger stations and cities. This avoids any mad crush as people rush for all available space.

It might be worthwhile here emphasising that there’s no real notice given about when the train will depart – for example there are no announcements made on the platform or in the train itself. Yes an announcement will be made (although only in Chinese) about where the train is bound, where it has come from and on which platform it can be found but not its imminent departure. This means that if you are one of those who likes to get off at stations don’t stray too far way from your train so you can keep an eye on departure preparation activity.

Sleeping and overnight trains

As we’re on the sleepers some more information. The sleeping compartments are basically of two kinds, called soft and hard sleepers. It doesn’t mean that in the hard sleeper you are sleeping on hard wooden boards, the difference between the two is the soft has four berths and the hard six to each compartment. In the ‘hard’ carriage this makes for a tight squeeze (66 people in total in 11 bays) and seating space is at a premium once everyone wakes up. In the ‘soft’ the space is useable during the day as well as the night without anyone really being put out as the compartments are those that used to exist on virtually all railway systems before the introduction of open carriages. The ‘soft’ compartments have doors whilst the ‘hard’ open directly out into the corridor – so the level of privacy is very different.

Soft Sleeper Compartment

Soft Sleeper Compartment

The difference in price between the two is, very roughly, about 30%. On the other hand a simple seat would cost half the price of a hard sleeper and a third of that of the soft sleeper.

The beds will be partially made up when you board. The pillow and duvet piled up at one end – that’s for you to sort out how and when you wish. The temperature is normally quite well controlled in these carriages but you will probably welcome the warmth that the duvet provides in the early hours of the morning, if not before.

In each compartment of the soft beds there will be a water flask in a container on the floor and beside that a small rubbish bin. There will also be one power socket which accepts the two small round pin plug and the two or three flat pin plug. You are amongst the privileged in this day and age. Power is at a premium for charging mobile phones and there are no sockets in the seating carriages of the train (apart from the High Speed Trains). That means that after someone has been on the train for any length of time they will be searching for a power socket with the same intensity as a junkie looking for his/her fix. As a foreigner, especially if you are in a carriage by yourself/selves, and the door is open during the day you are quite likely to get asked for access to this source of such importance.

There are also a couple of sockets in the corridor of the carriage and these also get visits from the hoi poloi. However to get power from these sockets you are very much out in the open and are more likely to be chased by the attendants if seen. In the compartments they are more likely to get away with being in a part of the train where they are not technically supposed to be. Whether they get chased very much depends upon the attendants. Travel ‘soft sleeper’ and you are travelling in the small, First Class section of the particular train. Why, when everyone knows that the demand for power is so great that sockets aren’t available in all parts of the train is a question I’m not even going to bother to ask.

Soft Sleeper Corridor

Soft Sleeper Corridor

At the head of each berth there is a reading light so you can continue to read or whatever once the main light has been switched off. From my experience Chinese travellers are early to bed once the train gets moving (the same happens on long distance buses as well) and there won’t be a great deal of movement after 22.00.

Each compartment door can be locked from the inside. If you do so you can expect to be awoken in the middle of the night if someone has a berth booked in your compartment. They can always get in quietly by getting the attendant to open the door with their key but someone might be impatient to get to bed themselves. However, the lock does provide a greater security and peace of mind.

In the corridor there are fold down seats between the windows. These are useful places if you find the compartment a little claustrophobic and it offers an opportunity to look out the window and contemplate the problems of the world – although this is one of the reasons for undertaking such long distance train journeys in the first place, isn’t it?

At one end of the carriage there will be a constant supply of hot drinking water from a boiler. This causes a constant stream of visitors either to make tea or to rehydrate the box of E number chemicals that pose as food under the name ‘instant noodles’.

Most such carriages also have a toilet at either end. It’s likely that one of them will be the squat version. Bring your own toilet paper – you should be doing that as you travel anyway. At one end there will be the carriage attendant’s room and next to that will be a wash room with three wash basins and cold water taps.

Smoking is not permitted at the seats or in the sleeping compartments on these types of trains (the more ‘traditional’ type compared with the high speed versions now more common on the Chinese railway where smoking if forbidden throughout) but is permitted in the area between carriages so don’t be surprised to get a whiff of the acrid smell of burnt tobacco from time to time.

Eating

There will be a restaurant car, very likely next to the carriage/s with the soft sleeper berths which are normally in the middle of the train. This was problematic a few years ago as the staff would be reluctant to approach a foreigner if they couldn’t speak any English. To avoid a problem of communication you could be ignored. That has changed now and menus will in English as well as Mandarin and the staff might also be more competent in English. Travellers have to be reasonable in these situations – how many workers on European railways are multilingual, especially in the UK? A simple dish, which includes rice, will cost (in 2017) about 30 RMB – about £3.00.

However, if you choose not to go to the restaurant car trolleys constantly ply along the corridor during the whole of the journey selling the sort of cold convenience foods that are found in supermarkets, the likes of crisps and Chinese speciality snacks as well as the ubiquitous ‘instant noodles’. Fruit wrapped in cling film will also make a showing. At recognise meal times (around 06.00, 12.00 and 18.00) one or two hot meal options will be available, freshly made in the restaurant kitchen, for example, hot porridge and noodles for breakfast. If you are keen on alcohol then you have to bring it yourself – it’s not sold from the trolleys that ply the corridors and neither is it available at station stops when there might be more than a few minutes before departure.

From my experience they can move through the soft sleeper carriages quite quickly as often many of the doors will be closed so you either have to listen out for them and move quite fast or hang around the entrance of the compartment at meal times. As an example of price, in 2017, a bowl of breakfast noodles, which I thought were tasty enough, was 10 RMB, about a pound sterling.

Eating is different on the High Speed Trains. There’s no restaurant as such, the journeys being of a much shorter duration, and meals and drinks will be brought to your seat once it has been ordered from the staff who pass along the carriages. A basic meal and a drink will cost about 25 RMB, about £2.50. There are also power points at each seat – although their location makes using them with an adapter impossible.

Staying connected

Free WiFi is also on offer in the soft sleeper area. I found this a bit hit and miss. You connect to the provider on the list that looks like a list of symbols and shows ‘excellent’ as the level of reception. A screen will come up with all the instructions in Chinese but below them is a large green button. I found I had to click on that to get any further. On my journeys the reception was erratic. It will also send alarm signals to your email server who will send security messages to the allocated email address.

Beijing Railway Station Platform

Beijing Railway Station Platform

‘Essentials’ for long distance, over-night travel

Virtually all passengers who will be travelling overnight in a sleeping compartment will change into the sort of clothing that they would have if they were in their own homes – in Asia there’s a distinct demarcation line between the ‘street’ and the home. And if only for one or two nights the train becomes the home. So after arriving in smart outdoor clothing most of the passengers will be seen dressed in the likes of track suits – both the men and the women. A pair of slippers or flip flops would also be useful.

It’s unlikely that anyone would really have trouble sleeping in the soft sleeper. Apart from the creaks and groans, squeaks and moans from the train carriages themselves you are, more or less, insulated from the rest of the world. That might not be the same in the hard sleeper carriages where there is a higher concentration of people, together with their snores and nightmares. At least there it is dark when people go to sleep, that is not necessarily the case in the seating parts of the train.

Wherever you might find yourself there’s a local solution to sleeplessness which also includes an element of local culture. That is to drink the Chinese liquor baijiu. This is, normally, made from grain and is a clear liquid. Normally around 52% proof a couple of these will knock out most people if they have had a long day travelling.

There are a couple of hurdles, nonetheless. Some of the cheaper options can smell similar to paint stripper so it’s not a drink to appreciate in the same way as you might a half decent wine. Next is overcoming the first mouthful. You know how strong it is as the lips become slightly numb on first contact. As the liquid passes down the throat the burning sensation lasts only a short time as it takes a small piece of the lining with it. After that it’s plain sailing. A few of these and you will be the one keeping everyone else awake. And it won’t, unless you really want to, break the bank. A bottle of 500ml in a local supermarket cost 10.80 RMB – that’s equivalent to just over a pound sterling.

Another ‘essential’ is a box of tea bags. I’m old enough to remember Lipton’s tea in the UK. You don’t see it there at all now but whoever owns Lipton’s doesn’t care as it has an intro in some of the most populous countries on the planet. Why worry about the demise of the corner shop in England when they can sell their products in hundreds of thousands of locations in China with a population of 1.5 billion and climbing. Such goods are ‘aspirational’ for those who want to consider themselves internationalists in the new capitalist China and although the tea might not be as good as that produced for the tea ceremonies it is more than adequate for a lengthy train journey. As stated before hot water is permanently available in the public areas of the train.

Another travelling essential is an unbreakable drinking container. I favour the stainless steel cups that are used for water in Indian vegetarian restaurants. Cheap and virtually indestructible when travelling.

High Speed Trains

The network of High Speed Trains is expanding so rapidly in China that the slower way of travelling might be under threat in the near future. But it comes, at a price, literally. For example, on a High Speed Train, the journey from Nanning (in Guangxi) to Beijing will take just under 14 hours and will cost: 914 RMB 2nd Class, 1,379 RMB 1st Class and 2,853 RMB Business Class. On the other hand the slower, overnight train will take 23½ hours and will cost: 751 RMB Soft Sleeper and 487 RMB Hard Sleeper. It all depends upon whether you are time or money poor.

The fast rains have their charm, reaching speeds of 310 Km per hour, but like all high speed trains around the world the experience is sterile and you feel separate from the environment through which you are travelling.

 

Resistance – Monument to the struggle against Fascist invasion in Durres

Resistance - Durres

Resistance – Durres

Being the main port of invasion by the Italian Fascists on 7th April 1939 it’s not a surprise that in commemoration of that event, and especially the resistance that was shown by a significant proportion of the population (but not the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog who ran away as soon as the Italian ships came into sight) that there are a few monuments to this, constructed in the Socialist period. One is to the individual sacrifice of Mujo Ulqinaku (that used to stand close by the Venetian tower at the bottom end of town) and the other is to the general principle of ‘Resistance’ in Durrës, which is located right next to the waterfront and very likely one of the places the Italian fascists would have landed.

But in 2017 the population of Durrës doesn’t have much respect for Resistance to any foreign invasion. In fact the more foreign goods, foreign fast food and foreign culture they can access the better. In some senses more of a necessity than a wish as they have overseen the wholesale destruction of any industry which might provide them with the basic necessities of life. And, of course, how can anyone possibly survive without the internationally recognised destroyer of teeth and promoter of obesity, the obnoxious fluid sold under the name of Coca Cola?

But back to a time when Albanians had dignity, knew what true independence was and embodied the principles of resistance in their daily lives.

When a monument ceases to have relevance then it no longer gets treated with respect and that has been the fate of this lapidar – as well as with many others throughout the country. Apart from physical damage to some of the elements of the structure it is a constant victim of graffiti attack, the mindless, illiterate scribblings of those with nothing meaningful to say but say it anyway. At least political graffiti would demonstrate some form of human thought.

‘Resistance’ has architectural elements as well as sculptural.

You approach the monument via a few very low, but very wide steps. You are then in a circular space with a series of eleven columns on your right which rise to a height of about 3 metres and on that highest column stands the personification of ‘Resistance’ in the form of a Partisan fighter. Radiating out at 90 degrees to these columns, gradually coming down to ground level even as each of the columns gets higher is a feathering effect. This effect is also produced on the left hand side as you look at the statue but here the feathering is much lower to start with and much wider as well.

If you can imagine the furled wing of a bird you might understand the impression the architect is attempting to re-create. For this is a symbolic reference to the eagle, the double-headed version of which is, and has been for a few centuries now, the national emblem of Albania. This device has been used in the most recent development of the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Borove, just to the south of Ersekë, and for the construction of (the now derelict) mausoleum and museum to Enver Hoxha in Tirana.

The problem with this idea is that it is very difficult to appreciate the idea from ground level. It might well be more evident from an aerial view but that is not possible for the vast majority of onlookers. So in Durrës (as in Borove and Tirana) you have to use a little bit of imagination.

On the facade of four of theses columns, facing the inner circle, are images which tell a little bit of the history of Durrës and Albanian Resistance.

Resistance to the Romans

Resistance to the Romans

On the 7th from the right we have the ancient, Greco-Romano history of the town. Carved into the stone is a circular, Roman shield and surrounding it the weapons that would have been used at the time: a short sword, an axe and a number of different types of spears, together with a helmet with a crest.

Resistance to the Ottomans

Resistance to the Ottomans

On the 8th one in we are brought a little closer up to date. This is the time of the nationalist ‘hero’ Skenderbeu. We know that as the large shield towards the right has a double-headed eagle design (it was from the time of Skenderbeu that this symbol was adopted as a sign of Resistance to any foreign invader). This was in the 15th century. Here we have the weapons in use in warfare from that period: a long, broadsword, possibly arrows, spears and the curved blade, long poled axe that was used to hack away at the enemy. Examples of these can be seen in the National Historical Museum in Tirana.

The third lesson in history is on the next column, the ninth and this brings us up to the 20th century. At the bottom there’s a symbolic reference to the waves on the sea. This references Durrës as this image is part of the town’s coat of arms. Curving from the top left to the centre is an ammunition belt – eight clips with five bullets apiece. On the right hand side, taking up the whole height of the panel, is a rifle.

Resistance to Italian Fascism

Resistance to Italian Fascism

The top end of the barrels of a couple of rifles peek out from behind the ammunition belt on the left hand side. This modern weaponry frames an axe, a pickaxe and a couple of pitchforks. This, to me covers a couple of inter-related periods. It makes reference to the war for National Liberation (which took place between 1939 and 1944) and also to the construction of Socialism where the use of arms would be necessary to defend the revolution from attack, both from within and without.

The final symbol, which is on the facade of the column upon which the Partisan statue stands, is a large, black metal plaque of a double-headed eagle. Unlike the one on the shield of the Skenderbeu era this one has a star above the two heads. This is the star of Communism which was added to the national symbol from 1944 to 1990. This star, whether it was red originally or not I don’t know, is missing, whether as a result of political vandalism, opportunist souvenir hunting or by someone to care for it so that it can be returned in a future Socialist Albania.

The statue itself embodies many of the attributes seen on a number of lapidars throughout the country. The figure itself is rushing forward, weapon at the ready, but he is also looking backwards calling upon others, out of sight to come and join the fight. This is depicted elsewhere on Albanian lapidars such as the monumental Arch of Drashovicë and the statue of Mujo Ulqinaku in Durrës itself – but exact location unknown at this moment.

But there’s much more dynamism, more urgency here. He cannot stretch his legs any further, he gives the impression of needing to rush to the front, to engage the enemy. When there’s an invasion there’s no time to consider the options. Only those who are prepared to live under a foreign yoke, the future collaborators, the sycophants and cowards, will hesitate, ‘weigh up the options’ and then capitulate. This fighter, this Communist, this patriot does not hesitate.

He doesn’t wear a uniform as such as at the time of the Italian invasion in 1939 the so-called Royal Albanian Army was so much in a collaborative role with the Italians that official resistance melted away. It was up to a few individual soldiers, such as Mujo Ulqinaku, or armed civilians to resist the invasion. Although they were far too outnumbered in 1939 to succeed in preventing the country from being occupied the action of workers such as those at the tobacco factory and the growing number of those who joined the Partisans in the subsequent five years meant that the country was finally liberated at the end of November 1944.

He’s bare-chested and it looks like his shirt has been torn off his body and it hangs in shreds, flowing behind him as he rushes forwards. In general there’s nothing to distinguish him from any other national hero, racing to take on the enemy but there’s one little, unique indication that this is an Albanian patriot.

'Opinga' bag

‘Opinga’ bag

Hanging from a thin leather strap, that goes around his neck and rests against his left thigh, is a small bag. It looks very much like an opinga (the traditional leather shoe) with decoration on its facing and edges. I’ve not seen this elsewhere and can only think that when modern dress became more common, especially in a city like Durrës where more people would have been involved in manufacturing industry or dock related activities, these reminders and remainders of the past would have taken on a secondary role.

The official name of the monument is:

“Monumenti i Rezistencës.”

Which translates as:

‘Resistance Monument.’

Which was ‘dedicated to the armed struggle of the Albanian people against the fascist occupation of Italy on April 7, 1939.’

This lapidar is the combined work of Hektor Dule and Fuat Dushku (1930-2002) but I don’t know which of them (if either) was the originator of the architectural aspect of the monument. Dule also created the Mushqete Monument at Berzhite and the bas-relief to Skenderbeu in Gjirokaster. Dushku was one of the sculptors who worked on the ‘Four Heroines of Mirdita’ that was created in 1971 and used to stand in Rrëshen. That was criminally destroyed by the local reactionary so-called ‘democrats’.

Signatures

Signatures

This is quite a late lapidar as, according to the inscription under the right foot of the fighter, the statue was created in 1989. This inscription is also quite unusual. It has the names of the two sculptors, H Dule and F Dushku and then the letters QRVA followed by the number 89. QVRA which stands for Qendra e Realizimit te Veprave te Artit, translating to Art Work Realization Centre. This is the name of the (State) foundry in Tirana where virtually all the lapidars in the country, from the late 60s to the end of the 80s, were forged. It’s also the place where many of those that were torn down in the 90s were melted down to construct some of the monstrosities that is contemporary, capitalist Albanian sculpture. This foundry at one time employed 40 people, more or less, full time. That went down to just 5 a few years ago and then was torn down to make way for expensive, luxury flats.

This is the first time I’ve seen these initials on a lapidar. In the post on Liri Gero and the 68 Girls of Fier I made a bit of a digression discussing the idea of the artists NOT putting their names on their work. This did not mean that their work was not appreciated or respected but the artist was only one cog in the machine. The finished work of art was the culmination of the work of many and if one name should be on it why not all the others?

It was only when that principle was being challenged, especially after the death of Enver Hoxha in 1985, that the sculptors’ names started to appear on the finished work. And here, in addition, we have the place it was made. This no more or less than branding. If they had been able to continue making such statues they would have been stamping the © (copyright) sign on the base.

They didn’t realise that the more they adopted capitalist methods the shorter would be their future. Such foundries, workshops only exist in the capitalist countries with the patronage of the rich – just as it was in the Renaissance. There aren’t many of those in Albania and so the foundry died. I don’t have much sympathy for those with such myopia – whether they be foundry workers or sculptors.

Condition:

As can be seen from the pictures the plinth and the surrounds are uncared for and there’s various graffiti on the columns. The columns provide steps for children to climb and they often do. However, the statue itself seems to be untouched by the vandalism and is in a good condition.

Location:

In the park beside the water, in the older part of town, beside Rruga Taulantia, and a hundred metres or so west of the Venetian Tower (and the original location of the monument to Mujo Qlqinaku).

GPS:

N41.30936204

E19.44467501

DMS:

N41º 18′ 33.70”

E19º 26′ 40.83”

Altitude:

1.7m

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

There are fine examples of Socialist Realism in the Armaments Museum in the Castle in Gjirokastra, but you might have to ask to go upstairs to enter this older part of the museum – especially out of the summer season. ‘Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military’ is one such sculpture.

The Castle in Gjirokastra is the place to visit for any tourist to the city. Not only is it an interesting place historically it also affords a fine view of the old town below as well as the fertile valley (now no longer farmed) and the mountain ranges in the distance. The Armaments Museum is located upstairs, off the main vaulted artillery gallery, just to the left of the new, very much bland, most recent museum manifestation. This is not always open so you may have to look for someone who has the keys but it shouldn’t be a problem and it’s well worth the effort.

The museum was opened in 1971 in what used to be part of the Castle Prison, used extensively in the days of Ahmet Zogu, the pre-war dictator and self-proclaimed king. (The entrance to the prison cells is off the corridor to the Armaments Museum so make the time and the effort to see this part of the castle. At the end of the cells look for the sculpture of The Two Heroines by Odhise Paskali, which commemorates the murder of two female Communist Partisans by the Nazis during the Liberation War.) When society collapsed in the 1990s this museum, along with many throughout the country, was looted of many of its antiquities and anything that was considered of value, as well as attacks on many example of socialist art. However, a number of examples still exist to this day.

(There was obviously discontent within the population and the reasons for that have to be studied and lessons learnt for the future. What is certain is that reactionary, fascist and lumpen elements rode on the back of this discontent and they were responsible for the mindless looting of the country’s many museums (the museum in Bajram Curri is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever entered) as well as the book burning that took place in Skënderbeg Square in Tirana.)

Here I want to just concentrate on one of the statues to be found in the section of the museum that tells the story of the anti-Fascist struggle of the Albanian people under the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party (later known as the Party of Labour of Albania) led by Enver Hoxha.

The sculpture was inspired by the novel ‘The General of the Dead Army’ by the Gjiroskaster born Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. The writer, who achieved fame during the Socialist period of Albania’s past, left the country for the capitalist west when everything fell apart in the 1990s – like many ‘patriotic’ intellectuals.

This statue, which I’m calling Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military (as I don’t know its official name) depicts a woman, larger than real size, with her right arm outstretched and her finger pointing into the distance indicating that the other two individuals should ‘Go’ – to where we do not know but the impression we get is that they are not wanted here – ‘here’ being Albania.

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

We know that she is Albania as there are many representations of her throughout the country, most notably the huge statue of Mother Albania that holds the red star in her upraised hand in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in the hills overlooking Tirana. The sensation on looking at this woman is that she is strong and determined, not just physically but in the way that she exudes confidence. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. And one way to make sure that she gets what she wants is the possession of the rifle, the barrel of which she holds in her left hand as it rests on the ground.

And it’s common to see women armed in the many lapidars (Albanian monuments) that still exist throughout the country. This can be seen on works of art as diverse as the mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana to the statue in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Lushnje to the (now sadly abandoned and discarded) commemoration to the young heroine of the National Liberation War, Liri Gero

(Here it might be useful to remind readers, or inform them if they didn’t know before, that the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania (as the Albanian Communist Party was known throughout the period of socialist construction) was: ‘To build socialism holding a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other.’ And this should be remembered when analysing those works of art produced in that period. This meant that the success of socialist construction depended upon armed workers and peasants, ever vigilant against attempts to destroy workers’ power. This has its parallel in the history of Chinese Communism with the famous quote from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.)

We also know the woman is Albania as her skirt morphs into the mountains of the country. Those mountains define the country. They have shaped the culture, determined its history, formed its economic development, delineated its tribal and ethnic structure, moulded the thinking of its people and provided the environment in which they were able to resist invaders for centuries. As well as all that those mountains provide the visitor with some of the finest scenery in southern Europe.

So the woman arises from, emerges out of, the soil of Albania, she is a result of the history that has gone before, she is part of a tradition that fights against ignorance, oppression and death. And those elements are represented by the two other characters in the sculpture, much smaller physically than the women, again a statement of their respective relevance to the country.

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy (detail)

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy (detail)

One is the priest. He wears the traditional dress of a Catholic priest at the early part of the 20th century. We know he’s Catholic as he clasps a Bible in his hands, there’s a cross inscribed on the front cover. If the woman is confident he is the opposite. He is bent almost double and looks afraid and unsure of himself. He looks questioningly at the other individual. Is he after answers, reassurance, support? That’s for us to decide. What we do know is that he’s not going to get any of what he may be after. By expelling him from the country Albania is ridding the country of ignorance, superstition and obscurantism.

That’s because the other is not concerned with the priest, he’s more concerned for himself. He’s scowling and has an angry look on his face. He’s probably as angry at the priest as he is at Albania; one is throwing him out of the country and the other weak and clinging. He is dressed in some sort of uniform, with a long trench coat, and represents all the rest of the problems that the Albanians had endured over the years such as the self-proclaimed king – who was also an oppressive landlord in his own right – as well as the dictatorial military regime. These forces of reaction produced nothing but death, represented by the skulls which he holds in a cloth in his hands and which can be seen under his coat, at his feet.

In the sculpture Albania is banishing these feudal remnants from the country forever but history has shown that if the workers are not vigilant then those same forces defeated one year will come back the next, and with a vengeance, if they are given the opportunity.

The statue could do with a bit of dusting – but then many of the museums throughout the country suffer from neglect to one extent or another. Nonetheless this is a fine example of socialist realist sculpture still on (limited) show in Albania.

(Albania is in a bit of a quandary about its past (a situation that you also experience in the erstwhile Soviet Union). If it ignores the anti-Fascist struggle against both the Italian and German invaders, which was led to victory by the Communist Partisans, then there’s not much to put in the museums. It might not be wise to remind the people of the condition of their grandparents when that existence was one of feudal oppression in the 20th century. Economic ‘liberalisation’ also means that the museums are being starved of resources and I’ve not found it so easy to get the information I would like (at least so far) and cannot provide accurate details about all the works of art I hope to post on the blog. So if any reader has any information then I would be grateful if they could pass it on. Perhaps then the picture of Albanian Socialist Realist Art will be more rounded.)