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Published: August 7th 2007
Our first view of Albania
Previously, on Camo's Blog;
"When is the next bus to Albania?"
"There is no bus, you can't get to Albania from here!"
The Blog continues;
I put my head in my hands. Everyone we had asked had said there would most likely be services from here. I guess most likely isn't good enough. A glimmer of hope breaks through when the man says "BUT!" I look up like a dog in hope of receiving a treat.
"If you want to go to Ulcinj (Ool-sin), there is a bus at 6am from there to Shkodra in Albania and you can easily get down to Tirana from there."
The problem was it would take several hours to get to Ulcinj and it would mean spending an extra night there waiting for a bus, not to mention the early morning start, an idea that didn't sound too enticing. We picked a spot on a bench to discuss our next move. There was a man who approached us and, like a man trying to sell us stolen watches from his jacket pocket on a dark alley, offered us an intriguing taxi ride. It involved a trip to the border, then promised
In the huge main square
taxi from the border to Shkodra and then assured us a bus would be waiting to take us to Tirana, total cost 35 Euro for the both of us. After a bit of deliberation we decided to take up the offer and away we went. The man turned out to be a decent guy who told us a few jokes about his country.
A transfer occurs of our bags from one taxi to another, the new man who doesn't speak a word of English drives off to the Albanian border. We go through the usual crossing procedure and look at the long road ahead into the depths of Albania. The first thing I noticed was the terrible roads. I mean so bad, I almost thought I was back in Cambodia. The next thing I noticed was hundreds and hundreds of concrete domes sitting in the landscape. Between 1950 and 1985, Enver Hoxha, the leader of the communist party that ruled the country, built over 700 000 mushroom shaped concrete bunkers all throughout the land. His paranoid plan was that, if the country was ever invaded, they would aid in the defense of the nation. A funny anecdote was that
I like it. Much better than the big grey bloc.
the chief engineer had to prove that they were strong enough so he stayed in one while it was blasted with a tank. He survived so, like a young man suffering a bad case of acne, hundreds of thousands of bunkers sprung up on the face of the country.
We were stopped on the way to Shkodra by police. A argument breaks out with the taxi driver waiving his hands and yelling at the cops. He was pointing to his window wipers that werent functioning, a little scary since it was raining. Eventually a few smiles cracked and the driver handed over a couple of cigarettes and a lighter. Away we drive with nothing more said. Apparently most of the corruption that plagued the countries law enforcement has gone, but I guess not all of it.
We arrive in Shkodra. I cant believe my eyes. I am in Europe but a glance out the window would suggest otherwise. Donkeys trudge along the dirt roads, dodging the run down Mercedes Benz that navigate a path through the massive pot holes. Rag clad children play in the dirt with their favourite piece of toy rubbish in the shadow of grey
bloc buildings that are either crumbling or half built. I think to myself, where am I? Europe or South East Asia. The latter only seemed unlikely because of the lack of Asians and the snow capped mountains that guide us south.
We pay the man and heave our bags to a waiting bus ready for departure to Tirana. As we rumble across the crater filled road, the drivers assistant wants money for the trip. We ask how much but he didn't speak English so I wave 10 Euros in front of him shrugging my shoulders as if to say "that's all I have" He pulls out a note of what I assume is the local currency, the Lekė I shrug my shoulders again, I have no Lekė. He huffs and takes a 5 Euro off Rohan then gives him 600 Lekė change. We have absolutely no idea if we just had ripped off or not but since there wasn't much other choice, less than 5 Euro to get us both to Tirana seemed pretty good anyway.
I'm awoken by the wild rocking around of the bus as it climbs up and down the holes in the dirt track
we were on. The were large buildings all around and people start to get off. The driver looks at us in the rear view mirror and yells something about Tirana. We gather our gear and I start to get off bus. He didn't want to wait around to say goodbye so he started to drive off, the problem was I wasn't off and hadn't even got my bag out from underneath the bus yet. My feet land in a thick layer of wet mud that makes up a main road in the capital and I slide down the road towards the baggage compartment of the bus. I catch a strap of my bag but it slips out of my hand as the driver pulls away. I try to run to keep up with the bus but my feet slide in the mud so I have to lunge to grab a corner. It's just enough to pull it out of the compartment onto the mud road as the man speeds off, baggage compartment door open and all. Welcome to Tirana!
We find out where we are, turn onto the main street and schlep along to find a hotel. The Hotel
I have never seen so many bloody Mercs in my life. Tirana
Republika looked good enough so we stepped in, waved our hands at the man who didn't speak English, got a key and a room we had. The roofs were ridiculously low so I bumped my head a few times. The light wiring was crap so every time I bumped my head on the light, it went out. It had to hang exactly the right way otherwise it wouldn't work.
Tirana is a weird city. As a former Communist stomping ground, it portrays all the qualities of such a city. Massive open public spaces, an extremely wide main street and strictly humour free guards carrying automatic weapons protecting old communist buildings. There are certain similarities to Minsk but where it stops is the dilapidated buildings and roads. The centre of the capital, Skėnderbeg Square, is riddled with gaping potholes and there is no order to road rules. There are ridiculously poor areas but areas that you would see in any major Western European city.
Capitalism seems to be taking hold with many new areas seeing quite a good range restaurants, cafes and entertainment venues. Our first dinner was at an awesome restaurant in a entertainment complex. Cafes, billiards, ten
pin bowling and a casino made up an area that was totally surprising. Just like what you would see anywhere in the rich west of Europe. We dined, played billiards, bowled and won a lot of money at the casino on Black Jack. We won so much that Rohan felt a little guilty taking money from such a poor country. We won so much that we only changed money once while in the country.
Another funny aspect of the city is the buildings. After the fall of communism, there was a hurry to do something about the horrible grey buildings that visually polluted the city. So instead of heaps of hideous grey buildings, there are a heap of hideous colourful buildings. All in all it didn't actually look that bad.
Leaving the city was funny. There are two different "Bus Stations". One in one part of the town going to or coming from the north (which is the area we got dropped off). Then there is one in another part of town that has buses going to and from the south. After finding it we asked a man about what time the bus goes to Gjirokastër (Geer-ro-cast-er). The
This is the sort of standard of living available in Albania. Tirana
problem was, as with most locals, he didn't speak English. I said the name of the town and pointed at my watch. He said something in Albanian. No good. I gave him a blank stare. He held up fingers of 8, I assume to say that it left at 8pm that night. The other problem, we wanted to know what time the next morning. After much shrugging of shoulders and waving of hands, he enlisted the help of a random kid who walked past and claimed to speak English. He didn't so that was useless. I got out my mobile, went into the calender and highlighted Saturdays date. "Po, po!" (Yes in Albanian)
"Ahhh, e shtunė!"
I didn't know the Albanian word for Saturday but I remembered the Serbian word for it so threw it out there in hope. "Subota!"
"Po, po Subota!" He was saying yes but shaking his head side to side. I could not work out what the hell was going on. Did he understand or not?. Then I remembered reading. In Albania, unlike nearly everywhere else on earth, the locals shake their heads side to side to say yes and nod their heads up and down
On the way to Gjirokastër
to say no. It is confusing as hell. It's also not so clear cut, its less of a shake and more of a wobble, like you would see on one of those head wobble dogs that people have in their car windscreens. So it was all confirmed, Gjirokastër, Saturday but what time. He obviously couldn't reply so out comes his mobile. He types in 10 and erases it. 12 and erases it. 2 and erases it. I assume it is the times that the buses leave the next day. I point at his phone then at my watch.
"Po" with an Albanian head wobble.
"Oh well" I think to myself. "Best info we can get"
Subota arrives and we show up bright and early (well... 9:50am) to the "Bus Station". This being Albania, when I say bus station, I use the term loosely. On the side of the road is a block of property with a heap of worn out old busses in it. Platforms? HA! Order? Tsk tsk. No this was more akin to a bus graveyard. Buses randomly wedged into whatever free space was available. The ground was all mud and buses had to be constantly moved
to make room for other buses coming and going. It's possibly the most chaotic and disorganised "Bus Station" I have ever been to, still, it worked. We were on the right bus and we left (practically) on time.
The scenery down to Gjirokastër was stunning. Southern Albania is quite a treat with its snow capped mountains and beautiful rivers. If you can ignore the horrible dwellings and dreadful roads, its quite a pleasurable bus trip.
8 LONG hours later, we arrive in what is apparently Gjirokastër. We are shuffled off the bus and a few taxi drivers are keen for our business. We point to a hotel in the LP and with an Albanian head wobble, we are away. We are whisked up the hill into the old town and to a B&B, not quite the place we asked for but for a good price and a decent room, we didn't care. Gjirokastër is one of those places that is a shame. Obviously the bad economy cant pump much money into the place but with one of the most stunning of locations and a 6th century castle looming high above the town, Gjirokastër is brimming with potential. I
stick my head out of the window and look past the mosque, up to the castle then down across the valley to the alpine mountain range in the distance. It's quite a view. The old town is unlike any old town I've been. Cobblestone streets wind through the old grey slate roofed 19th century houses on the rocky slopes, It's actually quite special. Atop the castle is magnificent views and interesting sights, like a metal dome frame that looked like it was left over from 2004 new year celebrations and a bar that was in a dark dungeon. The problem is, the new town. The bottom of the valley holds the most revolting buildings and filthy streets. We went down there in search of internet and found a smoky little room with a few computers. Lunch wasn't special either. I guess it was fair to say we were ready to go to Greece.
Getting to Greece. Well, it worked coming in so going out was no different. In a cab we hopped and away to the border we went. On the way we got the driver to stop so we could get a close look at the Bunkers that
litter the countryside. It was pretty interesting on the inside as they were very small and I definitely didn't feel safe in one. The man soon drops us off, money exchanges hands and leg it across the border.
P.S Hey Chris, sorry I couldn't reply but I ran out of credit. The Albanians are pretty decent people although it was a little hard to get to know them with the language barrier. I guess the ones you ran into have changed since leaving home.
Cheers for the comments all... Keep 'em coming!
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