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Published: October 17th 2016
It has just dawned on me that I have reached a personal Travelblog milestone with this entry - 250 blogs in 10 years, 10,000+ photographs and before I started writing this one, 284,000 words exactly. Skopje Bus Station was calm and orderly. We arrived early for our 0800 hours departure. The breakfast at the hotel didn’t kick off until 0800 hours, so we’d had to sacrifice free nourishment in favour of making the bus departure. We settled in the first café inside for a sausage burek and a Nescafe. The Nescafe turned out to be some form of cold coffee with chocolate trimmings. Nice, but arguably not what was required or expected. The Pristina Express was a minibus. We waited patiently at Peron 1 and watched a sock salesmen shift 4 pairs for a crisp 10 Euro note to a woman about to board a bus to Nis in Serbia. We pulled out just after time into the early morning congestion. The driver skilfully avoided the worst of the first junction by totally ignoring the correct lane and driving up the outside. He calmed down after that, as he had other more important business to attend to on his phone. The
driver’s mobile phone was a succession of calls. In England, he would have been successfully banned from driving inside the first couple of miles – and that is without the change to 6 points per offence. The traffic thinned beyond the outer ring road and there was little to note until the driver braked suddenly, coming to a halt near a roadside cafe. The car behind sounded his horn an scowled across at our vehicle as he overtook. A man with a bag was waiting. The bag collected, all became obvious at the border – we had become the breakfast food chariot for the Border and Customs Police. Sausage sandwich, anyone? Red or brown sauce?
Kosovo – the country or not depending on whether you recognize it – comes with an air of caution. The latest bulletin from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth states amongst other things as follows:
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to the municipalities of Zvečan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic, and to the northern part of the city of Mitrovica.
The frequency of protests in central Pristina has
subsided of late but more are possible in the coming weeks. Protests have the potential to turn violent, you should take care if you see large crowds gathering during heightened political tensions in the city.
There have been violent clashes in the north of Kosovo and incidents involving grenades and vehicle explosions in northern Mitrovica. Residual landmines and other unexploded ordnance remain in Kosovo, although all roads and tracks have been cleared.
It was reassuring to note that all roads were cleared of mines. However I chose to avoid telling the Other Half the mission was on until we got back, just in case she started worrying. The border itself wasn’t intimidating at all. There were no tanks like last year crossing into Transnistria. The driver busied himself with his food delivery service. A Macedonian border guard climbed on and walked up the minibus, matching everybody's ID photos with the person. He the collected the documents and retreated to his hut. I get nervous losing sight of my passport, but they were back in a few minutes. We drove through a 150 metres of No Man's Land and repeated the process.
This time the passports returned with a Kosovan passport stamp inside. I like a good passport stamp, but I am not sure whether this one will cause problems in the future - the Serbs for one are not keen on the existence of the independent nation. The driver disappeared into a nearby office, presumably to seek orders for his lunch delivery service on his return journey. We had arrived in Kosovo.
We picked up a few random passengers, once across the border and sped off through the "Land of the Blackbirds" towards the big city. I didn't see any blackbirds mind. The initial scenery was almost alpine, as the road cut through the pass. A sort of little Switzerland or Austria. The refugees from the Balkan War who now reside there, probably feel very much at home. The Man in the Middle realised I was making my usual mental notes to complete a blog entry. He chipped in with a blog title - a twist of the title from the early 1970s song by Chicory Tip. He knew I would be storing the sights of the journey to be translated into ramblings on our
return. The road soon flattened out on to a plain. It was probably the wheat fields in Communist times, but construction was now going on at a crazy rate. Businesses lined the main highway. The most popular purchases in Kosovo seemed to dictate the selling. There were miles of shops selling ceramics - tiles from Italy a speciality, bathroom equipment, outdoor garden furniture and building materials. Dust was everywhere. Concrete mixers and construction wagons on constant patrol. There were puddles of water everywhere, although hadn't rained. It seem to be dust control in action. The miles passed and still the same until we reached 2nd hand Mercedes heaven - possibly all borrowed from elsewhere. Colour? Black? Certainly Sir. We have 227 black models in stock. The outskirts of Pristina was traffic chaos on a whole new scale. A few of our passengers were dropped on the side of dual carriageway, as we approached the southern end of the city centre. They just walked across the main road, as though it was the most natural next step in life. We remained on the bus, primarily to make sure we knew exactly where the Bus Station was located. The information lady looked
up briefly from her smartphone activities and beckoned us towards Counter 6. The scary, miserable lady spoke little English and was reluctant to sell us a ticket back to Skopje. The general idea was come back later..... come back when you want to leave town. It was a contrast to the super helpful staff at Skopje Bus Station. We then took our turn to cross a dual carriageway to access the city centre on the other side. The initial impressions of Pristina had not been too favourable. It looked bland, the traffic was crazy and Mrs Ticket needed a charm school course in customer relations. We avoided the taxi crew and headed through the maze of tower blocks to Bill Klinton Boulevard. “Klinton” with a K by the way is not a spelling mistake. Bill has his own statue on his Boulevard, although not in the high profile position that you might envisage. It is tucked away on a street corner and in fact the billboard overhead with Bill smiling catches your attention before the statue. The structure is very much the sort of thing you would see all over Eastern Europe – a Lenin looking down, waving at the
...........a work in progress
masses (and in this case congested traffic and construction cranes) It was too high to reach, so I was unable to check the quality of the “bronze”. I suspect it was from the same statue manufacturing school as some of those in Skopje, but it is the thought that counts. At least, this is entitled Bill Clinton with a “C”. Bill ha a special place in the hearts in Kosovo, because he led the charge to recognise their independence. It was possibly a good job he was President at the time rather than a Donald character. History could have been very different, if gunboat diplomacy was the rage in 2008.
We walked up the hill towards the Cathedral. As with many things in Pristina and Kosovo in general, it was best described as “under construction”. The university was opposite and the other pedestrians around us were students on their way to and from lectures. I failed to note that the brand new National Library was just off to one side, so alas no photographs of the said structure. The road opened out on a large square at one end of Mother Theresa Boulevard. A statue of Zahir Pajaziti,
a Kosovan National Hero, stood to our right hand side. The hulk of a communist hotel was opposite. There was a very relaxed European feel to the place, as folk wandered for a coffee, an early lunch or just about their work business. My eyes were drawn to the street art nearby. A giant yellow cat grinned down from above the sign for a Mexican restaurant. The Cat that got the cream - Pristina felt like it was doing OK.
The NEWBORN monument was just ahead. It was unveiled on 17 February 2008, the date of the independence declaration from Serbia. It was originally a bright yellow like that street art cat, but it changes every 17 February. There has been a version in the different flags of the states who recognized Kosovo, a version in camouflage and others. Today, it was sky blue with barbed wire. I have no idea why. A few folk loitered around in front of the monument, so patience was required for a photograph. It was obviously a meeting place –a Left Lion in Nottingham terms. The Man in the Middle took a snap for a Chinese lad, who was
doing his solo tour of the Balkans. The striking building behind was the Palace of Youth & Sport, which despite only being constructed in 1977 is showing signs of crumbling. A large portrait of a KLA top man, Adem Jesheri, looks down from the building over the forecourt and out to the city centre beyond.
There was view over the City or Gradski Stadium from the terrace. It was under renovation, so we could not get any closer. The tried and tested method of checking those gate handles wasn’t going to work here. Kosovo is only recognised by half the world, but FIFA has given it’s blessing. What more do you need, other than a national football team? Oil, perhaps? Kosovo played their first FIFA World Cup qualifying home game recently in Albania, but the signs were that this would be their new home in maybe perhaps a year or so. FK Pristina meanwhile have moved out just to keep those German groundhoppers on their toes. We retreated back to Mother Theresa Boulevard. It was a pedestrian haven for about a mile, which made it a very popular escape from the rest of car crazy Pristina. The
boulevard was lined with pavement cafes and stalls selling everything from sun glasses to cigarettes and rugs in the form of Albanian flags to musical instruments. We walked to the end in the mid-day heat, as far as the Kosovo National Parliament and a giant yellow Domino. The Domino was stranded in the centre of the pedestrian zone. A small child climbed on it, watched by his mother. The pedestrian zone ran out shortly thereafter. A couple of mosques across the road didn’t hold our attention, so the Man in the Middle was unable to repeat his Primark sandals photographs of Skopje. The road beyond was busy with traffic. I noted a coupled of armoured vans with Carabinieri written on the side. Perhaps the Italians were lending a few of their finest para-military police units to help keep law and order? Or perhaps the economy back in Rome is so skint, that they have a second hand car gig going on with the Kosovans. We paused for lunch. Kosovo runs on Euro, so our nominal supply of Macedonian Denars would be no use here. Two small beers and 2 plates of pasta on the terrace came to about 10 Euros.
We had opted for the 2 small beers, as opposed to large ones. The bus journey back to Skopje otherwise could have been a long one. It was a shame, as the local brew was very refreshing. I attempted some street life photographs with the long lense with mixed results. Kosovo came out to lunch and everywhere you looked, the office folk were competing for a table in the outdoor area. It was all very civilized.
The mission complete, we wandered back to the Bus Station. The rest of Kosovo was still at lunch. Alas, the scary, miserable lady at Ticket counter 6 remained in her post. She hadn't been on that customer relations course yet, but we managed to secure 2 tickets back to Skopje for the sum of 5.50 Euros each. The lady at Skopje had assured us that buses are never full. She was wrong. You have been warned. I think the last bus is either 1700 hours or 1800 hours. We had fortunately gone outside early to check the platform and had secured a seat. A number of other passengers were provided with plastic stools to sit on in the aisle of the
minibus. A grown man got off to bid farewell to his brother and mother. He burst into tears, clearly distraught at the prospect of heading to Skopje. Pristina had been interesting, but I wasn't that sad to be heading back across the border. First, we had to get there. You will note the reference to the dangers of Kosovo earlier in the blog, but they have nothing on the chaos created by this particular driver. He had been watching too much Formula 1 and proceeded to dice with death all the way back to border. A car in front of him represented a challenge. A straight bit of road was an opportunity. He played chicken with the oncoming vehicles, ducking in to safety at the last possible moment. On a number of occasions, this blog could have had a very different ending ..... bus crash in Kosovo ..... foreign casualties .....plastic stools crash through windscreen of minibus. However, we arrived back at the border safe and sound and were back in Skopje before dark.
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