Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Oh man. We're in Albania now. A different country and, oh boy, an entirely different world.

We arrived in Albania a couple of days ago - Monday. Our final night in Montenegro was spent in the company of Vekac, drinking. Me and Vakec on pissy lager and Simon on the hard stuff - mineral water. Simon's off alcohol right now, the big gay poof, because he's paranoid that it's giving him "problems". The only thing giving me problems in the last few days is the godawful toilet situation. Foreigners, come on. Toilets are not sophisticated inventions - they've been around for 100 years. At the very least, given that we've got to turd into a damn hole and bring our own toilet paper, at least give us a damn door to the toilet. Do you really think I'm going to go in public? Sort this foreigners - now.

Monday morning then and only suffering mildly from the effects of pissy lager, we were up for 7am and got the 9am bus, after a farewell to our Serbian metalworker hosts. We'd stayed the night in the supplies building, which was infested with insects and I'm still itching from the various insect attacks to my arms. That damn divebombing fly was about too. He was in Miskolc, Koper and Kotor too, bizzing around before divebombing loudly into your ear. I'm sure it's the same one. I've seen him a few times and each time he's looked identical.

To Podgorica then, the unremarkable capital of Montenegro. Our plan was to go to Albania so we checked out the bus times. Hmm... no buses to Albania. We checked out the train times. Hmm... no trains to Albania. In fact, Montenegro really didn't want anybody to go to Albania. A bus to Istanbul, no problem, but not one to the country just 30km away. Further checking revealed a single bus to Prishtina (Kosovan capital) at 7am. Meaning we'd have to hang around for a day in nondescript Podgorica, with no apparant cheap accomodation.

Thank God for taxi drivers - and that's something I never expected to say. Seeing us sit at the bus station with our backpacks, one approached us, and he spoke good functional English. He said he'd take us to the Albanian border for 40DM in total - about 13 pounds. Less than 7 pounds each, and after consideration we reckoned this to be a pretty good deal. Nema problema, we told him, and off we set.

t didn't take us long to realise why there was no bus service to Albania. The road, winding through the mountains, was single-track and in fast decay. Even our friend the taxi driver wasn't able to drive fast. He did however warn us a number of times as to the barbaric nature of all Albanians, and that it was very dangerous over there. His concern was touching, obviously, but didn't extend so far as to not drive us there and not get his money, and so we duly arrived at the remote and dusty border controls between Montenegro and Albania. Bleak hills all around with just a reedy lake to interrupt them.

Getting across was no big hassle. The Montenegran border police were rather fun actually, seemingly impressed by our small knowledge of Serbian (aka Croatian, Bosnian), and laughed and joked with us. The Albanians were a little more sour, and we had to pay $30 for the privilege of entering their country. You damn swines.

Our options once across into Albania were limited. Walk for many hours, or get another taxi. Fortunately, the Albanian speaking taxi driver who approached us only wanted 20DM to take us to Shkodra, a town in the very far north of Albania. This seemed a fair deal, and our only option anyway, so we said "Po!" (yes in Albanian, we weren't just gabbling) and off we went.

Albania is just one big farming community, as we soon discovered upon driving along the bumpy, narrow road to Shkodra. With dark mountains silhouetted in ther background, all around was a steady stream of small farming crofts. Not unlike how I imagine Britain might have been many years ago. Just heaps of small farms scattered up until the foot of the mountains. The only thing suggesting the 21st century being this dusty road cutting the land in two, with Mercedes taxis motoring along and beeping at every possible occasion. Oh yes, the Albanians sure do love their car horns.

We arrived in Shkodra, but it took us a while to realise we'd actually arrived in this town of 80,000, as it really just appeared to be a slightly more concentrated area of farming houses, until arriving in what I presume was the town centre, a noisy, beeping, filthy mess of cars, mud, dust, horses and carts, people, bicycles, stalls and anything else the Albanians cared to throw in. We were dropped off by the "bus station" (a dirty road with some transit vans, I kid you not) and almost immediately were dragged into a travel ageny by a man and woman.

Here is what the foriegn office website says about north Albania - "There is still the possibility of threats from armed criminal gangs in the far north..."

Here is what the Lonely Planet book says about it - "Once in Albania, general caution can be observed by never travelling at night and avoiding the northern part of the country, where banditry is particularly widespread"

Here is what all Serbians told us about Albania - "ALL ABANIANS ARE DANGEROUS BANDITS"

And here is what, basically, this man and woman in the Shkodra travel agency told us about Shkodra - "Never go out at dark","Never go out at dark, especially down this certain, main, street","Lock your hotel doors" and, what they concentrated on mostly, "Two months ago, two Czech brothers and a Czech girl came backpacking in Shkodra. They haven't been seen since, no trace of them exists."

I was beginning to feel a little unsafe.

We talked to this man and woman for ages. Well sort of. The woman was called Nevila (yes, a female Nev, I was most delighted) and the older man, Izet. Nevila seemed to speak multiple languages, including English, but preferred to communicate with Simon in German, and occasionally French, so my understanding of matters was sometimes limited. More than poor Izet though, who was limited to Albanian, and perhaps Italian. They appeared hugely concerned for our safety, and we must have stayed in that travel agency for about an hour, with this mostly German conversation taking place. Eventually, they said they'd find us accommodation, although I must stress for any future backpackers hoping to use them for such a purpose - they are a travel agency, not an accommodation agency. However, they do tours of Albania for groups, and so if any groups reading this are interested in tours of Albania, which I believe would actually be rather more interesting than your bollocky tours of France, get in touch with me or Simon and we'll set you up with them, ok?

The accommodation, conveniently, was in a hotel just across the road, the short distance perhaps minimising the risk of us getting slaughtered by bandits. It cost $10 altogether, which was a very decent price. They took us across and sorted all the details out with the receptionist, and told us to check back at their travel agency at 11.30am the next day, where they'd sort us out for a bus (ie tranist van) to Tirana. They also gave us an emergency phonenumber to call in case we looked like going the same way as these poor Czech backpackers.

So once in our pokey little hotel room, hiding under the bed for the night suddenly seemed a good option. But the sun was still shining and so with a deep breath, we hit the town.

It wasn't so dangerous, except for the highly erractic driving, and proliferation of big holes in the pavement, and soon we were speaking English to each other in more than a terrified whisper. The streets were filled with stalls selling local farm produce - fruit and vegetables mainly - and heaps of other stuff like clothes, tobacco, fish and wooden stuff. It was very clear that the people on the many farms in the badlands outlying Shkodra simply came into town each day to sell whatever they had. There were a few shops in town, but all small local things. No big chains, although coke and pepsi were, as ever, present. The streets were filthy, wrecked affairs, covered in mud and litter and horse crap, with broken and uneven paving stones. The whole scene was of a messy chaos as cars and vans chugged by, overtaking horses, and beeping their horns continually.

We spent a while just wandering, until light started to dim. Perhaps unwisely then, we actually wandered down this very street we'd been told not to go to at dark. It wasn't a conscious decision, we just happened to wander down it looking for a cafe, as it was a big street, and it was as we reached the end we suddenly thought "Oh, hang on..." By a junction in the road stood several police and several more balaclava-clad men holding what appeared to be semi-automatic weapons. Standing around, checking cars as they drove by. Tempted though we were to take photos, we decided to retreat to safety and found a pleasant cafe and had one beer before hiding for the night in our hotel room.

One toilet, by the way, served the entire corridor of our hotel level. It had a light, which worked only with the erractic electricity supply, no toilet seat, wouldn't flush, and the door had no lock and you couldn't close it anyway because if you did you'd be standing in complete darkness. There were no showers anywhere to be seen, as you might expect.

AND - the big news about Shkodra is - MULLET PARADISE! Oh My Lord. The quantity of mullets in this place was simply breath-taking. I have never ever ever seen so many mullets concentrated into one place. It was as if a conference was taking place. Everywhere, absolutely everywhere. And not just quanitity, but quality. A magnificent kid mullet of epic proportions, long and short male mullets, both straight and fluffy, but the jewel in the crown (and this is no joke)... a dwarf femme mulle. Yes, a female dwarf mullet. How many of these can there be on one world? When I update the mullet league table, expect some big changes.

Anyway, up early the next day, and we took a wander about again, and back down the big street we'd attempted to go by the night before, because at the end of it, on a hill, was a big ruined castle and it looked pretty cool. Unfortunately, our time was limited and we couldn't go and check it out, but we did notice that all the buildings in this area (outwith the police and balaclavad men controls) had high stone walls with barbed wire or broken bottles stuck on top. With the barren hills around, and dusty and neglected roads, it was a scene straight out of Mad Max. That's definitely what North Albania reminded me of - Mad Max-style badlands, with their supposedly terrorising badlands.

At 11.30am then we met up again with Nevila and Izet, and after a bit of talking, they offered to show us the castle, as it's pretty much the key (well, after the mullet magnitude) attraction of Shkodra. Hopping on a quick bus, which was free because Izet knew the conductor, we got to the foot of the hill and trekked the short distance up, as Nevila explained the hostory of the castle. There's some beautiful story behind it apparently, and which I do intend to check up on properly one day, but as far as I could make out that day, it involved three brothers working all day and their wives bringing them food, and then one wife getting walled into the castle so it wouldn't collaps,e but leaving two holes in the wall so her baby could feed.

The castle was great though. A great view over all the badland territories around it, and the ruins of the castle itself were great. It was free to get in, and you could just go wherever you wanted, including up the big tower which, at the top, was completely exposed and one wrong step would have sent you plunging.

Ok, ok, I'm writing way too much here as there's simply way too much to write, and I don't have time. But basically, after all that, we went back with Nevila and Izet to the travel agency, and they fixed us up with transport (just 1pound50 each) to Tirana and so after a big "Falaminderit" to them, we went to Tirana.

Arriving there just before dark, but thankfully Nevila had told us where some good cheap accomodation was, otherwise we'd never have found anything decent (all Tirana hotels are way too expensive, and there's no tourist info, or obvious private rooms). It was indeed cheap - 2pounds50 a night each, and yes, you get what you pay for. No showers and toilets that are just holes in the ground - no paper, no electricity, no water.

So while I've been cleaner, I've almost been a bit of a filthy whore, so I've just a little grime on me right now. I don't smell or anything. But Simon... oh man. His feet, oh Lord, please spare my misery. Seriously, Mr Bin Laden, if you read this, please kidnap Simon as use his feet as a chemical weapon against the Western World. They'd bring the US to its knees in seconds. I had to hold my breath the entire night last night. This boy has some serious health issues with his feet. They are dangerous.

Ok, Tirana's quite interesting - just a bigger version of Shkodra. Chaotic, loud, filthy, buildings falling apart. We'd stay longer, but without showers or decent toilets, and with time pressures on us anyway, we're leaving tomorrow. To Kosovo. We leave at 6pm tomorrow, and arrive 5am Friday. Here's what the foreign office says about Kosovo - We advise against all holiday and other non-essential travel to Kosovo.

It's looking good.

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