Posted by: bkropf | April 12, 2008

Bunker Love

We left Serbia by train. We settled into our little compartment in our car only to notice the third person in our cabin was a giant, and I think he was mute but he could really snore. Smoking on trains must be encouraged in Serbia because everyone was just puffing away much to my chagrin.

This leg of the journey was the most tedious. We really weren’t sure how is was going to work. Our goal was to leave Belgrade, Serbia, by train and travel to Bar, Montenegro. Then take a bus or taxi to the border of Albania and walk across. Once in Albania, we would have to take a taxi into a town to find a bus to take us to the Albanian border with Macedonia. Then we would walk across again and get a bus/taxi to get us to Lake Ohrid. Trying to do all this in 24 hours was a bad idea in retrospect.


I went to sleep hoping that the snoring might pass and that I would have all my assets in the morning. I got up in the morning and looked out the window to realize that we were on the most beautiful piece of track I had ever seen. It looked as though we were clinging to the side of a huge canyon climbing higher and higher. I stood in the hallway and watched the train weave its way up the side of the canyon. It was really amazing.


We eventually reached Bar, Montenegro. Tyler had to pay a Euro to use the bathroom and we tried to figure out how to get to the Albanian/Montenegro border. No one seemed to know English or want to talk to us so we hiked the 1.5km to town to find the tourist office. We found the office and they said we needed to hike back to the bus station and get a bus all the way to Ohrid. We were happy to hear it was going to be as easy as getting one bus the whole way to Ohrid. We hiked the 1.5km back to the buses and stopped for a nice little hamburger with some locals.


At the bus station they informed us there was no bus to Ohrid. We were now all confused. On our map it was only about half an inch to the border so we decided our best bet was going to be taking a taxi. We hopped in a taxi and tried to ask how much it would cost and he motioned 3 Euro. We were surprised at the great deal and happily settled into the short trip. The trip turned out to be much longer than it appeared as we were in the middle of the desert going through scrubby pine and desolate hills. I started to wonder if this guy was taking us to the wilderness to kill us. As my last shred of hope started to pass away I saw the beloved border crossing. I guess when the taxi driver said 3 Euro he meant 30, strange.


The crossing into Albania was boring to say the least. There was just a couple guards in the desert in a little shed. We successfully got out of Montenegro and walked to Albania and the guards were so happy to see Americans. They smiled and asked how long we were staying and when we said, “About 3 hours,” they seemed a little sad. One guy who didn’t know any English decided to try to give us the breakdown of the Albanian bus system and talked and talked with us understanding nothing. He wrote a bunch of names on a piece of paper and we hopped into another taxi and were driven to the nearest town (While the guard was talking to us, a guy on a motorbike showed up with a tray in his hand carrying some coffee for the guards. As he was delivering it one of the other guards was observing the bike and knocked it over. There were was lots of yelling and blushing).


Albania is poor! On the way into town we passed shepherds, horses pulling wagons and little three wheeled trucks. Most people do not have cars so there are bikes and motorbikes everywhere. We found the bus system waiting for us. When I say bus system what I really mean is a fleet of minivans. Albania is small so they have tons of minivans that sit in each town until they are full. When they are full, they leave for the destination town (it is actually a quite efficient system if you don’t have hard deadlines). Our minivan soon was filled with people and body odor and we started weaving our way through traffic on the way to the capital city, Tirana. We were dropped off and had no idea where the buses to the other cities were. Through inquiry, we finally figured it out and hiked the 2km to the new location. We had the hardest time finding the new minivan pick-up point but eventually found it.


By this point it was about 5 pm and our estimates showed that we weren’t even going to get to the Macedonian border until after dark. I was getting pretty scared we weren’t going to make it to our scheduled hostel and we would be sleeping in some Albanian trash heap (lots of them in Albania). A nice young guy struck up a conversation with us and said it was our lucky day. The minivan we were traveling in happened to be going directly to the border crossing at Macedonian. He saved our butts big time. We had been planning to get off at the next town to find get a different bus like the border guard had told us (We would have never made it).


This young guy had much to tell us. He told us all the countries that liked Americans and the ones that didn’t. He said Albanians liked Americans because they knew that Kosovo was Albanian, not Serbian. I don’t know if that is true but I’m happy he thinks so. He was really nice and we were so grateful for all his help. He did tell us about this special trout we should try to eat while in Ohrid. We later found out the trout is endangered!


The scenery while driving to the Macedonian border was beautiful: huge mountain passes, lots of green, and plenty of sun. The funny thing is the driver kept throwing trash out the window. I couldn’t believe how cavalier he was about it. One of my favorite sights was a huge factory in Elbason. It was completely rusted at this point but it was massive. It must have covered hundreds of acres. It had whole cable car systems with huge buckets hanging to carry ore from one part of the complex to the other. There were countless large smoke stacks. I was overwhelmed by the size of the ruins, I took pictures but I don’t think it captures the beauty.


There were men manning little pressure washers about every 5km, trying to get people to let them wash their car. I have never seen so many ‘car washes,’ it was amazing.


We got to the Albanian/Macedonian border after dark and walked across with little fanfare. We jumped in yet another taxi and arrived to our hostel. It took us about 24 hours and 4 countries to get to Ohrid and I was tired!


One fun fact about Albania is the huge number of bunkers in totally random places. Some estimates say there are 700,000 in total. We probably saw 100 or more in our short stay. Our book says most Albanians use the cement caverns to make sweet bunker love.


Speaking of bunker love, Tyler didn’t shave this morning and had some nice stubble going. I have been trying to convince him he needs to grow a beard. He is passionately against it for some reason and continues to shave daily. I don’t know how he does it, I can barely talk myself into shaving once a week.



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