Moving from Albania to Macedonia: It Was a Long Day

Dear Travel Diary

Yesterday was a long day. It began in Tirana and ended in Skopje, with a brief interlude in Kosovo along the way.

I left the apartment in Tirana at 5:20 am and began my journey on foot. With my backpack on my back and my laptop backpack strapped to the front of me, I felt like a pack horse. Although it was still very early in the day, there were a lot of taxi drivers around. A number of them shouted, “Taxi?” I said, “No.”

Have Bags, Will Travel

I won’t pay for a taxi if I can walk. The exercise is good for my health and saving money is good for my wallet. Plus, I’m a Yorkshireman and it’s in my blood to be mean. (*This was my first time travelling with a Trust backpack. Find out why I would never buy a Trust Backpack again)

By 5:50 I was at Tirana International Bus Station. I was a little early, so I went into the bus station’s one and only cafeteria and had a cup of coffee.


The Minibus

I’d bought my ticket a few days earlier and knew I’d be travelling by minibus. I also knew the bus would be parked near to the office where I bought my ticket, so finding it was easy and it was there half-an-hour early.

Regular Minibus Service Between Tirana and Pristina

Unfortunately, the driver did not speak any English. I did my best to tell him I was going to Skopje, Macedonia but he protested and, pointing at the cardboard sign in his window, said he was going to Pristina. That’s the Kosovan capital city. I showed him my ticket anyway and he seemed to acknowledge I was in the right place. He jotted down my passport information, put my backpack in the luggage hold, and allowed me into the vehicle.

The first few minutes of the journey were pretty bad. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever felt travel sick. It wasn’t the driver’s fault. The roads were very poor and I’d chosen a seat over the back axle, which probably made the bumps feel worse.

The journey to Pristina took about four-and-a-half hours and it was great to get a chance to look at some more of the Albanian landscape. I’ve never been to a country that’s as mountainous as Albania. It’s easy to forget how high up you are but when you see how low the clouds are it brings it home to you. At some points, I could look down and see clouds floating along in the valleys below. It was quite an experience.

Minibus ride in Albania

After around two-and-a-half hours of travelling, the minibus stopped at a cafeteria. There was an Albanian girl on the bus who spoke good English. I think she may have been the girlfriend of the minibus’ second driver. She’d played translator for me at one point when it appeared like the driver wanted me to pay for the journey again. I’m not really sure what was going on, but the girl helped me resolve the situation and when we went into the cafeteria she invited me to sit at their table. Then, she grabbed my bill from the table and paid for it. A similar thing happened on my bus journey from Saranda to Tirana. Albanian people are very friendly. When you visit their country they see you as a guest and often act accordingly.


Crossing the Border Between Albania and Kosovo

Crossing the border between Albania and Kosovo was not a particularly difficult experience. I actually remember very little about it other than the fact that the minibus driver signalled for me to have my passport ready. It was taken away and came back with a Kosovan stamp inside.

The landscape in Kosovo is different from that of Albania. There appear to be more flat areas so, instead of travelling on mountain roads the mountains were visible at a distance.

Pristina Bus Station

Main Bus Station at Pristina, Kosova

When we were close to Pristina bus station the rest of the passengers got out. That just left me and the driver. I’d expected him to head for Skopje, but that never happened. He parked the minibus and signalled that it was time for me to get out. I was confused. What was I supposed to do next? He said, “Different bus, different bus.” So I asked him about my ticket. I felt sure I would need to have it back. We were in Kosovo. My Albanian mobile package would not work. Neither would his, so using Google Translate was out of the question.

We both got out of the minibus and he returned my backpack out of the luggage hold. He then flagged down a girl who was passing and asked her to play translator. She told me I had to go on a different bus. She wasn’t much help about explaining the situation with the ticket. I’d paid for a bus trip to Skopje, not a ride to Pristina and I would not be able to get on a bus without a ticket.

Eventually, the driver took me to a bus parked quite a distance away and signalled for me to throw my bag in the luggage hold. I did so. Then the minibus driver gave the bus driver €5. They use euros in Kosovo.


The Bus from Pristina

The bus to Skopje was very comfortable. It was a typical tour bus. There was a guy who came up the aisle when we were a little way into the journey and started taking money for tickets. Fortunately, he spoke English. I told him the minibus driver had already paid €5. He said, “From Tirana?” So I suppose this kind of thing must happen pretty often.

Snow-Capped Mountain in Kosovo

During the trip, I got to see some more Kosovan landscape.

I also noticed a new motorway under construction. I’ve never seen anything like it. The whole thing is built on tall concrete supports and stands high above the ground. I have no idea why they are building it that way but think it may be to provide a more level road surface without any dips and peaks. I can’t remember whether this was in Kosovo or Macedonia, but I’m pretty sure it was Kosovo.

A strange thing happened during the journey. The girl sitting next to me pulled out a clipboard and told me to write down my name and passport number. I presumed she must work for the bus company and this must be part of their system, but it obviously was not. Although she had a few other names on her sheet she never got up to ask the other passengers to add their details.

Could this be some kind of con? I don’t think so. She didn’t have my date of birth or any other important passport details. I’m guessing she just tricked me into adding my name to some sort of petition, but I’ll probably never know the truth. However, she did seem a little nervous when we stopped at the border.


Crossing the Border Between Kosovo and Macedonia

This was the strangest border crossing I’ve ever experienced. When the bus stopped and I saw the barriers across the road I realized we must be at the border control.

After a little while, a lady wearing an official-looking uniform came onboard the bus and took away everyone’s passports. A little later, the guy who collected the bus fares returned with all the plastic cards that are typical for so many European countries. He went away again and then came back with all the book-type passports.

Then people started getting off the bus. I had no idea why. Was there a problem? Nobody explained anything. A lot of other people looked as confused as I felt. Some more people got off. Simply because that’s what everyone else was doing. Some stood up and then sat back down again. In the end, I got off the bus with the rest of the sheep and asked someone what was happening.

Apparently, there are two checks carried out at the Kosovo-Macedonia border. The woman who got on the bus and took away our passports worked for the Kosovan Passport Control. We also had to go through Macedonian passport control, which has a different system. Everyone had to go and show their passports to the personnel situated in the little security booths a few meters further down the road from the Kosovan passport control.

When our passports had been checked we had to walk to the other side of the border and wait for the barriers to open so our bus could come through.


Skopje at Last

If I remember correctly, we arrived at the bus station in Skopje for around 1:30 pm. I strapped on my bags again and began to walk, turning down all the offers of “Taxi?” that I encountered along the way.

At this point I planned to walk straight to my apartment. Things were not as easy as I hoped. Although I’d downloaded a map of the area, the GPS kept getting things wrong. Every time I thought I was making progress my position moved and said I was somewhere else. After much walking and sweating, I decided it was time for plan B.

I found an ATM and got some local currency. Then I began looking for a place to buy a SIM card for my phone. I got lucky. When I asked a guy for directions to a mobile phone shop he decided he would accompany me and show me the way. The first shop we went to only sold phones and phone accessories. It was the same with the next place so he took to another shop that was a little further away. He knew they did SIM cards because his friend worked there.

When we arrived at the shop he explained the situation to his friend and then asked if he could help me any further. I said I was okay and shook his hand before he left.

Macedonian SIM Package

Once my phone was up and running on the Macedonian network Google maps worked much better and I began making progress. I hadn’t eaten for hours, so I stopped at a cafeteria near the river and had a large local beer with a Chef’s special salad. It was a bargain. It only cost me 160 MKD (€2.59).

Half-an-hour later, I was at the apartment. I retrieved the key from its hiding place, let myself in, and sent the owner a message to let him know I’d arrived. He said he would come later to take my passport details for the government so that I am registered officially. Apparently, that’s important here. There can be fines involved when you leave the country if things are not done in the correct way.

I had a couple of hours sleep and then the guy who owns the apartment arrived. He took the necessary details and then gave me some tips on the local area and things to do.

After that, I had to go shopping and buy a few groceries. Then I had a few other things to do. I had a very long day. This is often the case when I move from place to place, but life is never boring or dull.

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