Tuesday, November 18, 2008

trying to tour Tirana to Ulcinq

It's time to leave Albania. There are decent bus connections out of Tirana to all of the countries Albania shares a border with - except one. That one is the recently independent Montenegro, on the coast directly north. And that’s annoying because that is where I want to go next. The two nations are not on the best neighbourly terms, for reasons I have yet to fathom. However, from scattergun research, I believe it is possible to get across the border from the northern city of Shkodra.

Supposedly, I read, there are buses there that meet the “furgons” from Tirana. Every country around the eastern Med has its own word for minibus. Turks make do with “dolmus” while you need to take a “sherut” to get around in Israel. Here in Albania, its a "furgon". A furgon is simply a van with eight to ten seats that doesn’t set off for its destination until every seat is full. Because of this, a set arrival time is no furgon conclusion and I’m happy to take a proper coach to Shkodra which gets me in at 10am. I’m hoping then that somehow I will be able to find the bus to Ulcinq (the first town across the border in Montenegro).

This is easier said than done as Albania does not believe in bus stations, and you have to be aware of where people congregate which is often at makeshift shelters. The other problem I have is conflicting information. One source tells me there are supposedly two or three buses a day to Ulcinq though I read elsewhere there is only one, and that leaves at 9am, worryingly an hour before I am due to arrive. And I don’t really want to stay in Ulcinq itself as there is not much there, but I might have to if I get there late.

The following morning I set off from Tirana. Encouragingly the bus leaves on time at 8am. It is barely 80km between Albania’s two largest cities but the journey takes two hours on crowded and narrow two-lane roads. But it eventually arrives in the centre of Shkodra at 10am. I ask the driver where I might find a bus to Montenegro. He grunts and points in the direction of a large hotel on the other side of the busy square where we park.

But I am barely half way across the road when I’m accosted by a taxi driver who speaks English.
“Montenegro?” he said, “Ulcinq?”
Maybe, I replied hesitantly, clearly unnerved by his prescience.
“I take you there for 30 euro”. This is at least four or five times the price of the bus there.
I shake my head and say “No, I’ll take the bus”.
“Bus is gone,” he said. “9 o'clock”.
“But there must be another one later today?”
"No", he replied, "not till 9 tomorrow”.

I was not sure whether to believe him but his words did tally with the more pessimistic information I’d received the day before. And even if there was a second bus, it was likely not to being going until late afternoon. Then there is problem of actually proving there was a second bus with little or no customer information available. At least this guy could get me over the border quickly and I had a chance of getting on to one of the nicer Montenegrin places like Budva or Kotor tonight. So I tried haggling.
“20 euros,” I said.
“no, no, 30” he insisted.
So I started to walk on towards the hotel.
This has a reaction. “25 euros, lowest price”, he said. I think about this some more and finally accept the 25 euro fare. The advantages outweigh the expensive disadvantage and the uncertainty of the bus.

And so we set out for Montenegro. The first obstacle was the long single lane bridge over the river that leads north out of Shkodra. From here there were signposts telling the distance to all points north including Dubrovnik, Belgrade and even Vienna, some 1,200kms away. But never mind Vienna, it was proving difficult enough to get one kilometre out of town. The rule of this particularly road was whoever got to the halfway point of the bridge first had right of way. The loser had to reverse all the way back to the side he or she came from. It can become hairy when drivers on both side put the pedal down in that elusive race to get to the middle first. My driver failed on the first attempt and swore profusely in Albanian, but otherwise accepted the outcome as he reversed back muttering darkly all the while.

The second attempt was more promising and he easily made the middle ground first and even got two-thirds of the way across when confronted with the other driver. But hold on, the other driver and the driver behind her got out to remonstrate with my driver and after much shouting and gesticulating it seemed somehow they won. There was even more swearing and a shrug of the shoulders. “Ach, Albania!” he said to be me as he reversed back once more. I just smiled back. I didn’t understand why it was still his obligation to reverse until the two cars came across and one was towing the other. So normal reversing rules could not apply.

At the third attempt, my swearing Albanian made it over the river, sending another non-towing car reversing back to the opposite side. I was then surprised how quickly we made it to the border, it was only about 5 or 6kms away. At the border the driver unscrewed his Albanian taxi sign and had to cough up five euros to get into Montenegro. It cost me nothing with my EU passport.

We quickly made it on another 15km to Ulcinq bus station where I thanked him and handed over the 25 euros we’d agreed. But he wanted more. “Border visa“ he said, darkly. “Five euro”. Ah, I didn’t look at the fine print of the contract, it seemed I would have to pay his visa and he would get his 30 euro after all. I wasn’t happy but he agreed to accept the balance out of my otherwise worthless collection of Albanian leks, which, given the testy relations between the two countries, probably would have been too difficult to exchange anyway. I gave him the money and sent back to his Shkodra bridge race. I was now at a real bus station, with real information and hopefully a real timetable that would see me end up in Budva or Kotor for the night.

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