Running for the Border

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Kaduku Hotel

Flag of Albania  ,
Thursday, September 1, 2011

We awoke on Thursday at 6:45am very tired, thanks to our drunk and noisy neighbors. After looking at the tranquil blue water below, we were very, very tempted to succumb to the call of the sea and stay another day; but, while three weeks sounds like a long time, it required lots of planning and daily moving to get through all five countries we wanted to see, so unless we were willing to trade something further down the line for another day on the Albanian Riviera, it wasn't an option.

Sighing as we pulled on our packs, we left behind our life of luxury and hiked up the hill to the bus stop. We hoped to make the trek all the way to Montenegro that day; a move that would require quite a bit of travel, and a little bit of luck. We first had to go north to the capital city, Tirana, a journey that was meant to take 6-7 hours by bus. We watched a few buses come and go, and around 8:00am, a direct bus to Tirana rolled up and we got on. 
Next time we go to Albania, I want to rent a car and just spend time driving through the country. The roads crest and wind through such stunning scenery and I felt like I didn't get to appropriately appreciate what I saw while staring at it through a bus window. During the trip from Dhermi to Tirana, we once again climbed and climbed and climbed up into the mountains that jutted up along the coast, moving into the cooler reaches of pretty pine forests until we hit the high point at Llogaraja Pass (1027m). We stopped for a break just over the pass and were able to snap a few pics,  breathe in the cool and refreshing air, and meet some adorable puppies before continuing onward. 

Once we'd left the mountains and the coastal city of Vlore behind us, the scenery got progressively less inspiring; as we drove on, the trees and mountains morphed into grey, concrete buildings and wide, unending highways. I remember thinking that I was glad we entered the country the way we did so that we were introduced to its beauty first instead of its cities. Perhaps if we had done it the other way around, we may have opted to skip some of the best parts of our trip.

We were dropped off in Tirana around 1:30pm and started the walk to the bus station where we hoped to find transport to the border town of Skhodra. Without too much misdirection we were able to locate a furgon heading north to Skhodra, so we piled in and took off shortly thereafter. We were quickly transported out of the city and were pleased to be back in a more scenic part of the country. It was a very pretty drive, featuring picturesque farm fields backed by more impressive Albanian mountains. 
We hit Skhodra about and hour and a half later, and were very surprised by how big it was. I had envisioned a small, quaint town easily navigable on foot, but instead it was more of a sprawling city that stretched quite a distance from end to end. In fact, as things would turn out, Skhodra was much less than I'd expected in every way -- except when it came to money. It wasn't particularly charming, and didn't have the backdrop I'd expected of a mountain town set on a lake, but most importantly, it was the most expensive place we'd visited in Albania -- by far.

Our outlook on the city wasn't helped by the fact that we seemed to have missed the last furgon to Montenegro. Of course, this had always been a possibility since the information in both our guidebook and online was completely unreliable. We knew that it wasn't a great distance to the border, so hoped we might be able to pay a taxi to take us. Unfortunately, the best we were able to finagle was 3,500 LEK (about $35), which was substantially more than we were prepared to pay. 

While mulling over our seemingly finite options, two guys in a Mercedes (but of course -- Mercedes make up about 95% of the cars on the road in Albania -- allegedly most of them have been stolen from Europe) who overheard us said they were heading across the border at 8pm and offered to take us along. Konrad was a bit wary, and I was undecided; since we had time to kill, we decided to look around at hotels and evaluate our options. I began to make a circuit around the center of town, looking at any and all hotels I found in my path. Without fail they were all horribly overpriced for what they were. The cheapest option was 4,500 LEK (about $45) a night for a tiny box of a room that stank like wet dog (and later like Asian sewer) and had something lumpy in the middle they called a bed, no wi-fi signal (despite insisting there was), a TV that didn't work, and a revolting bathroom. 

While the hotel was far from a good deal, we thought it might be the wiser choice since we weren't too sure about taking the ride from the gangsterish guys and then (if we made it to Ulcinj) trying to find a place so late at night. We begrudgingly checked in, took very quick showers, and then departed as quickly as possible. Needless to say, Skhodra was working hard to make an unfavorable impression upon us. 

We walked and walked and walked, starving from the day's non-stop journey and looking for a place that was serving food, which many of them were not doing at that hour. We finally found a spot to have... pizza (and not very good pizza, either). The meal was slightly redeemed by the icy vodka tonic that I'd decided to splurge on (seemingly a good call by that point). We were obviously reluctant to go back to the room, but eventually it had to be done, so we retreated, hoping to get some sleep and wake up early to grab a furgon that would help us flee Skhodra and ferry us to Montenegro.
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