Soviet leftovers

Trip Start Aug 20, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Albania  ,
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Well I did get out of bed early and was winging my way to Albanian in a cheap taxi at 8.30am to catch the 1pm train from Progradec to Tirana. The main reason for catching the train was that I had heard the trains were an Albanian Soviet legacy not to be forgotten. The Macedonian taxi took me to the border (was going to bus it, but he only wanted 2 euros more than the bus and that meant no luggage hassles so why not? Then there was less than a kilometer walk between checkpoints, it was raining, of course, but the Macedonian side was very civiilised, tarred roads, tidy buildings, a toilet, stamp you out and off you go round the corner to the muddy building site that is Albania, which started at the border. Wheelie bags in the mud are no fun!. At least they didn't cop me for the 10euros they are pocketing (illegally according to the staff in the hostel in Tirana), to stamp you in. Taxi battle bargaining and off I go to the train station, much to the surprise of the Albanian driver. He warns me the station is out of town and I pay extra to get there, he is right, it is WELL out of town! In a muddy building site. I've never seen so many unfinished buildings decaying, like rotten teeth in the rain, rusting and crumbling away, as there are around Progradec. All my visions of leaving luggage and going for a walk around town are well and truly drowned, there isn't even any glass in the windows, let alone a toilet, the ticket office is closed and I am 3hrs early, yuk! A woman wanders past and looks curiously at me, I do my best billeta, Tirana effort, she smiles and disappears through a locked door, there are a lot of doors.

There is one other Albanian guy there that speaks no English and no matter how many times I tell him I don't speak Albanian and don't understand what he's saying, he stands in front of me and talks, in Albanian. Well this is a first, usually people give up talking to you when they realise you don't understand a word and don't answer, not this guy! This goes on for an hour or so, before he actually uses mime to tell me to watch his plastic bag full of whatever, disappears for 20mins and then returns to continue his monologue, loudly, in my face. I can't stand it anymore and decide to take the wheelie for a muddy drag around the freezing station, spotted through windows by several staff in warm offices, find a rubbish dump near a wall to pee on (not within sight of the staff!) and stumble on a strange little cafe. Have just finished my excellent Turkish coffee and some kind of local spirit chaser when 2 women from the station arrive to tell me in Albanian, in no uncertain terms, that there is no train. They grab my bag and drag it through the mud up to the road and deposit me on a waiting minibus to Tirana. Six nought nought she writes on her hand, which I gather is the price and off I go.

Five hours later, one toilet stop, another minibus from Elbaston, some stunning mountain scenery interspersed with tunnels and winding rivers where the high water line is marked with garbage hanging in the trees, I arrive in Tirana, dropped I know not where, but I'm not arguing because there is a bar/cafe there and that means there is a loo! Unwilling to do battle with the taxis across the road I show the waiter the address and he informs me that the street I'm looking for is 100m up the lane way next to the bar, well ye haa! Off I go, it starts raining as soon as I enter the lane way, but I'm getting used to that, I hit the road I need and ask a young woman if it is the right street, yes, and where is number 85, she shrugs...mmmm which way? right or left? I walk up and down, there are no numbers... I ask a woman in a newspaper kiosk, same. I ask a woman in a Western Union office... same, I ask her what number the office is, she doesn't know mmmm...I go to a bar for the loo (and a beer) and ask the same questions, he doesn't know. There is a river near the hostel, marked on the map/brochure I have, I ask him which way the river the far is it? 2 mins walk....mmmm this places me within 100m of the hostel mmm... the rain continues...across the road is a rather moldy, worn out looking building with a wet flag clinging to its pole, that apparently has some red on it, could this possibly be the Swiss Embassy that is next door to the hostel? I cross the road to look and find the hostel. I later learn that the hostel is possibly the only place in Tirana with a number on it!

I am welcomed to the hostel by a lovely young woman whom I hit it off with immediately, we sit by the fire until 2am talking deep and meaningfuls about art and life. The next morning I get into a discussion about politics over excellent coffee, with the guy who does the day shift in the hostel. He is saying the same thing as Malvina, Albania has been fucked over, but her take on it is that the mess gives people room to move, a certain freedom, but he is older and more pessimistic. He recommends a trip to the mountain on the cable car, a good idea, since site seeing in Tirana takes all of half an hour, but it takes me 2 hours to find a dodgy money changer in a strange cafe full of men watching the exchange rates to change my remaining Macedonian currency, none of the banks want it, strangely, they don't rip me off.

The mountain trip is was a nice day out. The long cable car trip, some 25mins, goes above the snow line and there were lots of young Albanians screaming and throwing snowballs at each other at the top. I have an expensive, by Albanian standards, lunch in a restaurant. Six Euros buys me a beer, a chicken fillet and some very sullen service, all dished up with excellent views and raised eyebrows at my request for a table for one.

Back in town Malvina and I again sit up into the early hours, we arrange to go to the National Gallery the next day, there is an exhibition on she wants to show me along with the port city of Durres, which is about an hour out of the city. The art gallery is interesting and in better repair than the one in Sophia, there was an exhibition of students and professors that she studied with, hate to say it, but their art was nothing special, not that one should expect anything special from student art (ever seen any of Turner's student work? Awful!!) What was interesting though was the historical nature of the larger exhibition on featuring many works of the Soviet era, very proudly displayed. All in the glorification of the worker and peasant happily slaving away for the greater good of communism or should I say the ruling communist party. Very reminiscent of similar era posters from China, but I had never seen originals before, some of the execution was good, for what they were. What Malvina really wanted to show me was the work of an artist that was jailed for some years because of the painting that he did in 1974
and then died an alcoholic at a rather early age. I agreed with her that the work was very good, what was really sad, was that the curator of the exhibition had to put up a big fight to get it hung! Still not willing to admit the errors of the past???

In Durres we had a couple of beers in the 13thC Venetian tower and went for a walk along the water (notice I didn't say beach). The strangest thing here was the furry, round, fibrous 'balls' that look very like coconuts, but are in all different sizes and much rounder. There are literally 1,000s of them. Malvina told me that the sea makes them by the actions of the waves, out of what I have no idea!  But I do have a small one as a souvenir that I intend to start wearing, bought something to hang it on to start the process today, they are truly unique! I'm not sure I could recommend Durres as a day out for tourists in Tirana, but we had a good time!

Back to the hostel and another night sitting up late talking politics to the Albanians, they are very aware and nowhere near as complacent as Australians or the Chinese I know for that matter, when it comes to what is happening around them. I found their admitted "hero worship" of America very strange. Apparently the US is seen as a saviour for its actions in Kosovo and because of its anti Soviet stance. I also learnt that Progadec railway station was featured on a TV doco about the problems of the Albanian rail system, now that doesn't surprise me! All of this highly interesting conversation meant that I left rather late the next morning for the trip to Dubrovnik and didn't make it the same day, which I may have done had I started at 7am instead of 11am!!  A 20 Euro taxi into Montenegro, from Shkoder, where I had to go to get out of Albanian, a taxi because there were no buses or minbuses because of the floods in Shkoder, so the taxis were having a field day/week. Don't ask me why the buses couldn't run if the taxis could and the roads were not flooded when I went through. A 20 Euro hotel in Ulcinj in Montenegro , and another 20 Euro bus to Dubrovnik, at 5am! Sold by some extremely unpleasant staff.

I arrived in Dubrovnik on a wonderful sunny morning at 9am...ahhhh civilization, I was back in Europe!

PS...On the subject of spelling I've seen Tirana spelt Tirane as well, I'm
going with the phonetic spelling, as to the other place names, they are to the best
of my memory, which is not very good!
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