Nobody rides Balkan trains, and for good reason, too. Remember that fantastic scene in Casino Royale when James Bond meets Vesper on the train through Montenegro? It has fantastic dialogue but the idea of this actually being a train in the Balkans is completely implausible. In the Balkans the trains are old, slow, uncomfortable, and they make stops every ten minutes. I wanted to go to Pogradec, though, and Andy had told me there was a train that went there, so why not take this opportunity to ride one more form of transportation in Albania?
I was glad to not be riding the bus because chances were that from Shkoder there was no direct bus to Pogradec, which would mean I’d have to take a bus to Tirana. I had no desire to do this because to go to Tirana would mean that I would have to find a way to get from wherever that bus dropped me off to wherever the buses to Pogradec left from, which was a headache I did not want to have.
I had an early morning. I was up a little after 5:00 to make sure that I would make it to the train station in time. The train was there so I got on and it left relatively on time. I wondered briefly as the train was taking off whether I should have bought a ticket or not, because I had seen other passengers walking around with tickets in their hands. Would I get in trouble for not having bought a ticket? I hoped I wouldn’t have to bribe the train staff.
My fears were unjustified. This was Albania and of course I didn’t need to buy a ticket beforehand. First of all, I had never once bought a ticket for a bus or anything; I just paid when I got off at my destination. Secondly, it was 5:45 in the morning and there were only a half dozen people in the train station, none of them operating the ticket office.
A woman came by my car collecting train fares and asked my destination. Pogradec, I replied. No. What? Pogradec no train. No train Pogradec? No train Pogradec. Train Tirana. Bus Pogradec. There was no use arguing with her because I had no Albanian and she had little English, but it was frustrating to not be riding the train to Pogradec. Andy had told me the train went there. There was even a sign in the train station stating that Pogradec was the last stop. I looked at my map which showed train tracks going to Pogradec. Surely this train went there. It was not to be, however, and I was doomed to have another experience navigating Tirana to find myself a bus to Pogradec.
Early morning scene from the train
The train was slow going. It started going but then very shortly would arrive to a small town where a few people would get on, start up again, soon to stop again for more people. At one stop, around 6:30am, three people joined me in my cabin. Two thuggish looking men who looked like they had been up all night drinking, one in track pants and football cleats, and a woman, possibly a girlfriend/wife of one of them, who was wearing leggings and high heels.
At this point I had had my Albania map out, tracing the path of the train tracks to be sure that, yes, the train did go to Pogradec. They came in to the room and started asking me questions about how much I liked Albania. Yes, yes, of course I love Albania. The mountains are very nice, the sea is very nice, the people are very friendly, etc. I had my journal out and so I tried to communicate how long I had been in the country, pointing to my watch where the date read the 21st, then writing 11-21, that I had been in the country for ten days.
This pointing to my watch, however, did not help the conversation. The man not wearing the track pants and cleats began gesticulating to my watch and then to himself, suggesting that I give him my watch. He was a big man and looked like he had had a late night and I didn’t want to upset him, so I told him that no, he could not have my watch, but (grabbing something from my bag) he could have a beer. He laughed and turned it down, but his friend wearing the cleats accepted. The one man kept insisting that I give him my watch and I kept laughing it off and telling him no, that I had offered him a beer but wouldn’t give him my watch.
He had many unprofessional tattoos, one of which was a lopsided crucifix. He asked me if I was a Catholic, pointing to his tattoo, saying that he was a Catholic. I shook my head: no religion. Orthodox? No, no religion. I told him that I thought they all seemed fine to me. Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim, all good people. Oh Muslim, no Muslim! I regretted not just saying that I was a Protestant, as religious affiliation in this part of the world is more of a nationalistic claim than it is about any kind of system of belief.
All of this was interspersed with hand gestures signaling me to give him my watch. Finally I decided that I needed to tell them that it was a family watch. My brother Graham had given it to me after he had won it for winning the 2009 Superior Fest stage race in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. Surely they would respect that! I didn’t know how to tell them that, though, nor did I feel like drawing a family tree in my journal, so I just pointed to my watch and said baba, father, hoping that this would solve the issue.
Eventually he fell asleep with his head on the lap of the woman, who also fell asleep. Every once in a while he’d awaken and point to my watch and grin to himself. The other one, who I assume was his brother, began chatting with me. Using my journal we established that the two men were 43 and 44, the woman 29, and that when the other man was 18, he’d been in prison.
Eventually the woman and the man wearing football cleats got off at Lezhe and the other man awoke to go for a wander and nap elsewhere, leaving me to myself in my compartment to scribble notes to myself. At one stop I stuck my head out of the window and looked to my right to see the guy from my compartment earlier doing the same. He grinned and waved hello. A few stops later I saw him depart the train and get in a black Mercedes.
The castle at Lezhe, Skanderbeg’s hometown, as seen from the train
Eventually, around 10am, the train pulled in to Tirana. On the bus or furgon it’s a two hour journey, but the train, as it takes so long to get up to speed and stops every ten minutes, takes twice as long. I headed out of the train station and set about trying to figure out how to get to a bus that would take me to Pogradec. I walked and asked around for a bit, but then decided I was not going to have any luck on my own, so I asked a cab driver to take me there. He drove me down the street for a few minutes to the minibus station and it was 700 Lek, almost double the price of my train ticket. Grumbling and muttering, I paid the driver and sat in the hot furgon to await its departure.
This furgon trip was like most of my furgon trips thus far, except now I was in the city and not up in the mountains, so the minibus was newer and not on its last legs. Like nearly all my furgontrips in Albania on narrow winding roads with crazy drivers, someone inevitably vomited. The drivers keep lots of plastic bags up front because it happens so frequently.
Eight hours after leaving Shkoder on the train, with three hot hours in the furgon hoping no one would spew on me, we rolled in to Pogradec, the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid. This was my third time that I’d been to Ohrid, but my previous trips in November 2010 and June 2011 had been in Macedonia, on the other side of the lake, so this was my first time seeing it from the other side. It just wouldn’t seem like a trip through the Balkans if I didn’t make the obligatory stop by Ohrid.
In this, my final destination of my Albanian journey, once again I had no idea of where I was staying. There was supposedly some backpacker hostel I had heard about from being in other hostels, but I didn’t know where it was. I had no map and had not bothered to look up directions. I hoisted my bag and headed for the lakefront, where I would look for a tourist information center.
At the lakefront I couldn’t see any tourist information, so I stopped in to the Enkelana, one of the bigger hotels and decided to ask them. I began speaking to a woman standing near the reception desk.
What do you need to know from the information center?
I need to find a map so I can find the backpacker hostel to sleep tonight.
Why don’t you just spend the night here?
Well, this place is probably more expensive than I can afford!
Too expensive, how much do you think it is?
I don’t know, probably 4000 Lek? (Roughly $40)
No, it’s not that much, it’s only 3500 Lek!
Well, that’s still more money than I can afford to spend!
How much can you spend?
I can spend 2000 Lek on a hotel.
(After giving it some thought) Okay, if it’s just you, you can have a room for 2000 Lek tonight.
What fantastic news. I’m terrible at haggling, but the best haggling trick is always if you never had planned on buying something in the first place. I’d managed to get a room with a hot shower, air conditioning, a television and a balcony overlooking the lake for cheaper than what hostels usually charge. Hooray! It turns out that the woman was the owner of the hotel, so I’d been lucky.
The view from my balcony
I was a bit melancholy to be leaving Albania. It had been such a good trip. I spent my last day quite lazily. I lounged in the hotel for a while before going for a stroll along the water. Ohrid, on the other side of the lake, is a very touristic town. The streets are very clean and there are nice cafes and tourist shops everywhere. It’s not difficult to tell what side of the lake you’re on by looking around. Pogradec lacks the infrastructure for it to become a tourist town. Buildings are empty, crumbling or collapsed, there is garbage everywhere and the water isn’t very clean. It’s very sad that just on the other side of the lake is a very popular tourist destination, but Pogradec is a long way from catching up.
The water isn’t the cleanest, but that doesn’t stop people (myself included) from swimming!
I went for a short walk through the streets in Pogradec looking for something to eat. I settled on finding some gyros to take back to the hotel with a few beers from a shop. As I was walking around I noticed something strange on the pavement. On the pedestrian road there were stars on the ground, like the Hollywood stars. They began with Homer and finished with ABBA, with people like Copernicus, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Mother Teresa, The Beatles and many more. I haven’t been able to figure out the reason for these stars, however.
It was my last night in Albania. The next day I’d planned on heading to Ohrid and then the day after a bus to Skopje, and from Skopje I could get a direct bus to Istanbul. The next summer camp I would be teaching was getting closer and my wandering time was winding its way down.