10/20/2010 – Oh, Albania – where do I begin? As I sit here in a dingy van waiting for it to fill up so we can depart (bus schedules are a distant dream in these parts), I am dimmly aware of the incessant din of the adjacent “highway” (actually a 2-lane road in poor condition, but still the largest road in the country) bottlenecked full of mini-buses like ours, reckless delivery vans, and Mercedes in all states of newness and (dis)repair. Apparently there is some sort of fine print that goes along with Albanian citizenship that requires one to drive a Mercedes. Maybe there’s some sort of shady deal that’s been worked out to get all the German factory rejects or something. I mean if you plan on using the car to take mountain switchbacks at 60, transport goats or precariously tailgate other cars doing the same, does it really matter if the door’s a little sticky or the engine leaks a little oil?

As we left Ohrid aboard a similar mini-bus crammed with school kids and old ladies with their shopping, we watched the landscape around us subtly changing – becomming a little more rugged, a little poorer, a the roadsides a little more trashed. Our driver left us at the last stop on the Macedonian side of the border and, relying on the dubious advice of Lonely Planet (we should really know better by now), we donned our heavy backpacks and set out for the border on foot. The road was deserted and a little eerie. We passed a sign that had somehow been broken in half. 2 km, it said, to somewhere… The road wound up and down along a grubby stream infested with trash and swarms of bugs – still no border in sight. Then suddenly we rounded a bend and there it was, the edge of Macedonia and the beginning of country #6 of our trip, Albania.

We arrived at the Albanian border checkpoint sweaty and tired and were informed by Bono, who stamped our passports with disappointly bland entry visas, that there was no bus or taxis that could take us into town (Pogradec) but hey, at least the walk was downhill on this side. Immediately on this side of the border it was obvious that we were in a different country- the road signs were all rusted and delapitated and the gun slots of Hoxa’s (in)famous concrete bunkers winked at us from the hillsides. Arriving at the edge of town, donkey carts shared the road with old Mercedes and the mostly dirt road was lined with repetative little cafe-shops all selling the same meager assortment of a few vegetables, potato chips, and instant Nescafe in plastic cups.

We must have looked as bewildered as we felt, because a gaggle of old men and women called to us from the edge of the street- “Angleezi?” “American,” we answer and are happily met with “Ah! America! New York! Boston! Where?!” Through some largely incomprehensible but mutually satisfying exchange the leader of the group helped us flag down a mini-bus to take us into downtown Pogradec. Pogradec is on the opposite side of the lake from Ohrid. At night we had seen its lights twinkling in the distance and we expected it to be somewhat similar to Ohrid, if poorer. Lonely Planet even praised it as not a totally worthless place, and maybe it wasn’t, but it was our first big gritty facefull of Albania.
We exited the mini-bus onto a bustling street. Dusty cars, trucks and buses all vyed for space on the actively decaying narrow strip of asphalt. Blasts of horns filled the air alarmingly- a honk meant “hello”, “you’re in my way”, “you’re not in my way”, “I’m passing you”, “Are you passing me?”, “Do you want me to stop?”, “I’m stopping”, “I’m not stopping”, “Bye!”, and a few things I’m forgetting. The sidewalks along the road were mostl dirt with odd chunks of cement akwardly positioned here and there. Gaping manholes full of trash caused us to either squeeze against the rapidly crumbling buildings or brave the should full of pissy parked-in taxi drivers. The apartment balconies above us were packed full of firewood and big bags or potatoes and onions in preparation for winter. Many of these buildings probably didn’t have electricity at all. We were anxious to leave this frighteningly ragged border town and graftefully found a mini-bus departing for mountainous Korca.

Aboard, we bump and honk our way out of town, crammed in with several more young kids, old ladies, and baggage than this vegicle was surely meant to hold. It begins to rain. Approaching Korca the rain only gets worse. Our driver lets us out at the mini-bus “station”, a chaotic jumble of taxis and vans pointed every which way at the intersection between two broad muddy streets. We take refuge under the cement porch of long abandoned factory and wonder what the hell to do next. Our guidebook tells us that there is a hotel “just around the corner from the bus station”. But is this the “bus station”? Which corner? We peer down the sodden street in vain. The rain thunders on. We decide to get a taxi but the driver has apparently never heard of the hotel we are looking for. He does, however, grasp that we are looking for a hotel and, either helpfully or schemingly, takes us to a hotel farther from the city center. We are exhausted, cold, and wet and decide to make do with the hotel and figure out the rest later. Our room looks out on a whole row of delapitated abandoned buildings mixed in with a few new concrete structures. We know that among them are a couple hotels, cafes, and a university, but from a distance it’s impossible to tell. It’s all just either old concrete or new. The rain slows a little but doesn’t stop. We decide it may be our best chance to get to town so we set out in our rainjackets, umbrellas in hand.

We want to go to Gjirokastra tomorrow morning and know that the bus leaves (from the phantom bus station) sometime between 5 and 8am. So first order of business is to find this bus station, find out when (and if) our bus will depart and then find the town center for some dinner. We ask a few taxi drivers and passers-by for the “autobus station” and they motion for us to continue along the muddy street, passing more of the same – decay and concrete. We happen upon a few encouraging currency exchange offices – could the bus station be near? We round the corner and find…nothing. More asking around leads us in a fruitless circle until it slowly dawns on us that there is no bus station, that buses just depart from an abitrary spot on the street, just like the swarm of mini-buses. We spot a cabbie milling about near the stretch of road that seems most likely to be the “station”. We throw words at him in a jumble of languages: “Autobus! Gjirokastra! Domani! Here! Da?”. Miraculously, he seems to catch our drift and tells us in Albanian that yes, the bus to Gjirokastra departs from here tomorrow at 6, drawing the number with a finger in his palm. One problem solved! But we’ve worked up an appetite.

We continue down the same muddy street, thinking that it’s bound to hit some sort of promising square or intersection eventually. We stumble upon a pleasant, if somewhat derelict looking, park and another collection of gutted buildings but a few more people seem to be milling about. Encouraged, we turn a few promisingly looking corners at random and finally find a street lined with slightly less obviously crumbling builsings and a few cafes, restaurants and shops. We choose an inane pizzarea and look helplessly at the Albania menu. Our waiter looks at us blankly as we rattle off a plea for English? French? Italian? He finally responds, shouting to a chef behind the counter who evidently speaks a little Italian. I somehow manage to order us some salads and a vegetarian pizza. We eat in disheartened silence – what have we gotten ourselves into?

It’s still dark when we leave the hotel the next morning. We retrace our steps to the spot we expect our bus to be and, miraculously, it is there. The antique looking green Mercedes bus is parked crookedly along the street with a reassuring sign for “Gjirokastra” propped in the corner of the windshield. Relieved, we plop down on a nearby curb and before long a grey-haired man steps out of a cafe across the street and approaches us. “Gjirokastra?” he inquires. We nod and, evidently the driver, he fishes a set of keys out of his pocket and opens the luggage hold for us. We snag the front seats of the bus. We’ve read about this journey and are looking forward to the views the broad windshield before us is sure to provide, and the fact that it might make me slightly less likely to hurl all over my unfortunate seatmate.

The journey is every bit as twisty and senic as promised. Once outside of Korca virtually every road we take is narrow and in disrepair, precariously clinging to steep mountainsides and the edges of deep gorges. We pass a few other vehiles but much of the time we are alone with the endless forests and scraggly mountaintops. Several times we are forced to stop while a shepard urges his flock off the road. On one particularly hairpinned descent, a teenaged girl runs to the front of the bus and desperately grabs a plastic bag that the driver pulls from a hefty roll stowed under his seat. She wretches into the bag and then causually tosses it out the window where it lands among many similar bags. Ah the Albania wilderness – unspoilt nature dotted with undegradable sacks of puke. I take the opportunity to pop another Dramimine pill.

The Gjirokastra bus stop is extremely underwhelming. Gas stations and cheap concrete buildings, mostly empty, dot the newly paved road. We load our bags into a taxu with some hesitation, trying to remember exactly why spending our time and money in Albania seemed like such a good idea. But the taxi whisks us uphill, away from the smoggy road and ugly cement. Clinging to the higher hillsides is a charming smattering of old stone and half-timbered homes, an imposing hilltop castle and a gently decaying plastered mosque. The streets are cobblestoned and near the center of the old town are a few pleasant cafes and byrek shops. We decide that if we can remember to avoid looking downhill at the quickly spreading, and unabashedly ugly, new town this place is actually quite nice. We find a comfortable hotel with an original hand-carved ceiling and cabinets and a bathtub (!) and settle in for a few day.