Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Day 269 – An unavoidable toll booth and a Communist-era hotel. (Border crossing Bosnia Herzegovina to Serbia)

We should have only had 200km to the Serbian border, but we mistakenly took the advice of the guy working at our hostel in Sarajevo, and took a ridiculous detour. He warned us that the roads would be very very icy and it would actually be quicker to take the motorway despite the fact that it was much further. On his suggested route though we still ended up driving on some of the iciest and steepest roads we’ve encountered on this trip, on top of doubling back heinously, and realised that we would have been better off just going on the roads that we had originally planned. Well you live and learn – we will never take that guy’s driving advice again.

Annoyingly, because of this completely useless detour we ended up on one of the most – if not the most – exhausting and dangerous long drives we’ve done. The road was narrow and ever so steep and windy, ravelling itself around the Bosnian mountains. Although it was evident that part of the surface had been cleared of snow at some point, it was still completely covered in several centimetres and we had to stop and engage 4WD several times to make it up slopes. We’ve driven on plenty of roads like this, but what set this drive apart was the sheer distance that these conditions went on for. On one stretch of road where we were descending, a line of trucks travelling in the opposite direction were parked on the road, blocking the way for a stream of cars behind them. As if it wasn’t challenging enough to control the car already, this was an extra obstacle made un-necessarily more difficult by the fact that a lot of the drivers had decided to step onto the road for a breath of fresh air. Despite the fact that as drivers they should have a pretty good idea of how driving in these conditions is, they failed to move out the way as we approached. Fortunately nothing came of it, but it was exhausting and strenuous to avoid this dangerous scenario. A kilometre or so down the road a snow clearer passed us and we realised that they were all awaiting his arrival to ease their driving conditions.

After all this we didn’t make it to the border until after 8pm. We breathed a sigh of relief when nobody asked for our Bosnian insurance documents and therefore didn’t notice that we had overstayed our insurance by one day. After being waved through the Bosnian side of the border we crossed a bridge, which seeing as a lot of borders are drawn through rivers is quite normal in no man’s lands. What was amusing in a pathetic sort of way though was that at the other side of the bridge we were stopped at a booth. Assuming that this was some sort of official border post (well, as official as they get), we presented our passports, to which the man manning the booth snorted and presented us with a receipt for 2. We realised that this was in fact a toll booth for the bridge, situated in the unavoidable location of no man’s land. It’s not like we could go back or take another route is it? Baffled we paid the nominal fee. It’s an interesting way of presenting it, but I suppose this is their version of the small, not-worth-fighting-over “service fee” that we’ve come across so many times before.

At the Serbian part of the crossing we were of course asked the inevitable green card question. This time Ben went for a more “please take pity on us” method than we usually go in for, resignedly acknowledging the fact that we would have to pay more money yet again, even though we have already paid so much. “We wouldn’t expect you to go out of your way to check that our insurance is valid, I know you’re just doing your job, we don’t blame you, I don’t want to cause you any trouble, etc.” After being told several times that we would have to pay regardless, the lady who was mainly dealing with us disappeared for a while, and returned with the good news. They were going to accept our own insurance and didn’t require us to buy theirs! For the first time in this part of the trip, Ben had managed to wriggle us out of buying the useless and entirely bureaucratic insurance that we were becoming quite sick of. Taking only half an hour in total, and costing us a total amount of 2, we left this particular crossing pretty satisfied.

The next challenge – which we didn’t anticipate to be a challenge – was the search for accommodation. Apparently rural Serbian towns, and in fact anywhere other than Belgrade, don’t have any accommodation. We spent the next three hours looking for somewhere and in all that time only found a couple of very expensive hotels. As it approached midnight it seemed as if we’d be arriving in Belgrade that night. It was obviously much too late to try and meet up with our Couch Surfing host, and finding a hostel in the wee hours is far from ideal, but it seemed we would have no choice.

Just 40 km from Belgrade though we found a typically run-down Communist-era hotel called Hotel Obrenovac. It cost a bit more than we were hoping to pay, but we settled anyway, and spent the night in the type of hotel that we haven’t really come across since Central Asia. Built in the usual Soviet architectural style, with several floors, hundreds of rooms, a bar which I’m sure was classy, or at least expensive, at some point in time, but is now just a smelly and seedy reminder of days gone past, a full reception and two disturbingly ancient elevators, this establishment, like all the similar ones we’ve come across, scream out-dated and un-used extravagance. Wandering the ghost-like corridors and staring at the building from the state-of-the-art-50-years-ago balconies, you can imagine a time when the rooms were booked out, the bar was buzzing and the lobby was jostling and lively. It’s hard to know though whether that really was every the case, or whether these hotels – especially ones like this which aren’t located near to anything of note – ever had a hay-day. Were they just plonked in a spot that someone in an office decided looked like a good spot on the map, as is the case with so many things, including towns? “There aren’t any hotels here, that looks like a good spot. It will have 1,000 beds.”

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Day 268 – The Sarajevo Siege and the 1984 Winter Olympics.

We were greatly looking forward to our visit to Sarajevo. As the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina, a now independent country that is still amidst restoration after being ravaged by war in the 90’s, formerly part of the Yugoslavian Republic, and under Communism for most of its modern history, we knew that we were going to have a lot to see and a lot to learn. According to every guide book type source though, Sarajevo’s night life is fully repaired and it is quite an exciting European capital. We were also hopeful that after failing on finding somewhere to ski so far, we might get an opportunity here.
Arriving in Sarajevo a couple of its features struck us prominently: the first is that it is a beautiful city with a lot of historical buildings, a well-maintained old town, nice views from the hill the city is built on, and spectacular countryside surrounding it. The other feature though is the much more surreal fact that a vast majority of the buildings – historical, Soviet, residential, commercial, central and suburban alike – are covered in bullet holes. Many of them have been patched in places of structural importance, but very few have been done up cosmetically, and even fewer have been entirely re-built.
The Tunnel Museum, located near the airport on the outskirts of Sarajevo was, as far as we were concerned, a must-see. A small museum has been put together around the remaining 20m section of the supply tunnel that was built and used during the Serbian-inflicted Sarajevo Siege. Lasting for almost four years, making it the longest siege in modern history, claiming around 12,000 lives, and leaving Bosnia Herzegovina’s capital city in a state of extreme devastation and disrepair, this part of the country’s history is amongst the most horrific and confronting that we’ve come across. The tunnel ran for almost 1,000m underneath the UN controlled air base, connecting Sarajevo to the rest of the Bosniac controlled areas. country which was not under siege, and providing the only means of transportation for food, medical equipment, and military supplies to the city itself.
The museum was relatively difficult to find, as even though there are signs from the main road towards the museum, there are no directions once you get to the windy and un-marked side streets. We found ourselves taking a wrong turn and ending up approaching the secure zone around the still heavily militarised airport, where we were of course stopped by police. Using the “thankyou so much for stopping us, please help us with directions” method of avoiding questioning, which in this case was more than the truth, but has served us very well previously, we were pointed towards the museum. Down a couple of pot-holed side streets and past some more abundantly bullet-holed homes, we came to the humble museum.
Costing only 5 Marks (AU$3.30) to enter the small but very tactful and heart-wrenching museum, the experience was well worth it. We were welcomed with a video about the war and specifically the role this tunnel played in it, which of course we couldn’t understand the words of, but the pictures said enough. We were then shown the remaining section of tunnel, a few individual stories, some products from the time, and of course pictures of the tunnel in use. One particular display that pulled at the heart strings was the chair that was designed for the disabled leader of the country at the time to run on the rails inside the tunnel. Despite his physical disability, and the fact that he could have used this as an escape route to take himself to safety and relative comfort, he helped the project and nobly returned to Sarajevo just as everyone else did.
Even at such a site, there is always someone trying to take advantage of others and make a buck at every opportunity. The owner of the house next door to this one advertised on the street that there was museum parking, and when we went in, he tried to charge us even though the museum itself provides free parking and is located on a dirt road, next to fields, on the very outskirts of town where parking is acceptable anywhere. Not only this but he also had a little stall of tacky souvenirs completely unrelated to this museum, set up just on his side of the fence separating the two properties, which he stood next and spruiked for as we explored the exhibits in the museum. It is so sad that even something so noble, put together by non-profiteering individuals for the sake of preserving this important piece of Sarajevo’s history, should be tarnished by this type of obnoxious selfishness.
The History Museum, located across the road from the largest US Embassy in Europe, is inside a building which represents the pinnacle of Soviet architecture. As we drove past, the broken windows, myriads of graffiti and rubbish, and boarded-up main entrance almost had us convinced that the museum, at least at this location, was closed. Fortunately though we decided to stop and have a quick check and lo and behold, the grey cement block had just been left to disrepair but was in fact still working as the History Museum. Strangely enough it was even colder inside the building than it was outside – a testament to the unique standard of building implemented by the Soviet Union.  The array of artefacts, posters, people’s belongings, diary entries, advertising, photographs and memorabilia relating to the Sarajevo Siege was highly insightful and we could have spent hours inspecting each exhibit individually. Unfortunately though the day was drawing to a close and we planned to go on a free walking tour at 4pm.
We rushed back to the centre of town and to the meeting point for the tour which happened to be the office of the organiser. When we arrived though, we were informed that he had decided for undisclosed reasons that the tour which “runs every day without fail” wouldn’t run today. We suspect that cups of tea in his nicely heated office was most enticing than dragging a handful of tourists around the city at dusk.
Much to our delight we succeeded in our endeavour of fitting in a day of skiing, and not just at any old mountain, but at the location of the men’s events at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics. The two mountains which hosted the men’s and women’s events – Bjelašnica and Jahorina respectively – are located not far from the city itself and make a very convenient day trip. We chose to go toBjelašnica, and whilst being great fun, was certainly a challenge! Runs marked as “intermediate” at this mountain are harder than most “expert” runs in Australia, and we disappointedly realised that despite our best intentions, we in fact probably aren’t Winter Olympics material. It was a bit of a stretch, but a very fitting start to our European ski season. Even after 29 years, the souvenir shops of Sarajevo are still littered with merchandise and advertising for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Day 266 – Rafting in no man’s land. (Border crossing Montenegro to Bosnia Herzegovina)

The peculiar thing about the border town at the crossing between Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina was that it wasn’t a few kilometres away on either side as is usually the case, but instead it literally straddled the imaginary line dissecting Tara River. So we entered Šćepan Polje, a small resort village set up for the popular water and mountaineering activities in the area, and found the border post lodged bizarrely amidst the houses and restaurants.
Our passports were checked and stamped, our insurance documents for which we had paid €15 for one day were completely ignored and we were sent onwards towards our next destination. This no man’s land was peculiar; the only time that we’ve crossed one side of a border, entered no man’s land, and found ourselves in a town. It must be quite amusing for anyone who has chosen to stay in Šćepan Polje as a launching pad for the plethora of outdoor activities, and find yourself crossing either border to travel in any direction. It was all the odder for us because in winter of course, it becomes a ghost town.
We followed the road down to the river where a rickety bridge welcomed us to Bosnia Herzegovina. On the other side of the river we were waved down by a confused looking border guard, and we noticed that there was no insurance building – a good sign, which we were becoming accustomed to looking for. The usual documents were taken aside (passports, registration, Carnet de Passage and insurance), and we waited patiently to find out our fate (whether we had to buy insurance or not).
Of course the old green card question was raised, and we responded with our usual array of responses: “no green card, in Australia we don’t have green card, we have insurance though, valid for the whole world, etc.” But no, we were required to either have a green card, or purchase insurance at the border. But where were we supposed to buy it from? There was nothing there except a small hut with three guards, a welcome to Herzegovina sign, a river and a bunch of trees. Well to add insult to injury, we were pointed back towards Montenegro and told that we had to re-trace our steps and buy insurance from Montenegro, for a price they had no idea of, then come back and show it to these guards.
So back over the rickety bridge we went, past the “Thanks for visiting Bosnia Herzegovina” and “Welcome to Montenegro” signs, up the slippery hill, and to the opposite side of the original building we were stopped at. Ben took our documents to the nearby cafe which doubled as an insurance broker, where he found two men drinking beer and chain-smoking whilst enjoying a European handball match on their retro television set. He established that insurance was what he was looking for, and waited while one of them retrieved an ancient piece of paper from a drawer and then ran his fingers along the axes of the table printed on said paper. For the first time we were offered a minimum of three days of insurance (ironically for the only country we were planning to spend more than two days in since Greece). Unfortunately it was still more expensive than 15 days in Montenegro had been. Three days would cost us €26, and five days would be €50. Ben made an executive decision to go with three days, made the payment, and waited for the paperwork to be filled in.
Back down the hill, across the bridge, farewell Montenegro, hello Bosnia, and to the Bosnian guards. This time we were approved and with a smile and a wave, were allowed to pass into the country.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Day 266 – Pilgrims and Avalanches. (Montenegro)

We decided to skip Podgorica all together given our imminent time limit (now 8 days to see Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia and get to Budapest in time for Christmas), and instead headed towards the impressive sounding Ostrog Monastery. As a general rule we try and avoid visiting monasteries and cathedrals just for the sake of it, in the same way as we avoided going to every mosque and temple earlier on in the trip. Too many people get “templed out” or “cathedraled out” and we have long enough and are covering enough distance that we can afford to pick and choose the special ones. It’s very tempting just to stop at every monastery that we pass: “Well we’re passing anyway, we may as well just stop and have a squiz – it looks nice.” But we have made a concerted effort not to get “place of worshipped out” and so far have done quite well at visiting just the right amount to keep us interested.
Ostrog Monastery, carved into the rocky side of a mountain 900m above the Zeta Valley, seemed to fit the category of being worth a visit. Deemed the most important site for Orthodox Christians in all of Montenegro, which considering the size of the country may not be such a huge claim to fame, but never the less is certainly a spectacular site. The lower monastery isn’t carved into the cliff face, but was built using the more traditional method of bricks on bricks on top of the ground. From there a 2 m wide un-made track, covered in ice and sludge during our visit, literally zig-zags up the remainder of the hillside to the upper monastery. In summer the place is apparently swarmed by inappropriately dressed snap-happy tourists and bare-footed pilgrims, so despite the fact that it’s cold and a lot of attractions are closed for winter, this is one example of when it is delightful to miss peak season. A hand full of visitors arrived while we were there, not pilgrims as such, but obviously there for religious purposes. They crossed themselves, lit candles, and quietly prayed to the appropriate pictures and statues, before respectfully retreating back to their cars to make the dangerous descent to the lower monastery.
The gleaming white stone structure that fronts the carved out rooms and caves is truly magnificent, majestically towering over the beautiful Zeta Valley and gloriously housing a selection of impressive shrines and monuments. Unfortunately it was incredibly foggy while we were there, but based on the drive up to the monastery, we can safely say that the view from the top would have been breath-taking.
The other place that grabbed our fancy was Tara Canyon in Durmitor National Park, an area that is littered with dramatic mountains, glacial lakes and a stupendous variety of birds and mammals. There is a €2 entry fee to the park, which we avoided by skirting the edge instead of actually entering. From here you can still get a great view of the Tara Canyon, but in order to see more of the area you would have to pay the fee.
With a maximum depth of 1,300 m (to put this in context, Colorado’s Grand Canyon reaches 1,500 m), the Tara Canyon is a magnificent amalgamation of water streaked cliff faces and the dazzling sapphire coloured river that has sliced through the limestone. In summer an 82 km stretch of Tara River is a popular rafting destination, amongst an assortment of other outdoor activities in the national park, but of course none of this was available for us during winter. The only activity we had to keep us entertained was throwing rocks down the side of the cliff and watching them roll down the rugged slope before splashing into the deep river, hoping not to cause an avalanche.
We followed the road around the canyon, intending to drive towards Bosnia Herzegovina and find somewhere to stay on the way. In many places the road was crudely tunnelled through the rock, not concreted or reinforced, but left naked so it’s just you and the rock. Some partial tunnels were scattered between the real tunnels; the type of ones that are popular in Austria and Switzerland where there’s a roof over the road, it’s enclosed on the mountain side, and columns suspend the roof on the valley side. The most notable thing on that drive though was the regularity of snow avalanches evident on the road. Some were obviously reasonably fresh and had to be carefully manoeuvred around, but for the most part the pile of snow that had landed on the road was neatly sliced, leaving a gap wide enough to drive through, a wall of snow on either side.
What we’d failed to realise in our planning of the evening was just how tiny Montenegro is, and the extent to which there would be literally nothing between Tara Canyon, or even Ostrog Monastery for that matter, and Bosnia Herzegovina. We took a small detour down an obscenely muddy and icy track, following signs for an eco-lodge, but all we found was a burnt-out hut and a hand-full of tractors. Before we knew it we had reached the border village of Šćepan Polje and it became apparent that our only option was to cross the border then and look for somewhere to stay on the other side.
We certainly hadn’t planned on spending only one day in Montenegro, but the sheer minisculinity of the country got the better of us and before we knew it we had accidentally left the country.

Day 265 – The “I’m calling your bluff, take me to the police station” method. (Montenegro)

Having not crossed the border until after 4pm, it was well after dark as we drove across the majority of the tiny country of Montengro. Yet again, we were impressed by the quality of the roads, and most importantly the extent to which the metre or so of snow had been cleared from them. We reached Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital city with a population of approximately 150,000 and began the search for accommodation, only to be met by the realisation that aside from a couple of expensive hotels, we had no options. After aimlessly searching for a while and thinking that we had potentially come across Europe’s most non-eventful capital, we eventually gave up and decided to grab a meal and head back to the countryside to try some of the roadside type places that we dismissed on the way into town because of their location.
The first place we chose to stop for a bite to eat involved parking 2 metres away from the kerb because of the piles of cleared snow. Despite the classy table settings and extensive menu presented to us on arrival, we discovered that pancakes were the only item on sale, so decided to try elsewhere. A few blocks away we found a humble looking restaurant which turned out to be either run by a church, or in support of a church. Saintly figures looked over us, suspended from the naked brick walls, as we sat at the pews that were used as chairs, and were informed in English by the gentle but friendly waiter that due to the date it was fasting time, so only a limited menu was available. During our hearty meal of non-expensive home-made soup and pizzas, our lovely waiter appeared and anxiously explained that we had parked in a restricted space and must move our car otherwise the police will tow it. (Of course he knew which car was ours – there weren’t that many people hanging around that matched a large Australian 4x4 covered in a collection of international stickers.)
As Tom and Tom had already finished eating they went out to attend to the situation. It appeared that we had inadvertently parked in the spot reserved for the Serbian ambassador, which of course had been the only space available on this busy strip of shops, restaurants and bars. It seemed like a peculiar place for an embassy, not to mention how unusual it is that there only be one car parking spot reserved for the staff, and it be located in front of a busy night club. It made us wonder as to the nature of the embassy, but nevertheless we had evidently missed the parking sign and were therefore in the wrong, which was supposedly fineable for an amount of €70. Denner expertly negotiated with the police man who was ever so understanding of the fact that we’re ignorant tourists and immediately dropped his price to €50. Denner agreed and began asking for directions to the police station, knowing very well that the police man would be even less inclined to waste time doing this officially than we were. Funnily enough the price was dropped again as he was ever so considerate and wouldn’t dream of inconveniencing us with all the paperwork, but Denner persisted with the “I’m calling your bluff, take me to the police station” method. After a few more price droppings and some attempted suggestions of paying cash there and then to avoid difficulties, Denner had wriggled us out of this one. In the mean time Tunkles moved the car to a few spots along, and we hastily finished our meals and left the vicinity.
There was a handful of roadside motels and cheap hotels in the area surrounding the city, but they all cost much more than we were looking to spend, so we kept travelling to Hostel Izvor which we noticed the sign for on the way in, but had thought “pfft, who would ever want to stay in a hostel this far away even from the outskirts of the town?”. Well as it turns out, it is the only budget option in “Podgorica” (I use inverted commas as I struggle to classify it as in the city when the city itself only spans 2 km, and this is 5 km from the outermost point) and certainly the only hostel. It was actually a lovely setting, perched in a valley surrounded by snow capped mountains and a partially frozen river, and as there was nothing that especially took our interest inside the city, it worked out fine for us anyway.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Day 265 – “Slow down, life is one.” (Montenegro)

The drive from Pristina to the border with Montenegro was a spectacular one, right up there with what we were faced with as we entered Albania (Blog Day 261 – A snow-coveredborder crossing, and an abundance of stolen vehicles). Reaching the border post at about half past three in the afternoon (or evening I suppose it should be considered in this part of the world at this time of year), dusk was approaching, and the sun was setting behind the tree-covered snowy mountains that we were winding our way around.

Leaving Kosovo was simple; no more than a flick through our passports before we were waved forwards. Usually no man’s land is anywhere from no distance at all – ie. the two borders literally share a fence as was the case between Turkmenistan and Iran, to a couple of kilometres between the zones. This one though seemed to go on forever. We left Kosovo’s border area and expected to find Montenegro’s just around the corner, but instead we travelled 10km, which took 15 minutes on the windy, icy mountain road. We were starting to consider whether we had either missed something, and were even thinking that perhaps Montenegro didn’t control their own border at this point, but sure enough just as we were preparing celebrations for an unbelievably easy crossing, the small group of huts and shelters appeared over a crest.

We were of course asked to stop the vehicle, present out passports and car documents, and open the back of the car for inspection. One man disappeared with our passports, another shone a torch into our boot and decided it was probably fine, while another took care of the car documents, which of course involved the tedious questioning of our possession of a green card.

“No,” we had to frustratingly inform the guards that we are not in possession of the Europe-wide insurance document known as a “green card”.

“You need green card,” was solemnly re-iterated.

“In Australia, no green card, we have insurance for the whole world though,” but of course they don’t care about the actual nature of insurance that one may or may not have, as long as they can tick their paperwork boxes.

So yet again, we were sent to the conveniently placed insurance broker at the next building who entered our details into a surprisingly official looking computer program which told him that we should pay 15 for the minimum 15 day time period. This is another annoying thing – with our very rushed tour of the Balkans in order to reach Budapest by Christmas, we were only spending a couple of days in each country, yet 15 days seemed to be the standard minimum for insurance purchasing.

While we were waiting for our passports to be stamped and our insurance papers to be printed and signed, a very friendly and easily excitable guard approached us and handed over a bunch of pamphlets entitled “USPORI, ŽIVOT JE JEDAN”, or in the English translation “SLOW DOWN, LIFE IS ONE”. Aside from a detailed map and a useful list of emergency phone numbers, the pamphlet was laid out with some graphic car crash photographs and a list of concerning road traffic statistics, beside the reassurance that “Risks in road traffic are on the first place of harmful consequences they have”. The campaign is obviously directed at holiday makers in summer, making use of Montenegro’s fine coast line and beautiful landscape, and consequently forgetting how to drive. None-the-less though, we were provided with some very useful information about the most common causes of traffic accidents being things such as fatigue, speed and “bad cognition of the road or part of the road”, and the most common time and place of traffic accidents being weekends, near seaside towns and “1st and 15th day of a month”. Despite some amusing oddities and translations though, we actually considered that this was the first piece of safety awareness advertising that we have received on this whole trip. Go Montenegro.

All in all the process took 50 minutes, including 15 minutes driving through the most impressive no man’s land we’ve experienced yet. (Unless you include China to Kazakhstan, but that was impressive in a military in the desert type of way: Blog Crossing the Chinese - Kazakh Border, by Ben Crowley.)

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Day 264 – Fairy lights and frost. (Kosovo)

After the pile of snow that was the roads in Albania, we were surprised at the relief that the road into Kosovo brought. Largely supported by overseas aid, the roads and general infrastructure in Kosovo, and most notably the capital city Pristina, was far more impressive than we had expected. Oddly, it suddenly got foggy as we crossed the border, but the wide motorway was perfectly cleared and in immaculate condition. As we headed towards Pristina, we passed a series of petrol stations, all brightly lit up with flashing lights, ribbons, flags, Christmas decorations and television screens. At first we thought it was a particular company’s form of advertising, or perhaps it was just for Christmas, but then we realised that this is just what petrol stations in Kosovo look like. We really can’t figure out why this is the case or where the style has come from.

Dropping to -17 °C overnight in Pristina, our tour of the frozen Balkans continued. Even with clear, sunny days, the temperature didn’t rise high enough for the snow to even think about melting. We could tell the snow hadn’t actually fallen for a while, but the ground was still thickly covered in the sandy, brown powder that snow becomes when not given the opportunity to melt for an extended period of time.

We had been advised that Pristina was a nice city, but we weren’t quite sure what to expect. As it turns out though our advisors were correct – it really is a very pretty, modern city. Without meeting any locals, it’s hard to know what the real state of life is, but funded by aid from predominantly the EU and the USA, you could never tell from the surface that Kosovo isn’t another well-to-do Western European country. The pedestrian mall in the centre of town was wonderfully lit up with a breath-taking ceiling of fairy lights and the buildings were glowing with their own light displays.

Besides being clean and pretty, there wasn’t a whole lot to do in Pristina. The Bill Clinton statue, mounted on a podium beside an American flag, a poster of the man towering over the intersection that it’s located at, is one of Kosovo’s main attractions. The National Museum mostly housed the usual array of ancient artefacts, and as stated clearly on several signs inside the small museum, disappointingly a large proportion of the exhibits from this museum are held under force by Serbia. The bazaar was little more than a group of fruit and veg, socks and thermals, and fireworks stalls, but the night life was surprisingly active, especially considering the weather.

Walking along the pedestrian mall in the afternoon, Ben and Tunkles lagged a few paces behind and when they caught up they were very excited to tell us the story of what they just witnessed. A pigeon lay in the snow, limp and clearly lifeless, and an elderly man walked upto it and lifted the bird into his hands. Lifting his hands to his face, he breathed on the pigeon, and after a couple of strokes the wings fluttered and it took off from the palms of this man’s hands.


Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Back-fire of a life-time, by Thomas George Stanley Denner. (Border crossing Greece to Macedonia)

It was a grey and overcast day as we approached the Macedonian border near the town of Florina. The drive from the previous night's camp site was fairly uneventful, as was the mostly flat, green agricultural land we were now passing through. Around 1:30, the Greek customs/immigration terminal emerged in the distance, and just behind that, a Macedonian flag. Exiting Greece was no problem whatsoever; a cursory glance through our passports and vehicle documents, before stamping us out of the country. This is the type crossing we've come to enjoy in Europe, quick and painless. This one however was about to come to a grinding halt.

We continued on through no-man's land to the Macedonian terminal. The official in the booth asked us for passports and vehicle documentation as per usual, which we obligingly handed over. He sifted through our passports checking names and faces, pausing a moment longer as he tried to reconcile my 16yr old passport photo with the now slightly more mature looking bearded face in front of him. Content with who we were, he then moved on to the vehicle documents, and here we ran into a problem. It is compulsory in Macedonia, as it is in most countries in this part of the world, to have vehicle insurance, usually documented by the infamous “green card”. Greece had allowed us to pass into their country with our original insurance documents from Malaysia, but after much debate the Macedonian officials made it clear that unless we had a green card, we would have to buy insurance from the border.

We had anticipated this might be a problem, and begrudgingly accepted we would just have to pay the 55 Euros to enter the country. There was a slight problem though: none of us had anticipated it enough to bring Euros. We had in fact all deliberately spent our remaining cash on gas, petrol and other assorted non perishables in preparation for the next few countries which were not on the Euro, so as not to have extra money just floating around. Of course they didn't take card so we asked the head official if there was a Bankomat anywhere in the vicinity. He replied that there was nothing on the Macedonian side, but possibly at the service station just before the border on the Greek side. Someone was going to have to run back across the border and get some money, and the logical choice was someone with an EU passport.

I walked back across no-man's land and through the Greek border, asking about the closest Bankomat on the way. The officials on the Greek side were pretty sure the closest one was actually in Florina, 18 km away, and sure enough, the service station attendant said the same thing. This changed things slightly, but the fact remained we still needed the money, so I would have to go to Florina. I considered going back across the border again to tell everyone what I was doing, but I realised it had already taken about 20 minutes just to get to here, and if I did it would mean crossing through Greek immigration a total of five times in one day, which might raise an eyebrow. Alternately, if I go now I'll probably be back in about 45 min-1 hour. A little longer than expected, but cash in hand, and problem solved.

I decided to go for it, and began to head up the road to Florina. The third car which passed me pulled over. It was an elderly Greek couple in a tired looking blue hatch-back. Neither of them spoke a word of English, but “Florina” they understood and beckoned me to take a seat in the back. I began thinking how well everything was going; five minutes and I've already got a lift. Then we turned off the main road to Florina, and I started to worry again. I said Florina again a few more times to the driver, and indicated to myself to ensure I was getting the point across. He seemed to understand well enough so I hoped it was just an alternate route. If it wasn't I was going to end up in a village somewhere far away from Florina or the border, and that would make things very very difficult.

The fact that I knew no Greek, and this couple knew no English was only a very mild dampener on conversation. The co-pilot in particular sat herself half swivelled in the passenger seat to face me, providing a continuous verbal stream, regardless of my mostly non-committal “sorry, I don't understand”answers. We did however manage to establish that I was Australian (which judging by the response was pretty exciting), and that they had some family in Melbourne. I also managed to establish that this couple (or rather this man) had been driving for about 12hours or so already. Not an unimpressive achievement for an 80something year old, if slightly worrying.

The “conversation” continued, as the car swerved from one side of the road to the other, using its entire width to try to avoid the potholes in one of Greece's less well maintained roads. We sped through farmland and country villages, until finally a great sense of relief washed over me. We had just passed a sign telling us we were entering Florina, and as we rounded the corner at top speed, the town appeared before us. The couple drove through the centre of town, and I asked them to stop and let me out. At this point they started asking me quite excitedly if I'd like to continue to Thessaloniki. I had to decline several times as politely as possible before I could exit the car. The disappointment printed on their faces made me feel guilty enough to momentarily consider getting back in the car, but common sense quickly gave me a slap in the back of the head. I thanked them for the lift, and waved them on their way. Conveniently I happened to be standing right next to a bankomat, so withdrew sufficient funds to cover the insurance. So far so good, now I just needed a lift back to the border, and we could be on our way.

I walked to the main road out of town heading to the Macedonian border, and started trying to hail cars. Initially I had quite a few people stop for me, but unfortunately they were all headed to a football match which also happened to be about a km down this road. I continued on, thinking it might be easier to get a lift once I was past the football stadium, but once I was out of the football traffic no one was stopping for me at all. After being picked up so quickly the first time, I really thought it wouldn't take me more than 20-30 minutes to get a lift, but it was getting on for an hour now. To make things worse I had no way of contacting any of my fellow travellers at the border, who were still under the impression that I was just popping over to the service station, and to top it off it was beginning to rain.

I continued walking for what was starting to seem like ages. Traffic was regularly passing, but still no one was stopping. It began to dawn on me that I might actually be walking the whole 18km back., and maybe this wasn't the fantastic idea that I had thought it was. I stopped at a garage in the middle of seemingly nowhere to see if there was anyone who could help in any way, shape or form, but the door was firmly locked, and there was no one there. Back to the road then.

I remember at some point being told the average walking speed of a person on flat ground is about 3km/h, so I started doing the maths in my head. It was going to take me about 6 hours to walk back, by which time the border will probably have closed, which meant that we will be stuck here tonight, which meant that this would be hands down the longest crossing so far, and I will be dealing with some some very unhappy travellers. Then coming toward me from the distance I noticed a car. Just a silhouette in the fading light at this distance,but by now an all too familiar shape. The box-like front profile perched on its wheelbase high above the road. Two square, slightly yellowing headlights, shining over a slightly lopsided front bumper, care of a scooter in Thailand. Finally the unmistakable roof box & spare tyre combination, perched like a tactical tiara over the roof of the vehicle. After two hours of waiting, Ben and Eils had finally given up and taken Trev to come and look for me, while Tom and Courtney were waiting in no-man's land, just in case I managed to make it back undetected.

After waiting for so long they'd finally gone and asked the border guards themselves and discovering that the closest bankomat was 18 km away, had decided to begin the rescue mission. As we headed back to the border I explained how it had gone so well, and then so wrong. We exited Greece (again), collected Tom and Courtney, bought the insurance and entered Macedonia. A ten minute border crossing had taken three hours, but we had finally made it through.  

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Day 263 – A light bulb and a lot of snow. (Border crossing Albania to Kosovo)

We really didn’t want to leave our Tiranian hosts, but Christmas was fast approaching and we still had a fair bit of distance to cover (Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia) before reaching our destination of Budapest eleven days later.

The road from Tirana to the Kosovan border was horrendously snowy, completely uncleared in places, and barely cleared in others. It was a very beautiful, but excruciatingly slow and tiring drive, and as it got dark we hoped that the border would be open past 5pm. We couldn’t believe it when a policeman waved us down at the bottom of a very narrow and steep stretch of road, frustrated beyond belief that police all over the world have the outrageous audacity to play their power games under such conditions. He began with the usual “documenti,” to which we handed over a passport or a driver’s licence or whichever document took our fancy (as they never seem to know what they’re actually asking for, it never matters what we give them as long as it’s something). He had a quick skim and started pointing at the front of the car. Ben and Denner got out to have a look and realised we’d actually been pulled over because one of our headlights was kaput. This seemed like a fair enough reason actually, considering Albania has adopted the 24 hour compulsory headlights rule, and it was dark by now anyway.

This policeman must have thought he’d struck jackpot – not only had he pulled the only Western tourists on this road, but they actually were breaking the law. Ben expertly fended off the proposals of paying him a “small fee” to make the “big fine” go away, by using the “thankyou so much for letting us know, you’re a good man, we’ll get it fixed right away, thankyou so much” method and off we went.

We actually did need to get it fixed straight away though as it would surely cause us more problems with every policeman we encountered, not to mention the fact that we were about to cross a border, and of course the whole issue of safety and what not. There was one more town before the border, but the roads were so difficult to manoeuvre on and it was approaching 7pm by now, so we tried the service stations on the main road first, but to no avail.

The funny thing about roads being chronically covered in snow and ice is that road rules seem to go out the window, and everyone’s priorities shift from driving in a straight line on the correct side of the road, stopping at lights, indicating for turns etc (although these rules are questionable in places anyway), and it just becomes a matter of staying on the road and not crashing into each other. It’s the same general effect as the hugely pot-holed, un-made roads of South East Asia and Central Asia. So we adapted to snow rules; avoided a car driving the wrong way up the off-ramp, skidded around a car parked in the middle of the single track road and bumped across piles of blackened snow to an auto shop where we spent the last of our Leke on a replacement light bulb.

Fortunately our auto shop attendant was very helpful and we were relieved when he informed us that the border is open 24/7. The border itself was refreshingly straight forward, taking a total of only 15 minutes. Albania didn’t even stop us, so Kosovo took care of the entire process. We were required to buy insurance which of course we were far from happy about. We tried showing them our own insurance documents, but unless it’s the European issued green card it’s not counted and we must purchase their own policy. It’s incredibly frustrating because we know that if anything were to happen that this insurance wouldn’t assist us in the slightest, but it’s their way of taking a sort of road tax/processing fee from us. We’ve come to have a sense of which battles are worth fighting though, and this wasn’t one of them, so we paid 30 for 15 days and off we went to Kosovo.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Day 263 – Flags, fake cafes and confused drivers. (Albania)

Our Couch Surfing situation in Tirana was excellent: Scott and Cortney, ex-pats from Canada and USA respectively, hosted us between them in their neighbouring apartments. Scott’s boyfriend Robert was a week into his three month stay, and Cortney’s German housemate Malwine had Ada to visit during our stay aswell, so all in all we had a wide selection of hosts, all of whom were fantastic.

As such, exploring Tirana was far more of a joy than it otherwise would have been, in fact we greatly enjoyed our time there. We were shocked by how evident the poverty was, even inside the city, which is surprisingly unusual. In most countries we’ve been through, even the horrifically poor ones, the cities haven’t represented that at all, certainly not the capital. Whether artificially as is the case in Central Asia, or naturally as is the case in China, residents of cities in most of the world at least appear to dwell well above the poverty line.

You can say a lot of things about Albanians, but you can’t say they’re not proud of their flag. The black two headed eagle on a vibrant red background was literally flying everywhere. A huge one looked over the main square, almost every building proudly housed at least one and each lamp post was adorned with red and black ribbons and a coat of arms. A lot of countries are very proud of their flag and love to fly it at every opportunity, but I would say Albania has one of the stronger cases of flag-itis.

As mentioned in the previous blog (Day 261 – A snow-coveredborder crossing, and an abundance of stolen vehicles) there are a lot of stolen foreign cars on the Albanian roads. Hand in hand with this, Albanians are also shocking drivers.  Cars were banned in Albania until twenty years ago, so not only do they have the same situation as a lot of poor countries where owning a car is such an important status symbol that families who can barely afford food will go into a lifetime of debt in order to own a car, but there’s the added idea of it being a modern novelty, a sign of freedom.

The roads in Albania were peculiar. Driving from Ohrid, Macedonia to Tirana we started on a very narrow, but surprisingly good quality mountain pass, which as we reached the flat became a brand new motorway. The road was unfinished, and seemed to have been left that way for some time, but bizarrely cars were still driving over it. Because there was no signage or road markings though, it was acceptable to drive on whichever part of the road took your fancy, regardless of your direction of travel. To add to the oddity of this haphazardly used brand new motorway, it was also unmade in places, just in random sections where the road hadn’t yet been surfaced when they decided to abandon the job. As we hit the outskirts of town, this road which wasn’t on any of our maps, came to an abrupt end at a large pile of rubbish – as in a landfill had just been dumped on top of the road. From there all the cars were crossing over the dual-carriage way to squeeze into an unmade side-street which happened to join up with a gap in the crash barrier. This was one of the most severe bottle necks that any of us have experienced, and this was our introduction to Tiranian driving.

 It’s hard to make a definitive verdict of who are the worst drivers we’ve come across, but Albanians would definitely be up there. Laotians were shocking, but that was more a result of how lazy they were, not bothering themselves with tasks such as looking in one’s mirror or checking the road before pulling out. Tehran is probably the most insane traffic we’ve been in, but the drivers all seemed very competent – just cocky and reckless. They were squeezing through gaps smaller than their vehicles and manoeuvring around obstacles as if it’s an every day event – which it is. Phnom Penh in Cambodia was another city which was very intense to drive in. This was a mixture of the typical South East Asian lack of spatial awareness, high population density and shocking roads.

Tirana is quite a small city and there aren’t a lot of spectacular sites to visit. We planned on looking for a Ukrainian embassy whilst wandering around town, but of course no address or directions matched up, so Ben went into a bank to see if they had any idea. The staff couldn’t help in the slightest, but a young Albanian man sitting down presumably discussing finances with a couple who were presumably his parents, stood up and addressed Ben in a broad Northern English accent,

“Oi mate, Ukrainian embassy ay?”

“Yes, yes I am looking for the Ukrainian embassy.”

He turned back to his parents and spoke animatedly in Albanian with them for a couple of minutes before ushering Ben outside.

“You wan’ a taxi, aw ya walkin’? Right, ya go down the stree’ yeah? Turn righ’ at the end?...” and gave us fantastically specific directions to the embassy complex, which we got to and discovered didn’t contain anything to do with Ukraine.

We wondered whether this was an Albanian man who’s been living in England for years, and was just home for a family visit. Or more cynically, is he one of these infamous car runners?

When we stopped for lunch in a small town on our way to Tirana the day we arrived, we found that the majority of “cafes” in fact only sold drinks. This was something we were frustrated to experience again in Tirana, and didn’t really find an explanation for. Is there some financial or cultural reason for this phenomenon? Or is it simply that they start off with good intentions, print menus and install signs, and then realise that it’s much easier just to sell soft drinks and tea than run a kitchen?

Monday, 7 January 2013

Day 289 – Threatening to spontaneously combust. (Romania)

When people ask how the car’s held up having driven close to 50,000 km, across 31 countries (upto and including Romania), battling with horrendous roads and extreme weather conditions, we like to brag about how well we’re doing. Up until some point in the Balkans we would answer with,

“We’ve had a couple of flats – as expected, but other than that we’ve had to repair a window from a break-in, a broken lock from a break-in, the mechanism for our electric window for the boot is gradually deteriorating but still working, and the barrel for the ignition jammed whilst in Kazakhstan, but we got it fixed easily. Nothing major.” (Blog Day 131 - Trevor’s Revenge)

As we hit South Eastern Europe though, winter suddenly set in and with the roads becoming constantly icy and snowy we began considering the option of replacing our tyres with winter tyres. It is a legal requirement in most European countries for 2WDs to have winter tyres on during winter but with 4WD it’s not against the law for us to continue driving on our regular tyres. Our main concern though was that it would be much safer, not to mention easier, if we had the proper tyres. We were a little loathe to ditch our current tyres though because they were still in reasonable condition and were certainly fine for non-snow driving. When we had Trevor serviced in Belgrade, Serbia, we enquired about winter tyres, but were quoted about 150 per tyre and that mechanic didn’t even have any. We would stop intermittently at tyre yards we came across and check out options in supermarkets and such like, but couldn’t find any that would fit our specifications.

As time progressed and the weather got milder in Central Europe we leaned away from the idea of purchasing winter tyres, considering we’d already completed a fair whack of snow driving and for the most part (except perhaps for Romania, Ukraine and Moldova) now would at least have the option of good roads. The tyres had suddenly started looking much barer by now though, especially in a couple of places, and around New Year though we did start discussing the option of just getting new summer tyres (much cheaper than winter tyres). Every day we could notice the particular points which were waring through quicker and the tread seemed to be disappearing in front of our eyes. Our search for new tyres became more serious.

We left Prague on January 4th, and got to Budapest on January 5th to pick up Ben’s forgotten shoes and mail from our families which hadn’t quite made it in time for Christmas. Planning to camp somewhere on our way to Romania, we stopped at a Lidl on the outskirts of Budapest to pick up some groceries for dinner, and when we returned to the car realised that it was on a disturbing angle and sure enough – we had a flat.

Denner removed the offending tyre for inspection and discovered that it had not in fact punctured in one spot, but had just worn so thin on one side that there were at least three places where air was leaking from the rubber. Realising that this was beyond repair Denner took the spare off the roof, which is the one that was first punctured at the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos (Blog Day 79 – Car Incidents) and because of the location of the hole was unable to be fixed permanently. Seeing it’s been out of use for the majority of the trip though, it’s still in great condition other than the puncture. He patched it up with our temporary repair kit (basically a flexible stick of rubber which is pushed through the puncture with a heavy duty needle, literally blocking the puncture) and we continued on our way.

We realised that the tyre was slowly leaking as soon as we started driving, but after about ten minutes we heard the dreaded crash of metal rim against road as the stick of rubber popped completely out. This time we didn’t have the luxury of being in the well-lit and empty Lidl carpark, but were instead on the side of a dark residential suburban road.

Realising that we now desperately needed at least one new tyre, though in reality we really needed two replaced, and ideally all four, we thought about our options, and much to our horror realised that it wasn’t just 9pm, it was 9pm on Saturday. Nothing would be open the following day.

Denner patched the tyre again using an extra long stick of rubber, hoping it would stay jammed in more successfully this time. After over two hours of working on this tyre situation, we tensely and carefully looked for a camping spot, cautiously avoiding any unnecessary off-road driving, expecting the tyre to burst at any moment. Joyfully though we found a place to camp (one of our worst spots yet in some sort of tree plantation, a few metres off a busy thoroughfare between villages, on very lumpy ground) without our very fragile tyre bursting again.

We considered back-tracking to Budapest in the morning, thinking that in a major capital we’d be more likely to find somewhere open on a Sunday, but made the decision to take our chances and push on, knowing that it was still unlikely we’d even find anywhere in Budapest anyway. So we hobbled on towards Romania, our front right tyre completely bald on both edges (the original one we were concerned about), the back left threatening to spontaneously combust at any moment (the spare which was originally punctured in Laos, now precariously patched), and the spare completely useless with not a bit of tread left, metal poking through the rubber, and at least three individual punctures.

As everyone seems to want to be a business owner but can’t be bothered learning how to become a mechanic or something else, there are umpteen tyre shops dotted in districts along every road. We stopped at every single one, dozens in total, but much to our frustration no amount of rattling gates, pressing buzzers, calling out, or provoking dog barking, alerted anyone’s attention to us. Every metre travelled was an achievement, and at the same time a metre closer to the potential pop that would render us unable to drive on. Relieved to have made it to the Romanian border, we decided to stay the night in the border town of Oradea.

Despite the fact that the following day happened to be the 12th Day of Christmas and therefore a minor public holiday, we found the usual array of tyre shops, all of which were open. Weighing up the options available we ended up with two new winter tyres on our front wheels, the two heavily-worn-but-not-disastrous ones at the back, the completely bald one on the roof as a spare, and we hummed and hawed about whether to keep the reasonably un-worn but punctured beyond permanent repair one as an extra spare. We decided against it though, and 210 and an hour and a half later we were on our merry way to Transylvania.


Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Day 261 – A snow-covered border crossing, and an abundance of stolen vehicles. (Border crossing Macedonia to Albania)

Leaving Ohrid we didn’t have far to drive to our next destination which was Tirana, the capital of Albania. We had two Couch Surfing hosts lined up for Tirana in neighbouring apartments; neither of them had space for all of us but between them we could all fit. Apparently addresses and road names are a relatively new concept in Tirana, and street numbers are essentially unheard-of, so being the intelligent beings that they are, Scott and Cortney arranged for us to meet them at 4.15pm at a hotel near their homes, one that we’d be able to find directions for on the internet, or ask people for once we got there. Even though we only had 150 km and until 4.15pm to do it, we had a feeling it might be a long drive, so left promptly in the morning (relatively – we’re not very good morning people).

It was a beautiful day, the sun shining in the sky almost as if to say “ha see, the flag’s not misleading or ironic at all”. It was still bitterly cold though and the sunlight shimmered on the snow and ice which covered the town. On the way to the border we noticed that most of the houses and buildings we passed were flying the black double-headed eagle mounted on a red background that is the Albanian flag.

The border crossing itself was a simple affair which took only 25 minutes in total, and was our first of many snow covered border crossings. We were whizzed through Macedonia’s checks, nothing more than a quick glance and stamp in our passports. Most of the 25 minutes at the border was spent driving through the completely uncleared, snow-covered, substantially sized no man’s land. We expected to have a few problems entering Albania; nothing major, just some rude or arrogant guards, a hefty compulsory insurance payment and maybe some frustrating questions about our car documents and passports. What we were faced with instead though was a lovely old man I would have been happy to have as my grandfather (no offense Grandpa) who checked and stamped our passports, had a quick look at our Carnet and registration documents, and smilingly wished us well on our travels. We were quite surprised not to be asked about insurance since our research told us that it was compulsory at the border, so we’re not sure whether it was something that has been abolished, or if this kind old man had decided to spare us, or perhaps he was just confused by our papers and couldn’t be bothered.

Entering Albania we were struck by the beauty of the landscape. Macedonia was very pretty, but this was exceptional. We wound our way down the side of a mountain, a huge lake sparkling in the sun and reflecting the blue sky, dissecting the jagged and snow-capped mountain ranges on either side. The road was surprisingly well made and exceptionally well cleared, but only wide enough for one car. Considering the recklessness of Albanian drivers this seemed like a bit of a hazard on such a windy road with so many blind corners.

Immediately we were struck, though not surprised considering the reputation of Albanians, at how many foreign cars were on the road. Perhaps the small, dull town where we stopped for lunch was a particularly popular tourist destination for European holiday-makers (predominantly British, German, Italian and Greek), or the part of me that likes to keep an open mind and give everyone the benefit of the doubt suggests that there’s even a chance that Albania is legitimately importing a plethora of vehicles from all over Europe. The fact that almost all of these cars had at least one of the following: one or more picked locks, a smashed window, torn registration/vignette stickers from the windscreen, scratched licence plates and/or missing licence plates, led us to the assumption that the reputation Albanians have across Europe for stealing cars is well formed and undoubtedly based on truth.

We can’t help but wonder how car theft is viewed by the average Albanian. Obviously the vast majority of residents won’t have anything to do with the business, but is it something that is widely known about and accepted? Are Albanians so used to seeing foreign cars that they don’t even notice the picked locks and torn registration stickers like we do? Do they actually believe that they have been imported legally and legitimately? Is driving a foreign car some sort of status symbol? Or is it frowned upon by those who realise it’s stolen?

Even though we suppose that they’re not in the habit of stealing cars from inside Albania, we’re guessing they don’t get a whole lot of foreign cars that have actually been driven there by their rightful owners, so we were instinctively on the look-out for Trevor. We were careful to park in view of the hamburger joint we ate lunch at, and on arrival in Tirana we were dead set on parking securely. There weren’t many options and it was a great pain to our kind hosts, but we found a car rental shop with a bit of extra land which we were able to pay some guy to park in.

The sheer number of foreign cars on the road in Tirana was even more confronting than it had been in the countryside, and now there was a wider range of nationalities too. On top of the British, German, Italian and Greek cars we mostly saw in the countryside, we now came across Swiss, Austrian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech, Norwegian, Swedish, Irish, French and Spanish, amongst others. There were even licence plates from Massachusetts, Virginia, Ontario, Pennsylvania, and a yellow Hummer from California. Scott told us about an area in the city where he’d spotted an unusual density of foreign cars with “for sale” signs, which he supposed to be the place where one goes to buy a stolen overseas vehicle. So if anyone from Europe’s looking for a missing car, we can give you directions for where you should go to look for it.

The fact that all these cars are let through the Albanian borders isn’t surprising, but it makes us quite irate that so many stolen cars are let through other borders. They don’t even make it difficult; the thieves don’t need to produce fake paperwork or come up with a story or anything. When a beat up Albanian van towing a 3 year old BMW with German licence plates, a smashed window and a ripped registration sticker is driving East across a border, why is the driver not asked for registration, ownership, insurance or in fact any sort of documentation when crossing a controlled border? There’s no way to get to Albania from the EU without crossing at least three or four controlled borders, all of which we are stopped and questioned and possibly searched at, yet if we were towing an obviously stolen car we wouldn’t even be questioned. I also struggle to fathom why they’re not stopped by police on the roads before reaching Albania. Why do the German, Austrian, Swiss, Italian and British police not stop these people while they still can? Importing stolen vehicles across a dozen countries is more straight forward than driving through as a tourist, so no wonder the problem’s becoming ever more prevalent.