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.


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