I’d got in late and exhausted last night but 6 hours of sleeping like the dead was all I needed to feel revitalised by morning. The cheese in the oven had moved its satisfying lumpy presence past my stomach so it was hunger pangs that got me out of bed and downstairs to hunt for breakfast. I pushed on the living room door and a drying rack used to block the entrance clanged on the other side and the guy owner, long black ponytail dangling across his face looked up at me with a bleary set of eyes. The girl stayed unconscious. They had both been waiting for me to get back from supper because they wanted to go out drinking. Here they were spread all over the bright orange couches like they owned the place (which they did).
I pulled the door shut quietly without entering and turned to try the kitchen door for drying racks. The kitchen/living room was an open plan deal so I could still see them lying there as I made my coffee, but it felt more polite to loaf somewhere they weren’t sleeping. After a minute or two an odd looking fellow sat down and talked to me, or at me and within minuted I was under the impression he was fucking tapped. Despite a semi-valiant attempt at leading the awkward conversation to greener pastures he would predictably pick it back to problems with Germany’s boarding/home school system, mother/son issues and a difficulty to understand his path to find someone to love. It was too intense for breakfast. Intenfast. His flinches and the way he wouldn’t look directly at me was creeping me out. I looked around for a get-out. The hostel owner had gone back to burying his face in the couch and didn’t look in any rush to put on the hostel breakfast he’d talked about at check-in. To kill time I indulged in a morning walk down Bitola high-street, disappearing covertly as possible so that weirdo-hollow-eyes could invite himself along.
Forty-five minutes later I made my way back to the hostel, where I found Hillary drinking coffee in the kitchen. Hollow-eyes was just leaving for his own walk and pony tail was up and shuffling about aimlessly. “So what do you want to eat for breakfast?” he droned out of the corner somewhere. “Something sweet, something savoury? Some authentic Macedonian food?” We both opted for the authentic, being rash adventurers and Pony Tail disappeared out of the door. The hostel had eight beds in total, five of which were filled. With hollow-eyes out walking that left two other people upstairs still-asleep. It was too quiet. Hillary and I played with a ginger kitten to pass time. Pony tail was back, handing out big cream stuffed croissants on plates. I wasn’t sure how authentic it was, more likely a convenience based purchase, but it would fill a hole until I could find something more nutritious. Draining the last dregs of coffee and wiping the pastry flakes from my mouth I rose for Bitola exploration excursion number two with Hillary as my guide. Running dry on euros and of the belief that if impromptu transactions anywhere would inspire the bank to block my account it would be Albania, I withdrew plenty of Denar hoping to swap them over to Albanian currency after I clear the border.
Round town there are monuments to Bitola’s eclectic history as a major trading hub for the Balkans. A proud clock tower sits right in the middle of in the central park and the old Jeni Mosque was being used as an exhibition hall. Although many of the side roads and housing complexes are a bit ‘shabby-chic’ the main stretch, explored earlier this morning, was booming with coffee bar culture and shopping. The hostel owner had big talked the old bazaar, so we swung by to check it out. I tried not to look disappointed. It was like Wednesfield high street, but narrower with more dirt but less rubbish. Everything shuttered behind steel sheets, forlorn and abandoned. We found another market soon after which made me question Hillary’s sense of direction. It seemed to match the description for ‘Bazaar’ pretty well. Busy, noisy, clustered and tight. A man tried to sell me a watch. I didn’t want one. Foresight got the better of me and I blew a load of denar on too much cord to tie stuff to the bike when Sarah arrives tomorrow. The woman robbed me for it, but I guessed it would be twice the price in England so I took the hit with no qualms. Thanks for a surprisingly pleasant time Bitola – but now, to ride.
Well nearly… After packing my gear and loading up I was told I couldn’t open the garage because someone had parked in front of it. Having anticipated more rain and cold I’d layered with t-shirt, duck jumper, disposable waterproof poncho, insulated waterproof and my motorcycling jacket. Waiting hunched on the stone steps was sticky to say the least. The hostel owner returned from town with the culprit almost as I’d nearly finished basting myself in sweat. Cooked to tender perfection I bolted the last of my water and split.
On the westbound E-65 to Ohrid I was noticing a lot more bikers. I couldn’t see one young guy amongst them. Nothing but portly middle aged men on rolling sofas, or BMW R1200 GS’s as the factory calls them. Dribbled amongst them were a couple of Honda Transalps and the occasional KTM adventure. All Germans, Austrians or Swiss. After the fifteenth cursory wave to an all-gear-no-idea biker a little pride built up in my throat and loins for the tough little Jap bike that had carried me tirelessly so far, with only an oil change and a new tyre. ‘Rich Dickheads. Don’t you know you can thrash this far on a sports bike? Put that in your adventure pipe and smoke it’. Biking might be the only form of travelling that makes you less tolerant. More road more bikers and after tracking around the lake I rolled up into some woods towards Albania’s border checkpoint. Qafë Thanë. The mountain pass.
There were two or three cars sat in front so I parked up and waited for a bunch of bikes I’d just passed to catch up. The cars dawdled forwards slowly, the bikers arrived – all middle aged, portly and on £15000 adventure bikes – we chatted for a bit about our travel plans. They were four bikes, about to head up the Adriatic coastline just like I was before returning home to Germany, Austria or Switzerland (probably). They asked me where I’d come from and I gave them the abridged version. “And where next?”
“Same place as you. Following the coast line then cutting back through Europe to get home.”
“Are you on your own?” The guy was halfway to a bald head, broad and covered in lovely expensive waterproofs. I looked past both my shoulders.
“But it’s so dangerous, yeah?” My ego swam through his words, dizzy and ecstatic.
“Nah. You think?”
“You should at least ride with us to the coast.” Another one nodded. I’ve been riding solo for 2 months already, it was getting pretty lonely. I agreed it would be nice, turned and saw my queue nearly finished, excused myself and walked up to the customs window with my documents, Passport, V5 and Insurance paper and waited for the really short guy in front to finish. My turn. I handed it all over.
I leaned through the window to point at the 3inch² certificate I’d bought at the border last night. It was sat on his desk next to my passport. “There it is.” I pointed again with my pointy finger.
“No, no. Insurance. Green Card”. He looked like a overgrown child, his neck fat wobbled as he spoke.
Ahhh, this bullshit. I could only point so long. He picked it up, flicked his eyes over it and laughed to his colleague. The only word I heard was “English“. All of a sudden things didn’t sound too dandy.
“This,” we waved the paper in the air in front of his face, “this is nothing!” Definitely not dandy. I had been duped. €55 but more importantly my pride…. and more importantly €55. Shit…
“You don’t have insurance?” Not of the green type I replied. He paused and looked at me squarely, his curly short blonde fat boy hair getting on my nerves. “Go wait over there.” I moved my bike out of the queue and went over to the other bikers, who were pushing their wheels forward in the queue.
“Yeah, so. Bit of a problem. The border guy sold me fake insurance and I might be some time.”
“Don’t you have a green card?” It was a mousy looking guy with dark and trimmed facial hair. I shrugged back at him. I got a look back that was a mix of surprise and genuine concern with a sprinkling of ‘You Total Bellend’. I went back to my bike. I couldn’t talk to these guys, they were wigging me out. It wasn’t so bad. Twenty minutes later I realised customs guy wasn’t doing anything with my case and I approached the window again. “Any news?” He looked flustered, but he didn’t mix his words.
“You have been driving without Green Card [pause] You are in serious trouble [pause] The police are coming [pause] They will fine you a lot of money.”
In a few words I hoped he couldn’t understand I professed to this being bullshit. What I did make clear was the fact that it was border customs officers that had instructed me to buy this fake piece of paper then let me in the country with this fake piece of paper. If it wasn’t insurance, why did they let me in? I knew it was a scam, but he couldn’t exactly admit that customs officers scammed tourists, being a customs officer… He was going red again. I was told to wait over there while he dealt with more people in the line. The other bikers passed customs in-front of me. I could tell the one was worried on my behalf, he stopped and looked back. I waved an arm, “Stay safe. I’ll catch you up”. There would be no way the group would sit there waiting for me, but hopefully I made it clear I didn’t expect it. He nodded and rode off with the rest of them. I retained an external composure while inwardly concerning myself with the prospect of a Macedonian police cell. I sat on the bike and kept my shit together.
It was another 30 minutes before all the cars were gone and customs guy had nothing to distract him from my case. I walked up to the window.
“Is this going to take much longer? I’ve sort of got places to be.”
+ 20 Nonchalance. Nailed it. The guy fretted, his pupils were large and his cheeks were red. It looked like he was about to make a decision for himself – god forbid.
“How long [were] you in Macedonia?”
“Less than one day.”
“Are you planning on coming back.”
“Not if I can help it.” He looked at his screen. The police would have come by now if they gave a shit. He knew I knew. There was a torn expression on his face.
“Ok, Just Go.” Music to my ears. Now I’m no one’s prison bitch. He scanned the passport and handed me back my fake insurance. I got out of there.
At the border with Albania I pulled up and told the officer in no uncertain terms that I have no insurance, I need to buy it here. He waved “Yeah, whatever, fine. Go to that building there – [unrecognised Albanian name] will take you.” It cost me twenty euros for the month, even though the certificate (looked legit) said my premium was ten euros. Before I’d finished dealing with the polite old insurance guy another man, young and stupid looking, walked in. He was less polite. He was demanding more money, pointing at a wall chart and trying to say my bike is too big for the insurance I’ve bought. The old man looked away and put his head in his hands. I picked up my stuff amidst the young guys protests.
“I’ve already paid. I already have the certificate. You’re not getting any more from me.” I walked out the door wondering when exactly I got so cool. I was in Albania.
I switched my Denar to Albanian Lek at the border, unsure about whether I was getting a good deal or not. By the state of things this morning, probably not, but I didn’t care. I’d lost an hour clearing customs and needed to make it to Montenegro, 4 hours away before nightfall. It was about half two, so I should make it if I didn’t faff about.
The weather was on my side for the first hour or so winding down the mountains into what appeared to be really rural Albania. Horse drawn carts took precedence over cars. Old men sat beaming at the reins. I had no idea where I was going, all I knew was that if I followed this main road I’d eventually get close enough to Tirana, the capital, to warrant signposts. From Tirana I’d just head North into Montenegro. I had the Albania map saved on my GPS so could always consult if needs-be.
The first village I came to, not far from the border, was just a cluster of shabby houses built on the road. I didn’t know what it was called, there were no signs. There was lots of red clay paving the side roads, but little else. Following a left hand bend towards the bulk of the houses I was scanning the scenery. I knew about Albania’s gun laws going in, it was all anyone told me about the place and one of the reasons I wanted to see the place first hand, yet I was still surprised to see a kid maybe only 15/16 years old, shaved head with an assault rifle looped around his neck in the middle of this village. About half a mile later and I stopped, pulled the Union Jack off from the rucksack of my bike (I’d been riding with it proudly displayed since Sevilla, Spain – where I bought it) and stuffed it in a pocket. I didn’t need the attention – I was wondering how right the other bikers had been in their assumption the place was dangerous.
The road contorted down through woodland and valley walls past police speed traps occupying lay-byes filled with the cars that just burned past you 20 minutes ago, getting a good telling off. As for me, I was behaving myself. After all the tension of the earlier border crossing I didn’t want to give the Albanian police any reason to have to talk to me. I rode past a mafia compound, relaxed looking goons with shotguns strapped across their chests walking around barbed wire compounds. I carried on, aware of more and more spots at the side of the road with broken barriers and flower bouquets – looked like one troubled piece of tarmac. Fits though, some of these drivers are absolute retards.
The weather was on and off all day. Big downpours then overcast. During one particularly heavy spell I stopped to prevent the documents in my tankbag getting soggy, stuffing them into a drysack. The other side of the road I heard a shout but ignored it, then another. I looked up – it was a kid standing in a doorway looking right at me. I waved a hand, other kids had been waving in the morning – it makes you feel a bit more at ease – but not this kid. Seeing my wave he pulled out a slow, measured middle finger. Seemed a bit unreasonable if I’m honest. Then he started shouting again. I’d finished dry-bagging so started up again, I didn’t want to know if papa bear was carrying a shotgun too.
Montenegro was still a way off. I’d misinterpreted two signs for Tirana that pointed two different ways, one blue the other green. In Italy and Greece toll roads are Green, so I took the blue route and rose into the mountains above smoking industrial cities. In a field of cowbels and hauntingly demonic goat herding calls from old women I stopped to figure out there the fuck this road was going. I could see it curving along the tops of these mountains and heading all the way into the distance. The estimated journey time leapt up. It looked like a nice road, but I didn’t have time. I’d have to risk not having enough Lek for the toll roads (I’d used most to fill up the tank) for the sake of getting to (a) Bar today. I turned around and went back down the desolated mountain road and back to the roundabout with the green sign.
I followed the toll road that with an absence of toll gates I guessed was just a motorway after all. It was all right road and looked like it had just been built. It carried me out of the hills and all the way to Tirana, through tunnels and over bridges. The sun came out just as I was reaching the city but I’d dried out in the wind already.
I followed signs and my GPS app to the center. It was busy and sprawling, but not to the extent of other capitals – there was a sense of open space in the centre square. It was only meant to be a pitstop. I was always second guessing Natwest’s actions, so trying to withdraw Lek here and converting them to Euros at money exchanges seemed the best option. It was getting late, maybe around half five or six. I needed to get a move on before everything closed.
I found a bank and started to get cash out. “Are you English?“. Meet Albi Bushi, local translator and avid chess player. I was taken aback.
“Yeah, how did you know that?!”
“I can just tell. You have an English face.” Albi was an interesting guy. He volunteered to help me find a money exchange, which we did right round the corner after being harassed to buy a pen from a kid the whole way. He bought me a coffee and we switched stories. I learned about the trials of living in Albania at the moment, how it’s war torn past has left it unable to govern itself effectively, which it is still learning. I’d left my bike just on the sidewalk so when we’d hatched a plan to find Baklava (Albi was adamant I should try it while in Tirana) I asked if it was OK to leave it there. “As long as it’s locked, you’ll be fine.”
We ran 500 meters through the city back to where I’d parked the bike. It was still there, we were both relieved. The look of disbelief on his face when I told him I hadn’t locked it was worrying. All secure we left to check in 6, maybe 7 shops for this syrupy desert. No dice – but eventually we found a place, ordered, ate baklava and drank coffee. It was great to meet someone so generous and talkative after being tense the whole way through Albania. He single handedly restored my faith in a country that I’d strapped my blinkers on and just rode through. I felt a little ashamed I’d judged all Albanians as gun-toting mentals. Time was getting on for 7pm and I had a long ride ahead of me, another 3 hrs. I waved goodbye and thanks to Albi for his kindness then left Tirana, accepting that it was going to be a late night.
I followed the three-lane tarmac highway out of Tirana and North towards the border. I hadn’t revised this offline maps for this section at all so when my GPS told me I needed to come off I did, assuming I would join another highway. I forgot my GPS was an asshole.
And it went on and on for mile after mile. I was already exhausted. The last strands of sun were fading fast. The GPS was showing this would go on for another hour and the section I’d just taken was already 25 minutes over estimated time, having travelled at 10mph to avoid potholes as best as possible. Screw this shit. I saw tarmac, sweet sweet tarmac, didn’t know where it went but took it. I started floating in black space on my GPS – there was no road meant to be here. Still I followed it into the unknown over a succession of increasingly desperate speed bumps for a good half an hour, by which point the sun was nearly gone. But I’d accidentally done it. There was the highway I’d been taken from so undeservingly. I joined it and burned rubber like there was no tomorrow – the detour was an incredibly efficient setback.
Careening towards the border in complete darkness with only a few cars for company I stopped for petrol and lucked out that they’d take my stashed 10 euros – I’d foolishly converted all my Lek to Euros in Tirana. It was late and I guess the attendants aren’t used to visitors, one of the pulled up a chair ordered the other to make coffee. I shared some baklava. We were most fluent in Spanish, despite me not having learned that much or been there for a month and got the necessary details, like age and music tastes, out in the open. The old guy was a heavy metal fan and disapproved of my electro habits. Then he showed me a dangly rearview decoration in his car that had a swastika on it. I couldn’t figure out if it was just a heavy metal thing or if he was sharing his Nazi beliefs with me. Awkwardly he was kind of nice for a Nazi, if it was the second theory. I left not long afterwards.
After getting lost more than a few times I followed the tiny twisting country lanes into the night wondering why on earth there would be a border this far out of anywhere. When it materialised I was relieved and revelled in a bit of banter with the Albanian customs officers. These were clearly jokers banned from working during the day. Some lads tried to chat up the Montenegrin Insurance saleswoman. I could have stayed their longer, it was the most fun I’ve had at a border crossing yet, but that’s not saying much is it… I headed into the dark once more.
The road followed the mountains along the coast all the way to Bar. You could see the little lights of port villages and the boats out at sea. There was another impressive lightening storm cranking over the ocean. The roads were an imperfect blend of reassuringly good friction and what felt like oiled, frozen glass. Tentatively, wearily, I followed signs down to a main road parallel to the shore which took me straight to the heart of the port town. At 11pm finding a place to stay looked like it would be a faff – but drawing on past experience I found a big hotel, fessed up to not having enough money to stay there and asked for help. As it turned out the Hotel Princess staff had arranged the owner to come over and let me follow his car back to the hotel. I paid, sat down on the bed and fell asleep before I’d had chance to change out of my biking gear.