The Journey to Thethi National Park
Day 25: Jess is a Wanderer went to Albania in search of mountains. Thethi National Park came up with the goods but the journey there was quite the adventure in itself...
We knew that we had to take the bus from Tirana to Shkodër, pronounced Shkodra, from somewhere near the capital's Central Bus Station. That's about all we knew! It was raining so we were going to call for a taxi until we realised that we didn't know where our apartment was so that would be a pointless endeavour. Instead, we opted to wait outside in the rain and hail a cab from the road. Within seconds a yellow taxi pulled up and we told him 'autobus Shkodër' in the hope that he would know 1. We wanted a bus and 2. We wanted the bus to Shkodër. As with lots of European cities, the bus stations are split into local and international departures and arrivals. Some routes are domestic but end up leaving from the international depot and vice versa. With little information online, we didn't want to make any errors so we handed over our fate (not for the first time today, but I'll get to that later) to our driver.
He got us to the correct place and as we stepped out of the taxi we were immediately overwhelmed by 'minibuses', coaches and men. Sensing our bewilderment and confusion, the men started shouting destinations at us - with one being Shkodër - to which we smiled with excitement and were directed to a fancy looking coach. In Albania, you load your own bags and board the bus, filling from the front. What luck that we got to the station at 9:50 and the bus was due to leave at 10:00. Fate was on our side!
Despite our hotel being way out in the back of beyond in the mountains, the receptionist had organised us a 'shuttle' for €10. I say 'shuttle' and I'll get to that later, there's a lot to get to later in this post!
Ninety minutes of the two-hour bus ride went by swimmingly without need for comment or observation. That was until the lady in front of us had turned green, woozy and began throwing up. She knew it was coming as she'd prepared a plastic bag but that first chunder missed completely and spent the rest of the journey dropping down the headrest in front of her, pooling around the floor and congealing on her shoes. It was not a pretty sight nor smell. You can imagine we disembarked quickly upon arrival into Shkodër.
We were greeted, as so often is the case at bus stations such as these, by the chorus of shouts from local men: taxi drivers, minibus drivers and probably some locals with access to a car. Politely declining their offers of transport, I explained that I only needed a phone. I called the hotel to say we had arrived and agreed to wait outside Hotel Rafoza (a nearby landmark) and our ride would arrive imminently.
Twenty minutes later we'd been approached by a number of people offering to help and whilst I was in the bathroom of the hotel Wolvo turned someone away. It was only when I returned to standing in our puddle in the rain that the same chap approached, this time with a phone, and held it out to me.
'Yes, hello, are you the person who is waiting to go to the hotel?'
'Yes, I am. Is this man the driver?'
A slight pause and then the receptionist replied, 'Join him for a drink in the lobby. The car is coming in an hour so you will wait until then.'
A lady appeared next to the man and ushered us into the hotel. What a lovely couple, taking us for a drink before our journey into the mountains.
As you're reading this, do you think it's weird? Well... you may be surprised to hear that things got a whole lot more weird.
Sitting in the hotel lobby, it was revealed that we had access to wifi. How exciting. We'd geared ourselves up for five days of not being connected to the world so this was an opportunity for a last check of social media. And emails.
As normal, I waited for the connection to get through to my messages. Downloading 1 of 7. 7 emails, that's weird, I've only been offline for 3 hours. One from booking.com to confirm the hotel for India, one from the travel company in India to confirm the transfers, a receipt, an iTunes bill and a message from the hotel that we were currently heading to:
'Please, wherever you are, find some paper and write MARTIN and stand and hold it.'
Insert confused emoji here! Who's Martin? Are we currently being treated to a Coke Zero by Martin? Who was the lady on the phone telling me to go have a drink with this couple? Are they to do with Martin? Did she send this email?
Unfortunately, as I read this email, we were being led back out of the hotel to the road to a waiting vehicle. There was no time to ask questions as the phone was being handed to me once more and the voice was saying:
'There's a car here, get in and it will take you to your transport.'
It was like being in a movie. Phone rings, mysterious voice answers, main character jumps without second thought or hesitation to follow the given instructions.
We loaded our bags into the 4x4 and climbed aboard. There were already two German girls in the car. They'd hitchhiked their way to Shkodër and were off to do some multi-day hiking trips whilst being based in a guest house. I explained our situation and that we were not staying with them and were with a guy called Martin but we weren't sure if we actually were with him but there was a voice on a phone giving us instructions which we were following.
Saying it out loud was quite humorous so we all had a good giggle.
Moments later, we'd pulled over and were being shown a minibus. That was the transport to take us to Thethi National Park and ultimately our accommodation. And the Germans were coming with us so now there were 4 but still no sign of Martin. Or if indeed it was Martin who we'd had coffee with then he was still at the hotel. He hadn't made it this far. What was his role in all of this?
As you read this, I'd love to know what's going through your mind...
A short time later, we're racing along some tiny roads - far too tiny for our minibus - at a speed of which is definitely not safe. We've picked up a chap off the side of the road so now there are three blokes in the front and us (with our new German pals) in the back. We pull over at a place and people leave the vehicle. The Germans return with water. The men return with fairy liquid and sponges.
Back on the road, still hurtling on at break-neck speeds, crashing over potholes and splashing through puddles we pull over again. We've turned down a small lane and are reversing into a driveway. This time we're at someone's house. An old man comes out and greets the three chaps. One man exits the vehicle and an empty jerry-can is loaded on board.
Everyone waves to the old man who gives us a thumbs up and we're off again. Zoom, zoom, zoom and the brakes are slammed on. The man we picked up back in the centre has left the vehicle. Back on the road, we pull over again, this time we're at a mechanics. A bumper is loaded into the van. It looks like it's been repaired and is all shiny and new. The jerry-can is removed and my foot space is now being encroached on by said bumper.
Two minutes have passed. We've flown over speed bumps and overtaken all manner of vehicles and then it's braaaaaakes on, everyone thrown forward and we've stopped at a petrol station. This is turning out to be quite the adventure!
We've been in the minibus for just under an hour and have barely travelled five miles. Ahead of us is 40 miles and some of the most dangerous mountain roads in the world.
Thoughts so far? Let me take a guess: kidnapping, sex trafficking and minibuses barrelling off narrow, winding mountain-top roads? Yeh, thought so. Same as me then.
We've just been pulled over by the police. It seems our driver was on his phone and driving erratically. He's left the vehicle to (hopefully) have a good telling off.
No joke, less than 60 seconds later and we're back on our way. Still driving erratically. Insert laughing-crying emoji here. Oh, and he's back on the phone!
Ten minutes has passed. We've stopped again. Beer. We've stopped for beer. A stack of beer is being loaded onto the van. Maybe there's a party tonight? The Germans are hungry. They've left to go buy some food. We're not buying anything as it's not a mealtime so we don't need feeding. We also made sandwiches for the journey because, you know, we're penny-pinching.
Although, if Wolvo says 'shall we just get a bit of chocolate because it's a road trip and it's allowed', I shall not object.
She didn't make a suggestion. The rest of the journey (rather surprisingly) continued without any further drama. We travelled along some crazy, winding mountain roads, encountered some sheep - and pulled over to let them pass - then arrived at our destination. Our destination which turned out not to be a hotel at all. In fact, it was more of a homestay and you'll have to wait for the next post for more on that!!