DAY 34 and DAY 35

Shkodër –> Jance –> Skopje

11th -12th October

The morning began with Bharat instructing everyone to carb-load – nobody was sure what to expect from rural Albania and when our next meal would be. Before heading into the Albanian Alps we decided to take a trip to see the 4km of “pristine” Albanian coastline. We’d seen some pictures of beautiful looking coves in Albania with crystal clear blue waters – this was not one of those. With dark brown sand and covered in rubbish we couldn’t bring ourselves to stay longer than 2 minutes. We will not be taking our next beach holiday there.

This picture is actually considerably more attractive than the reality

 

We had one of our funniest moments of the trip quite early in the day. We were winding through a valley with a bright blue stream at the bottom and, naturally, wanted to take some photographs. James and Amy were in the Fiat behind the tuk tuk and saw Bharat pull into a layby to let Rachel out to take a quick snap. Or so they thought. As Rachel exited the backseat of the tuk tuk Bharat promptly sped off through a tunnel and off into the Albanian hills. Amy and James were convinced it was a bad joke, but minutes later, when Bharat still hadn’t come back for Rachel, everyone started to realise that he must have thought she was still on the backseat! After 5-10 minutes of waiting Amy and James set off to find him and some time later came across a rattled, wide-eyed, nostril-flared Bharat who kept asking where Rachel was. As he frantically asked he kept turning round to check the backseat, as if Rachel might have magically reappeared. On the route we had seen a memorial plaque every 200-300m where people had died by going over the edge of the precipice which meant Bharat’s imagination had spiralled out of control. This was fuelled further by Amy and James who cruelly pretended they had no idea what Bharat was talking about and so off he sped to find his beloved Rachel. He genuinely thought that she had “slipped out” of the tuktuk and down into the ravine below. Once everyone had been reunited it transpired that the reason Bharat had taken so long to start driving back for Rachel was because, in his panic, he had jumped out of the tuk tuk and had started to run along the ravine screaming her name. He then realised he’d left his phone and keys in the tuk tuk, so had run back to get them (Bharat’s priorities are becoming clear!)…before setting off down the ravine for a second time. What Albanian motorists thought of a huffing and puffing Bharat screaming for Rachel whilst wearing her pathetically small designer rucksack is anyone’s guess, but nobody stopped to help… Eventually Bharat came to his senses and realised he was quicker by tuk tuk than by foot, which is when Amy and James caught him on camera:

 

Bharat, who has had his last cigarette a dozen times this trip, was later seen buying a fresh packet of slims from a roadside kiosk in rural Albania to calm him down. Who else thinks he should just admit he’s taken up smoking again?

And Rachel was not out of the woods yet. After Bharat saying he was going “strap her in” and that she wasn’t allowed to move from the tuk tuk without his permission, Rachel ran to take another photograph and, as she did, got tangled up in brambles. Blood started appearing from the scratches and Bharat took a deep breath and lit another cigarette.

War wounds – all in the line of duty

The Albanian Alps defied all our expectations – miles and miles of gorgeous hills, just starting to turn amber for the late autumn, and bright blue limestone rivers in the valleys below. There were even less barriers to stop us falling off the mountain passes than on the Kotor Serpentine and this combined with the many ‘Albaniacs’ overtaking on corners while texting meant Rachel felt sick for most of the journey.

Autumn colours on the drive through Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia taken from the air

 

Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia


 

Our route through Albania

Amy and James had read a BBC article about how Albania is now the largest producer of outdoor-grown cannabis in Europe. The case study in the article referenced a village north of Tirana (where our route was travelling through) and so the two of them spent the ENTIRE journey looking for gangsters, guns and ganja. James claimed to see a stray plant on the side of the road, and there were an awful lot of blacked out Mercedes driving through rural Albania, and even more men just standing around at weird points along the route, but all in all they were fruitless in finding the Albanian cartels they’d been hoping for.

You can tell Albania is the poorest country in Europe – driving through the towns in the rural North were genuinely like being back in Kenya. You can tell unemployment is high – everyone seems to be sitting in a café or on the side of the road watching people go by. But we love Albania for all of this – it’s so different to everywhere we’ve been and it’s made all the better by everyone whooping and cheering at Sumo!

We had our pants pulled down at the Macedonian border. Figuratively, not literally. We needed to buy insurance for our 2 days in Macedonia and it ended up being 3 times more expensive than in Bosnia & Herzegovina, plus we had to pay for the taxi fare of the man who had come to arrange it. However, the border guards took a real shine to Sumo which meant the 50 minute wait flew by.

A very happy Macedonian border guard

 

We don’t often say this, but Bharat was right. We arrived at our accommodation in Macedonia (Hotel Tutto – thank you Nina and Jayesh!) at 5.30pm and hadn’t eaten since 7am that morning. Ravenous we wolfed down some delicious food prepared by the hotel, and it wasn’t just delicious because we were hungry. It turns out we’d accidentally stumbled across a gem and the ecologically-minded owner of the hotel, Tefik Tutto, is well regarded as a pioneer of Macedonian “slow food”. If possible everything is grown or foraged from near the hotel and then it is cooked using traditional Macedonian techniques to make some exquisite dishes – and all for less than 6 EUR each!

 

It was early to bed, early to rise. After a yummy, seasonal breakfast and a photograph of Sumo with the owner we set off to Skopje. The first two hours were lovely (although extremely cold!) – working our way through the hills with the trees a thousand different shades of autumn. The next 6 hours were not. Everything changed when we stopped to take a drone picture of the tuk tuk crossing a dam. Rachel and Bharat were driving across it for the 3rdtime when Amy and James (from 400m away) could hear shouting. Amy rolled her eyes and muttered something about the parents being at it again, before quickly realising it was the two men marching very quickly towards to the tuktuk and jabbing in the direction of the drone. The protestors marched over to James and Amy holding the drone remote, desperately trying to land it, and started yelling at them in Macedonian. We’re not sure what they said but “police” and “big problem” were routine phrases and the angriest one of the two took our car number plate and stormed off – to do what we don’t know! Eventually we decided to simply get out of there, with the remaining man telling us that our fate rested with the decision of Mr Potbelly who had strutted back across the bridge. Amy and Bharat spent the next hour convinced we were being tailed by the Macedonian secret police (i.e. a rugged man in a battered 2 door Peugeot). We are waiting to get to the Macedonia-Bulgaria border to see if we are on Macedonia’s “most wanted” list. We have a video of the debacle unfolding – can anyone translate our opponents’ whispers we can send it to you! We desperately want to know what they were saying!

The drone picture that got us into trouble

 

Mr PotBelly and his sidekick are not pleased!

 

The remaining drive was along the Mother Teresa motorway (grey hairs for Amy, nil points for Bharat!), which was a misleading name given how incredibly uncharitable it is to have 5 toll stations along one 50km stretch of road! However, in no time we arrived at our accommodation in Skopje (with thanks to PwC Macedonia) and for our interview with Macedonian TV Kanal 5!

Mother Theresa Motorway (the tuk tuk is not allowed on motorways but there didn’t appear to be another road)

 
In our previous experiences with the press we have made sure to schedule rehearsals for Bharat to minimise his TV bloopers. We thought this level of preparation and training would pull us through this interview unscathed, but when asked about who was going on the trip Bharat simply said “four” and swiftly moved on to talk, at length, about the tuk tuk and the Fiat rather than introducing who we all were like any normal person would have done… When asked about the ups and downs of the trip he talked about the phantom puncture we’ve had…rather than relaying any of the true stories such as ditch-gate (perhaps he’s erased that from his memory to avoid a PTSD diagnosis). Although he wasn’t alone – James absolutely stuffed detailing our website address – very amateur from him. However, the TV team seemed pleased, particularly with their ride in the tuk tuk and we can’t wait to see what it looks like on Macedonian TV on Monday (tune in to Kanal 5 – Backstage Show for the piece!). 
 
The interview meant we toured Skopje by night. If there was one word to describe the city it is “statues”. So many humungous statues of men, horses, lions – you name it, there’s a statue of it. The buildings, a lot of which have been recently restored, or rebuilt, were nicely lit and made the old centre look magnificent at night. Although Amy was particularly impressed as she thought Skopje was a Macedonian version of Cheltenham, rather than the capital. Another nod to her worthwhile Geography degree. 

Main square of Skopje and one of the hundreds of massive statues

 

Sponsor of Macedonia: Stroud Furniture Makers 

We are proud to recommend  Stroud Furniture Makers who are based in the Cotswolds but serve clients all over the UK. The Sumaria kitchen was made by SFM and looks as good today as it did when it was installed over 11 years ago and is much admired. Stroud Furniture Makers are a family company dedicated to handcrafting the finest kitchens and bespoke furniture. Members of the Guild of Master Craftsmen, they take pride in the high quality of their materials and attention to detail, developed over a quarter of a century. You are welcome to view the fully equipped, modern workshop where they employ ten highly skilled master cabinetmakers who use traditional construction methods. These craftsmen will also deliver and install your kitchen so you can feel completely confident of a flawless finish. Take a look at their website here: http://stroudfurnituremakers.co.uk

Roman aquaduct for our Macedonia sponsor Stroud Furniture Makers

 

 

Dunce of the Day:

    • Day 34 – Rachel for being accident prone and leaving the tuk tuk on multiple occasions without Bharat’s permission. But also Bharat, for getting swindled at a petrol station, and paying €5 for only a thimbleful of petrol. It was also hilarious watching the petrol attendant shouting at Bharat that the tuktuk needed “Benzina” without Bharat knowing that it was another name for petrol.

  • Day 35– Amy claimed that the tuk tuk was losing power in 4thgear when she was driving along flat roads. Bharat conducted the same procedure we used before to get the tuk tuk working (see previous blogs) and let out some of the petrol onto the road, only to realise Amy had been driving for over an hour with the handbrake on!

 

Highlight of the Day

  • Day 34 – Seeing a woman sitting in the middle of a field shepherding her rafter of turkeys!
  • Day 35 – Bharat’s budding romance with the slow cooking movement in Macedonia grew and grew as he spent the morning speaking to the owner of Hotel Tutto. The owner was very engaging and clearly enjoyed Bharat’s high praise, as when Bharat checked out the room the owner gave him 2 bottles of wine and a goodybag of pickles and jams from the hotel’s garden! The owner was less impressed when Bharat tried to offer him some of the stale biscuits we had in the back of the tuk tuk. You live and you learn.

 

Funniest moments:

  • Day 34: Bharat talking about how he thought Rachel had “slipped out of the tuk tuk” and James saying “what like a slippery fish? She just slipped out and slithered down the mountain side silently?”
  • Day 35: Amy and Rachel coming across the first “long drop” of the trip and not being sure which way round to face!

 

Tuk Tuk Trivia:

  • Number of stray dogs in Albania: thousands
  • Number of half built empty buildings in Albania: more than finished occupied ones! See photos below.
  • Number of scooters adapted to wheelchairs by adding a chair at the back: 13
  • Favourite Albanian pastime: pressure washing all those Mercedes!
  • Number of horse and carts seen: 23

A small selection of the unfinished, abandoned houses in Albania

Not quite sure what this is but it was spewing fuel out of the top as it bounced along 

Albanians loving the tuk tuk

 

Albanian maize stacks are EVERYWHERE!

 

A rickety bridge we decided against!

 

Sumo finds a friend half way up a mountain in Macedonia

 

The view from Hotel Tutto, Janče, Macedonia

 

 

Wild pears shown off by the kind owner of Hotel Tutto and the founder of the slow food movement in Macedonia

 

The glamorous office of the tuk tuk team – working on the blog in a petrol station in Macedonia!

 

Macedonian breakfast drink of wild cherries steeped in something!