Bus-ing Round the Balkans travel blog




I manage to leave Macedonia without ever telling anybody I don't speak Macedonian. I'm so glad that was the one phrase I mastered in advance.

The journey from Bitola back to Skopje is positively luxurious compared to when I left Skopje for Ohrid. A proper bus, relatively new. Air conditioning that makes barely a whisper of a sound. The air inside the bus isn't noxious to breathe. The only noise is the rumble of the tires on the road.

Unfortunately I manage to sit in the "assigned" seat of the one person on the bus paying any attention to the seat numbers on our tickets. Perhaps the one person in all of Macedonia actually, because this is news to me that the ticket had a seat shown on it.

I stand up to make way for him and he ushers a random woman into the seat instead. I look in the direction of "my", already occupied, seat; I have no intention of asking anybody to move, but equally would rather not have anybody else start causing a fuss if I sit in "their" seat. The man who asked me to move tells me to sit back down, next to the random woman. All this for a window seat?

I somehow end up being one of the last off the bus once we arrive in Skopje. Somebody has kindly dumped my backpack in the road next to the bus. How thoughtful. I grab it back up and head inside.

There is a bus for Pristina leaving at 1.20pm, about 40 minutes from now. But I haven't had lunch, and I'm hungry and feeling woozy from the journey here. I decide to head back up the road and actually have a proper meal (or just one I didn't buy from a stand by the road at least) before getting back on another bus. I buy a ticket for the 3pm bus.

My last act in Macedonia is to exchange my remaining denars for euros. I hand over my 620 MKD, and the clerk passes me back a 10 euro note. I wait a beat, expecting more to follow. It doesn't, and I feel a pang of disappointment. It is a fair deal, but I still feel short-changed. Poorer suddenly now the cash in my pocket is measured in measly double digits.

We quickly leave the city of Skopje behind us, making our way through the mountains: the road twisting left and right, following their natural curves. I can feel the buzz of excitement building in my chest, and find myself craning my neck to look out the window, trying to see the road ahead. I'm not sure what I'm expecting to see, a big banner across the road maybe? "Kosovo Welcomes You"

There's poppies growing in the fields to my left, craggy rocks jutting out from the mountains on my right. Wildflowers grow wherever they can take hold. We pass a group of men working in a field with scythes.

I spot a sign ahead of us: "border zone". My heart leaps. So that's what I was watching out for.

We reach the Macedonian customs control first. Two military vehicles trundle past us in the lane to our left.

I have to get off the bus this time; the customs officer wants to check my baggage. I open my backpack for him to inspect. He starts rooting around and I hold my breath, hoping he's not going to empty it all out onto the pavement. I don't mind him checking it, but fitting everything into the bag is an act of precision I don't want to have to try and carry out at the side of the road, with a bus-load of people watching, waiting.

He asks me what's in my bag, pulling things out. I hesitate. "Clothes?", I offer. I'm not sure what he's expecting - a detailed inventory? What do travellers normally carry in their luggage?

"Personal items?", he asks me. Ah, I'm with him now, "yes".

"Do you have anything to declare?"

"No," definitely not. He shines his torch in the top of my bag and then signals for me to pack it away and put it back on the bus.

We move along to the next barrier, the police officer stepping on board to collect our passports. I hand him mine, with the police registration slips each of my hotels has dutifully completed. He flicks through them and raises an eyebrow, but doesn't say anything.

Passports collected he takes them back to his booth and begins scrutinising them, running them through his computer. It's taking so long the driver finally switches the engine off. Another officer calls two passengers off the bus. They're eventually returned and we're waved off and head to the Kosovan side, my passport utterly devoid of any stamps to show I've been to Macedonia.

The Kosovan customs officer is up next, quietly boarding the bus and looking around, assessing the scene. He begins rummaging at random through items and luggage. It suddenly seems an inappropriate moment to be eating Haribo. I try not to look shifty.

Kosovan passport control is faster, even though they've stamped my passport. Bonus points for Kosovo.

A little over an hour after leaving Skopje we resume our journey, now in Kosovo. I can't quite believe I'm finally here and I'm doing a pretty good meerkat impression now; so keen am I to take in everything we're passing.

For a while the mountains continue as before, but then it flattens out. Farmland. Reminds me a little bit of home. The road stretches ahead for miles without a turn. A road the Romans would have been proud of.

There are businesses, shops, restaurants, hotels either side of the road. Pizza must be popular here, because I don't think I've ever seen so many pizzerias along one stretch of road.

It takes about an hour to reach Pristina, and we finally pull into the bus station, off Bill Clinton Boulevard. It's easily the nicest bus station I've passed through on my travels so far.

There's a guy sitting outside playing his guitar, belting out pop songs: Bob Marley following on from Madonna. I hang around listening for a while before I grab a taxi to my hotel.

It's not exactly the most convenient location - there's no way I could walk it back into Pristina centre - but the view from my room is worth it. I was only planning to stay here one night, but within an hour of arriving I've already decided to make it two.

Standing looking out my window, the only word I can think of to describe this place? Peaceful.

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