The Tirana International bus station retains the charm of a small city with low technology, minimal signage and plenty of verbal help provided, a common personality trait in Albania. There was no problem then, as I walked around, unable to find the Euro bus sign, as I promptly intercepted by a helpful driver; 'Ohrid - mini- bus' I was instructed,being pointed in the opposite direction. And indeed not only did a mini bus, black, and helpfully branded with the Euro sign arrive in said place, it was early and with an English speaking driver; I thought I had won the lottery. Earlier I had introduced myself to three young male Asian tourists, also heading to Ohrid. It was rare to see any Asians in Tirana except for a small group of tourists. Two of the boys were Korean, and had only met at the local hostel and the other boy, Japanese, was studying in Vienna and spoke fluent English.
I enquired of our driver as to whether there would be stops along the way; I asked this as direct buses from Tirana to Ohrid are a relatively new offering judging from most of my internet research which suggested you would need to get off at Struga and take a taxi to Ohrid.
Our driver responded that there were no stops but we can stop if we want him to! In fact, he did make two stops; one was to collect an Austrian couple were hoping to get a ride to somewhere near the border with their pushbikes. Our driver said he was heading to Macedonia and that they could hop in but he’d let them off before the border; I’m not sure what money was exchanged but our party grew from four to six and more conversations were exchanged while the bus wound its way through bucolic mountains. The second stop was at a roadside fruit store; seizing the opportunity to use up my Albanian lek coinage (coins can’t be exchanged in banks) I stocked up on bananas, peaches and nectarines, our requests and costs translated by our driver; his motivation wasn’t entirely altruistic however, as he loaded up on large bags of tomatoes and cherries and kept the bags next to his feet in the manual operated bus.
Eschewing staying within double lines on the road, battered Mercedes and Audis overtook cars and buses, only making the pass with less than seconds to spare on the windy mountainous roads between Elbasan and the border of Macedonia and Albania. I commended the driver for his patience and was amused that he only lost his cool when a farmer complete with a donkey drove too slow prior to making a left-hand turn.
Once through the border, complete with passport stamp from Macedonia, evidence of the change in the road condition was profound. This time, cars veered onto the left hand side of the road to dodge the heavy potholes and patches all over the road and the bus was forced to slow to a crawl. I started to realise why bus times in the Balkans seemed much longer compared to their distance in kilometeres.