the Forgotten Railway – A Journey through the Heart of Albaniaby Amer on Jun 7, 2011 • 2:24 pm 33 Comments
It was 5.20am in the morning, I woke up early eagerly to participate in my next train adventure. The last time I had this kind of adventure, I’ve missed my train and had to stay an extra night in Sarajevo. I was determined not to miss this time. The night before, I’ve reminded the receptionist of Nobel Hotel in Tirana of my early checkout. Unfortunately the receptionist wasn’t at the desk and I had to wait for nearly 10 minutes. The train from Tirana to Pogradec runs daily at 6am, so I was literally running from the hotel all the way to the train station which is situated about 10 minutes away. It was a close call.
‘the train was reserved for the poorest of people’
Rewind, the day before I’ve asked some locals about my plans to use the train to go to Pogradec, a resort located near Lake Ohrid. Everyone seemed to be surprised and told me not to do the journey but instead use a shared taxi. They say trains are very slow and it is in a really bad condition. I was also told that the train was reserved for the poorest of people because it is really cheap, takes a long time and not as comfortable. Wow, I thought. The train I’m about to embarked is reserved for the poorest people of one of the poorest country in Europe. That should be an adventure in itself!
A lonely ticket counter greeted me
I’ve arrived at the station approximately at 5.50am at the dimly lit station. A lonely ticket counter greeted me. After paying the 2 Euros fare (295 Lek), the lady in charge kindly advised me to be quick. Again I ran to the platform.
It was still quite dark. There were 2 trains on the platform and a small number of people smoking whilst chatting away. They must be the train and station workers. Only one locomotive train is in operation. There were 4 carriages and only the front carriage was lighted.
only 8 passengers on board
I eagerly boarded the train asking one of the workers to make sure it’s the right one. I then started to find a seat for myself. In fact 4 seats facing each other. This is possible since there were only 8 passengers on board.
There was also a security guard, a ticket master and an official train seller. As this is an early departure, most people seemed content to catch up with sleep. Who are they to blame. The train left Tirana exactly at 6am leaving the city at sunrise.
journey time can take anywhere from 6 hours to 7 and a half hours
The train leaves Tirana to the resort town of Durres and the market town of Elbasan before reaching Pogradec near Lake Ohrid. On the way the train make stops to smaller towns and villages. There is no fixed arrival time but journey time can take anywhere from 6 hours to 7 and a half hours. On this trip the journey time was the latter.
ALL of the windows on this train are either fractured or severely fractured
Yes, they had holes in it. ALL of it! Some say children are to blame. I’m wondering if rock throwing is a favourite pastime. Travelling at an excruciatingly slow speed of 30-40km an hour, I can see why this is has been a very easy target.
Due to extreme financial difficulties, the train has been left in the same condition as it was 40 years ago. Rail journeys are rare commodities these days, despite being a major form of public transportation just 20 years ago. Today it carries less than 1% of the public compared to 60% in its heyday. Declining as we speak.
The Albanian railway has been around for more than 100 years. Up till today, the locomotives are imported from China, Austria and now Germany. Almost all of them were cast-offs.
Leaving Tirana during sunrise. A stunning view for a stunning start of adventure.
View of the many villages located along the railway track. Most people are very excited to see the train passing their houses. Today, I am very lucky. For those children seemed more content in waving the fellow passengers rather than throwing a rock at them.
An old man looking through a window, savouring the view and fresh country air
I’ve taken this photo of a woman embarking from Durres. Being the only foreigner, I was always stared at and sometimes laughed upon. Upon seeing me taking lots of photos of trains, she pointed me where to take photos of other trains and stations throughout the countryside. Like most Albanians, she doesn’t speak English but speaks some Italian when she wanted to communicate.
Most people from remote villages are very excited to see the train. Sometimes, they congregate with fellow villagers to wave at the people onboard. Why wouldn’t they? Afterall you’ll only see one train everyday.
I can say that all of the stations are neglected. Some like this one doesn’t even have a platform. The villagers had to modify and used a chair to get onto the train.
a train journey is liken to a plane journey
Sending friends and relatives to the train station or in this case platforms seems to be quite a ocassion. In a country where unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world, for some a train journey is liken to a plane journey.
Some stations are scaled version of houses. Simple blocks with pitch roof. Many of the paint work diminishes against time. Most people are able to walk on the tracks. This is possible since there aren’t many trains operating.
Pulling off into one of the many village stations. Some smaller stops had only one officer who handles everything from ticketing to management. All of the stations look dilapidated.
Every couple of hours the train makes a random pit stop like this for water. Water are dug from natural springs. Even the train drivers make use of this facility to freshen up. Some people even brought a bottle for the onwards journey.
For a long trip like this, a shop comes in handy. After a few hours into the journey, I’ve decided to buy a bag of chocolate biscuits from the train mobile shop. The seller goes up and down the carriages every 5 to 10 minutes hunting down for hungry customers. A variety of snacks and soft drinks were sold. Most people bring their own food and drink to share with their immediate travelling group.
The journey offers a glimpse of life in the more remote areas of Albania
where mules are still used extensively to carry goods and agricultural products. Where villagers grow their own food in the backyard, when kids play around freely around the villages. A rare insight into the culture of Eastern Europe.
Most of the country have quite a flat terrain with the occasional mountain terrains as you go deeper into the countryside. Each plot of house has a large plot of land, enabling villagers to grow some of their own food.
The train snakes its way through along a network of river and mountains. On this leg, railway, road and river share the same track flowing into the same direction. Quite a view I must say.
Unfortunately like most of the country, the tracks through the countryside is severely dirty. Locals have a tendency to throw rubbish into rivers and countryside.
It gets dirtier when you’re nearer to the city. This polluted river near Elbasan is in a state of urgency. Pollution has been a big problem. I really don’t know whether it’s ever too late to clean this whole mess up.
More neglected-looking trains. Most are vandalised by graffiti artist. I like the colourful combination applied to the trains. I’m not sure whether they’re still operational or not.
A first glimpse of the beautiful Lake Ohrid that borders Albania with Macedonia. The lake is one of the deepest in Europe. It is also one of the most important ecologically. According to Wikipedia it was also given a World Heritage status by UNESCO. Even NASA named one of its moon after this lake
After 7 and a half hours, the train finally pulls into Pogradec station right next to Lake Ohrid. The train journey ends here. It has been a fantastic experience and one that I would recommend to any travellers going to Albania.
What was your favourite train experience?