For the first time, in a few years, I had seen something like this. We where on the highway to Elbasan, travelling on our way to Lake Ohrid. The highway, sort of speak, was a plain commercial road full of turns and lorries. The state of the tarmac showed, at times, that it was last repaired ages ago. And the state of the railroad tracks that they had not been used since the nineties (let alone the eighties). The first bumps appeared shortly after we had passed next to the gate of the Berisha residence. Up until then we where in an area where rich Albanians and government figureheads live. We passed a Greek private school, a new (huge) mall, and a tunnel which was under construction. The company undertaking this work is, which else, AKTOR A.E. owned by the Bobolas family, a family of Greek media and construction moguls. And this would be the last piece of progress we would see for the rest of the day. The rest of Albania seemed to be left awaiting its fate. So we where counting the turns and the holes in the tarmac appearing on the way to Elbasan. It took us about an hour to reach. The outskirts of the city, the second largest in Albania according to the latest statistics. The first thing to see when driving into the town are the chimneys of the steel mills.. Albania is an open ground for foreign investors and outsourcing. A lot of foreign multinational companies have set up shop here. Cheap labour and a small but financially powerful elite that can buy anything are the reason why this is happening. Low corporate taxes are another one. This steel mill is owned by a big Turkish company.
Other than that, the area looks like a typical non-descript city of a country that used to belong to the East Block. Almost run-down housing projects, and derelict streets. With the help of the Touareg we march on eastward towards the lake. We pass over bridges and next to railway tunnels. Those where built in the fifties and the sixties by the Chinese and the Russians. Nowadays there is absolutely no Chinese or Russian presence in the country. Actually the presence of nationals coming from these countries was gradually suspended by the Hoxha regime, during the years. The first to invest in works in Albania where the Russians and the Yugoslavians. But when Tito and Stalin parted ways, Ho1§xha took Stalin’s side. So Yugoslavians where deemed a source of dangerous “revisionist” influence, and promptly expelled from the country. In 1953 the successors of Stalin started having a different political approach. This caused a rift between China and the USSR, and, Emver Hoxha sided with China. So, the Soviets where replaced by the Chinese. But when Mao died, another internal struggle occurred. China steered away from the Maoist Orthodoxy, and Albania decided to stay on its own, upholding the original ideas of Maoist and Stalinism. The Chinese, of course, where promptly kicked out. And when, in 1991, the government found out that the food surplus would last only six days, and Albanians started to flee the country by land or sea, suddenly the foreign inverstors came marching in. The economy became grossly unregulated, and pyramid schemes, owned by PM Sali Berisha, began to take (economically) the centre stage. But in 1997 these schemes collapsed, people took arms against the government, and ousted Berisha. He only returned to the political centre stage in the 00’s. Now he is still holding the Democratic Party with an Iron Grip, and is currently the PM. However despite these changes, there is no real change in the average Albanian’s life. The vast majority still lives in poverty.
After passing a number of small towns with similar features we started to climb another mountain. And then there was the steep way down, towards the lake’s shores. It was a clear day and we could see the other side of the lake. There we came across our first machine-gun nest. The whole country is ridden with those. It seems like there was o shortage of soldiers, arms and ammunition in the country. And the nests where controlling strategic points and crossroads. Anyone found travelling without a permit was promptly arrested. Not only did the regime keep borders closed, but it also restricted movement between cities and villages. There was almost no freedom of movement in Hoxha’s Albania. The conditions on the road where deteriorating too. There was no lanes any more, just large holes and bumps on the tarmac. Along the lake there where a lot of stalls. The owners of these stalls where advertising their merchandise. It consisted of eels and perks. We stopped in downtown Pogradec to get some clean air, a view of the lake, and take a break. Our next stop would be a restaurant called St Naoumi, some seven kilometres away from town, according to a trusted friend of my father’s called Sollace. We took a walk on the lakeside. There was some empty bars in the area. Clearly it was tourist area, and clearly we had visited it during off-season. We walked the street a couple of times and left for our restaurant.
Our friend proved unreliable in the matter of the distance. The place was fourteen kilometres away. But, nevertheless the food was excellent. And, to our astonishment,our friend had called the restaurant and asked to pay himself on his next trip there. Now that was a surprise. We moved on to Hoxha’s favourite holiday spot, which was a stone’s throw away from the border, where we would spend the night.
After a good two hours we set off for the town. After discovering that there was nothing going on there (off-season being the reason), we decided to move to Korce, a big city about sixty kilometres to the south of Pogradec. But after an encounter with a traffic jam caused by a folded lorry, we decided to move back to our hotel. The next day we would cross the border…