Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Trains are All Right

I love taking trains. Even in America, where our train system is kind of crappy, and old, and things like "high speed rail corridors" get confused reactions such as "huh?", I love taking the train. Sure, that one time I took Amtrak from L.A. to Seattle I was pestered by on over friendly, inebriated man who insisted again and again on offering me a swig from his flask. But really, it's all part of the magic of a rail journey, right?

Just to be clear, though, I don't love trains as much as this guy*:
*although I legitimately love his childlike joy

When I was researching trains in this part of the world, inevitably the travel forums would be filled with foreboding warnings to just avoid the trains altogether. Apparently they were so totally awful that to even consider subjecting oneself to a ride on them would be akin to self flagellation. The consensus was that they were best avoided unless one had some sort of point to prove. From the descriptions, I was picturing some sort of burned out husk of metal with little to no seats (mostly broken if present at all), precariously attached to the rails, filled with rats, homeless people, crime lords, and spider webs. There may or may not have been a creepy old man playing a sad violin in a corner, covered in rags (hey, I'm just going off of the descriptions I read). However, there was always one message about how "it's an experience like none other" and "it wasn't that bad, you guys, settle down". Now, I know two things about myself as a traveler: one, I have low expectations of punctuality, cleanliness, and comfort, and two, I don't mind going off the beaten path. Because of that, I figured I could trust the random, lone dissenting opinions of internet strangers whom I had never met.

And you know what? I was right.

We wanted to take the train to Durres, but we got to the train station in Tirana too late because we had the wrong time for departure. That meant we had time to take some pictures of the Tirana train station in all its glory before we hopped on the bus to Durres instead.

The price of tickets is variable- white boards are necessary. For about .70 cents I'm not complaining.
 Taking the train from Durres to Tirana was incredibly easy. Don't let all those naysayers on forums fool you. For one, it is impossible to miss the Durres (I just typed "duress" instead, which might be apt considering the water quality) train/bus station, what with the enormous metal letters and all.
I'm not saying I'd judge you for missing this. Okay, yes I am. I would.
 There was no one in the train station save two dudes working a little cafe and the woman working the ticket booth. Side note- she was barely visible behind a long, narrow window (see below) which seemed unnecessary. Anyway, for 70 leke (again, about .70 cents USD), plus the price of an ice cream (necessary on a hot day) I was ready to go.
A lot of people photoshop the hell out of their pics in blogs. Clearly, I do not.
So, at this point, after seeing the train station in Tirana and the train station in Durres, I am truly baffled as to what people are talking about when they bitch and moan about the trains in Albania. I keep waiting for a marauding band of rabid dogs to blaze through, or the ceiling to fall down, or someone to give me a "ticket" hand written on a scrap of old paper. I mean, yeah, it's old school, but seriously. We walked out on to the platform, where we were greeted with a train schedule and our first view of the trains.

There was a train off to the left that looked out of commission, and yeah, it also looked pretty beat up. Broken windows, graffiti, super old cars- high speed trains would not invite it to their hipster parties, for sure. But, all in all, whatever, right?
Not the train we took
Once we boarded the train, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was light years more comfortable than the ramshackle greenhouse oven train Bobby and I took from Ventimiglia to Venice. So, yes, I'm saying this old Albanian train was better than an old Italian train. See for yourself.

Julius, Scott, and Tiara approve.

With this color scheme, what's not to love? Please note- all seats are here and accounted for. There are no rats or spider webs, and certainly no sad violins played creepily in corners. Those are clean head rest covers. The curtains are in place. I mean, it's basically a Victorian drawing room, in terms of fancy factor.*
Train chaise lounge- that says class
The most glaring WTFityness of it was the broken windows. From what I've heard, they're due to bored country kids seeing a gangly, slow moving (we're talking 30 MPH, max) train come through, and they then take the opportunity to welcome the only diversion they'll have all day by pelting it violently with rocks. Oh, kids.

On all the high speed trains Bobby and I took in France and Italy, there were always brochures playing up the convenience of having business meetings on board. Here Tiara and I are imagining what a similar brochure might look like in Albania. Okay, I'll give you this- it's definitely not the kind of place where business mergers happen.
Couch surfing- building bonds, forming friendships. Now get off my train couch, guys.
Instead, I shared my water with a fellow passenger and in return he gave me a few figs- I wonder if he bought them from a donkey, too? The windows opened up all the way, and the doors were open in the front and back, so despite the weather I never felt like I was going to die of heat stroke- again, this is an improvement over the old school Italian train, where the windows reluctantly opened about 4 inches and then decided you'd had enough. There weren't many people, so finding a seat was a non-issue, and the general atmosphere on board was relaxed, since the train takes a fair amount of time longer than the bus. Since you're not really in a rush to get anywhere, why not share some figs with a random foreigner?
Random foreigner, as seen on an Albanian train

All in all, the train was fine.It wasn't glaringly awful or dirty, it was just old and weathered and a little worse for wear thanks largely in part to kids with rocks and spray paint. And yeah, the tracks take you through some pretty rundown rural areas, but that's just the nature of the rural areas (trust me, I have seen some sketchy areas from the window of the Amtrak in America- after glancing out the window at around 3 a.m. I'm convinced the entire Omaha train station is a playground for zombies and/or is where they filmed the creepy underwater scenes for any ship wreck movie ever). I would totally take the train again, and I look forward to trying out longer trips. Once you see the driving around here, you feel grateful for a track that is nowhere near a furgon or an errant Mercedes plowing through cyclists and pedestrians.

I found this blog post about taking the train to Pogradec to get to Lake Ohrid. It's an interesting read, just in case you were thinking "You know, this long rambly blog post about trains is just whetting my appetite- I need more."

Also, I just feel like I have to leave you with this.

*this is certainly hyperbole due to too much sun at the beach

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