After a few traffic jams, a perpetual skyline hazy with pollution, and a rather large power plant out the window spouting billows of fumes into the sky, we arrived. After handing over our 25,000 Tugrik we were on our way out of Mongolia, bound for Tirana.
The Ulanbataar airport is as easy as they come. Very few people, infrequent flights, and a short list of operating airlines. This means that the queues are short, the security is thorough and the customs officer friendly – all things I appreciate in an airport.
Mongolia to Albania – The Road Less Travelled
We split a rather uneventful chicken sandwich and a sticky honey & sour cream cake with coffee before boarding a flight bound for Tirana.
If you are under the impression that Ulan Bataar to Albania is an unusual flight route, you are not wrong. It involved a Full day of travel. Watching out the window fascinating countries that I would rather be traversing overland than cruising in the air above.
Flying over the Urumqi mountain ranges, pointing toward Yining. To the south of here lies India, to the North the far reaches of Russia. I’m spoilt with views across mountains of intricate origami folds and dusted with confectioners sugar. Of ore-red valleys and rivers snaking through the ancient landscapes. I feel a strong pull back to earth, to explore lands that so far only exist as myths and fairy tales in my mind.
Ancient and Mythical Lands Underfoot
We pass across the patchwork fields and frozen lakes of far west Mongolia, and coast overtop the expanses of Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea.
Deserts, hillsides, mountains and frozen lakes monopolise the view. The lines of unpaved roads are stitched into the ground and incite unexpected longings for road trips through foreign lands. Watching such a spectacular view of such empty scenery, for such a long time leaves me in awe of those who traded on the treacherous Silk Road all those years ago.
The kaleidoscopic colours of Iran, with its ancient city of Persepolis, the nomads of the Zagros Mountains. How I wished to descend right this moment to explore the delights of ancient Persia. Perhaps the incredible architecture of Uzbekistan, the infamous hospitality of Kygerstan, the bizarre political history of Turkmenistan, or the natural beauty of Georgia. The Latter which is said to be so remarkable as to be one of the most beautiful countries on earth (and of course, the birthplace of wine)
Alas, no. I was to daydream from my perch, high into the sky as we flew overhead bound for Albania.
A Quick Stop in Istanbul
Our final flight of the day departed out of Istanbul at sunset. The marvellous mosques glinting under a mauve sky. My desire to remain with a foot firmly on the ground only intensifying with each passing moment. Expanses of northern Greece gave way to darkness, as we entered the final stretch of flight.
Tirana was nothing more than a tiny cluster of lights on our evening descent, giving very little away about our impending destination. Belonging to a country most commonly associated with mafia and crime, dictatorships and oppression. I was greatly looking forward to experiencing it for myself, and being able to see Albania in a more favourable light.
A Glorious Arrival into Tirana
I awoke from a long, jet-lagged sleep on the second floor of a charming guesthouse in the centre of town. Large wooden window frames looked out to a treelined street, a warm springtime day with a gentle breeze. Strikingly European, Tirana was, in almost every imaginable way, the yin to Mongolia’s yang.
Streetside vendors peddled fresh fruit, and the city was a haven of bakeries and French cafes. The atmosphere felt like a cleaner, less crowded version of the Parisian neighbourhood of Montmartre.
Diverse and gorgeous, flourishing with planters of geraniums and the wafts of espresso.
Tirana has endured a fascinating cultural history, becoming an integral part of the Roman empire for a number of years. Because of this, many of the older generations of Albania speak Italian. It also ensures that in any given moment, you are never far from a delicious pizza, gelato, or espresso.
A Country with a Troubled Past.
Besides the distinctly Mediterranean feel, the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and the communist regime have left a mark on the architecture. This provides a multifaceted city, shaped by both victory and tragedy.
I had intended to bring a more positive light to Albania amongst my friends and family, but I had never realized it would be quite this easy. I enjoyed many sunny days admiring the gorgeous streets, leafy parks, and lakes that make up the Albanian capital.
Cuisine with Influencers all Around
The food is like that of neighbouring Greece, as well as the other Balkans countries to the north and west. Typical Albanian cuisine starts with fresh bread, oil and vinegar, with a local red wine which, despite the initial surprise, grows on the taste buds. To follow come endless plates of grilled meats and vegetables, each one more delicious than the last. Halved chickens and lamb koftas, spicy sausages and grilled aubergine. Everything arrives with a side of tzatziki and dessert of sweet fruits drizzled in honey.
Of course, no Albanian meal would be complete without a serving of Rakia to finish. A locally produced fruit brandy served in a shot glass. It is of exceptional strength and is most often produced by the restaurant owner themselves from grapes or plums, and in some cases mulberries. Initially reminiscent of paint thinner, it is one of those things with time and patience, becomes delicious.
Leaving Tirana is another matter altogether. With no centralized bus station, it took half a day to chase clues around the city to our departure point. Luckily for us, in the end, we found it and boarded a bus bound for the Southern end of the Albanian Riviera. Tirana leaving a delightful impression in its wake.