In amongst all the emails I receive regarding whatever column it is I have just written, it’s been heartening to get so many over the past 18 months saying “I miss your travels… hope you get back on the road soon again”.
Double jabbed, and with countries starting to open up again, I decided to take the plunge and get back out there.
My thoughts when planning it all back in August? As well as the obvious, is this worth it due to ever-changing Covid rules, can I still do this? Am I up for it?
While very frustrating to not be able to go anywhere for the past 18 months, I have actually gotten used to it. Now that scares me.
I started to look into where I could go, what options were open to me. Hmm, not many to be honest. Iraq, Israel, Palestine, all out, while others seem to be verging on lockdown again.
I was beginning to think, it’s just not worth the hassle. Or was that just an excuse on my part?
I woke up the following morning almost convinced not to bother and told myself: “It’s time to put on your big boy pants George and do this.” If there’s going to be another lockdown in autumn/winter, this may be my last chance for another year.
I decided on the Balkans. However, due to new restrictions, Serbia was out, as was Montenegro which recently went on the red list. So, Kosovo and North Macedonia it would be.
At the time of heading off, the all-important land border between these two states was open. But with ever-changing rules, and a plan B and C in place, I was ready, whatever came my way.
Organising travel insurance, typically easy for me, was a nightmare. So many new restrictions that make your policy invalid. But I finally secured a great deal, which included full Covid cover, and surprisingly, cover against if the UK Government changes the rules and turns a country into “advise against all travel”. Not easy to secure, and expensive, but vital.
OK, let’s do this. First up, with the airline industry seriously struggling, good flight connections are thin on the ground.
I booked with BA; Aberdeen via Heathrow, then on to Pristina. However, after landing in London mid-afternoon, I had much time to kill until 8am the following morning.
This is the new norm of flight connections due to our current Covid situation.
There was a subdued feeling in Aberdeen airport, everyone resigned to having to wear masks for the rest of their lives and sign in every time they went to a café for a bite to eat. It didn’t fill me with joy. Not exactly conducive to a happy, free environment.
I was told I could not check my bags all the way through to Kosovo, so would have to collect them in Heathrow and check in again. Something to do with Covid. It made absolutely no sense to me. Mind you, little makes sense these days. Ah well.
On landing at Heathrow T5, we were told by an announcement onboard: “Welcome to Heathrow, please remember when in the airport to respect social distancing.”
I looked at the guy sitting next to me; we were shoulder to shoulder. We both shook our heads. Ridiculous.
After a decent night in a cheap hotel near T5, I was up at 4.30am and finally on board my BA flight to Pristina at 8am.
How bad are things for the airline industry right now? I was in row 13. With six seats in each row, that makes 78 seats. How many seats were occupied including me? Three. As for the rest of the plane, another 20. I fail to see how BA can be making any money on this flight. Or on many other flights.
Interesting to note, on the bus between Heathrow and my hotel, we drove past a compound that was fenced off. Inside the compound, lots of people walking around. I later learned that they were recent arrivals from Afghanistan. Temporarily housed at hotels near the airport before more long-term accommodation is found for them. We’ve taken thousands of these souls; where will we house them all? I have no idea.
On the flight to Kosovo, I jotted down some notes and reminded myself of the history of where I was going.
While the horrors of the Balkan wars are in many ways a distant past and the bloodshed over, Kosovo, which only declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is still in transition to the modern world.
I planned first to spend some time in the capital Pristina, then head up north to the still-divided city of Mitrovica. Albanian Kosovans on one side, Serb Orthodox on the other. I hadn’t been in this neck of the woods since I worked on my book a few years back. I wondered if it had changed much?
My three-hour flight passed without incident, and on arrival at Pristina airport it all felt familiar. By that I mean a ’90s feel. Oh yes, I know that well.
My Covid certificate was glanced at and I walked through into arrivals, my passport not even stamped. This is good, as a Kosovo stamp causes major headaches when travelling to Serbia and Russia, as neither recognises Kosovo as a country.
Without haggling I took a 30-minute taxi ride to the city centre. Cost £15. No complaints there. We passed some lunatic drivers on the way, classic Balkan style.
Closer to the city, mosques were blasting out the call to midday prayer as worshippers queued to get inside.
Down a tiny street which was still being repaired – in fact all of Kosovo seems to be in a constant state of repair after the last war – I found my hotel.
Price is paramount to me. That said, even a cheap place should have what I need. I don’t need luxury. All I ever ask in any place I stay is the following. Clean, working shower, good wi-fi.
How was my hotel? Hmm, basic. No English spoken despite their site claiming they did. No cards accepted for payment, despite saying that they did. General hygiene? Highly dubious. “I won’t be taking breakfast in here,” I said to myself.
Up to my room; hmm, how to be polite… let’s call it spartan. Wi-fi was like dial-up speed from 20 years ago, and my shower was nothing more than a dribble. So much for my accommodation wish list then.
I sat on my brick-hard “bed” and smiled a wry smile as I recalled past trips. “Methinks I’ve been here before,” I said sarcastically to my depressing room.
Once settled, by that I mean dumping my bag on the floor and cleaning all surfaces with Dettol wipes – no nothing to do with Covid, I’ve done this for many years – I headed out to soak up the city and get reacquainted.
Within minutes I came across a young guy raking in the bins and one of the numerous stray dogs that are everywhere here. I sat down at a nearby café and started writing this very column. Pen and writing pad of course.
It didn’t take long before a young dad pushed a disabled child towards me in a wheelchair and begged for money. Never easy to witness and it’s been a while since I’ve seen this. I need to toughen up quick, or it does get to you.
First feelings? While no doubt untold millions have been spent here in the past few years, Pristina is still poor, crumbling and rundown. That’s not a criticism, it’s just how it is. Yet it’ll probably make it into the EU before too long. But more about that another time.
By 8pm I was back in my room; it had been a long day, I was dead on my feet. The guys out in the street were still road building. I’ve no idea what time they finished but I fell asleep to the sound of trucks and machines.