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Overland by bus from Bansko, Bulgaria to Skopje, F.Y.R. of Macedonia

Phespirit reports - September 2006

The Plan

The Journey

When Phespirit drafted himself a mini itinerary for touring between Bulgaria, F.Y.R. of Macedonia and Serbia, he was well aware that his plans could unravel at any number of points. Most situations would be salvageable but the most critical point was the first: he needed to make certain he was on the first bus out of Bansko bound for Sofia. The bus was scheduled for 4:55am but, such was his commitment, Phespirit arrived at least twenty minutes early. He waited outside in the still, quiet darkness that surrounded Bansko bus station, alone at first but then slowly joined by a ragged assortment of travellers who shuffled through the gloom in ones and twos.

By 4:55am the first tinge of dawn had arrived but the bus had not. Hardly a surprise given that it had to travel up from Gotse Delchev on roads that would, in all likelihood, provide an optimum surface for delay. Phespirit had barely begun to worry when a minibus steered in to view through the mist at around ten past five. The assembled would-be passengers arranged themselves into the standard free-for-all formation, preparing to board. Phespirit can be as pushy as anyone when the occasion demands, and duly ensured that he was among the first through the door. He handed his ten leva to the driver and squeezed into one of the last available seats. Having filled-up beyond capacity - one man had to sit on the steps by the rear exit - the bus eased out of town at a quarter past five, twenty minutes late.

If the bus arrived at its destination just twenty minutes late, Phespirit would still have an hour in which to find the Matpu-96 ticket booth for Skopje, buy a ticket and locate his connecting bus somewhere within Sofia's cavernous Central Bus Station. He didn't want to cut it much finer, however, being a stranger in town and unfamiliar with the layout. Seemingly good progress was made as far as the outskirts of Sofia, at which point the bus ran into heavy traffic. Good progress turned into hideously slow progress, and would remain as such all the way through to the Central Bus Station in the north of the city. Plus, some passengers wanted to get off before the bus station.

At one point the driver took a small detour to allow a passenger to debus God-knows-where, and then attempted to rejoin the main road via a tiny little side-street with cars parked on either kerb. The street seemed to get narrower and narrower, to the extent that Phespirit reckoned it highly unlikely the bus would be able to make it through at all. And, indeed, Bang! The bus hit a car. What chances now of reaching the bus station within the hour, if ever? The driver commenced some subtle manoeuvring of the kind that only bus drivers seem capable; a millimetre backwards, a millimetre sideways, a millimetre forward, and so on. One passenger stepped down into the street to offer advice and guidance, but this failed to forestall another Bang!, or prevent the vehicle alarm from going off in an adjacent car. Twice. Nonetheless, the driver somehow managed to extricate his vehicle and make good his escape without challenge, and without leaving his insurance details. Upon rejoining the traffic, Phespirit looked back to see two parked cars with bent and flattened wing-mirrors.

The bus finally reached its destination dead on nine o'clock, exactly fifty minutes late, but leaving just enough time for Phespirit to dash to the Matpu-96 ticket booth and buy a ticket - 24 leva - for the 9:30am departure to Skopje. This involved some minor queuing and a bit of passport checking, but nothing that exposed Phespirit's ignorance of the local languages. Onwards then to Sector 44, from where the coach was due to depart.

The Matpu-96 coach arrived ten minutes early and left nearly twenty minutes late. It took a further twenty minutes to clear the city limits of Sofia as it instantly got caught in the now-familiar heavy traffic. The first-and-only stop along the road to the border was at Kyustendil, a largish town entirely devoid of superficial pleasantness, but still providing a welcome opportunity for leg-stretching. Phespirit wandered aimlessly around the bus station for about twenty minutes. The coach set off again at half past eleven, as per timetable, despite all the delays.

The border was reached five minutes before midday, signalling time to begin Customs and Passport Control procedures. All passengers (approximately forty) were ordered off the coach, and all luggage was unloaded from the coach's side compartments. A male Customs Officer emerged from his little office to cast a cursory eye over the motley assemblage. He peered into two bags, barely touching them, and then ordered everyone back on board. A bit of a waste of time really, but only to be expected.

Next to Bulgarian Passport Control where a thick-set male official boarded and made his way up the coach aisle, taking every passport, affording it the utmost scrutiny, almost-grudgingly giving it a stamp, and then pocketing it. He then left the coach and all passports were taken into the Passport Control office for further esoteric processing. Happily, everyone's papers must have been in order as after only a few minutes the whole batch was returned to the driver for re-distribution. Unexpectedly, there was no request for Phespirit's registration card - a slip of paper provided by his hotel in Bansko, something that all foreign visitors are supposedly obliged to have.

The whole process on the Bulgarian side lasted half an hour, after which the coach moved on to a tiny duty free shop in a tiny no-man's land. After a further ten minutes it proceeded to the Macedonian side of the border for the resumption of formalities. Enter stage right: a female Macedonian Border Guard of slightly lighter build than her male Bulgarian counterpart but bearing substantially heavier layers of make-up that added colour and definition to an otherwise stern expression. She breezed along the coach aisle, gathering in passports, checking photos and pausing only to ask the briefest of questions, all of which presumably elicited satisfactory answers. All passports were taken into the Macedonian Passport Control office, there to be subjected to assorted bureaucratic procedures, including stamping, safely away from public gaze. Formalities could be considered complete when the passports were returned.

The whole border-crossing process had taken more or less exactly one hour. About fifty yards clear of the border the coach stopped to allow passengers to use the nearby toilet facilities, or to have a quick cough and a drag. And so it was that less than five minutes after arriving on Macedonian soil, Phespirit's first act was to piss on it. Such was his relief.

The coach moved on from the border at five past one in the afternoon, Bulgarian time (five past twelve, Macedonian time). A white mist had hung over the green land of Bulgaria, but now the sun beamed out across Macedonia; Phespirit was impressed that both countries were conforming to the schemas of their flags. The road meandered its way through the mountains, passing the town of Kriva Palanka quite early in the journey, and then for a long period snaked steadily between undulating fields of dried grasses without a settlement in sight. The next major town was Kumanovo, about an hour's drive from the border, after which the road curved down to a toll motorway. A quarter of an hour was spent travelling along it before curving up to a second toll motorway for the final run into Skopje. The outer limits of Skopje were breached at 2:40pm (Bulgarian time) and the coach finally pulled into Skopje bus station at 2:50pm. Phespirit promptly set his watch back one hour and strode off to find adventures in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

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