Bus travel from Tirana to Istanbul – with, hopefully, some practical information (including surviving the first couple of hours or so) and some observations
The buses from Tirana leave from the International Bus Station (N 41.333204, E 19.801029) which is off Rruga Dritan Hoxha, the ‘new’ route to Durres. The bus station is slightly hidden behind the Palace of Sport/basket ball court, This is opposite the bus station that operates buses to the north of Albania. Though not absolutely necessary it would be wise to book in advance.
There’s no opportunity to exchange currency during the journey so, if possible, have a few Euros for food and drink at the Greek stop.
I didn’t know it until I left but there are two bus companies that have buses leaving at the same time – 12.00 every day (apart from Friday). The one I used was Alvavel/Alpar (https://www.alparturizm.com.tr/en/home), from kiosk 3 at the station. The cost of a ticket was €40 one way, €60 return. The other was Expres tur which was a bit more luxurious in that there were three, rather than four seats, abreast. The bus itself looked more modern and not a second hand cast off from some other country as was mine. Also the service was more efficient. At a late night stop, when both my bus and the ‘luxury’ bus were at the same service station, the Express driver spent some time cleaning the windscreen and the front of the bus and the helper cleared rubbish from the inside of the vehicle. On my bus the ‘staff’ were in the restaurant before the passengers.
Expres tur also have a kiosk at the bus station but I haven’t been able to find a web address and hence not certain about their timetable. If the budget stretches to it I would suggest the the Expres service – the seat of a second-hand bus gets hard after a few hours and these newer seats turn into a virtual bed.
I was told the journey would take 20 hours – which with the hour difference between Albania and Turkey is a good timetable. Arriving at 09.00 would be a civilised time in a place that you might never have visited before. The website says arrival time is 07.00 – but that’s not true either.
Both companies had a pickup in Elbasin. After that, at about 14.00, the bus stopped for the driver’s lunch break on the road between Libradzh and Prenjas, for about 30 minutes.
Alvelar/Alpar have a depot in Korçe and took a number of passengers from Tirana to Korçe but few, if any, passengers joined the bus there. There’s a separate service from Korçe to Istanbul – see website.
After Korçe the bus was less than half full. I travelled at the end of September so things were getting quieter in general but at that time it meant that most people, if they wanted, had a double seat – making things slightly more comfortable for an overnight journey. It wouldn’t have been as comfortable if the bus had been full.
From Korçe the bus heads to the town of Billisht and then on to the border with the same name. The bus arrived at the border just before 17.00 and the whole process of passing through both Albanian and Greek passport control/customs took just over 30 minutes.
Leaving Albania and entering Greece
The process is as such:
To leave Albania take all luggage, both from inside and the hold of the bus, into the customs hall. There’s a random, cursory, hand check of luggage. I have a waterproof liner in my rucksack and I think the customs officer was caught slightly off guard in that what he was feeling was the same he would have done (more or less) if he had just felt around the outside of the bag. There was an X-ray machine in the building but it wasn’t used when I passed through. After the customs check the immigration window is a few metres away. I’ve always found Albanian passport control one of the easiest to negotiate. However, you don’t get a stamp in your passport when arriving or leaving by land in Albania (which was a bit disconcerting when I first arrived in Albania by land).
After returning to the bus the process to enter Greece is even easier. You only need to go to passport control and no luggage was checked, either hand or from the hold. Presumably random checks take place from time to time.
After crossing the border there wasn’t a stop until 21.45 which lasted about 30 minutes.
Crossing into Turkey from Greece
The Greek/Turkish border is reached at about 00.30-01.00. You know you are getting there as on the approach you pass a very long queue of parked up lorries.
The helper collected all the passports and presented them to the Greek immigration. That allowed the passengers to spend some free time in the duty free shop.
It’s one of the curious matters about customs that there are supposed to be established rules but they are often just ignored or openly broken. The bus staff bought a huge amount of booze, what exactly I didn’t see, way over what would be considered for personal use. Some of this was then stashed in the cold compartment where free water is normally stored. The stash of booze was then covered by the water bottles and any extra given to willing passengers to ‘call their own’ – in the event that any questions were asked.
Now this ‘smuggling’ was going on openly. I could see what was happening. There was no effort to hide what was going on. The Greek customs must know about this. If not they must be one of the most inept, incompetent or corrupt organisations in existence. But they do nothing to stop this. If you have laws and rules at least abide by them – if not just scrap them. This excess of duty free also accounted for the distribution of duty free bags earlier in the journey for passengers’ rubbish – not too good for the planet either.
Passing through Turkish immigration was equally as quick and easy. My printed visa wasn’t even looked at so I’m not sure what happens there – whether my passport scan brings up an OK I don’t know.
Arrival in Istanbul
The bus arrived at Otogar (the main Istanbul bus station) at around 05.00 – a lot earlier than I expected – and before things started to wake up, including the Metro and the public transport system in general. My bus had made a couple of stops in the old town before heading to the bus station. I noticed a sign post to Taksim Square, near to where I would be staying, but not knowing the area at all it didn’t seem a wise thing to do to get off there.
I was fortunate in that I had a very little Turkish money from a previous visit some years ago. This enabled me to pay for the use of the WC (TL1.50) – to change from shorts to trousers. I was the only one wearing shorts on the bus and started to think I might stand out once on the streets of Istanbul. Doing so in Tirana you are one of the crowd. Doing so in Instanbul marks you out immediately as a tourist.
Next thing to do was to find a cafe to sit down and wait for the city, or at least the bus station, to wake up. Not having a single word of Turkish didn’t help but assumed that life would start again after about 06.00. It was interesting that, with the fame of Turkish coffee, my first cup on this visit was made from Nescafe Instant – and it was as bad as I had remembered.
Otogar might be one of the biggest bus stations in the world but it is certainly the ugliest. Coming into it was like passing through a half constructed concrete car park. Buses everywhere but with a feeling of dirt and decay. I didn’t think it would look any more inviting in the light of day. Having only seen a small part of the city when everything was quiet this goes against the general feeling of the city which appears to becoming an homogenised western city. Such globalisation is taking the character out of so many cities throughout the world. Otogar has been left out of this modernising process.
Over the years in various countries I sat and watched – for what now seems like countless hours – street traders waiting for customers. It was the same in Otogar. The cafe was open, as were a number of other stalls/kiosks in a small ‘shopping centre’ but there were only a handful of customers for almost two hours. Whether it ever gets really hectic I’ll probably never know from personal experience but it must be a mind blowingly boring existence for so many people to just sit and wait.
By 06.30 things were still very quiet and I didn’t know if I had over-extended my welcome at the cafe. However, as I had spent a lot of time in Albanian bars where I had had a few beers whilst others had just had a small coffee but were there as long as myself, I assumed the culture to be the same in Turkey.
It was still dark and I wasn’t sure if the Metro had started up so after I got to this point in my typing I decided to wait and move once the morning had arrived before going exploring – first for a cash machine and then the Metro, assuming I would find both in the same place – that was another assumption that wasn’t correct.
When I did stir it was light – fortunate that I travelled before autumn had really set in and the days got shorter. But life is never easy. Finding the Metro (as in railway system) was made more confusing by the existence of a bus company called ‘Metro’ and they seem to have an office every second space at the front of the bus station. The Metro railway entrance is, in fact, in the middle of the huge square in front of the Otogar, slightly to the right when you have the bus station to your back.
But first, like me, you might need some cash. Once you find the Metro entrance look at the row of shops directly opposite the bus station entrances and there you will see a branch of the Turkiye Is Bankasi which has an ATM to the right of the entrance. Currently (autumn 2019) there are about 7 Turkish Lira (TL) to the £.
(One of the consequences of the light is that your first impressions of the bus station are proved right. In the dark it’s bad, in the light it confirms itself as a right shit-hole.)
As is nearly always the case ATM’s only issue you with large denomination notes but for the Istanbulkart – which you need to travel on the local transport system – you really need a couple of tens – I don’t know how the machine would react if you inserted a larger denomination note.
My solution was to go for a bowl of soup at the cafe close to the entrance gates that allow you into the Metro system. The soup was quite good and definitely filled a hole after spending 16 hours on or about a bus, cost TL10 and it was understood why I needed a couple of ten lira notes in my change.
Obtaining a Instanbulkart
Right in front of the gates to the Metro there are three machines which dispense or top up the Istanbulkart. In theory the system should go to English but I couldn’t get that to work. Fortunately a helpful local took me through the procedure.
First you put your TL10 note in the slot and after the machine has eaten it you press the bottom of the three buttons which will issue you with a card. This costs TL6 so you have TL4 credit but this will only get you on to one train/tram/bus. To top it up for a few journeys, place the card with the picture face up on the grey reader to the right of the screen. This has a lip to prevent it from slipping off the machine. Put another TL10 in the slot and once eaten press the second button (the one in the middle). This will then give you a total credit of TL14, sufficient for four/five journeys.
To enter the Metro system place the card picture side up on the reader to the right of the turnstile. A single journey costs TL2.60 and the balance on the card can be read.
Make sure to keep the card reasonably well topped-up. There’s no transfer system so if you need to change Metro lines, or from Metro to tram or bus, then you need to enter the system anew. However, if you do so within a couple of hours each transfer is slightly less that the one before. The card is also valid on the ferries but the cost depends upon the route taken.
You now have cash and the means to get around the city. And to suffer the caterwauling every day.