Bulgaria / Macedonia / Travel

Macedonia to Bulgaria: The Border Crossing Three-Step

Bulgarian Countryside

Like most travelers, all our roaming is about new experiences – places, people, and different perspectives. It’s not news that all people have the same basic needs.

But travel is a quick teacher that shows how geography and culture mingle to create an infinite variety of HOW things get done.

With the right mindset it’s fun, and frequently funny, to witness a new approach. Our recent mountain-top border crossing between Macedonia and Bulgaria was a perfect example.

Before I get to the meat of the story, I have to say what a relief it was to make an easy crossing. In the Balkans, the refugee crisis has made borders chaotic and sometimes dangerous places. Like the refugees, we were moving north so we had no idea how the crossing would go. Luckily, the queue of cars, trucks, and buses appeared normal as we all waited patiently for our inspections, stamps, and shooing across the border. Looking back, we guessed that given the mountain terrain, the isolated location, and the fact that the road was an out-of-the-way detour, the refugees chose a more direct route north. Lucky us.

And before I go on, I have one disclaimer: the photos in this post are not our own. The pistols on the hips of the border guards convinced us that it might be prudent to keep the camera in the backpack. And now to the tale.

Gun in Holster

A bus ride from Skopje, Macedonia to Sofia, Bulgaria (or as the window placard said Скопје – София) is an inexpensive, straightforward affair. Once we rolled off the dusty plains outside Skopje and into the tree-covered mountains, the ride became much more scenic. It’s only a 150-mile trip, which had me wondering why it was scheduled to take five hours. A few miles twisting and turning up the narrow mountain road quickly answered the question. Small farms were scattered up the steep-sided valley with grazing herds of sheep and goats. As we crept up, the numbers of grazers crept down, until there were only trees and scrub.

At the top of what seemed an endless hill, the road widened from two lanes to six. A queue of vehicles, a few official-looking buildings, a blazing yellow and red flag, and a red-striped barrier let us know we’d finally reached the border between Macedonia and Bulgaria.

Border Check-point Gyueshevo between Bulgaria and Macedonia FYRO

The actual location of the Border Crossing Three Step.

We’ve crossed a few borders and our time-tested rule is to follow the crowd, keep our mouths shut, do as we’re told, and hope for the best. Usually it’s smooth sailing, but in this case, our butts were on a bus, so there was no crowd to follow and no helpful directions in English. So we opted for the keep our mouths shut part and just waited.

The driver (who had been constantly smoking while sitting directly beneath the no smoking sign) turned the engine off, grabbed a handful of papers and disappeared out the door. Five minutes later a hefty, pistol-totin’ officer came on board and methodically collected our passports, opening each one to the photo page and carefully nesting them in a tidy stack. He disappeared for ten minutes and then returned, and handed the passports to some bewildered woman in the first row of seats. Obviously she’d just been nominated to pass them out. To her credit, she did a much better job reading the foreign language names than I would have.

Then the driver reappeared, the barrier was raised, and we drove the length of the bus and stopped again. The driver disappeared again, another border guard stepped onboard, collected our passports using exactly the same technique, and then vanished into officialdom. Ten minutes later he’s back, and he handed the passports to the same poor lady. But this time, I noticed a bit more confidence in her distribution technique. If you haven’t learned this before now, there’s a lesson here folks: NEVER sit in the front row. 

Once again, the driver re-re-appeared, fired up the bus, pulled forward one bus-length, and just when we thought we were home-free, stopped again. Off he got, and yet another grim-faced officer stepped aboard and walked the length of the bus scrutinizing each passenger. We heard the luggage compartment door open below, and bags being pushed about. Terri and I were trying to keep a straight-face but we were starting to crack. What the hell is going on!

With our stamped passports in hand, while gliding down the mountain in what was finally Bulgaria, we pieced together what had happened … we think. Apparently, Officer #1 officially checked us out of Macedonia; Officer #2 stamped us into Bulgaria; Officer #3 was Bulgarian customs. And just when you think you’ve seen it all.

We fancy ourselves experienced travelers but on every trip we still get surprised. The funniest thing about this experience was that throughout this thirty minute process, other than our sotto voce whispers to each other, we didn’t hear another word spoken on the bus. I guess we weren’t the only confused border crossers.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. We made this border crossing a few weeks ago, before the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. With links to Syria and the possibility that some of the terrorists made their way through Europe as refugees, it’s highly likely that border crossings in the Balkans will get even more difficult in the future. Sadly, this will only make a bad situation even worse.

Bulgaria_border_police

Photo Credits:
1. Koan  
2. Edal Anton Lefterov via Wikimedia Commons
3. DodgertonSkillhause   
4. Dickelbers via Wikimedia Commons

66 thoughts on “Macedonia to Bulgaria: The Border Crossing Three-Step

  1. Did that bus ride in the other direction. The crossing would have gone smoothly, except one man was taken off by the Bulgarian officials and didn’t come back for half an hour. Have no idea why, of course. Agree it was a scenic ride.

    • Kathy, with all the refugee problems in the Balkans, we were a bit concerned about crossing the border here. We considered flying, but it was a major hassle which meant a flight to Belgrade, sitting around the airport all day, and then a flight to Sofia. Luckily, we had no problems. But it was a very scenic trip, especially on the Macedonian side. ~James

    • Thanks Maja. It’s not something that I read much about in our tourist info, but the mountains in the Balkans are truly beautiful. And we used buses and trains whenever possible to get to see them. ~James

    • Bun, as far as I’m concerned, any border crossing that goes smoothly is a good border crossing. This one was pretty comical, but we didn’t dare laugh. I always keep my game face on when I’m at passport control and immigration. ~James

      • I’d say that’s very wise. I’m sure border guards and the like can be a bit bumptious and unintentionally funny at times. On the other hand, they do have guns.

      • Thinking some more about border crossings, the biggest problem is boredom (and I really don’t remember guns). The worst were Russia to Mongolia and Mongolia to China by train – about six hours each. The diciest was Ukraine to Transnistria, which is not officially a country. But the bribe was only 20 euro… I considered it an unofficial visa since Transnistria doesn’t have embassies. The most spectacular was China to Pakistan – talk about mountains!

      • I’ve crossed a number of borders in my life, but not in any places that were in the least bit exotic. The boredom is something I’m very familiar with, though.

        Incidentally, I looked Transnistria up to find out something about it. It’s just about the most oddly-shaped (semi-recognized) state I’ve ever seen. Must have been fascinating to visit it.

      • I was just passing through on the way to Moldova. Fascinating but not in a really good way. Flat central European plain. Soviet era apt. blocks. But: “On the outskirts of the capital we did pass a gleaming new building – a soccer stadium with a big Mercedes sign. Apparently Mercedes cars are the first choice of dictators, so maybe this advertisement makes sense. Further on, outside Bendery, Transnistria’s second city, is another anomaly – a 16th century Ottoman castle in use as a training camp for 21st century troops.”

        BTW, killer photo of the gun.

    • Anita, we only made one flight within the Balkans, and other than that leg, on all trains and buses we had to consider and plan for the possible impact of the refugees at border crossings. Luckily, we didn’t have any problems, but we were never sure. We’ll always be glad that we saw the refugee crisis first hand, but it did introduce a bit of angst into the trip that we could have done without. I hope you can get to this region. It’s very different from Western Europe, and there’s tons to see. ~James

  2. In spite of some inner worry, I always enjoy border crossings! They are often protracted and annoying, but there’s something about them that feeds the adventuresome spirit that put me on the road to some weird destinations in the first place! I’m glad your movement throughout the Balkans went fairly smoothly; you were there at such an (unfortunately) historic time.

    • Lexie, I never worried much about immigration until I got pulled out and detained. On a return trip from Bogota, Colombia to the US, the officials grilled me for about an hour about what I did while out of the US (probably thought I was a drug runner). And on a return from China at LAX, I got pulled out and detained for a couple of hours with no explanation as to what the deal was. What this made me realize is that as a traveler (even in your own country) you have zero rights at the border and they can keep you there for as long as they want. Hence, my keep my head down and my mouth shut until I’m cleared policy. ~James

      • Wow – that is shocking! And scary. I’ve never been stopped by Immigration but I did get nailed by Customs when I tried to bring yak meat jerky home from Tibet! (Not scary, but time-consuming)

  3. What a lovely way to cross those borders. The routine sounds like every bus border crossing I’ve ever done, even the silence of the passengers. I figured every one else was as nervous as I without my passport in a place that was foreign to me. Happy and safe travels – Susan

  4. What an experience! I was wondering what the most recent terrorist attacks would have on your travel. Thanks you for sharing your adventures. I bet a lot of people will just stay home.
    Leslie

  5. Not sure if it will be the same border checkpoint, however we’ll be crossing between the same two countries in a few days time (presently we’re in Ohrid).

    Seems to have been fairly standard for us in the Balkans.

    The bus driver (or conductor) will collect all of the passports or ID cards, hand them out the window to border control, then hang onto them until the next checkpoint is passed.

    Thankfully we’ve had no issues either (although no trains are presently crossing from Slovenia in Croatia, or across the Serbian-Hungarian border, buses are still fine), even since the Paris attacks.

    Will let you know how we go! 🙂

    • Chris, this was the bus from Skopje to Sofia. If you make that run, it will probably be the same route. It’s actually very scenic, particularly on the Macedonia side. The mountains are beautiful, and there’s lots of tiny farms all along the way. The funny thing about this experience was the fact that the bus pulled up and stopped 3 different times in about 100 ft. It was pretty comical. Keep us posted on how you go. ~James

      • Yeah Chris, I remember that there are only a couple of buses a day. We took the morning bus, and it took about 5 hrs. BTW, our bus had a non-working WC, but it made a rest stop just after the border. ~James

    • It’s pretty funny when I think about it Darlene. You know how Americans are known as being overly friendly and enthusiastic when we travel abroad, which must make me look like an international criminal when I go through immigration. I nod, hand over my passport, say thanks when I get it back, and then move on. Not very friendly, but it seems to work. ~James

  6. James this sounds very similar to our bus ride from split to Dubrovnik. Little did we know we had to got into Bosnia-Herzogovenia. Your description of the stops, the passport checks, the officer looking very unhappy and none of us having a clue what was going on. Like you I kept my camera tucked away and for a change my mouth absolutely silent. Travel is a most fascinating thing.

    • Sue, the same thing happened to us on our trip from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo. I’m not sure how many times we crossed the border, but it was a lot. It’s also interesting that on our trip back to the US, we stopped for a few days in London. And at immigration, I broke my keep your mouth shut rule, and paid the price. I’m not sure what I was thinking but I happened to mention that I had lived in London years ago – mistake. This must have been some kind of red flag, because I got a few minutes of grilling about where I was staying, what I was doing, did I still have friends there, was I staying with them, etc. etc. With all the security problems, I suspect that the shut mouth rule will get to be more and more useful. ~James

  7. Good call on keeping the camera tucked away. I am always surprised when people challenge security at border crossings. Like you, I wait to be given instruction & hope that I can follow it when asked!

    • I didn’t talk much about the camera rule Lynn, but you’re exactly right. Government types, particularly in ex-communist countries, have some rather ingrained rules about cameras and their use. And as I said to Lexie in a comment above, I’ve been detained a couple of times at immigration, and believe me, I don’t challenge anyone. Because basically, they can keep you as long as they wish, with no explanation – not a good way to start or end a visit. ~James

    • We haven’t had it happen since our Sudan days Curt. And actually, in the Khartoum airport, our “fixer” always met every plane with company staff on it, and he would usually take care of the guards for us. I didn’t know, or want to know how it worked because there was a very strict company policy against bribes (yeah right). 🙂 ~James

      • It was bad in Liberia, and has apparently become worse. We also ran into the problem when we travelled through East Africa. So often, it simply becomes part of the cost of traveling. –Curt

    • It was really only an issue for transport and border crossings Joanne, but it did make for some uncertain moments. We just tried to stay flexible, and we were prepared to do whatever was needed to move around. We also researched as best we could what routes were active and having issues (e.g. Serbia to Hungary), and we stayed away, or like our trip from Montenegro to Macedonia, we just took a plane. ~James

  8. Yet another adventure on the road. Good that you did this a few weeks ago. And no doubt good that you kept your mouths shut lol. News has it that the Paris terrorists were all French and Belgian nationals. I get really disheartened to keep hearing the story that refugees were involved.
    Alison

    • Alison, I’m sure that the entire Paris story won’t come out for weeks, if at all. But it appears that the terrorists were very clever to plant disinformation regarding themselves and the refugees. However, given the number of refugees, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were terrorists among them. It’s a sad affair on all sides, because the last thing the legitimate refugees need is more hassles and delays at the border. ~James

  9. Dealing with this situation as an interesting experience rather than a nuisance is such a smart approach. There is nothing you can do anyway but some travellers feel compelled to always complain.

    • It’s hard to be patient sometimes, but in the case of immigration, it’s “worry about what I can change,” and getting into the country any faster isn’t one of them. My philosophy is that no matter what country I’m trying to enter, the less attention that I attract the better. And I’m sure that anyone who raises a commotion at immigration learns PDQ that there’s an easier and better way. ~James

  10. Great story. half an hour to get through a border crossing on a bus full of people is pretty darned good. Even though the holstered pistol image isn’t one of yours, it still makes me laugh. The star on the holster and pistol grip makes me think of the “old west” sheriff’s star. As you (and many of the commenters) pointed out silence is golden when crossing the border!

    • When you think about it Laura, this was probably the most efficient way to get us across, but for me the funniest thing was the bus moving three times to get it done. And isn’t that pistol a classic. I’m surprised there isn’t a beer belly to go with it. 🙂 ~James

  11. You’ve got good advice for dealing with border crossings. Keeping your mouth shut is a good one. I didn’t once when young while crossing into El Salvador…got slapped by a guy with a machine gun. I play by your rules these days.

  12. Most of my border crossings have been done on an aircraft so the process is fairly similar for all, although there have been some notable exceptions. Dalaman Airport where chaos reigned and hundreds of people were herded by shouting officials with no semblance of order at all. JFK, where I have never been spoken to so rudely and it took two hours in a queue to get to being yelled at. The only land crossing I remember was Gibraltar into Spain. It was a strange experience as the Spanish, depending on their mood, will hold the process up as long as possible because of the friction between the two countries. Having a British Passport was probably not the best of things at this particular border but we got across eventually and no one shouted at us or was rude which was a bonus.

    • I’ve been through JFK many times Marie, and I think that the bottom line there is the sheer number of people that come through. It’s one of the busiest airports in the world, and on any given day, it feels like a meeting of the United Nations. Of course, none of this excuses rude behavior toward anyone, but it happens a lot at JFK. I also think there’s some regional characteristics carrying over as well. I don’t like to generalize, but in my experience, folks from that part of the world pride themselves on direct, frank (sometimes too frank) and straightforward interactions. It sucks when it happens, but I bite my tongue and remember my objective: getting through immigration. ~James

  13. My husband and I had to take two round-trip bus rides (Sofia-Skopje-Sofia), one in late 2010 and one in early 2011. I wrote the experience down to share with my family. Re-reading and comparing to your post, I realize that nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing.

    • Risa, this is interesting to hear. But everyone involved at the border seemed to have the routine down pat, so I’m not surprised that it’s been the same for years. Looking back, it was an efficient way to move a bus full of people across the border. I just thought that it was comical that they moved the bus three times to do it. BTW, Happy Thanksgiving there in Bulgaria. ~James

    • I agree Sylvia. I was blissfully ignorant and never tense until I got pulled out and detained a couple of times. Since then, all I want to do is get it over with as quickly as possible. Also, I’m afraid that as terrorists become more global, border crossings are only going to get more difficult, not less. ~James

    • Gilda, I think that part of the training program for border guards is how to maintain a solemn expression at all times. Now, don’t get me wrong, in these days of migrating terrorists, I know that it’s deadly serious business. But, a little smile wouldn’t hurt. ~James

      • When I flew into Batumi in Georgia I got a big smile and hearty “welcome to Georgia”, but maybe they didn’t see a lot of tourists. I get “welcome home” a fair amount from the immigration people in the US, but maybe more often in Raleigh-Durham than New York.

  14. Pingback: Tikros ir išgalvotos Balkanų sienos | Euroblogas.lt

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