Here's an email I sent to a few friends about my first twelve hours in Kosovo.

I'll try to get my initial impressions down now that I have access to email, and hopefully provide you with a more enlightened installment once I've actually managed to walk around this place.

Flying in on a small Alitalia jet accompanied by a small herd of Arabic-speaking men who hardly fit inside XL t-shirts and looked like a rugby team was a bit unsettling. Could be the sheer size of them, the language they spoke, the shaved heads, the menacing attitude, the insistence on vegetarian meals, or simply the stories that have made the press about this kind of situation on a plane leading to rather rapid and unplanned landings that caused that mixture of excitement and apprehension.

When we had descended below the thick cloud cover, the Macedonian landscape started to rear its mountain ranges, stark and grey for the most part except for jagged gashes of red rock, scars on each facet of the topology that seem to warn incoming travellers that further scars have yet to come. These dipped suddenly into gentle, verdant hills, furrowed along their length by winter streams, to give the appearance of a giant green brain, ruminating on all that they have had to witness with the numbing pace of continental drift. Another sudden drop gave way to a vast flat plain that was dotted, sparsely at first, then more thickly as we approached Skopje, with red brick houses. From time to time we flew over very regular rows of dull steel huts, possibly stores or factories, that had fallen into disuse but retained their rigid grid-like structure when viewed from above, echoes of a not-so-distant communist past.

The pilot did not land the plane so much as drop the thing out of the sky and hope that the runway was somewhere in the neighbourhood for the event. This had everyone struggling to keep their seats and attempt to appear composed but the chorus of loud thuds inside oversize chests was most likely audible from Belgrade. We walked across a runway into an airport that was evidently a recent affair, where some form of grandeur was present at planning stage but only the delusion remained in the final execution.

I was scrutinised by a Macedonian police woman who wore her fringe with an almost patriotic pride, skipped through the empty pages of my new passport with unsuppressed disdain, chose a page at random, and then stamped it with an apocalyptic finality. Never have I been made to feel so insignificant, such a meek instrument on the cosmic scale of things, such a useless mayfly trespassing on precious Macedonian soil. Armed with this new confidence I found myself on the street outside the airport, with no such thing as an arrivals area so that there is no interface between the passport control queue and the world outside.

I was immediately confronted by a dozen friendly faces who solicited their taxi service shamelessly and pushed each other aside in an attempt to take me to wherever it was I surely didn't want to go as long as they had secured my fare. The more vociferous of them asked me whether I was waiting for someone and I nodded dumbly and said "My Friend" for god knows what reason but I was still feeling rather intimidated and very, very confused. He immediately told me that no, my friend wasn't coming, he had forgotten about me, and that I was going with him. He would take me to Skopje and find me a hotel. He also knows the restaurant where I'm having dinner. I listened for a while then asked him whether I could smoke there, a question that he wasn't prepared for and interrupted his script. Floundering he accepted that I wasn't accepting his offer and went on to pester some other hapless traveller, this time a huge Nordic man who must have inspired much of their mythology, looking Thor-like and possibly of the same proportions.

I walked out of the throng and made my way to a small open-air cafeteria with eight tables and ten waiters. Labour is cheap in Macedonia. My dad picked me up a few minutes later and we headed out North towards the border with Kosovo in a white 4x4 with UN written inconspicuously in 2 foot-high letters on each side of the vehicle. It beeped frantically whenever we hit the speed limit and informed the powers that be that we had committed this crime. On our way to the border we overtook a convoy of about 12 army tanks, hospital and supply vehicles and a police escort. We stopped ahead of them and I tried to take a couple of pictures but they climbed out of the bellies of the metal beasts they were riding to wave angry fists and even angrier Kalaschnikovs at me. Bad move.

Back into the jeep we finally reached the border and I decided to take a photo of the sand-bags and artillery. Bad move? Of course it was a bloody bad move. A police woman came up to the car smiling, and politely asked me to go with her. Internal battles were raging inside her since she was livid at my audacity but had to retain dignity when faced with a UN vehicle. Fumbling with the seat-belt I dropped the memory card inside the car and followed her to the police station like an obedient puppy. She rattled off in Albanian to two soldiers, hands on hips. Holsters, actually. Eventually I got out of it by convincing them that I had no card inside by brand new camera and that I was just practising.

Off to Pristina then, capital of Kosovo, a bit more cautious with the snapping this time. The hour and a half drive from the border to the capital revealed a countryside with plenty of natural beauty and human interference that attempted to reverse this. Shops the size of my car sold a few apples and bottles of water, scrap-yards with hundreds upon hundreds of deceased vehicles rubbed shoulders with shops that seemingly existed purely as purveyors of rubber ducks. Plastic, it turned out, since many shops sold a small variety of plastic items, each 'specialising' in the range of items sold. So all of god's handiwork on whatever day he created plants was cruelly mimicked inside a shop that attempted to sell crude plastic representations of global flora.

At the same time, poncey, new, glass-clad buildings were erupting at haphazard intervals, glorious European architecture surrounded by the now-familiar rubble, like a steel-and-glass phoenix rising from the ashes of a recently-torched countryside. These are all evidence of new investment that is somehow focusing on small patches of land while ignoring the surroundings. Quite why certain patches are chosen for development remains quite a mystery since these new buildings seem to spring out of nowhere, and around them the car-sized 'shops' and mounds of metal or construction waste grow unchecked.

Another striking feature that hardly blends into this landscape was the presence of a disproportionate amount of advertising billboards, advertising cigarettes, the American School in Pristina, and a few other consumer products. The smokes and the school, however, alone dominate the vast majority of square kilometres available for public perusal.

Into the city finally, we enter a twisting and turning maze that diverted us through ramshackle shops and minarets, casinos and mosques, kebab restaurants and tobacconists. The first impression is that of a typical Islamic town that has been infused with a certain degree of communist architecture and the crass commercial in-your-face advertising of the glorious West. The latter factor is possibly the most incongruous. We drove through quite quickly but I'll be walking around soon enough and will be able to provide you with more detail later on.

The flat we're staying in turns out to be the only one in a neat and brand new house, with the landlord and his wife living on the ground floor and renting out the first floor to justify their investment. They seem to be obsessed with security, cleanliness, and for some bizarre reason, carpets, so each step has a tiny carpet to itself. The flat itself is comfortable and airy, with windows all around, an excellent level of finish and a massive car battery. An attempt, it turns out, to make up for the power cuts, the occurrence of which ranges from weekly to daily.

Straight on the house of an American judge for dinner with another 6 judges. I was delivered a healthy dose of discussion about the technicalities of the farce that they call a judicial system. They entertained Article six from the European courts, separation of the church from the state, delays in the Italian judiciary, systemic responsibility in Poland, and a mind-boggling array of similar fictions. They really don't get the point, do they?

Sending email from UN office that has two maps on the wall. One is an updated political map of the world and the other is a "Mines and Routes Map". Quite why one would want both on the same map is beyond the realms of my comprehension. Scenic route there, mine right next to it, climb that mountain for a view of the city, just be careful because it hasn't been demined, etc...

Off to the town, for want of a better word, to forage for food and cheap cigarettes.

More soon...