Willing hostages in Albania

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In the past, especially in America, I have become a part-time recluse on tour.  Eating a yogurt outside the grocery store somewhere in the U.S.A, a man asks where I am going, where I am coming from, where I sleep, and my favorite, “What do you eat?”  He pokes and prods, asks if I have a place to sleep for the night (he’s not offering), and then warns me that it is expected to rain.  All the while, I just want to eat my yogurt.  

In Albania, I’ve become an extrovert.  I’ve learned to pass through villages dragging my brakes to bring attention to our arrival.  I’m grateful for my unusually loud Hope freehub, which attracts the attention of every dog in earshot, and thus, every young boy, man, and woman.  In remote mountain communities, I purposely ask for water when I don’t really need it to get a better look at the beans that are drying near the house, or the grapes hanging from a trellis overhead.  Even so, part of my interest in the grapes is feigned, to get a better look at the young boys, who I know want to get a better look at me, and my bike.  I want to meet the women of this country, who spend much time out of the public space.  I want to see how people live and eat.  Old ways are still alive in Albania, and more than anywhere I’ve been, I want to see it and learn about it.

Albanians reciprocate my curiosity, and fuel it, with the most legendary hospitality I’ve experienced.  They invite us inside long before we exchange names or they learn where we are from.  They feed us in heaping piles of food, a purposeful gesture to treat us like royalty.  They pour us round after round of homemade raki, not because they want to drink with us or get us drunk, but simply because the glass is empty.  As in many places, the most open and honest people live in the mountains.  For several days in Albania, in between memorable dirt roads, singletrack cattle trails, and serpentine pavement, we’re willing hostages of energetic Albanians.  In two days, this happens with the regularity and substance of three square meals a day.

Leaving Kukës, we immediately shoot for a series of small dirt roads near the border with Kosovo.  There is an obvious secondary road which travels south, which is surely quiet, and paved.  But it has been too long since a proper ride in the mountains.  The weather is good and we wish to prolong our time in Albania.  The best way to do this is to go high and accept the pace of the mountains.

Our route from Kukës to Cajë includes a total elevation gain of 6,000ft, climbing on dirt roads to Xhaferaj, and then footpaths and cattle trails up to the grassy mountaintops.  From there, we continue on little-used dirt roads up near our high-point at 6,900ft.  There we find an array of 13 mushroom-shaped bunkers, and a shepherd with a large flock of sheep.  The high peaks of Macedonia and Kosovo loom in the distance.  Like an afternoon snack amidst the regularity of our three-times-a-day meetings with Albanians, he asks us to sit with him in the grass.  There isn’t much to say, and I don’t have any cigarettes to offer him.  We spend a few minutes sitting in the grass, the wind blowing just strong enough to erase the intensity of the sun on this fall day in the mountains.  And then, we’re off with handshakes and goodbyes.  We descend 5,000ft back to pavement.   

From Kukës, we pass under the highway and onto a freshly paved road.  There are several small border crossings in this region with Kosovo, although the roads to the border are unpaved.  

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Passing a small crossroads and the intersection of two streams, we ride around an industrial structure.  It appears to house some water catchment and distribution systems.  We continue on one of two dirt roads at the end of the pavement.

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The road turns up, steeply, towards Topojan and Xaferaj.

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Above both villages, at dusk, we find a small flat spot on a narrow ridge, just off the road.  I expect the road to run out soon, and I’d asked a young man who spoke English if we could camp somewhere nearby.  He laughs, and says “anywhere”.  He invites us to come back down to the store to have a beer with him.  He and a few others from the city live in the area during the construction of some water utilities.  

Within a few moments, some boys arrive to see what’s happening.  A man in his mid-thirties arrives, and takes control of the conversation.  He invites us to come stay at his house.  We like our campsite, and gratefully decline.  He is not satisfied, and tries to invite us again, injecting a little more vigor into his invitation.  Again, we decline.

Next, he warns us that the area is not safe.  I insist to know why.

He suggests there are some people around here which make it unsafe, and there are animals, and it will be cold.  A small crowd of young boys show no concern, and are watching with blank faces.  I insist to know who we are worried about meeting in the night?  “People!”  And which animals?  “Beers!”

“Bears!”, I exclaim, correcting him like every other non-native English speaker who pronounces bears like a refrigerator full of cold pilseners.  

Listen, I am from Alaska.  I’ve seen bears.  I will not be cold.  Thank you, but we will stay here tonight.  I think it will be safe.  

By now, he’s using Google Translate on his smartphone to translate more advanced concepts.  We both wait, staring at the phone as it slowly loads.  “Pity”, it reads.  

I now understand his motives more than before.  He wants us to come to his house, and to be his guests.  He may think it is cold and perhaps he would be afraid to sleep outside, but these are not actual concerns.  

Soon, an older man in a camouflage jacket arrives, speaking assuredly in Albanian and carrying a tall wooden staff.  At the instruction of our captor, he is now telling us to take our things to come to his house (or perhaps this is another house).  Lael points to the tent, and says that this is our home.  He looks at it, runs his hands along the thin nylon fabric, and scoffs.  He reaches to begin pulling out the stakes.  I put my foot down, literally.  The young boys are quietly laughing to one another, which after all the talk of bears and unsavory characters, I’m now convinced cannot be true.  After a short fight, the old man quits.  Our captor leaves us to our pitiful campsite, high on the hill.  He leaves us after a half-hour of frustrating, if hilarious, conversation.

Pasta is boiling, night has come.  Another man arrives with his two sons to insist that we come to his house.  He is softer in his approach, and kind.  I thank him generously, stuffing my hand into his with as much confidence as I can muster after a 3,000ft climb and a tiring conversation.  He understands, I think, and leaves us.  

Our food is salted and vegetables cut.  Nearly as my spoon enters my mouth, two boys are at the roadside.  These are the two boys that had been here moments earlier with their father.  One of them has been there since the beginning, and knows the entire history of the situation.  I stand guard, ignite my headlamp and engage them, preparing for a fight.  They offer a large packaged chocolate croissant and a liter of peach juice, purchased from the store below.  “Thank you.”  They leave us alone, and the village leaves us alone.  

Everyone in this valley now knows who we are and where we are camped.  Surely, we are safe now.  

We finish our dinner.  A truck arrives with two men.  The driver is the young man who we’d asked about camping earlier in the evening.  It seems a group of people has been waiting for us at the store.  He offers us a ride –no more than 250m– which we decline.  We clean up and ride down the steep dirt road.  Inside, a half-dozen men are waiting, with only a few beers in circulation.  They pretend not to be waiting for us, but they are.  We enjoy a pleasant conversation with our host and his friend, the store owner.  His family is from this area, but he lives in Tirana.  We ask all of the things which we haven’t been able to ask for days.  He is intelligent and mature, and we learn, only 21 years old.  Another man in the room that arrived on a loaded horse, looks at us smartly.  He’s a shepherd or a farmer, but claims to have been a teacher at some point.  He speak a little English, and writes a note on a napkin.  He looks exactly like our friend Eddie from Key West.  Actually, everyone in the room is healthy and well dressed, in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in a bar in Fort Collins, although this is a really small village at the end of a dead end dirt road in a very steep valley in Albania.  We are not allowed to pay for our beers, but I insist to leave a tip equal to the price of the beers.  I explain, this is how we make our money in America, and they laugh. 

If we want coffee, we are told that the shop owner will return at 7:30 in the morning.  As we thank the group and begin our ride up the hill, Lael and I agree that they probably don’t normally open at 7:30 or serve coffee.  In the morning we arrive for our coffee as prescribed.  The store is open, which I could see from our vantage on the hill.  The shop owner has spent the preceding 20 minutes smoking a cigarette and looking in the general vicinity of our camp.  He opens a fresh pack of Turkish coffee, lights the stove, and pours the boiling liquid into two small ceramic mugs.  He offers each of us a slim cigarette, turns on the TV and selects an English-language music station.  He quietly retreats to keep watch behind the counter.  Again, he will not accept money for the coffee.  Instead, we buy a few packaged croissant at his store.   

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The road ends a quarter-mile after the store.  Only three or four houses line the road beyond our camp.  As we’ve been warned, the route to Turaj is not passable.  I ask for clarification that in fact it is not passible with a truck.  

“With a horse?”  Yes.  “On foot?”  Yes.  “Might it be possible to walk my bicicleta?”  Most likely.

At first, the path is steep and muddy, rutted by horses and cows.  Then, it is rocky, like a narrow old wagon trail.  It becomes more level and smooth, rounding the hillside like an engineered rail trail.  Finally, it diverges into several narrower tracks, footpaths and cattle trails.  We select our path via the GPS, which actually indicates a trail up the mountain.  

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At the top, we encounter a series of small dirt roads, broad grassy meadows, and a cemetery.  We navigate a network of dirt tracks upward.  Passing through the community of Kodra, I stop for some water at a house.  

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In moments, a young girl is fetching a watering can to fill our bottles.  The older woman, weathered but no more than 40 years old, takes Lael by the hand and seats both of us inside.  She suggests, offers, insists that we will have some coffee as she lights the stove.  The wood stove in the center of the room is warm, and a large pan of milk sits atop it.

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I admire the space and the hand-carved wood panels which make the walls and the cupboards.  The building has settled over the years, the ceiling is sagging.  The floors are dirt, there is a television in the corner.  We poke and prod at the silver cylinder on the floor.  It is powered and purring.  A laundry machine?  A sanitizer for canning?  Eventually the woman opens the machine to stir it and reveals a quantity of milk, on its way to becoming yogurt.  The table is populated with bread and butter, yogurt, cheese, and one spicy yellow pepper.  Two glasses of milk arrive, and two coffees.  And then we eat, and everyone watches.  The neighbor children arrive to watch, as does an older woman who smiles a lot and makes conversation with us in Albanian.

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Everywhere in the Balkans, Turkish style coffee is prepared on a small high-heat burner.  The recipe seems to call for sugar and coffee and water in equal proportion.  Only the size of an espresso shot, it should take some time to consume, often up to an hour or more.  

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The road trends upward with the gentle curve of the hills.  Ridable rural dirt provides us with some of our happiest moments on the bike.  We’re part time mountain bikers, and cities are becoming more appealing to me while on tour, but this is the kind of riding we love.  We can talk and think, and for only a few minutes at a time serious attention must be paid to the ride.  

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Juniper berries, ripe and ready to become raki.

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An assortment of dirt roads and cattle trails take us to our pass.  We have several options down the mountain.  With several hours and warm weather, we shoot for a longer route to another road further south.  This should bring us another 1000ft higher.

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A large concrete structure stands atop one of these mountains, most likely an old military facility.  The three-way border of Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia is nearby.  In recent history, this was simply the border between Albania and Yugoslavia.

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The last ride (or push) is up a steep 4×4 track to 6900ft.  This will be our highest point in the Balkans, and in Europe.  

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At the top we break for some olives and almonds and admire our good fortune.  An array of concrete bunkers loom at grass height.

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There are thirteen on the distant hill, the most I’ve seen in one place.

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Just as soon as we begin down the mountain, a shepherd stops us to “chat”.  We sit quietly in the grass for a few minutes.  I indicate that we are from Alashka, Amerika. I point towards Greqia.  He understands.  We roll on.

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The GPS indicates a track of some sort.  There is a feeling to the grassy hillside that makes me think we are following something, but the complex of cattle trails is deceiving.  Nonetheless, we can see where we are going.  Much of the steep meadowy hillside is rideable in a switchback pattern, although a bit technical.

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Two cattle trails do not make a doubletrack, but my eyes hoped that this would be a “road” down the mountain.

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Instead, we continue overland down to Cajë.

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And down the valley back towards the pavement.

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Immediately, the paved road climbs toward a pass.  We stop in Bustricë for a beer, and let the light fade without a plan or a place to camp.  In time, the men at the next table warm up to our presence and ask where we are from.  They buy us another round of beers.  They send a plate of feta and olives to our table.  After I quickly eat everything on the plate –Lael gets none of it– they ask if we’d like another.  They invite us to their table, buy another round of Skopsko pints, and we talk.  We learn that the bar owner has provided the beers, while his brother bought the olive and cheese plates for us.  His son is serving us, and speaks excellent English.  His other son, we met by the roadside as we entered town.  

I eventually ask for a place to camp nearby, something simple.  They show me a place in the field across the street.  Perfect.  But within minutes, they’ve reconsidered.  You will come to our home.  

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We walk up the hill to the house.  It is nice and modern, simply furnished and open.  The door is wide open, covered in a thin fabric like a veil to maintain the flow of fresh air into the house.  We remove our shoes on the porch.  The man’s wife and his mother greet us.  We all sit down, drinks are procured and seats arranged around a small table taken from the corner.  The room is large with a kitchen along the far wall, and couches along two walls.  No permanent dining table is present.

It isn’t long before the likelihood of an oncoming feast is impossible to ignore.  Plates and piles of food are growing on the counter.  The oven light is on.  The men in the room, and Lael, are drinking and smoking and talking.  The women are cooking but when they come to the table to socialize, they borrow a beer or a glass of raki to join us in a toast, “Ge zuwar!”  They don’t drink.  We are instant friends. 

Dinner arrives, piece by piece, beginning as a hearty meal and growing to a modest feast, and then, an epic feast.  At one point, Lael is filled to the brim.  She sips a glass of water and pokes at some cucumbers and tomatoes.  Someone reaches across the table to pile more meat and potatoes on top of her heap of food.  That’s the Albanian way.  Despite what you’ve heard, hospitality is the only hazard in this country.

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Official photos are taken, and as has become habit, Facebook contacts exchanged.  The two boys, who have just come home from working at the bar are told to sleep on the couch.  We are told to sleep in their room.  The man’s mother– the grandmother– gives Lael a pair of knit slippers.  

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Lael’s had a big day, on the bike, and off it.

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The following morning we make one last stop at the bar-cafe.  Another round of drinks–coffees this time– for which payment is refused.  I leave a tip in excess of the price of the coffees.  The money is declined.  I insist, it is a tip for their son Kevin, who uses this English variant of his Albanian name in our presence.  He is only 18, but is living in Tirana to study English.  I insist, this is how we make our money as well.  Lael and I are assured in this gesture, thinking about the money she makes as a server or bartender in Alaska or elsewhere in the US.

We continue south towards Peshkopi, near the border of Macedonia.  The plan is to stop in town, briefly, and ride across the border. 

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We stop for coffees along the way, equally interested in the stone structure as in the group of men outside the rustic shop.  Each is a good excuse to enjoy the other.  The shop owner sends us with a bag of acorns.

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We break for lunch at a large communist-era monument on a hill between villages.  We cook the remaining sausages in my framebag, cut vegetables and cheese, and make a palatable expression of a bunch of two-day old food and plastic grocery bags.

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It is not long before the sound of young boys enter our space.  We hear them, and soon, we see them.  Nine boys are standing within feet as we consider eating lunch, trying to eat lunch.  They don’t say anything–  we speak to each other knowing they can’t understand, laughing at our situation.  Even between villages at the top of the hill out of site of any homes, they’ve found us.  Most of the time, young boys and dogs are best at sensing or expecting our presence.  Young boys are often the most talkative.  But not these boys, not yet.

“Hello, where are you from?”, one boy asks, without the capacity to make further conversation.  But we point and shoot and learn a few Albanian words as they share their English vocabulary with us.  Lael assumes the role of English teacher, which she declares is much more productive in Albania than it was in France where she worked for seven months.  Soon, they are asking for pictures to be taken in front of the monument.  They become boisterous, fighting and laughing with one another.  Some boys are older, and some younger; some are extremely talkative and organize the group, while one boy does not talk at all.

The energy in the group grows to a high.  I pull the bag of acorns from my bag to offer a snack.  They plainly refuse, an official policy I suspect.  Instead, I ask them to show me how to shell the nuts.  Then, I ask for their help to shell them all.  Soon, nine boys are (almost) quietly shelling my acorns, although most of them will not eat the nuts.  A few boys eat some.  By now we are friends, and Lael and I have lost interest in our lunch.  We cut our sausages into pieces and offer them to the boys.  Now that we’re friends, they accept, reaching and grabbing past each other.  Lael signals to quiet down and to only take one piece at a time, generally polite practices.  Instead, they take one sausage and hide it behind their backs, reaching with the other hand.  The same happens with our raisins, and almonds.  Preparing to leave, I pull out my stack of photos.  These are test prints and rejects from The Art of Bikepacking show I presented in Anchorage this summer.  Nine of those photos are now in a small town in Albania.  Nine Albanian boys have photos of Lael pushing her bike somewhere in Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland…

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Near Peshkopi, a young man pulls over to the side of the road to talk.  “German, English… French?”, he asks hopefully.  He speaks nearly perfect French, the result of having lived and worked in Paris for three years.  He is only 19 years old, at home for some time to visit his family and rest his ankle after an injury.  He and Lael hold an energetic conversation.  He verifies the Albanian principles of hospitality that we have recently experienced, and suggests that he will return to the city in an hour to meet us and show us around.  Tentatively, we agree.

After shopping for supplies (mostly burek and apples), we look about the city for some internet and a coffee.  We take our time, and have one last look near the plaza to see if Bajram, or Brian as he is called in France, has arrived.

We find him and are invited to sit with him and his friends for (more) burek.  We talk, several hours pass.  Again, it is dark.  There is some discussion about “hearing some music” at the discotheque across the street.  After some time, we descend a staircase to a club under the Grand Plaza Hotel of Peshkopi.  Music is at full volume, and nobody is in the nicely-appointed room.  Mirrors and curvilinear seating and small tables line the wall around a central dance floor.  The bartender, also the DJ, gladly invites us.  We are a group of four young men and one girl who hasn’t showered in weeks, wearing muddy Sidis.  We’d inquired about the club scene earlier in the evening.  It seems it is hard to meet girls in this city– a small city in the generally Muslim country– much unlike Tirana, or Paris.  Here, girls don’t go to clubs and if they did, people would talk.  

We have a nice time, Lael and I incited a brief dance party with our friends, and we listen to some really loud music.  Bajram leads us in a traditional Albanian wedding dance to the heavy beats of of a traditional tune over a modern track.  

All the reasons to go on a bike trip cannot be known from your current vantage.

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We pile out of the club with the authentic energy of a whole night in some big city discotheque, as if it were 5AM.  The streets of Peshkopi, just past 11PM, are vacant.  The plaza is quiet.

We arrive at Bajram’s house near midnight.  His mother is awake and waiting for us.  We sit on the couch.  A table appears along with a feast of cheese and yogurt, vegetables, and fasole, a traditional bean soup.  Bajram opens a bottle of wine, although we can barley keep our eyes open.  He and his mother quietly enjoy our company while we eat.  We ask to sleep and are given a spare room in their spacious home.

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Early the next morning, under foggy skies, we make a break for the border of Macedonia.  Thanks, Albania, it’s been great.

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Return to Albania: Valbonë, Fierzë, Kukës

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It’s always sunny in Albania.  The grass is more brown on the Albanian side, which we like.  Crossing the border from Montenegro, back into Montenegro, and then crossing the border from Kosovo back into Albania indicates this fact for the third time.  The mountainous areas of Montenegro and Kosovo claim the highest rainfall totals in Europe, and while the mountains of Albania may also capture their share of moisture, they’re just a bit less green.  Most of the rainfall that falls in Albania, stays in Albania, meaning most of the mountainous border also acts as a drainage divide.  

Our return to Albania is pointed, to visit the valley of Valbonë in the far north.  The region is home to a national park, and much like the valley of Tamarë, Selca, and Vermosh, it promises stunning scenery.  The dead-end road leads from the city of Bajram Curri to Valbonë.  At the end of the valley it is possible to hike to Theth, in the next valley.  And as we learned in Plav, Montenegro, it is possible to ride from Plav to Valbonë via Cerem, official border concerns aside.  We took the long way around.  

Our time in Valbona includes a rest day.  We continue back the way we came and make a route to the south on extremely quiet paved roads, past the town of Fierzë, home to a large hydroelectric dam.  The road along the upland hillsides of the resultant lake is all but abandoned, but was once a main thoroughfare in the country.  The new highway from Albania to Pristina, Kosovo, a project with a price tag well over a billion dollars, will bring great change to the area.  While highways threaten to erase local cultures by rapidly transporting people, goods, and ideas, we’ve also found the opposite.  A major highway project through such a mountainous country reshapes the land to enable swift transport– including several major tunnels– but it ignores local people and towns along the way.  Our route from Fierzë is abandoned, much like historic US Route 66 or US Route 2, the “Hi-Line”.

Lael and I descend the last 5km to Kukës on the new A1/SH5 highway.  In cool morning air, rolling drown fresh asphalt, we take an entire lane to consider what changes this road will bring.  For now, not much.  The road is empty.  Four lanes diminish to two narrow lanes across a crumbling bridge near the city.  A small placard advertises Hotel Amerika.  Car washes, proudly advertised with spray paint as LAVAZH, are everywhere.  Local Mercedes sedans, not international commerce and tourism, take some space on the roadway.  Despite big plans for the future, this is still a quiet country.

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 From Peja, Kosovo, we arrive in Bajram Curri within the day.  Unusually, a low pass connects the two regions.

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From town, we are off into the mountains again.  This time, along river grade exclusively.

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Lael puts the cart before the horse and passes her bike to this kid.  We’re well aware of the pattern of sheepish questioning, and finally, can I “giro” your “bicicleta”?

Instead, “hey, you wanna ride my bike?”

She’s got a great post about our favorite young Albanians.    

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In fact, the goats respond well to the bike and hurry forward.

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To small to reach the pedals, this guy gets an assisted ride.  Too small to reach the pedals, but not too small to grab the brakes abruptly.

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The shadowy canyon makes for a nice place to ride near the end of the day.

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Nearing the village of Valbonë, we begin to see handmade signs detailing the local hiking routes.  These guides and some on-trail signage are part of the sustainable tourism efforts of Alfred and Catherine, a local couple helping to shape the region’s future.  They operate the invaluable and informative website Journey to Valbona, and several guesthouses in the valley.  We camped adjacent to the Rilindja guesthouse, on the banks of an icy cold stream.  

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Curiously, the road is unpaved from the entrance of the valley to the turnoff towards Cerem, where it is paved the remaining distance to Valbonë.

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A (nearly) dead end road in the mountains is reason enough to take a day off the bike.  

Lael can’t handle it and rides the distance back to town for some treats, just for fun.  She leaves an hour and a half before dark, and arrives back at camp an hour after dark.  She’s still got the Fireweed in her system– thinking about something big next summer.  

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In the morning, we coast downstream back to Bajram Curri.

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Can’t pass up this opportunity.

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We fuel up on burek in town, pack away some supplies and hit the road towards Fierzë and Kukës.  This region is dominated by a dammed lake and few north-south roads.  The roads on either side of the lake are both paved, as we understand.  

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At the dam, we encounter two Polish cyclists.  We first met them on the descent to Tamarë over a week ago.  Przemek provides official diplomacy to the Polish, and offers them a beer and conversation.  We all roll out in the same direction.

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The road climbs above the dam, rounding the hillsides.  

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What a road!  While we’re in near-constant search of dirt, Lael never lets me forget that the Balkans would be a perfect destination for a fast and fun paved road tour.  She says “Ruby“, while I say “Warbird“, just in case.  We’re thinking about some road touring at some point.  Mountains roads in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania are nicely paved and narrow.  Traffic is minimal to nonexistent.  On the road from Fierze to Kukes, a paved distance of about 100 miles, we may have seen less than two or three dozen vehicles.

Villages in Albania are always located on the hillsides.  Houses are built far apart, with land in between used for growing and grazing.  Villages predate the paved roads, so there are no stores along the way.  It is sometimes possible to find basic foods at the bar-cafe which are common in villages, but you’d have to climb or descend several hundred meters to see if such a place even exists.  

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These two– brother and sister I’d guess– come running up the road at us.  They may have been trying to sell me the flowers, but I can’t be sure.  I turned the conversation around and asked where they live, where they go to school, their names.  Some snotty nosed kids ask for dollars or euros; other entrepreneurial types work for it, like these two.  I don’t need any flowers, at least not at the moment.  

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The distribution of land is fascinating, whether from the vantage of a tall hill, airplane, or routefinding on Google Maps.  It says a lot about a place.  Elsewhere, people live very close together.  In Albania, they tend to need and prefer space.

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Nothing other that two small brown bears in a cage at the only restaurant along this road.

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And fish farms, in the mountains.

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Names of cities, of course.

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We finally descend away from the lake to a town with a proper store.  Actually, we’d assumed that with all the towns listed on the map, we would find someplace to buy some bread.  No problem, but we rolled into town on empty.  Surprising how these things change across borders.

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We meet this young boy in town, riding a too-small 20″ wheel bike.  Naturally, he wants to ride my bike.  He pedals it up the hill, and walks it down.  He does this two, three more times.  He indicates that he is scared to descend, for fear of not being able to dismount.  I encourage him to try, and he uses an uphill driveway as an exit ramp, gleefully, over and over.

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While waiting for him to complete his joy ride, we watch his mother, sister, and father harvesting walnuts.  The father whacks them out of the tree with a long stick.  Everyone else helps to collect them, removing them from the green fruit, although still in the shell that we expect to see around the edible part of the nut.  We cross the road and begin to bag walnuts by the dozen.  The family laughs, and assures us that we don’t have to help.  We continue bagging nuts by the dozens.  

By the roadside, they bring us glasses of refrigerated homemade yogurt to drink, and begin a collection of walnuts, grapes, and pears for us to take with us.  As we’re waiting for Przemek and Saŝka, we spend most of an afternoon under their walnut trees.

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A man arrives in a car from town, bearing several fried fish wrapped in newspaper.  This is the man who served us beer at the bar-cafe in town, who we learn is the uncle of the boy riding my bike.  He shares his fish with us.  

While talking in the shade later that afternoon, the girl unhooks the silver bracelet from around her wrist and laces it to Lael’s.  Lael tries to refuse, politely.  Albanians are amazing.   

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The rest of our group arrives near sunset, and we roll out of town, saying goodbye to our friends.  

Fill waters by the roadside, and climb to the pass.

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A young man is walking over the pass as we set up camp.  He uses his machete to cut any and all tall grasses and plants within twenty feet, without a word.  He continues down the road and hitches a ride with the next passing vehicle.

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The next morning, we awake to another memorable road ride towards Kukës.  Przemek and Saŝka will be leaving us to catch the ferry from Durres back to Trieste, Italy.  From there, they are only two days from home by bike.

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The final ride into Kukës leaves us the choice of the old road, winding along the hillside, or the straight shot down the new highway.  Look left, look right, and descend.  The road is nearly empty.

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In town, we’re bombarded with Balkan fast foods, supermarkets, bakeries, and gas stations, a great difference from the road along the lake.  

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Our group of six fragments into twos, each choosing their own direction.  I never miss Przemek until he’s gone.  And then, I try to fill his void by recreating his sense of humor, an impossible task.  This year, we’ll be missing Saŝka as well.  There is something about spending time with others on the road– like the time spend with siblings– which makes you miss them only when they are gone.  But in a moment, if Przemek and I were reunited, we’d immediately be discussing tire sizes and dynamo hubs, arguing about which campsite is best, and making fun of the Polish.

Hey guys, where to next year?  They’re thinking about a trip through the Americas.  Hope to see you on our side of the Atlantic! 

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Lael and I load up on supplies and are lured straightaway into the mountains.  My GPS shows some red lines which almost connect up near 7000ft.

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One night in Peja, Kosovo

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The cluster of solid purple lines on my gas-station road map of Montenegro only partly reflects the borders in the Balkans, specifically between Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo.  If you imagine 6000ft passes and 7000ft peaks comprising the actual borders, a clearer picture emerges.  As such, to connect two towns less than twenty miles apart, we have to ride well over 100 miles.  As mentioned previously, this allows us to revisit Montenegro and to explore the Top Biking Trail 3, a 300km off-pavment route; and, to make a brief visit to Kosovo.  Our ride through Kosovo is made exclusively on pavement, and mostly in the rain.  The 4000ft descent to Peja is particularly wet, in shorts and sloshy shoes, topped with white knuckles. 

Between the border stations of Montenegro and Kosovo, we encounter a Greek rider on a recumbent bicycle under cover of an abandoned roadside building.  It’s raining and windy, so to make it brief I ask, “Where are you from and where are you going?”

Hercules, from Greece, riding back to Greece, from Greece.

Nicholas, from Alaska, sort of.  Headed towards Greece.  Maybe we’ll see ya.

Lael and I arrive in Peja to clearing skies and puddles.  Outside a cafe we scan the streets for clues towards the part of town with a cheap place to stay.  

“Hello, where are you from?”  

This has become the standard greeting in Albania, and again in Albanian Kosovo.  The cafe owner speaks American English, comfortably.

After a look around the city to discover a raging river, a bustling budget shopping district, and innumerable cafes, we return to ask for assistance.  

“Is there an inexpensive hotel in the city?”

The man thinks, and ask his friends.  I know they are indicating something near the center.  He verifies, and suggests that he can ride with me to check it out.  We inquire, and the price is quite high.  He is astonished as well.  He’s never asked the price of a hotel locally.  I search online to get a better sense of things.  He then suggests a place near the train station, and insists we will drive there.  I hate to lose control of a situation like this, but he is genuinely kind and I think we understand each other.  The place he was thinking has closed, and is being renovated under new ownership.  We stop into another hotel on the opposite corner.  Hotel Jusaj is adorned on the lower levels with Jusaj Metal, Jusaj Paint, Jusaj Electrical, each taking a small shop space at street level.  They offer several rooms for 10€ a head.  Ok, maybe we’ll be back in a minute.

Back in the car, he shows me pictures of his son on his phone, who will turn one year old today.  I lead,  “Business appears to be good in Peja?”   People don’t have any money, he says.  This is much the same as we hear everywhere.  But the streets are busy, cafes are doing business, shops are full of stuff, including name brand Adidas goods and the usual Chinese two-stripe and four-stripe brands.  I figure that some business is better than no business, but people want things, and certainly some people need things.  Even in America we want things.  Is there any place where people stop reaching for more money.  Switzerland, Luxembourg, Norway, Qatar?  “Kosovo is doing better?”, I insist, still leading, as if my positivity will make a difference to Kosovo.  He shrugs, in loose agreement.

We return to the cafe.  Przemek, Saŝka, and Hercules have all arrived.  We all trace the same route into the city, and their eyes quickly spot our soaking pile of touring bikes.  The man offers us coffee, gratis.  He insists.  We confer about the accommodations, and agree that the price is right.  I describe the place: it is near the train station, the first level is taken by shops selling construction supplies but we can store our bikes inside the paint store for the night.  The guy that is working at the hotel is very nice, although we don’t speak much.  Exiting the cafe, I leave a tip equal to the price of the coffees.

At the hotel, a fourteen year old boy named Leotrim becomes our enthusiastic interpreter.  The older men ask the questions as we unpack our things outside the paint store; he translates the conversation.  The older men welcome us to their hotel, to be “like at home”.  Leotrim becomes inquisitive himself, wondering where we sleep and where we will travel in Kosovo.  He is proud to own these fine businesses, including the hotel and the stores on the street.  He says that he also owns three cars, one of which is a Mercedes.  It is his father’s business and his father’s cars, I verify, but they are his as well.  I tell him I do not own a car, and never have.  I like his energy.    

As others shower I run out for five cold cans of Peja.  We all meet to debrief in our room, which we are sharing with Hercules.  Post-shower bliss and the unusual opportunity to enjoy a city at night excites us.  Saturday night in Kosovo!  The five of us pile onto the sidewalk like college students on a Friday night, hopeful and energetic.  In fact, Peja is much like any other city we’ve seen.  But it is friendly, and especially friendly towards us, the Americans.  Mostly, we’re excited to be here and find out “what is Kosovo?”  I didn’t know before, and I’m learning.  These things are complicated.  It is much like Albania.  The population is mostly Albanian, and Albanian flags are as common as the flag of the Republic.  Serbia is out of fashion here, to say the least, while America is everywhere.  A large monitor celebrates Rep. Eliot Engel, a congressman from New York.  He has been an ally to Alabanians and an advocate for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.  Officially, Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation.  Neither does Russia or China, while 108 member states of the UN do.  Albania is something of a brother or mother to Kosovo.  But Kosovo is an individual entity, and something to be proud of.

We enjoy busy streets and a dinner of qebap ; sodium lighting, all-night vegetable markets, butcher shops, and streets named for Bil Klinton and General Wesley Clark.

As we ride towards the border of Albania the next day, I stop along a rural road to meet a man.  He is looking at me with the burning urge to know what the hell I am doing.  I’m not sure what he’s saying, but I’ll guess.  I point at myself, “Amerikan”.  He shakes my hand strongly.  He’s an older man, and a simple man.  “George Bush (thumbs up).  Bil Klinton (thumbs up).  Kosovo, Amerika (thumbs up). ” This is fun, if a little naive.

I proceed, “Albania (thumbs up)”.  He pauses, and waves his hand flatly to indicate maybe, sort of, not quite.  “Albania, Albania…mafioso”.  We’re standing next to a drive with a tall metal gate, adorned with two hand painted Albanian flags.  I furrow my brow and nod in an understanding way.  I really like Albania.  These things are complicated. 

Montenegro, with Albania to the south and Kosovo to the east.

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A period of heavy rain spoils our pavement days, which is better than muddy dirt days.

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Up to the border, we duck under cover to escape a deluge.  I warm the two liters of milk given to us on the planina.

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Peja, Kosovo.

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The following morning, Hercules pedals towards Macedonia.  We depart later that morning to return to Albania, towards the valley of Valbona.  

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Most signs in the region display Albanian and Serbian place names.  Most signs in the region are vandalized, to conceal the Serbian variant.  

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Up to the border, we wear our rain jackets.  Across the border, as I say, it is always sunny in Albania.  Back to the mountains.

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Eastern Enchantment on the Top Biking Trail 3, Montenegro

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Riding across Montenegro to meet in Podgorica, we first encounter signs for a multi-day off-pavement route outside Mojkovac, one of the larger towns on this 300km loop route.  The Top Biking Trail 3 is billed as a route of “Eastern Enchantment”, and is offered to riders through an official guide, limited trail signage, and a free GPS download of the route.  After meeting Przemek and Saŝka in Podgorica, we loop around Shkodër Lake and into a spectacular valley amongst the Albanian Alps along the northern border of the country, through Tamare, Selca, and Vermosh.  Our goal, thereafter, is to spend more time in Albania.  To do so, we have the option to turn back the way we have come, ride into Montenegro and make an unofficial (illegal?) crossing over an unmanned mountain pass back into Albania, or ride through Montenegro and Kosovo to reach the next official crossing into Albania.  Some friends of the blog had suggested visiting the valley of Valbona.  While only a short flight for a bird from Tamare to Valbona, a cyclable route will be much longer, necessarily.  No matter, as we reason that this way we get the chance to check out the Top Trail 3 in Montenegro and make a quick visit to Kosovo on our way back to Albania.

The Top Biking Trail 3 is a government project, in a series of other cycling and hiking routes across the mountainous country.  The official brochure is available in local touristic offices for 2€; surely, I can verify that it is available in Plav, which is home to a tourist information office and a national park office, which are both stocked with maps.  The region also boasts an international hiking trail called the Peaks of the Balkans, connecting the high mountains along the borders of Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania.  The full guidebook for the Top Biking Trail 3 is also available online for free, as is the GPS track.  

Our overnight ride from Plav to Rožaje covered only a section of the route.  From this experience, a GPS device is recommended.  The maps in the guidebook are reasonably detailed, although the route notes are purely literary and do little to aid in navigation.  In fact, I was missing some of the GPS track information and was forced to navigate via the guidebook entirely.  Not that there is much risk of not making it back to a paved road, but at one point I was running laps around an alpine meadow to decipher which faint singledoubletrack was our route, or at least the correct drainage towards town.

The route is comprised mostly of dirt roads which can be traveled with a common high-clearance vehicle or small truck, or in the case of the Montenegrans, like the Romanians, Serbians, and Ukrainians, a small 2WD Yugo, Zastava, Dacia, Lada, or Fiat.  Larger sections of quiet paved roads connect highland sections.  In two places on our ride, short hikes over steeper grassy ridges are required to connect otherwise unconnected roads.  As such, some locals will swear that you can’t reach the city of Rožaje by bike.  A proper mountain bike or dirt touring set-up is recommended, and as for the steep climbs, it is recommended to pack light, as always.

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Leaving the predominantly Albanian city of Plav, Lael and I decide to climb the first major ridge at dusk, as Przemek and Saŝka hang back for the night.  No surprise that within minutes of looking for a campsite they find a host for the night.  They leave in the morning with more food than when they arrived–this is the spirit of these mountains.  The mountain people along the borderlands of Albania and Montenegro, an historical region known as Malësia, are famously hospitable.  Anymore, it seems we can’t ride off-pavement segments without invitations for coffee every time we meet someone near their home.  The coffee is brewing, and then comes the offer of homemade rakija.  “Oh, and you’ll have a little cheese and bread won’t you”, as fresh yogurt and butter also populate the table, alongside the possibility of sausage or salo, homemade juice, and the offer of some tobacco.  And four hours later, stuffed and smiling and a little stupid, there are hugs and handshakes and photos and Facebook names to share; smiling faces in the sun, spinning legs in cycles they know so well, and the knowledge that riding bikes over mountains simply to hear the sound of dirt is not enough.  Riding over mountains is not the reason but the invitation, to drink with shepherds in the morning, to eat foods unavailable in local markets, and to play with children and share the language of laughter.  These are not one experience, but many.  I will come back to this region.

From the border of Albania near Vermosh, you connect with the route at Gusinje and ride to Plav on quiet pavement.  

If is possible to cross the borders here unofficially if you plan to return to the same country (as no one will know, and seemingly from all accounts, no one will care).  If you plan to exit the country at some point, it seems best to make official border crossings to keep the passport in order.  You don’t want the Republic of Kosovo or Albania questioning your route into the country, although the borders seem open and friendly.  Technically, there is a rideable dirt route over 6000+ft mountains from Plav to Valbona, through Cerem, over a pass that Wikipedia claims will someday house an official border crossing.  The local tourist office says it can arrange a permit to make the crossing official, which should provide documentation of your exit and entry.  The cost is 10€ and can be processed within 24hours, although it is possible to apply for the permit without local assistance which may take up to 5 days.  The route through Cerem utilizes part of an alpine loop section of the Top Trail 3 route.  The descent into the valley of Valbona would be spectacular.  

Leaving Plav.  Mosques replace churches in most ethnically Albanian communities. 

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The last sign we will see for the next 56km.  No problem, but we were led to believe the route was signed by the official postings.  The bikepacker symbol would make a great tattoo, I think.

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The end of the summer, same as it looks in Alaska and Poland and many other great places.

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Leaving civilization behind by way of a 2000ft climb, we rise above the trees to a world dominated by alpine meadows called planina, active in summer months for grazing.

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Near the very top of the ridge, expecting rain for the night, I stake the tent tightly.

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By morning the rain has subsided and the color of the sky is promising.  We don’t hate rain, but we prefer when it occurs during the night, only.

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Clearing skies lead us up to 6300ft, our highest ride in the Balkans so far.  In fact, this is our highest ride in Europe.  It is no feat, but to us it is notable.  We’ve traveled over seven months in Europe over the last two summers from Amsterdam to Ukraine, and south to Montenegro and Albania, on dirt as much as possible.

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We remain at elevation on the appropriately named Planina Mokra, or the wet meadow.  We’re a stone’s throw from the Kosovo border, but a long way from town it seems.  Most of the shepherds have vacated the katun for the season.

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Al the third meadow– the third small seasonal alpine community– smoke escapes a chimney.  A dog barks, dutifully.  Soon, a man exits his cabin.  We stop to admire his property, as curious in him, as he in us.

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And then, like a magic trick of hospitality we’re seated on the porch drinking homemade blueberry juice, composed of a sweet syrup concentrate and fresh spring water.  He shuffles us inside.  “Hladno“, he insists, shivering himself to verify that we understand.  Back in Montenegro, the Slavic tongue serves some function again.

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Inside, his wife shyly smiles and arranges some pillows on the beds, which also serve as seating for the table, which has been rotated longways to maximize seating space.  The oven is hot, bread is rising, and a large shallow pot of milk is warming to separate the buttercream from the stuff that soon fills our glass.  

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Within the hour, or two rounds of rakija as I remember it, the bread is in the oven.  Mushrooms are fried on the flattop with butter and salt.  We’re dining on a bounty of local treats, each slyly and kindly supplied without possibility of refusal.

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Hot milk is poured into cooling pans to separate.  The butter will congeal on top, and will be saved in an outdoor shed for the winter.  

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Kids love selfies, and touch-screen shutter actuation, and previewing images on the camera– the value of digital photography.

Vasiliy the enthusiastic younger brother leads us back into the sun.

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He takes me on a typical backwards tour of all the things his dad doesn’t care to show– nothing personal or incriminating– just boring, by adult standards.  Good thing he and I don’t live by adult standards.  I think a muddy corner of the garden is fascinating.

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His sister sets about harvesting potatoes.

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He joins, joyously.  

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His father Yugoslav shows us the pigs and the piglets, the onions and leeks, the chickens, and the three cows.  I’m not sure exactly how they’ve come to this life, exactly.  Surely, it comes from their ancestors, but they are extremely happy about it, and seemingly, they’ve chosen it.  The kids go to school, and Yugoslav grew up in the nearby city of Berane.  He and his wife are educated, presumably through secondary school.  We are happy to see people having fun up high.

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Two neighbor men have arrived to eat with us, although mostly we all laugh and marvel at the concept of Alaska.  I do my best to make conversation with the men.  We laugh and tickle and take pictures with the kids.  Eventually, I divulge that we’ve ridden from Vienna through Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia…

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Home made: butter, tomato chutney, eggs, milk, rakija, blubbery juice, and homemade bread.  Salt, flour, coffee, sugar, and the bologna-type sausage come from town.

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As we prepare to leave they offer some of everything on the table.  We decline, as we are actually loaded for two full days of riding.  We all compromise with a two-liter fill of milk in the Klean Kanteen.  

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Dressing ourselves for departure, Yugoslav takes my hat and snugly fits it to his head.  He barely has to ask, but he suggests “I can have it?”  Sure.  Of course.  Definitley.  

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The hat was a gift from a new friend that I met while living in Albuquerque (thanks again Collin!).  He’d be happy to know that it covers the eyes of a shepherd somewhere up high on a planina in Montenegro.  In such situations, I try to offer a few euro, which are quickly declined.  At the second offer, it is gratefully accepted.  It is fair, and one of the best touristic agreements that can be made.

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Smiling, stuffed and pedaling once again.

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Over the top, along a faint doubletrack which disappears on the ridge.

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Several options exist from the ridge.

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The route descends 2000ft on fantastic dirt roads, to climb another 2000ft back to elevation.  A quick turn along a walking route takes us over the second unridable ridge of the day.  

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From the top, without the GPS track information, I do some old-fashioned looking around.  The map is helpful, but the level of detail is inadequate .  No problem, the topographic information on the GPS helps me isolate which drainage to descend.  Eventually, we find the small jewel of a lake the guide describes.  It elaborates about the small lake, which “sheds a tear for each traveler that leaves it”.  It is a muddy pond, I swear.

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At last, we begin the descent down to Rožaje.  We will camp near town for the night to meet Przemek and Saŝka in the morning.

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Off to Kosovo, in the rain!

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Albania! Albania! Albania!

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Come quick.  It’s the best.  There are mountains all over, and small villages, and dirt roads.  Alternatively, there are bustling big cities and smooth paved roads in the mountains, nearly vacant, save for a shepherd and a man on a horse and a classic Mercedes every fifteen minutes.

Albanians will greet you, unabashedly, with a friendly “hello, where are you from?”  

Albanians will invite you to their homes.  They will kick their children out of their beds for you.  They will feed you like kings and queens.  And if you are American– lucky us!– they’ll buy you another beer at the cafe.  Or the bag full of figs at the market is free.  A big friendly thumbs up to Americans.  

All the boys over a certain age ask to “giro” my “bicycleta”.  The first few times I just smiled and nodded, not sure exactly what they were saying.  They’d throw a leg over, smiling, and ride away.  Now I know.

Albanians love Americans, for more than a few reasons, but mostly and most recently for the US support of Kosovo.  Aside, Albanians like fancy cars and money and new things, all of which is assumed to grow on trees in America.  Elsewhere, shepherds are shepherding, farmers are farming, and people are living.  The clash of late-series Mercedes sedans and sheep is a daily occurrence.  Grandmothers walk mountain roads with cows, a willow switch in one hand and a mobile phone in the other.   Don’t try to speak Serbian, or Croatian, or Ukrainian, Russian, Macedonian, Slovenian, or Polish or any other Slavic variant; it’s all Serbian to them and they don’t want anything to do with it.  The Albanian/Yugoslav border has been a region of great tension, marked by thousands of one-man concrete bunkers.  These are things we notice with great curiosity. 

The riding is great.  The coffee is small.  Water is clear.  People are famously hospitable.  Albania is amazing.

We cross the border from the coastal lowlands of Montenegro, in a region with an Albanian majority.  Immediately, all roads lead to Shkodër.  We seek a map and a route, and some Albanian currency.

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Przemek is looking for a bottle cage to replace a broken cage.  Some bicycle related things can be found at motorbike shops, hardware stores, or the market.  

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We blast through town, and make quick work of the map, currency, and other affairs.  We’re out of town on an abandoned paved road to the north, toward Montenegro.  We have some intel from a Polish cyclist which suggests a mountain road along the northern border of Albania, eventually crossing into Montenegro near Gusinje and Plav.

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We turn off the main road on a lesser road toward Dedaj.  

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We stock up on goods.  We later learn that stores are uncommon in rural Albania.  Buke means bread, our first Albanian lesson.  Second lesson: raki, like rakija, means homemade liquor.

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We turn left towards Zagora, Bratosh, and Kastrat, over a small mountain pass to another road further north.  Turn left at the ominous monument with the noose.

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This route can easily be made from Podgorica in Montenegro, although the ride around the lake is worth the extra time.

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In our first mountain town, we discover several things.  Men without business sit around most of the day, drinking coffee and smoking tobacco.  Here, they play an excited game of dominoes.  We fill our waters and ride on.

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Into the evening, we climb away from the tentacles of the city.

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Onto rocky roads, we climb.  The road is lined with rock walls, and small trees with red fruits.  We learn that these fruits, called thana, are most often used to make raki.  

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In Bratosh, at the town center, we inquire about a place to camp.  The man who owns the store laughs, and says “anywhere”.  We opt for the churchyard.  

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Soon, a man appears asking if we wish to sleep indoors.  It will be cold he warns.  We assure him that we are from Alaska (and Poland and Slovenia), and we will likely survive the night.  Nonetheless, we tour the building.

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While Catholics are but a small majority in this country, Albanian Catholics are proud to call Mother Teresa their own.  She is Albanian, but was born in Skopje, which is now the capital of Macedonia.  Both countries were part of the Ottoman Empire at the time.  The pope makes his first visit to Albania this week, ever.

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As we are preparing dinner, a group of young men begin banging around inside the church.  They are making renovations to the choir loft.  Without a common language, we help by hauling timber out into the yard.  

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In the morning, the store across the street comes to life.  A group of men and the proprietress are hollering, about life or politics or coffee, I do not know.  Within the hour, the store is again closed.  The same thing happened last night for an hour or two.

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Away from Bratosh, I stop to watch a man cooking something outside of his house.  Naturally, he invites me to coffee.

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He’s making raki.

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Amazing the things people make when they cannot be bought.

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In fact, he beckons his daughter to prepare a warm cup of sheep’s milk for us, sweetened, of course.

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And for the man, a small glass of raki.  The drink is offered to me, but once they discover Lael is also interested, more glasses are summoned.  Two more glasses are brought once Saŝka and Przemek discover our bikes laying by the roadside.

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The man’s name is Konstantin, his daughter on the right, Konstantina.

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And his twins, Samuel and Samuela.  The concept of twins was curiously communicated with gestures.  Use your imagination.  

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We descend from Bratosh toward the main road.

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It seems the road has been paved.

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Fresh asphalt, aged less than ten years, is not uncommon in Albania.

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Przemek warns about a major climb coming up, as seen from his GPS.  But, it is a descent.  Back down to river level, at 500ft.

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Near the bottom of the descent, we encounter the paving crews.

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Graded dirt, en route to unimproved dirt.  Hurry up and ride this stuff, before it disappears.  

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Of course, we swim at the bottom.  Finally.  No more rain.  It is always sunny in Albania, I think.  

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We roll into the town of Tamare.  The town welcomes us with a small tourist office, a fresh plaza, and several stores.  A small army of German motorbikers indicate that we aren’t the first people to visit this place.  But, the tourists may change after the road is paved.  

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Extra high fives for wheelies.  Thumbs down for skidding.  Properly tuned disc brakes are a novelty, in comparison to aging coaster brakes, or unhooked v-brakes.  Albanian kids are fantastic.  Lael has a great gallery of our favorite young Albanians.

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The town has done a nice job to welcome tourists.  Some shops offer local goods, and a handsome map has been published to indicate all the hiking and biking routes, as well as other features such as caves, old mills, and folkloric attractions.

Liquor and wine.  A wide variety of berries are grown in the area, each at a unique elevation.  Blueberries grow up high, figs are found down low.

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Cheeses and mustached men.

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Out of town, past the post office.

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Now begins the kind of rides we seek.

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We camp for the night in a small grassy floodplain, before the final climb to Lepusha, and the descent to Vermosh.  Albanian wine is worth it.  We’ve had great wines from Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia.  Bulk or vacuum-packed olives are available is most shops.  Cheeses are exclusively of goat or sheep’s milk anymore.  

Oh, and the Adidas kicks help me blend in.  Paired with a pair of Adidas shorts (thanks Colin!), I call it my Serbian tuxedo.   

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I’ve spent six years under the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent.  I purchased my third tent this summer, while the other two remain back home as pieces and parts.  I’ve looked at other models, and tried one or two, but I always come back to this one.  It’s stormproof and drab green, and the pack size and weight is agreeable.  

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The few towns in this valley are provided signs by the Albanian government to promote tourism.  The signs indicate homes where food and lodging is available.  It enables the local flavor to flourish, rather than stamping it out with hotels and fancy restaurants.  Still, paved roads will change things.

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That’s Montenegro over there, over those mountains.  Around here. most of the borders are defined by mountains, which at once were essential barriers.

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Additional protection comes in the form of small concrete bunkers, which are present at major geographic and topographic locations, such as mountains passes or canyons.  This one currently resides in the front yard of a home.  Each bunker features two horizontal slots, one in the direction of attack, and the other as a sightline to another bunker for communication.  Up the way, a larger bunker would have radio communication to higher forces.

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Nearing the border of Montenegro (formerly, of Yugoslavia), we encounter an array of bunkers.  As they were meant, they are hard to spot at first.  And then, they are everywhere.  There were over 700.000 bunkers  

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Across the border, we’re off to Plav, Montenegro to connect with the Top Trail 3, billed as a route of “Eastern Enchantment”.

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The route includes some of the locally advertised routes near Gusinje and Plav.  The entire route is over 300km, mostly off-pavement, designed to be ridden with camping gear, although it also promises to be challenging.  I highly recommend reading the free PDF of the brochure, the writing is exceedingly romantic.  

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Around Shkodër Lake, Montenegro

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Meet in Podgorica on Friday, 8AM.  Actually, now it is Saturday at 8AM, or 9, or something.  Looks like three trains are coming from Belgrade in the morning, not sure.  We arrive in the city the night before and seek inexpensive accommodations.  Walking around a city at night is contrary to our usual touring pulse.  Montenegro, and I think Albania, are contrary to the pulse of Europe.  More Turkish flavors are found here.  

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At the station in the morning, we wait at the cafe.  Hot burek, and cold beer are on the menu.  Here, coffee is a sacred thing.  We have a habit of gulping it down.  The locals sit for hours.  Espresso machines are common, although turkish coffee is always an option, for half the price.  It’s turkish cowboy coffee.

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Przemek and Saŝka arrive on a 24hour train from Slovenia via Belgrade.  It’s a long ride, made tolerable by a sleeper cabin.  In these parts, smoking is unofficially permitted everywhere, in sleeper cars and cafes.

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We ride into the city to finalize bicycle assembly, and organize our packs.  Crossing paths with a wedding party on a photo shoot by the river, they borrow our bicycles for some fun.  I wonder how their wedding photos with the 29er Surly Pugsley will look to their relatives.  Bikepacking honeymoon in Montenegro?

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A quick trip around the city to fill up on food and water and we are off, still not sure where.

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Looking east, the high mountains call.  But rain clouds repel.  Instead, we ride west into the lower mountains around Shkodër Lake, a small fold of earth between saltwater and freshwater.

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Serene paved roads abound.  We are discovering that the Balkans are really ripe for some high-powered road touring.  Lael wishes for the carbon road bike she rode all spring.  Not that there aren’t off-pavement routes to discover, but Serbia and Montenegro are mountainous, and generally well-paved, with little traffic everywhere except the main highways.  Plenty of climbing and descending in every direction.

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Hiking routes in the area are much too rocky and steep to ride.  But small roads keep our interest.  We’re happy to be out of the rain.

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Local touristic signage indicates wineries and this curious “honey trail”.  There was a gorgeous stone house at the end of the road.  Not sure the relationship to honey; no tales were told.

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As the sun begins to fall, we talk about plans to camp.  We’ll ride a bit further to splash around in the stream before bed.  It looks like a stream on my map.  In fact, it is a significant inlet to Skodër Lake, a large shallow freshwater lake on the border of Montenegro and Albania.  It can be hard to see big topographic features such as this on the GPS.  

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Descending down to water level, now only 15ft above sea level, we find a campsite near the center of a small town, adjacent to an old stone bridge.  

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Thankfully, the sun is shining and the water is clear and cold.  I couldn’t be happier, and I manage to go swimming five or six times before we depart.  

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Climbing into the hills, we stop at a vista with a handful of tourists from countries across Europe, including Latvia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia.

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Grape vines and a sign for “Vino-Wine” lure is down a driveway.

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We are welcomed by twin brothers over 50 years old, who make wine as a hobby.  They live in Podgorica during the week and retreat to the mountains on the weekend.  The grow Vranac grapes, which are common in Balkan wines.  They also make rakija, or homemade liquor, in a small quantity annually.

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Aside from the wine, they are especially proud to have hosted visitors from 94 countries.  They are excited to make it 95 with our arrival, until they discover that Alaska is part of the USA.  This summer they add several new flags to the wall.

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As we climb and descend, new perspectives of the lake come into view.  The lake swells with the season, and has a highly variable area.  The lake averages only 15ft deep.

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Barely ten miles down the road for the day, I turn back to find Przemek and Saŝka.  I find them with new friends.  Hospitality is serious business in many Balkan countries.  

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It begins with a drink of rakija

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And some small talk, photos, and a few slices of cheese and tomato.  Lael trades some plums for an apple.

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It’s a long story, but six hours, two gunshots and several times more rakija than anyone ever needs in a day, we roll into the evening sun.  The goal is to find a place to camp.  The gunshots are the kind that involve zealous hosts, not any ill will.  Zoran is happy to share everything with us, and sends us off with a bottle of his own wine, cheese, duhan (tobacco), and of course, rakija.

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We pass through town for some basic supplies, and ride into the night.  In the dark, we find a small rocky pull-out aside the road.  For a bunch of drunk cyclists in the dark, we didn’t do too bad.  At least, I discover that in the morning.  Views of the lake aren’t bad, for the price.  Few cars pass in the night.  

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Our impromptu route around Skodër Lake turns out to be a delightful ride, and a good way for the Polish-Slovenian contingency to stretch their legs.

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From afar, we thought the lake might be a big swamp.  In fact, the road feels like a slice of Highway 1 in California, without any traffic, stores, or gas stations.  There are several towns below the road.

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Cheese for sale, almost always from goats or sheep anymore.

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German cyclists are also abundant in these parts.  

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As we climb to a valley away from the lake, we encounter loads of figs and berries, and eat until we are full.  It takes a moment to decide what the broad leafy plant is, but a big whiff in the warm breeze makes it clear that it is tobacco.  We pass through shady forests of chestnut trees.

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Przemek remarks that the rotten looking figs are best, especially those dripping with caramelized sugars.

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Montenegro has recently gained independence form Serbia, and for the most part, the countries are quite similar.  But along this route, all of a sudden, signage is now also in Albanian.  The towns look and feel different.  Mosques replace churches.  Things are changing.

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We climb and descend away from the lake, towards the coast and the official border crossing.  The ride over the mountains passes within a few hundred meters of Albania.  An abandoned structure guards the ridge.

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We plan to wait until morning to cross the border, and find a campsite near this old town site.

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This is still Montenegro, but we might as well be in Albania, politics, pomegranates and all.

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At the border, guards quickly look at our passports and wave us through.  This has been the most relaxed crossing so far.  

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To Albania!

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Romanian rail, Serbian sun, Montenegran mountains

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Above:  Sunny shades of Serbia.  Serbia is a big surprise, as we didn’t have any expectations at all.  

Since parting ways with my family, we’ve returned to our bikes in the Ukrainian Karpaty.  We followed the route from Kolochava to Yst Chorna, again.  It is shown as a road on the map, but it is more of a stream for about half of that distance.  We continue along forest tracks and singletrack to Yasinya.  To our south, the road crosses through the town of Rakhiv and into Romania,  Or, we can climb up the Chornahora Massif, possibly ride or walk up to the highest peak in Ukraine– Hoverla– and continue further east to cross into Romania elsewhere.  However, our plans with Przemek are looming, and the weather is constantly cold and rainy, at least about every other day.  It may not be the best time of year to be exploring the Romanian highlands.  Not sure if Saška would like to be cold and wet on her first bike tour.  Not sure if I want to be cold and wet.  Lael certainly doesn’t.  Weather predictions in the Balkans are promising– 30C and sunny everyday.  Przemek and Saška are coming from Slovenia.  He asks, “Can you be in Podgorica on the 5th”?

Sure!

Lael and I hurry to figure out where Podgorica is.  Ah, Montenegro.  Sounds nice.

We ride into Romania at sunset, and seek an inexpensive hotel in the center of town.  The first night in a new country is exciting.  Which currency do they use?  How much will we pay for a beer, and a loaf of bread?  It surely isn’t as cheap as Ukraine, although the facilities are nicer.  Immediately, we notice the roads are much nicer (smoother, but more traffic).  The roads in Ukraine are laughably bad.  Once-paved roads are actually worse than many dirt roads, in this country or elsewhere.  Low-traffic volumes are the reward.

Romania is welcoming.  The language is different, like Italian or French spoken through a 30% filter of Ukrainian, to my ears.  Espresso is omnipresent, and very good.  The Italians have left their mark on this part of Europe.  We will find more of this further south, and west.  Romanians use the Leu as currency.  Slovakia uses the Euro.   Both Czech and Poland have been EU members as long as Slovakia, yet they do not use the Euro.  Turns out, Montenegro uses the Euro as well, and they aren’t even part of the EU yet.  Previously they had used the Deutsche Mark in place of the unstable Serbian Dinar.  Montenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia in 2006.  There is a lot of history to learn for this part of the world.  We habitually load gargantuan Wikipedia articles about each country (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia), or past country (Yugoslavia), or soon-to-be independent country (Kosovo), and read them offline in the tent.   

Romania

Romania, as seen from across the border in Ukraine. To some, the grass is a little greener over there.

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The next day, we purchase train tickets.  The afternoon allows me to service my bottom bracket, which has begun to creak.  Shimano warns, “Do Not Disassemble”.  I recommend to anyone wishing to prepare their bottom bracket for lots of muck and rain to do this before it makes noise.   Carefully remove the plastic cover, and the rubberized bearing seal.  Flush with lightweight lube, and pack with as much grease as possible.  

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The Shimano crank design is almost free of specialty crank tools.  Unfortunately, the non-drive side utilizes a bearing preload which demands a special star-shaped tool.  In this case, a light tap with a hammer and a Ukrainian coin set the bearing preload just right.

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The Romanian train promises to be comfortable, as the air is cool and the cabin is only at quarter capacity leaving the station.  We’re sad not to spend the time that Romania requires, but this train ride will serve as a small consolation, and a basic reconnaissance mission.  We’ll be back someday, armed with more summer.

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The bikes cost us about $15 each on the train.  There isn’t an official policy or place for the bikes, although the train attendants are very kind and flexible, much unlike the Soviet-era attitudes aboard the Ukrainian railways.  Someone is transporting a large sack of flour on the train.

The 14 hour train costs about $15 per seat, plus the bikes.  Not a bad way to get across the country.  All is well until a woman enters our cabin of eight seats.  Each cabin is only ticketed for a maximum of about four passengers, as the train is quite empty.  She argues that I am in her seat.  I show her our tickets, the attendant ensures that yes, I am in her seat, although he has moved us to this cabin to be near our bikes.  She’s not happy, and the remaining twelve hours are miserable.  I’ll almost never say it, but is was really uncomfortable.  First, she closes the only window and the door to the cabin.  Then, she eats some fragrant fried food.  Finally she inspects us uncomfortably for a while, trying to figure out who or what we were.  She argues with her husband.  Lastly, she lays down across three seats, stomach hanging out of her shirt, shoes off, looking at us.  Eventually, she is asleep and snoring.  At intervals, she stretches and rolls over and puts her feet up on the window.  There are some cookies, and more fried foods.  Then, two older Romanian men enter the cabin past midnight to claim their seats.  Now, there are six of us.  Five of us sit upright; she still claims three seats.  She snaps at the two men, who maintain conversational tone in the dark.  Their voices are calm, yet earnest, and it doesn’t bother me.  Incidentally, about an hour later, she begins texting on her cell phone.  The phone is set to full volume, beeping with each key stroke.  That bothers me.  Lael holds back a laugh.  Then I laugh, and she laughs, and the woman looks at us, realizing her mistake.  She lays down again, and falls asleep.

Eventually, the two men deboard the train in the early morning.  Lael stretches out on the remaining seats.  I find an empty cabin at about 4AM, and catch a few hours of sleep.  We arrive in Timisoara at 7AM, greasy and tired.  I glare one last time at the fried food text-messaging bossy lady, and take my things.  Lael suggests we could take another train further south.  I suggest we ride.    

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We exit the train station in Timisoara as all the businesses open for the day, and rain begins to fall.  This is a flat, fertile corner of Romania.  We’ll be in Serbia by the end of the day.

I’d never have chosen to visit this part of the country but we make a great day or it.  We stop in a small store at lunch, to take cover from the rain.  We order two beers and sit on the ground.  The patrons are half Roma gypsies, and half Romanian, split between two tables.  Everyone, at different intervals ask us questions in Romanian, French, German, and some Russian.  The one guy that claims to speak English is wasted, and really doesn’t speak English.  Still, he buys each of us a beer.  This is a poor town stuck near the border.  For a moment, I like being here.

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In fact, this border crossing is listed on the map and on my GPS, but is currently inactive.  We arrive at the abandoned post and ride into Serbia, looking for anyone who can officiate our crossing.  There is no one.  We return to Romania, to find an official border crossing.  We’d hate to be clocking time in the EU when we have in fact left the EU and are in Serbia.  Further, we’d hate to spend time talking to the police later on.

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Serbia

We arrive in Serbia at sunset (a pattern, it seems), and spot a small mound of mountains.  

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Vrŝac, at sunset.

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This is one of Serbia’s premier wine growing regions.  Serbia uses the Dinar as currency, which is valued at about 90 Dinar to the Dollar. 

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Vrŝac is a fantastic city.  

Lael and I have been carrying some things we’d like to send home.  I wander into the post office, which is very busy.  Instead, I leave some layers and a camera in the park.  

Sadly, the lens is scratched and the camera body has a mind of its own when the atmosphere claims more than 90% humidity.  Hopefully, someone in Serbia will appreciate it.  I can’t justify sending it home to gather dust, nor do I want to take pictures marred by a scratched lens.  After a year and over a thousand dollars of experimentation, I’m using the same camera and lens as last year.  It is simple, small, and inexpensive.

In the past year, the screen on my lightly used Olympus E-M5 died within a week, and I lost the external hardware to the EVF on a ride.  I scratched the lens of the Panasonic 12-35mm lens, probably beyond repair.  I broke the threaded plastic filter attachment in the same bike crash that killed my last E-P3 body.  The Olympus E-PM1 body which I left in the park has been a solid performer since I purchased it as my first camera just over two years ago.  This year, I’m planning to keep it simple and cheap.

I enjoy using the Olympus E-P3 body (newer one, as the last one broke), and the photographs from the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens are to my liking.  And when it rains or I want to put the camera away, it fits almost anywhere on the bike.  

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Serbia is full of sun, for us.

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We intersect the EuroVelo6 Route along the Danube River.  This route connects the Atlantic with the Black Sea.

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For about 30 miles, we ride hard packed dirt and gravel along the banks of the river.

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This French cyclist has ridden all the way from Dijon on the EuroVelo6.  He’ll finish through Bulgaria and Romania in the next few weeks.

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Serbia is another place we’d love to come back to visit.  Fruit grows everywhere, the people are friendly, and there are mountains in large doses to the south.  So many people speak English here.  They speak naturally, and transition quickly from Serbian.  I’m not sure how to explain the phenomena.  They also play a lot of basketball. 

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Everyone in this region is familiar with conflict.  Kosovo and Monenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia.  Albania has only been quiet for a short time, and bunker tourism is part of every visit to Albania, I hear.  Each of these countries was part of a failing Yugoslavia just 25 years ago.  A lot has changed in the Balkans.  A few countries are still not yet part of the EU.  

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Entering the mountains is refreshing.  For the most part, we chase paved miles en route to Podgorica.

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Each town posts recent death notices in public places, usually taped around a pole or a tree.

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Yugoslav-era apartment building are everywhere.  As long as you don’t find them ugly, they are fascinating.

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Mining and other industries appear to be healthy across Serbia.  This is a lot different than Ukraine, where almost every old industrial building is vacant and vandalized.

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We first encounter walking trails in Serbia along this dirt road climb.

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Further, we find signage for the walking routes and a biking route.  I do not yet have any insight into these routes, but they do exist.  While many small roads in the mountains are paved, many others are not. There are also thousands of miles of farm roads.  We only find basic road maps in our few days in Serbia.  Also, the Openmtbmap.org file that I was using on the GPS contains less detail than in other nearby countries.  In general, these maps are highly recommended as at least some map detail is available for almost every country.  A small donation to the project allows unlimited downloads.  I have downloaded the maps for Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Greece. 

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Fruit is everywhere, especially blackberries and raspberries.  And as everywhere else in Eastern Europe, plums are in abundance.

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Potatoes.

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Cabbage.  Serbian fields are productive, another change from subsistence farming in Ukraine.

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Roadside springs are abundant on mountain roads.

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In the city, we find this awesome traffic model, scaled down for children on bicycles, rollerblades, and on foot.  This is a good use of schoolyard space.  

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Hot weather and cold water is how I hope to spend my summers.  It feels like we’re getting close, finally.

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We find camp for the night in a cemetery, for the first time, actually.

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The next morning, we pass through Guča, home to the world famous Guča Trumpet Festival.  This festival celebrates the style of Serbian trumpet found in regional brass bands.  I’ve seen one such band escorting a wedding party; the music is riotous.

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The written Serbian language is a mix of Cyrillic and Latin characters.  My Ukrainian is more valuable here than in Romania, where our French-English-Ukrainian was more confusing than anything.  In many of these countries, people try to speak to us in German.  Younger people more often defer to English.

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The mountains!  With each pass, we climb higher and higher.  We climb to 2500ft.  Then 3000, 3500, 4000, and then over 4000ft.

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And at last, over 4000ft, we reach the border with Montenegro, or Crna Gora in Latinized Montenegran and Serbian.

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As we get close, the rain returns.  When the weather is good, I ignore the forecast.  I look for the first time in a week.  The computer calls for rain as far as we can see, in every direction of space and time.  Rain for weeks all up and down the Balkans.  At least it will be warm, as long as we are not chasing dirt roads up to 6000ft.

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Montenegro

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We continue our ride, intersecting lonely paved and dirt roads, and by chance, the largest canyon in Europe.  The Tara River Canyon claims to be up to 4300ft deep in places.  It makes for a spectacular descent from the rim.  A quiet paved road continues upstream in the canyon for about 20 miles.

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Where did that summer weather go?  Lael is still wearing her number from the Fireweed 400.

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We prepare a bounty for Przemek’s arrival.  We will meet him and Saška at the train station in a few days.  Local wormwood liquor is a good start.

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A local sign near the Biogradska Gora National Park indicates a 300km cycling route, for mountain bikes!  The route is signed, mapped, and English-language brochures are offered online.  A website dedicated to the “Top Biking Trail 3-Eastern Enchantment” provides all the information.  Maximum elevation is over 6000ft, maximum grade is 35%; mostly, I think it follows rideable dirt roads.  If the rain holds, we’ll include some of this into our route with Przemek and Saška.

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We descend from the mountain valleys at 3000ft, down towards Podgorica.  At 280ft elevation, the weather is much warmer and the skies are clearer.  If necessary, we’ll plan a route nearer to the coast to avoid the orographic effect of the mountains.  The tallest mountains in Montenegro and Albania are over 8000ft and 9000ft, respectively.  So close to the Adriatic and Ionian Seas (and the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas), they create their own weather.  

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Just 8 miles out of Podgorica, we find a secret riverside campsite.  The water is cold and clear, and finally, it isn’t raining.  It has been a wet ride since crossing from Serbia.

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We awake to some sun and blue skies, tentative as they may be.

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Plums replaced by figs, we’re close to the sea.  We are, effectively, in the Mediterranean.

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Saška and Przemek arrive tomorrow, for two weeks of adventure.  We don’t have a plan or an end destination.  Surely, we’re all looking for good riding, great camping, and if possible, some sun.  Lael, as a recovering Alaskan, is always looking for sun.

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Anyone live in Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, or Greece?  We may be in the area over the next month.

Ukraine, so far

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This is when and where everything becomes more infrequent, digitally.  There is internet, but there are also lots of dirt roads and rustic crumbling paved roads and old churches and inviting groups of men with horilka at lunch, and woman selling mushrooms by the side of the road, and kids who chase on bicycles and just a few weeks of summer left.  We left more than a few weeks of summer in Alaska, and we’re chasing the last of them in Ukraine.  We climb up Polonina Borzhava again tonight, almost a year later. 

Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine:  Uzhorod, to the Karpaty via dirt roads, some small paved road, to Volovets…

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Across Slovakia, up high

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Surely, we’re having fun.  We’re working hard– not working, technically– but riding lots.  On occasion, we stop in bus stops to avoid the rain.  This time of year, the sun is high, the air is wet, and the afternoons are stormy.  It seems we’ve also encountered a wet week in addition to normal summer storms.  That’s alright, as long as we can outlast thunderstorms by taking cover under bus stops and eating lunch in our t-shirts, or less.  These are the summers of my youth.  We’re eating pickled peppers stuffed with cabbage.  Slovakia is still a dream.

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Since our first foray out of Bratislava following touristic segments of dirt through the Male Karpaty, we’ve pedaled upstream of the Vah River, toward our eventual goal.  Ukraine, and possibly a brief segment of Poland are on our horizon.  A mix of dirt and pavement lead through the wine country of the lower Vah River valley.  Eventually, we leave the lowlands for the mountains.

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Much of the population of Slovakia lives in a few major valleys, although many small towns exist everywhere else.  This is still a country of mountain people.

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Each town features a small food shop, called a potraviny.  This one is a relic of times past.  Most often they look like mini supermarkets, with a limited range of common goods.  Everyone shops every day and buys little, but always buys those little crescent-shaped white bread rolls.  The rolls are always a little dry, and cheap as dirt.  We’ve learned to stack them with olives and tomatoes and cheese and meat.

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Each town features a bar or a restaurant or both, sponsored with signage by one of the major beer manufacturers in the country.  Lael habitually asks for dve kava and jedin chai in the morning– two coffees and one chai.  In reverse– “chai and kava”– she calles this Chai-kav-skij.

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As often as possible, we swim.  Slovakia is laced with cold streams.  The lowland countries nearby, full of people, are different.  Here we find plenty of water.  

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Finally, we’re surprised to find castles everywhere.  It is unlike Poland or Czech or Ukraine.  

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We entered the country with new(-ish) bikes.  Searching for chain lube was more complicated than expected.  I passed the opportunity to buy WD-40 several times.  Finally, I bought some.  Chains are silky smooth, for now.  XTR and WD-40 are a winning combination.

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I also bought a pair of real shoes, after a week and a half in Birkenstock sandals.  I committed to only bring clothing which I already owned.  While I spent a grip on new bike parts this year (for fun!), I knew for certain all the clothes I would need were already in my possession.  Self-destruction is inevitable with clothing, so why not let them destruct, before replacement?

I found some proper bicycle chain lube at the Tesco superstore.  Free sandals and chain lube to anyone that walks by.

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We begin our path over the mountains on a route comprised of narrow grey lines on our road map.  It proves to be a signed cycling route, and a reliable route over the mountains on a maintained dirt road.  

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Climbing into the rain…

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We find a secure cabin at the top.  All locked up– except for the outhouse– we take cover under the porch for the night.  It is nice to cover ourselves only in netting, and to keep our things dry.  The daily process of drying our things is tiresome, and an uphill battle.

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The morning is foggy, without rain.

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We eventually descend to in Trenčianske Teplice, for groceries, coffee, and internet.  Lael loves this poster advertising regional Slavic mountain festivals.

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Finally, we connect with the 1000 Miles Adventure Route.  This is an annual race route created by Czech adventure rider Jan Kopka, across Czech and Slovakia  We don’t know what to expect. 

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It begins on pavement, climbing tertiary roads into the hills.

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Mostly, we’re following signed hiking and cycling routes along the way.

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Passing through the heart of Slovakia, through towns of wooden villages, old churches, and active farmland.  

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An apiary/treehouse, or beehouse– surprises us in the forest.  There are a lot of bees here, in managed bee communities, in converted trailers and raised beehouses.

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We connect to an historic road, cut from the hillside.  Up, and up, above 1000m.

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A hiking shelter.

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Up…

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up…

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up…connecting a dirt road to a dirt road, via an unrideable hiking trail for a short distance.  We’re beginning to understand the “route”.  It is mostly rideable, but does not shy away from unridable connectors as needed.  This is our preferred mode.

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At the top is a small ski area and a seasonal hotel. It is barely open in the summer.  Winter must be busy here at about 4000ft.

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There are well-signed hiking and cycling trails in these mountains.  It is nice to see cycling trails comprised of rough, unpaved routes.  Slovakian cyclists are hardy.

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Follow the red and white, as ever.  Up and up, as ever.

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We’ll talk more about the bike later.  Yes, the main compartment of the framebag doesn’t have a zipper.  The seatpack conceals a MacBook Air.  I drilled a hole in the fork and several holes in the frame.  And yes, the bike still shreds.

Thanks to Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs for the design, creativity, and fabrication, and the dedication to do all of it at the last minute.  Thanks to him, I’m carrying a MacBook and the bike rides like a bike.

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Up over 5000ft, from the river valley below near 1000ft.  Our legs are figuring themselves out.  Rather, mine are gaining figure.  Lael’s have been ready to go since before the Fireweed 400.

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Down, down, down…

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Brakes are hot and our stuff is wet.  Swim in a stream and eat an apple.

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Of course, drink a beer.  Small drinking establishments are ubiquitous in Slovakia, as in Czech.  Beer is about $1, or less.

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The next day, we awake to sun and the opportunity to dry our things.

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The route takes a hike over some high meadows.

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And down grazing lands and logging tracks.

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All of this is adjacent to the Low Tatras National Park.  We soon learn that the logging continues into the park, although you are warned not to ride a bicycle on unstable soils.

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Up again, now on the red hiking trail, one of several national hiking trails across Slovakia.

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Don’t ride on fragile soils, say the signage.  Just drag some logs down the wet roads.  

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I do my best to keep the tires running through the frame.  Thanks to the new Fox fork and the Surly Krampus, even these muddy 2.35″ Hans Dampf tires keep rolling.  That was the plan.

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Six-wheel drive ensures the road remains a quagmire.

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Again, we wash in the stream, dry our things in the sun, and dine.  We refuse to get wet every day.  Lael says, “the forecast in Lviv calls for sun every day”.  We’re moving east.

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Out of the high mountains, between the Low Tatra and the High Tatra, we point towards Ukraine.  The 1000 Miles Adventure Route chooses some mellow dirt and pavement at the front range of the Tatras.

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Celebrating our last few days in Slovakia– not that we aren’t always celebrating– we fire a round of sausages over the fire.

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We enjoy a few more days in the country, before our focus leans towards Ukraine.  Considering our current location in the northeast of the country, a few days in Poland may be in order.  There’s something about Poland.  Namely, the Red Trails capture our attention. 

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Slovakia for a few more days.  Poland for a minute.  Ukraine, for a month or more.

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To Slovakia!–nothing not to like

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It has been a long time coming, our return to Slovakia.  We grazed the border of Slovakia on several occasions last summer.  Once, en route to meet Przemek for the first time, we rode through Slovakia for part of a day.  Unwilling to participate in yet another currency, we starved ourselves for the afternoon and raced into Poland to begin our ride on the red trails of southern Poland (Note: they use Euros in Slovakia, we started the day with Czech kroner and ended with Polish zloty).  On another occasion, we detoured from the red trails in Poland to spend a few days writing for Bunyan Velo,  We crossed the border a few times in two days, curious about the pace of life in Slovakia.  Poland is a dreamy place, as long as you are in the woods.  On the roads and in town, the energy is high.  Slovakia, like Czech, is relaxed and kind.  We liked it, but the trails, and Przemek, were in Poland.

The country is crossed with mountains, and farms, and relatively few people.  The beer, as in Czech, is cheap.  The mountains, as we are coming to find, are laced with roads and trails, accessible by a plethora of hiking and cycling routes.  These things are always easier to discover in country.  The women– I promise I won’t let this become a place to review the women of the world– have long legs and have obviously spent the summer outdoors doing things they enjoy.  Seriously, Lael agrees, and we marvel at the discovery of Slovakian women– they are beautiful and healthy.  It’s like they’ve never outgrown the age of 12.  We find this to be an interesting social and cultural marker.  The men?  Well, they mostly look like sunburnt farmers.

When crafting a plan for this summer while back in Alaska, the far eastern part of Europe invited us once again.  I want to spend more time in Ukraine, and the other half of the Carpathian Mountain chain in Romania.  Lael wants to learn some Romanian, and bulk up her Ukrainian vocabulary.  We both want to ride bikes in the countryside and mountains in places that are habitable and arable, but not yet overcome by the hypermodern life we know.  Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania.  Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania.  That’s the plan for now, at least as much of a plan as there will ever be.  Beyond that?  Greece and Macedonia?  Spain and Corsica and Morocco?  There are many opportunities further afield, but we’ve really just begun.  Its not fair to this end of the trip to focus on that end of the trip.  We’re focusing on this side of Slovakia for now, trying not to look too far forward.

We took advantage of the Condor Airlines flight over the pole, which runs nonstop all summer from Anchorage to Frankfurt for about $500.  To hone our eastern aspect, we chose a connecting flight to Vienna, which is only 40 miles from Slovakia.  While I am reading maps, Lael is honing her Euro style.

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Look who met us at the airport in Vienna– Przemek!  He came bearing gifts for Lael’s birthday, including homemade currant liqueur and a small loaf of his mother’s bread.  I’m not supposed to tell, but he also made the three hour drive to the airport the day before.  Upon returning home, deflated, he realized that we had departed on the 22nd, but would not arrive until the 23rd.  Thanks for coming back a second time.

We may have the chance to spend a few more weeks with him later this summer.  Our tentative plan is to rendezvous in Romania in late August or early September.  He’s currently living in Slovenia for work.  He still does a very good impression of a Polish man, in English, for our benefit.

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We’d planned a Warmshowers.org host in Vienna, although a delayed arrival and the time it took to reassemble our bikes meant it would be too late to ride into the city.  Neither of us had much interest in the big city, for now.  Rather, we pedaled towards Slovakia.  Head east!

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We connect to a bike path adjacent to the road, only a short distance from the airport.  We ride through several small towns, over the autobahn, and onto a signed hiking route on a small dirt road.  This leads to a dirt track along the Danube River, dotted with rustic fishing cabins.  We slept well on our first night, on a dirt road, alongside a river, only three miles from the airport.  Even the passing “dinner and dance” barges from Vienna didn’t bother us.

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Awake early, without a plan, we pedal.  Several hours later, barely 7:30, we realize we must have been up before 5AM.  This never happens, although we appreciate the extra hours.

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What time is it?

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Immediately, our eastward route intersects the EuroVelo6 route, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea; the local St. James Way, which eventually leads to the local Camino de Santiago route in Spain; and a plethora of local walking and cycling routes along the Donau (Danube).

Signposts are stacked with signs and maps covered in colored routes.  The pathways are in constant use by a steady stream of riders, runners, rollerbladers, and walkers.  Many cycling routes incorporate graded gravel farm roads or unpaved cycling paths.  Most routes utilize existing facilities.  Creating bikeable routes is sometimes as easy as providing maps and signage.  Rest stops like this one are also welcomed, which include drinking water, a bike rack, a detailed map, a covered picnic area, wooden reclining chairs, and some green space.  These are luxuries to a cyclist on a long ride.

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The red and white signage indicates a hiking route.  The shell signifies the way of St. James, whose terminus is in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  The most prominent portion of the route is in Spain, although routes and signage begin much further afield.

907 must be the hiking route number.  We’re not in (907)Alaska anymore.

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A short way down the river, Bratislava comes into view.  The capital city of Slovakia borders both Austria and Hungary.  Of the three countries we choose Slovakia, although the long-distance “blue trail” in Hungary is enticing. It claims to be the oldest long-distance footpath in Europe (c. 1938), and comprises part of the modern E4 route across Europe.

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We find easy entrance into the city on paved trails.  Some public maps suggest an off-pavement exit.

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Large Soviet housing projects are common in these eastern cities.

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Europe is full of signed and mapped routes for walking and cycling.  Many walking paths are great fun to ride.  Some cycling routes include mellow dirt tracks, although most prefer pavement.  Dirt routes begins immediately outside the city, climbing into the Malé Karpaty mountains.

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The park includes many features benefitting activity and community.  The greater area includes routes for miles, trending northward through the mountains.

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Dirt, right out of the city.

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The red and white is a walking route, the colored “C” routes are cycling routes.  They diverge, and converge, in this case.

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Along the way, we find dozens of picnic tables, gazebos, and grassy areas.

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And plenty of signage.  Lots of signage.

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Segments of genuine singletrack are exciting, through managed forests dominated by beech trees.

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Some of our route convenes with the race route of an upcoming series.

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Even some hike a bike on day one.  Not bad, considering we don’t have a plan.

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22-32.  This one gets a lot of use.

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Further from the city, the moutnains grow taller and all the cycling routes descend into the valley.  We continue for a time on walking routes, with some pushing.

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Descending from the mountains, we direct ourselves north and east.  A near goal is to get to Ukraine, although there is plenty of riding in Slovakia to keep us busy for years.  We’ll sample some along the way, including some of the 1000 Miles Adventure Route, which crosses Czech and Slovakia.

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Fruit falls onto the roadways.  Camping is abundant.  Nothing not to like.

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Swimming.  Once a day keeps the stink away.  Public laundromats don’t exist where we’re going.

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More cycling and walking routes in the mountains.  So many options.

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The beech forests!–generouslly spaced trees, filtered sunlight, singletrack.

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Dobra Voda.

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Descend to Dobra Voda.  Ascend from Dobra Voda, through a cemetery.

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To a castle.  We didn’t expect a castle at the top of this hill.  Not that this is the fist castle we’ve seen in this corner of Slovakia.  There are dozens.

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A short distance away, we make camp at the top of the mountain, along the red trail.  Red trails are most often major routes, which cover longer distances.

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From the top, we descend through more scenic beech forests to town.  Slovakia is a new favorite.  Nothing not to like.

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The E8 walking trail, like the E4 and the E2, crosses the European continent from Ireland to Turkey.

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This map locates all the castles, in reference to cycling routes.

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Searching for chain lube, we go looking for small town bikes shops.  It seems WD-40 in spray cans is preferred.

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We choose pavement for a few days to make some distance north, and east.  When possible, we interject mellow dirt routes chosen from local signage.  A forecast for heavy rain will keep us off the dirt for a few days.  Much of the dirt riding ahead of us promises to be steep, as we enter higher mountains.  Lael also has a nagging ankle injury that likes to ride a bike, but not to push bikes up steep grades.

Postcard Slovakia: Soviet housing, sunflowers, rolling hills, and blue skies.

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Tidy houses, forested hills, small farm plots, and fruit trees.

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Swim in a cold stream, a castle on the hill.

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Slovakians love to ride.  There are often families and groups of riders on the weekends.  Through the week, people commute to work and ride to the store to get what they need.  Most often, older men and women ride vintage step-through frames with 24×1 3/8″ tires and rider bars, perfectly practical for this kind of riding.

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Proper bike shops are infrequent, although bikes from the past several decades are still riding alongside newer bikes.  It is not uncommon to see a 30 year old bike with patina and signs of use, still exhibiting smooth operation.  This is what happens when you value the things you have, and take care of them.  The values of our grandparents are still alive here.

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Aside from maps and signs by the roadside, detailed guidebooks and “Active” maps for hiking and cycling are available from local bookstores and supermarkets.  This book details cyclings routes around Slovakia, concentrated in the southwest corner, nearby much of the country’s population.  This book includes paved and unpaved routes, and many routes which combine the two.

Check our this digital resource for all the walking routes in Slovakia.  Cycling routes are all here.  An Android App called Hiking Map Slovakia is also useful, and is currently installed on Lael’s Nexus tablet.

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Look for these maps as well, in country or online.

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Cycling signposts also include directions to local attractions such as castles, swimming pools, and this BIKEPARK.  Mountain biking is increasingly popular here.

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Cycling routes are surprising in Slovakia, ranging from busy two-lane roads to this levee singletrack.  A mountain bike makes a versatile touring bike in this county.

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As anywhere, it ensures the right tool to avoid busy roadways.

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Much like in Czech, beer is everpresent.  When we order kava at 7AM, it is not uncommon to see a table of townspeople talking over tall glasses of beer.  At about 4%, a beer or two in the morning is like a strong cup of coffee with sugar, right?

Hops and wheat, from which beer is made.  Slovakian lowlands are filled with fruits, vegetables, and grains.

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We’ve had such good luck finding campsites all over Europe.  As a rule, as night falls, find a small road and ride uphill.  Ride past the last house, ride onto dirt, and soon, the place will appear.  In this case, as we ascended a dirt road we passed several mountain bikers coming down, including several young boys with full face helmets.  We ascended to find an historic logging railbed.  We camped alongside a picnic table in the woods several kilometers from the nearest town, 500ft down in the valley.  Nothing not to like about the touring life in Slovakia.

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The best part is that every morning, sooner or later, we descend to a town.  A period of rest each day, including kava and pivo and ubiquitous free WiFi, encourages enough energy to pull out the maps and plan another day’s ride up and over something.  Our immediate goal is to explore some of the 1000 Miles Adventure route, which is an adventure race route organized by Czech racer Jan Kopka from the border of Germany and Czech to the other edge of Slovakia, on the border of Ukraine.  The mixed terrain route promises some significant challenges, but also a largely pedalable route across the country.  Incidentally, I met Jan this winter before the Iditarod Trail Invitational.  He and Greg came over from Speedway to buy all of our fatbike tubes at the shop.  If Lael’s ankle cooperates and the weather is not too wet, we’ll follow as much of this route as we want across the country.  Soon enough, some time in Ukraine is also a priority.  And Przemek will be waiting at the Romanian border in another month or so.

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We’re trying not to make plans.  Mostly, were trying to do a lot of this, if we can find it.

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