Αθήνα, الدوحة, Kaapstad

For immediate release:  Last seen in Greece, in the vicinity of Athens.  Tickets booked to South Africa, via Doha, Qatar.  Currently presumed riding in the Great Karoo, northeast of the Swartberg Mountains of the Western Cape region, South Africa. 

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Athens, Greece

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Doha International Airport, Qatar

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Hout Bay from Chapman’s Peak Drive, Cape Town, South Africa

Awake on a steep dirt track just below Delphi, below steep-sided mountains, above a deep valley of olives.  We’re going to Athens.  Several days prior, while waiting out rain in Karpenissi on the Bike Odyssey route, we make a plan.  Winter will arrive.  It is not here yet, and November in southern Greece may be perfect.  But the time to visit the mountains of Turkey is closing– at least by the time we get there– and if we go to Israel to ride the Holyland MTB Challenge route or part of the Israel National Trail, winter will come there as well.  And after Israel?  Egypt, Jordan?  We could wait out the winter somehow and return to Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia next spring and summer, but that is many months distant.  The other option is to take a cheap flight across the Mediterranean to Cairo, for about $100 (the ferries have not been running for several years).  But arriving in Cairo seemingly leaves us many long stretches of tar to the south.  Sudan is meant to be extremely friendly.  Ethiopia has mountains, although many cyclists retell stories pf children throwing rocks.   The solution, via a well-priced flight found in a fit of Kayak.com shopping, is to fly to Cape Town, South Africa.  

Cape Town is at the southwestern tip of Africa, turning toward summer as the mountains of Turkey fall prey to winter.  South Africa is huge, with deserts ad mountains and the sea.  The Freedom Trail beckons, offering over 1000 miles of backcountry riding and navigation, and a few famous overland traverses.  Joe Cruz and Jill Homer both rode across South Africa on this route last June.  Logan and Virginia toured South Africa and Lesotho en route to points further north, and the photos and stories they shared are motivating.  Lael has been talking about going to Africa for years, either something that would have never happened or something that would happen in a spontaneous decision.  It proves to be the latter, and even so, South Africa isn’t really Africa, they say.  We’ll get there.

Our route from Delphi to Athens traces dirt roads near the shores of the Sea of Corinth.  We camp on the beach, swim in the sea, and stay cool in the shade.  It is hard to leave this land when everything is so perfect, but we know we’ve made a good decision.  Haven’t we?  There is only one way to know.  

Like much of the rest of rural Greece, there is almost no one on this coastline.  

In Athens, our bikes are improved for many more months of travel.  Lael gets a new drivetrain and sends her Sidis home in trade for a pair of platform pedals.  We scout shoe stores and bike shops across this city of 5 million.  George, who originally suggested the Bike Odyssey route to us was kind enough to host us for several days.  Friends of a friend of a friend in Santa Fe also hosted us as we packed our bikes into boxes in the days before our flight– thanks Alex and Fontina.  We also camped for a few nights at the top of a hill in a little used park on the outskirts of town.  In over a week in Athens, we never made it to visit the Acropolis, but we sat in cafes and navigated traffic and visited dozens of small shops.  We like Athens.  Half the country lives here, including youth and families, and there are diverse neighborhoods.  Times are still tough in Greece, but there are jobs here, technically.  Rent is cheap.  There are people our age, which is nice.  There are ruins older than anything in America, crumbling alongside the city’s metro tracks.  

We take an extension of the Athens Metro to the airport, which allows bikes during all hours of the day for no charge.  At the airport, the Qatar Airlines insists that we will not be allowed to enter South Africa without a return or onward flight.  We discuss and argue for some time; I insist we will cycle out of the country in three months time.  They are skeptical.  We sign an indemnity form releasing them from liability in case we are not allowed in the country. 

Our plane lands at the brand new airport in Doha, Qatar.  It is everything you would expect, including high-end shopping, rich Qatari men in traditional dress, a Maclaren parked near a Lexus in the main forum.  Apple computers are fixed to stations for public use.  Seemingly low-paid airport employees have wide eyes for the spectacle of it all as they slowly push dust brooms in the middle of the night.  There is no place to get a beer, although the airport is the only official importer of pork and alcohol into the Muslim country.  We buy salt and vinegar chips and an expensive soda from the newstand.  Lael lays down her new foam sleeping mat across from the Burberry store, next to the 24-hour complimentary child care center.  We sleep on and off for several hours under bight fluorescent lights.  The air is stagnant.

In Cape Town, we deboard the plane in a corridor lined with public advertisements for touristic attractionss in the cape.  Two large-scale mountain bikers are smiling as they ride out of the wall on top-shelf full-suspension XC bikes.  I’ve prepared myself for customs.  All I get is a friendly smile and a stamp.  No hassle.  No return or onward ticket.  

Cape Town is familiar.  The roads are wide with sidewalks and stop lights.  Much of the city is newer, and the old parts aren’t that old.  People shop– most of them– at the Pick n Pay or the Shoprite or the Checker’s, full-size supermarkets full of deals and stuff.  There are fat people and homeless people and accents and faces from all over.  It feels like home.

We are welcomed at the airport by Juliet, our Warmshowers.org host.  She and her family spent three months touring across Europe this summer, with children aged 8, 12, and 14.  When asked about their favorite part of their tour across Europe, the children unanimously indicate the time spent with family in Germany, when they didn’t have to cycle.  Baked goods and internet and flat cycle paths were second favorite features along the way.  We stayed in the the children’s playhouse in the back yard, affectionately known as the “dollhouse”.  We finalized bike-related matters, loaded maps and tracks to the GPS, and for some time, waited for something in the mail that didn’t arrive due to a postal strike.  We make a three day tour around the southern cape region while waiting.  Immediately apparent are the ever-present fences, security agents, and prohibitive signage, but the coast is beautiful.  It feels like home.

Below Delphi, Greece.

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This chapel stands alone in this valley, among the olive trees.  The door is unlocked.

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At last, we arrive at the Sea of Corinth.  This is how we imagined Greece.

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Except, there isn’t anyone here.  At this small community by the sea, there is no one.  We lay our bikes on the beach.

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Several mountains lay in our path.  We choose a series of small dirt roads, and one steep hike-a-bike between power line service roads.  

Cotton.

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Apples and a church.  You are never far from a church, chapel, or roadside monument in Greece.

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We approach Athens from the backside, taking a ferry to the nearby island of Salamina for $0.75.  This avoids some busy corridors leading into town.

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Athens, Greece

There are neighborhoods for miles, and traffic and young people and graffiti.  All of this is refreshing after weeks in the abandoned countryside.

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FYROM

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We are stopped by a procession of young people in a dilapidated-but-changing neighborhood of hip cafes and small groceries and old stone storehouses near the railroad tracks.   

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We’re not certain of the origin of the festivities, but the drumming goes on for hours.  Later in the evening, the crown moves several blocks away, facing the back of a truck that has been readied for the party.  Electrified Greek music, much like music elsewhere in the Balkans, is sultry and rhythmic and charming, if a little quaint.  Everyone is loaded with colored powder, contained in little cloth packages tied with string. 

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We cover the city to find just the right pair of shoes, and bike parts.  The Sidis go home for future use.  

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Tsirikos Bikes is well-euqipped as they are the front end of a prominent online retail operation in Greece.  They have all kinds of parts in stock, including lots of cheap Shimano stuff.  We buy a $6 chain, and an $8 bottom bracket for Lael’s bike.  The cassette is $11.  The bike inside are now cheap, with a variety of unusual models.

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NS Aerial Pro pedals– light, strong, sealed bearings, traction pins, concave platform, orange.

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The new sleeping pad is $5 and “Great for tourist”, including alpine slalom skiing and daiquiri sipping on the beach.  Bikepacking is somewhere on the list.  

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Also in the mail is a new framebag from Revelate Designs.  Eric is working on a series of designs for long-distance cyclists to endure many months of hard use.  Zippers are the weakest part of any framebag or garment.  We’re both using experimental designs: mine has a zipperless main compartment while Lael’s has some unique features to limit the strain on the zipper.  She’s been tasked with abusing the zips.  Apples and bottles of wine will be stuffed in there soon enough.  Despite her looks, she’s the ultimate zipper killer.  

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Off to the airport, €14 for the two of us.  Greece is especially civil, safe, and clean.

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Doha, Qatar

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Exchange just enough currency to buy a bag of chips and a soda, not quite enough for a watch or a luxury car, but they are also for sale.  Shopping boutiques are open all night.  There are few windows in the airport.  I spend the night reading about Qatar, which is strange and fascinating.  

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Everyone must take selfies in front of the demented bear.

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Cape Town, South Africa

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Cape Town is busy and colorful and much like home.  The air is warm and the wind never ends.  Wines are abundant and excellent, and cheap, especially the sauvignon blanc which is celebrated by a local festival the weekend of our arrival.  Cycling is popular, assuming you like narrow-tire XC mountain bikes and riding on gravel roads, mostly.  Every talks about the Cape Argus and the Cape Epic.  We’re clued into more unusual events like the Freedom Challenge and the Trans-Afrika.  Mountain biking is the new golf, they say.

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Mountains and the sea are never far away.

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Table Mountain, as seen from Table View at night.

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From our temporary residence in Table View, we follow a brand new bike path into the city, which follows the new MyCiti bus line a distance of about 20km.  The city is a very nice place to ride.  Despite a population in the millions, the center of Cape Town is not especially large.  Individual communities radiate outward in all directions from the center, for many miles, yet are officially considered part of Cape Town.

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Full suspension XC race bikes are the flavor of the day, while 29″ tires average between 1.9″-2.1″ inches.  Tires up to 2.2″ inches are available in shops, while I spotted a 2.3″ Specialized Purgatory at Revolution Cycles in Cape Town.  Tubeless tires, tape, valves, repair kits, and sealant are all common.  I’ve never seen so much tubeless tech, not even in Arizona.  

We buy a grip of 800ml bottles and cages to tape to our forks.  We plan to have 4-5L of water per bike.

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The Handle Bar is a great cycle-centric place for coffee and wi-fi.  It is also a small bike shop.

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Sea Point, headed south towards Cape Point.

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Chapman’s Peak Drive is a famous road ride in the area along the coast.  We spend a few days touring the cape while waiting for some mail.  The area is gorgeous, but we look forward to leaving the city behind.  Everything is fenced, signed, and guarded.  South Africa has extreme poverty aside much wealth.  Many blacks live in poverty and many whites live like Europeans and Americans.  There are exceptions, but there are clear patterns.  There is still much mistrust and misunderstanding between people.  Everyone warns us to be careful never to leave our bikes, and to “watch our backs” .  I’m still trying to decipher which are urban problems and rural problems; which are real problems and which are perceived problems.

South Africans are exceptionally friendly.  They love bikes.  

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Simon’s Town, near Cape Point.  We choose not to visit the actual point to avoid the $10 charge to enter the preserve.  Fences and guards and fees and signs…

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Soon, we’ll be out of the city and off to ride a version of the Freedom Trail across South Africa.  The route is notoriously challenged by fences and traversing permits, long stretches without food and water, and navigational challenges which make necessary connections not possible by road.  However, much of the route is composed of motorable roads.  Since the route was first developed in 2004, most riders have raced and toured the route during the Freedom Challenge, which takes place in June.  Very little information exists about a self-made tour on the route, although the website has most everything you need including a series of 80+ detailed maps sections and a complete route narrative.  We hope to bring back some valuable information about the route.

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European Bikepacking Routes

Bicycle Times Bikepacking Europe1 28Luxembourg, GR5/E2 trail

Two years ago I wondered about bikepacking routes in Europe.  After eight months of riding, researching, and blogging from Amsterdam to Sevastapol to Athens, this resource is the culmination of our efforts.  Europe is a great place to explore by bike, off-pavement, and self-supported.  Eat great food, visit fascinating cultural and historical places, and learn new languages, in between bike rides.  In Europe, there are rides and routes for every interest and skill level.  Use the search function or the archives on this page to learn more about our rides in Europe through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Czech, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, and Greece.

This is an incomplete list of European bikepacking routes.  These routes are either mapped, signed, and/or available as GPS tracks.  Many routes originate as self-supported off-pavement endurance races, multi-day stage races, or challenging routes for solo ITT.  Some are government tourism projects.  Others are the creation of avid riders or cycling organizations to promote the riding in their home country.  Lastly, some routes suggested here are repurposed walking routes, which may be done in sections or as a whole.  One route is currently planned, but is incomplete.  Additional rouetplanning resources include online retailers of maps and guides, or digital trail-finder resources.  The basic concept of this project is to awaken the world to the breadth of bikepacking possibilities in Europe, despite the lack of a single superstar route such as the Great Divide Route, Colorado Trail, or the Arizona Trail.  Bikepacking is a global phenomena, born of the passion to ride somewhere, off the beaten path, self-supported.

Use these links as a springboard to do your own research and riding.  Some routes may be easy with significant paved sections, non-technical terrain, and uncomplicated logistics.  Others are extremely challenging, with a large component of hike-a-bike.

Any assistance to improve the list is welcomed, including relevant comments about any of the listed routes and new route suggestions with links.  When possible the routes are linked to the most informative or relevant webpage, which most often originates from the route organizer or creator.  In a few cases, routes are listed without an official webpage or an official GPS route, such as The Red Trail in Poland, but the route is known to exist on the ground, is signed, and is indicated on Compass brand maps (and others).  To keep this listing simple I have chosen not to indicate the distance, difficulty, or source of route guidance (map, GPS, signs).  These features may come in the future, and if anyone wishes to host this list in further detail, contact me directly.  Start dreaming and get riding!

Please use the comment form below and check back in the future as this page develops.  Special assistance is needed to include routes from many countries, including: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary (The Countrywide Blue Tour?), Serbia, Kosovo, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belorus, Russia, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.  Israel is not in Europe, but is included due to a growing bikepacking scene.  Surely, there are many more routes in the countries listed.  Tell your friends.  Share it online.

Spain: TransAndalusTranspirinaicaTransiberia, Camino de Santiago, Camino del Norte, Transcantábrica, Via de la Plata; GR 48, Transnevada.   Many Spanish route maps and guidebooks available from labiciteca.com.

France: Traversée du Massif Vosgien, Traversée du Jura (maps), Traversée du Massif Central, GR5/E2 trail; VTTrack.fr for interactive MTB trail map of France

Belgium: GR5/E2 walking trail (general info); also, some images and info about the section in the Ardennes Mountains

Germany: GST: Grenzsteintrophy

UK: Bearbones 200, Cairngorms Loop, England-Wales-England, Highland Trail 550, Lakeland 200, Pennine Bridleway, Ridgeway Double, South Downs Double, Coast to Coast, Trans Cambrian, Welsh Coast to Coast, West Highland Way Double, Scotland Coast to CoastDevon Coast to Coast (Westcountry Way).  All routes and links thanks to selfsupportedUK.net.

Italy: Italy Coast to CoastTuscany TrailSan Remo-Monte CarloMyLand Non-Stop (Sardinia), Alto Adige-Südtirol Extreme Bike TrailDolomiti TrailItalia TransmountainsThe Fat River (fatbike route), Transardinia.  Most routes courtesy of bikepacking.it.

Switzerland: National TrailsAlpine Bike #1Panorama Bike #2Jura Bike #3; Alpencross; National website for Mountainbiking in Switzerland

Poland: The Red Trail (Sudecki and Beskidzka, basic info only).  Compass brand maps show all hiking trails and cycling routes, including the long-distance red trails.  Note, the red trail is not a single trail across Poland, but a series of trails with lesser trails marked with painted blazes of other colors.  There is a route most of the way across the country E-W, mostly along red trails.

Czech/Slovakia: 1000 Miles Adventure

Montenegro: Top Biking Trail 3: Eastern Enchantment

Greece: Bike Odyssey

Israel: Holyland Bikepacking Challenge, Israel National Bike Trail (in progress), Israel National Trail (hiking, open to bikes?)

Other resources: Footpaths provide the basis for many routes in Europe, most of which have developed over the past century.  Generally, these routes allow bicycles, with local exclusions, but they do not exclusively travel singletrack trails across wild lands and will pass towns, farmland, and paved sections.  The European Rambler’s Association (ERA) aims to complete a long-distance international trail system of footpaths throughout Europe, with numbered routes from E1-E12 currently in various phases of completion.  Most routes are assembled from pre-existing local and national trails. Each country may provide more detailed resources in the native tongue via dedicated websites or guides about national trail systems, such as the GR5 listed in France and Belgium, above.  Most often, printed regional trail maps can be found at local touristic centers, and commercial maps and guides may also be available.  Detailed roadmaps are also suitable for broad-scale navigation, and often show more detail than typical road maps in the USA.

Also worth mentioning is the EuroVelo network of cycling routes, fashioned much like the ERA, with international cross-continental routes numbered 1-12 in various stages of completion.  EuroVelo routes are generally ridable on a trekking bike, hybrid, or rigid mountain bike, and in some places are not recommended for a tire less than about 40mm.  Check out the EuroVelo6for the popular route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea.

If you wish to submit a route, please provide a link to the best source(s) of information and a brief description of your experience on that route, if any.  To qualify a multi-day off-pavement route for this listing, consider that it must be documented in detail, like the routes listed on Pedaling Nowhere-Routes or Bikepacking.net.

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Poland, The Red Trail

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Czech, Sumava National Park

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Ukraine, Polonina Borzhava

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France, Traversée du Massif Vosgien, Château Bernstein

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Ukraine

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Serbia

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Slovakia, 1000 Miles Adventure

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Greece, Bike Odyssey

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France, TMV

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Greece, Bike Odyssey

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Luxembourg, GR5/E2 trail

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Belgium, GR5/E2 trail

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Guidebooks for routes in Spain.

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Poland, The Red Trail: one of many PTTK resources for hikers and cyclists available in the mountains, often serving hot food and cold beer.

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Maps in a Slovakian supermarket.

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A Greek Bike Odyssey

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Greece is all mountains, they say.  It is easier to name the few non-mountainous places in Greece, like the Plain of Thessaly, than to begin naming all of the ranges and peaks.  There are many narrow unpaved roads connecting villages.  In recent decades, many Greeks have moved to the cities leaving only a handful of old men to sip coffee in the cafes.  Scenic mountains, quiet dirt roads, frequent villages, and plenty of water equal great riding, great camping, and few logistical challenges.  Greece is one of the most inviting places to go looking for unpaved roads in Europe.

When looking for routes in a country I start by browsing a map of the entire region.  I look for mountains and major highways and cities; climate and weather patterns; recommended routes from other touring cyclists and multi-day MTB race routes, as well as routes described in adventure motorcycle and 4×4 forums.  If nothing comes up I look for the largest area with the lowest density of major roads and start connecting the dots.  At other times, I might choose to connect the dots along a stretch of mountainous coastline without a major road.  Contacting someone in the country can be productive.  I e-mailed George, a Greek cyclist and bikepacker from Athens, who recommended an MTB race route called the Bike Odyssey. An 8-day race route is a big discovery.  One that begins near the border of Albania and finishes within range of Athens is even better.  Thanks George!

The Bike Odyssey is a multi-day stage race held in June, including one prologue stage in Laista and seven transit stages which begin and end in different villages.  The total distance of the route is about 400mi (600km) with lots of climbing.  The route connects about 80% dirt roads and 20% pavement and is entirely rideable.  Greek dirt roads are most commonly is good condition, with little to no traffic.  A few sections are modestly technical, typically due to steep grades, loose rocks, and erosion.  The mountainous paved roads all feature extremely low traffic.  Water is available everywhere on the route, thanks to a well-developed network of public springs.  Every town center has a spring, and hundreds are available along the route.  A few springs surprise us at the top of an extended climb.  Many villages no longer have stores, although it may be possible to purchase some bread or cheese from the cafes that remain.  Best to stock up on the essentials in the few larger towns, and augment supplies along the way as needed.  Over the eight or nine day period we sourced food in Konitsa, Metsovo, Karpenissi, and Gravia.  The version of the route which we followed deviates from the route scheduled for 2015.  I suspect our GPS track dates from an earlier version of the race.  The first four days are mostly unchanged.

Crossing from Albania, we pedal a short distance to the small Greek city of Konitsa.  The Bike Odyssey route begins in the nearby village of Laista.  The low valley is full of figs and soon we are both full of figs.  This experience will leave us searching for figs all through the Greek mountains.  We source maps and supplies, and load the track to our GPS.  

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We leave town with about two to three days of food dispersed between framebags and seatpacks.  This nearly fills my bags unless we choose foods which pack more efficiently.  Included are two loaves of bread from the bakery, nearly a kilo of feta, olives, two packs of sausages, orzo, some vegetables, and dried fruits and nuts.  I drain a big bottle of wine into the Klean Kanteen.  Cooking alcohol is available everywhere in Greece, used to fuel small candles at religious monuments and memorials by the roadside and in homes. 

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The paved climb out of Konitsa is an indication of what we will find in these mountains, including steep grades and quiet roads.

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We camp for the night on a narrow ridge above the road, looking across at a high range.  

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I nudge Lael awake at sunrise for some Greek coffee, which is just like Turkish coffee, except that it is Greek coffee.  Don’t call it Turkish coffee.  Don’t tell everyone how much you enjoyed Albania.  Don’t talk about Macedonia, only FYROM.  

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We join the route near Laista and immediately begin climbing towards Vouvousa.

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Vouvousa, in the valley below.

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Here, warm dry air and well drained soils support pine forests.  North facing slopes often support cool beech forests in the same valley.

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Vouvousa is our first town along the route and our first lesson that many villages in Greece no longer have shops.  Thankfully, we’ve packed enough food for the next few days.  We are kindly treated to a round of beers by a man named Dani who is visiting these mountains with his new van, which has been converted for overnight adventures.  It is a welcomed change after a lifetime spent on motorcycles.  Once an official diplomat, a novelist, and a writer for motorcycle magazines, Dani gives us an informative introduction to Greece.

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Climbing into the Pindus National Park.

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Beech.  Reminds me of Maine.

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Pines.  Reminds me of Santa Fe.

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Three months away from Alaska and we’ve lost all of our table manners.  Our clothes haven’t seen a laundry machine since landing in Vienna in July.  We manage to stay reasonably clean, at least considering the company we keep (each other, Albanian kids, old Greek men, Ukrainian women).

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The Bike Odyssey coincides with both the E6 and E4 walking routes at times.

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Aside from this washed-out section of road, not much more than a few hundred meters, almost every inch of the route is rideable.  Keep your eyes open for Bike Odyssey placards taped to signposts and trees; these red and white plastic flags; and red spraypaint, usually indicating the “BO” and an arrow.  Paired with the GPS track, navigation is easy.  The track I downloaded from the official race website may be an early version and led us astray on several occasions.  If the track ever leads you straight into the woods or onto an unreadable route, look for signage on the ground or consider the most obvious path (usually the dirt road you are already on).  

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We detour from the route to Metsovo to buy a few things, which adds an extra climb and descent.  Metsovo and Karpenissi are the two largest cities near the route.

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Leaving Metsovo we cross under and over this highway, which features a series of tunnels through the mountains.  Greece is all mountains.

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We leave Metsovo 18 minutes before sunset and arrive 3500ft higher only a few minutes after it is finally dark, a little over an hour and a half later.  As we approach the top of the road a truck comes quickly from behind, cuts in front, and stop near a pack of dogs.  Greek sheep dogs can be extremely aggressive.  Caution is required, and a handful of rocks is recommended.  When a dog comes running I skid the rear tire to a stop, and pick up a rock.  I throw the rock, genuinely trying to hit the dog, and attempt to pass.  Usually, I must launch a series of rocks to pass an area, and to fend off the four to six dogs which are common with every flock of sheep.  Alternatively, most shepherds will keep the dogs a safe distance, although that doesn’t mean they aren’t baring their teeth and growling from six feet away.

These shepherds tell us that we cannot ride onto the ridge, as there are other dogs that will get us.  It is unsafe.  It is dark, and they aren’t offering solutions.  We’ve seen more than a few dogs in Greece already.  We continue onto the ridge.  The dogs bark, from a distance.  We safely pass two or three shepherd camps, and I can hear dogs barking ahead in the distance.  We camp as far as possible between the camps.  

This time of year the ridges and east-facing slopes are best for camping to ensure the warm, drying sun meets us in the morning.  A few cold nights on the wrong side of the mountain teach us to climb to the ridgetops before the end of every day.

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Not many places to buy food on the route, but we fill our bags and our bellies with apples and figs as much as possible.  

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The northern half of the Bike Odyssey route is characterized by heavily metamorphosed rocks, in constant decay.  Further to the south, more solid volcanics are present.

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On this night, while searching for a place to camp that will receive sun before noon, we stop into a local cafe.  We request permission to camp near the church.  All four men inside agree.

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By morning, we awake to church bells and sun.  A spring gurgles nearby.  

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In fact, there is another cafe in town selling some preserves.  There is one bag of orzo on the shelf and a refrigerator full of cold beers.

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From what we have seen of the E4 and the E6, the trails are little used, rocky, and mostly unridable.  Often, we look to see the trail disappear into the woods, and we can’t see the trail.

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Agrafa is a beautiful town on a mountainside with several cafes.  One cafe on the main street has a small store.

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I expect to find water somewhere along the route, and have not carried any from town 3500ft below.  At the last moment, near the top of the climb at the end of the day, we find some.

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We crest the ridge to camp, but high winds and impending weather send us downward looking for shelter.  We have the option of an abandoned concrete structure or a newer pavilion aside a large cross.  We opt for the pavilion with the water source.  Some wet weather is expected to remain in the area for a few days.

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Addicted to figs, we slow our bicycles when arriving in each town.  Figs do not grow wild in these parts, but when planted near town they can survive and thrive.  We reach over a lot of fences.  We call ourselves the “Fig Robbers”, saving the figs from a rotten existence on the ground.

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During a period of intense rain, we seek an inexpensive hotel in Karpenissi.  From here, we make plans for the winter.  Rather, we’re hoping for an endless summer. 

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Each ridge leads us into a new micro-climate, this one abundant with chestnut trees.  Actually, chestnut trees are also common along other parts of the route, but a fresh chestnut is nothing compared to a fresh fig.

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Some lingering moisture makes a foggy ride away from Karpenissi.  Clearing skies are predicted.

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Mountain roads in Greece are nicely paved, narrow, and nearly traffic free.  However, many roads are damaged or partially blocked due to slumps and rockfall.  Many remain that way.

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In Artotina, a truck passes loaded with fruits and vegetables.  Turkish guys drive around selling produce, announcing themselves from a PA atop the car.  At first I thought they were running for office, then I noticed the broccoli.

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These Bike Odyssey sigs are abundant along the northern half of the route, while spraypaint and plastic flags are more common in the south.

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Again, we crest a ridge at sunset seeking a high camp.  The dogs bark and chase.  I fight valiantly and we narrowly escape to a nearby ridge.  The dogs bark in the night every time I roll over.  They’re good at what they do.  

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The town of Athanasios Diakos, like many others, features a large plaza with a church and four large cafes, but no stores.  It is a mystery to us how these towns, quiet as they are, can support so many large cafes.  And for the remaining residents, why isn’t there a store?  

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We camp near a church and a cemetery before our last day on the route.  It is very easy to camp in Greece.  In town or near town, look for a church.  Out of town, camp almost anywhere.

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On our last day, nearing Delphi, the climate changes once again.  It is hot and dry, and the trees mostly fade to low shrubs.

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At last, we can see the Sea of Corinth.

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Delphi, 1200ft below.  The GPS suggests a small track down the hillside.  I am not sure if this is another mistake in the track, but we go looking.  Note: The current race route does not end in Delphi, but in Amfikleia.

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Oh, my.  After over 350 miles of Divide-style dirt roads, we are treated to a chunky footpath down to town.

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Stairsteps.

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Delphi is important in Greek history, and features many ruins.

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This place is a world away from the rural villages we have come to know.  There are actually some tourists here.  The trend will continue toward Athens.  

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Night.  We fill our bottles and push out of town on a dirt track.  Just below town and above a valley full of olive orchards, in warm dry air, we lay our sleeping bags out under the stars.  We enjoy the air and the sky.  We talk about the winter.  South Africa will be great.

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Albanian Dirt

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For the love of dirt, and Albania. 

If there is a way to slow the clock, riding in the mountains off-pavement is it.  

Dirt brings us back a decade or more, and slows our progress out of the country.  Progress is much less the goal anymore.

We ride through the beautiful city of Korça, and into the hills for a day.  The route of officially unconnected roads doesn’t work out due to impending rain.  Return to pavement after a whole day of pedaling, less then a dozen miles south of where we left it the evening before.  And then, off towards Greece.   

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Ohrid and Galičica National Park, Macedonia

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Back to our game of Balkan hopscotch, we cross the border into Macedonia with the plan to return to Albania in a few days– for a few more days of riding– before crossing into Greece.  We’ve already got our sights on an 8-day MTB race route across the northern half of Greece, called the Bike Odyssey.  This section of rural Macedonia is noted for several larger cities, and mostly, two large lakes, Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa.  Between the two is Galičica National Park, one of three national parks in the country.  A quick study of internet resources reveals a local mountain bike club in Ohrid and an annual race in the park.  A network of signed hiking and mountain bike routes are a welcomed surprise. Unlike the faintly existent national parks in Albania and Montenegro, which almost only appear on maps, this one may have some presence on the ground.

We arrive in our first Macedonian city, which looks and feels familiar.  Some churches, but also mosques and signs in Albanian.

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After exchanging money and buying some fuel, we’re off into the hills.  It is always fun to source fuel in each country: to learn what it is called and where it can be purchased.  In the Balkans, the pharmacy is usually the best place to look for the high grade 96% stuff.  Just ask nicely and look as sober as possible.  It is for my “kitchen” I tell the pharmacist, for “kamping“.

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This is strong stuff.  It burns like rocket fuel in the Penny Stove with almost no smell, which is nice when heating water under the rainfly on a damp morning.

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The road narrows and each community in these hills waves a Turkish flag.  Something is amiss.  We sit for coffee with a Macedonian guy that lived on Staten Island for some time, and he explains that “recent” Turkish immigrants have established small communities in this region.  Many cities and towns along the Albanian border are, nearly, Albanian.  Statistically about 65% of the country is Macedonian, 25% Albanian, and about 4% Turkish.  Officially, Macedonia is in conflict with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia, which is also a region in modern Greece, and of course, the name of the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great.  The temporary name in use is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.  The Greeks insist on using this name, and I’ve even seen the acronym in parentheses on maps.  To be fair, the recent government of Macedonia has supported some provocative campaigns of Antiquisation, drawing connections between the moderns Macedonians and Alexander the Great.  The Greeks claim the ancient Macedons and Alexander as their own.  It’s complicated and important on many levels, but it is hard not to think the dispute is also petty.  It is just a name, right?  The Balkans maintain a level of tension.  It is interesting to ask country A what they think of country B, and B about C, and C about B, and F about A, and so on.  I discretely let these topics come up in conversation.

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Climbing away from Debar and the dammed Debar Lake, we meet two young Turkish guys on a self-propelled mountain bike shuttle.  They labor up the road as high as possible to turn back and enjoy the descent.    That’s the international language of mountain biking.

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Eventually the road turns to dirt.  Clouds join us for the evening.  The mosque sits like a rocket ship, poised at the center of town.

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Sheep come round, by the hundreds.  The musical clanging of sheep’s bells in the Balkans is ever-present up high.

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Lastly, this guy sat in front of our tent for some time.  Not all Balkan sheep dogs are so mild mannered.  Some, as in Greece and Romania, will bare their teeth in genuine aggression.  I can’t blame them for their line of work.

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All those walnuts and acorns we’ve received become a treat of salted caramelized nuts.  Nice to have an abundance of high grade alcohol for such culinary exploits.  I’ve really enjoyed the new 0.85L MSR Titan titanium pot.  It is the perfect size, shape and weight for cooking and packing.  It appears to be constructed for the long haul, and easily stores our stove, pot support, and windscreen, along with a plastic container of sea salt, and a bag of tea or coffee. 

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The next day we descend through several more Turkish communities on our way to Struga and Ohrid.

The Struga waterfront is developed for summertime tourism, although cool and windy on this fall day.  Reminds me of home to feel the wind off the water like this.

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Looking out towards the nearby city of Ohrid and the mountains of Galicica National Park.

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Ohrid is a popular touristic destination.  Many people are speaking English in the main square along the waterfront.  We go looking for the market and a map.  Next, a discount German grocery chain supplies the orzo, wine, and sausages before riding into the hills for the night.

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Saints Cyril and Methodius are credited with bringing Orthodox Christianity and a written language to the Slavs.

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A quick bath before the end of the day…

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…and a climb out of town.  

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Some singletrack in there, along a wide bench-cut trail.

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Stop in at a local monastery in the mountains for water, although the spigot has a broken handle.  No one is around.

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Following a night of wind and rain, morning brings clearing skies over Ohrid and the lake.

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Signage keeps up on track, funded in part by Germany.  Elsewhere in the Balkans we see touristic facilities funded by the Austrians and Swiss.

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The GPS indicates a spring nearby, which we soon find via hiking signs and the word ВОДА.

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Rocky and well drained, the road climbs over the ridge leading to a rocky alpine meadow.  The MTB routes in the park are exclusively on dirt roads, which is typical of official mountain bike resources in much of Europe. 

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Detailed maps are posted at major junctions.

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Typical European hiking signs: directions, distance, and time.  These red and white signs have led us from Holland, in part.

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These newer bike specific signs are nice, indicating the distance to bike specific junctions.  There is one major route that claims a total distance of about 55km, traversing the mountains north to south.  This is a nice connector for anyone riding through the area and should be rideable on most any bike with a 2.0″ tire or greater.

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Feels like the American West, down to the color of the mud.

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Even the consistency is familiar.  Ooph.  I do my best to ride around the worst of the mud in the tall grasses or through the puddles, which alternately wash away some mud while adding a lather of watery mud to my wheels, resulting in a net loss of matter.  

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The generous clearances of the Surly Krampus are put to good use, and the bike keeps rolling.  Chain to tire clearance in the small chainring is good with Shimano MTB doubles, such as my Deore, but not as good as the Surly OD crank.  The chainline on the Shimano cranks is better than the Surly crank, for performance and drivetrain wear.  The big-big combination with the Surly crank is far from ideal, but the clearance is likely necessary if using 3.0″ tires.  Any MTB triple will locate the inner ring even nearer to the tire, as on Lael’s bike which uses a Race Face triple converted to a double with a bash guard.  In such conditions I try to use the big chainring to avoid jamming the chain full of mud. 

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Even the Fox fork lets the muddy tire pass freely.

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I stop to wait for Lael.  She arrives, carrying her bike.  

That’s not good.  But that’s not the problem.

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That’s the problem.  I’m carrying two spare derailleur hangers for her bike, remnants from the time when we both rode a Raleigh XXIX and used the same hanger.  I’m down to one, which is fine as both of our bikes can be easily set-up singlespeed.  Her bike has an eccentric bottom bracket and mine, rear facing Surly dropouts.

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It is not terribly important for the hanger to be especially strong, as it is designed to break before the derailleur or the frame, but these Wheels Manufacturing hangers are much nicer than the cheap Amazon.com hanger that it replaces.

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Her drivetrain has been unhappy for some time, the result of a cheap cassette and too much wear on the first chain before replacement.  Her drivetrain took a few days to settle after the new chain, while mine was just fine.  She also likes to ride in the little chainring, and thus uses the smaller cogs more frequently.  

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Her bike is rolling again, and we connect to the paved road at the pass.  From here, we can descend to Lake Ohrid or Lake Prespa.  We continue toward Prespa, and to a quiet border crossing with Albania.  There is even a little singletrack along the way, cow trails I think, that cut the switchbacks on the paved road.  I wonder if there is more of this in the area.  Some of the hiking trails we saw looked prime for riding; others are rocky and steep.

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Once back in Albania, we order a beer in Albanian.  A Macedonian beer arrives, which is not uncommon in the area if you order a big beer (0.5L).  A local boy stops to check out the bikes, wearing a jacket with the Macedonian flag and colors.

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The Macedonian flag waves proudly in the next few villages we visit, yet we are in Albania.

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Looking for a water source, the town center features a church and a fountain with a cross.  For all the Albanian and Turkish villages we visited in Macedonia, the only rural Macedonian villages we see are in Albania.  

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Back to Albanian Albania tomorrow!

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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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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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Return to Borzhava, Zakarpats’ka Oblast, Ukraine

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The discoveries of one day become the fuel for another.  For this reason, I have a tendency to revisit the same places and choose another path.  We’ve ridden up and down the west coast a few times, twice down the Divide, to Colorado and the southwest for a third season of fall riding, and to Europe for a second summer in a row.  Each ride leaves unridden routes.  When touring on pavement, we used to say that the world was getting smaller with each pedal stroke.  But the discoveries of off-pavement touring seem to make the world bigger.  These opportunities are not always apparent from afar.  Up close, they come into view.  Zoom in close on the GPS and a network or serpentine red lines appear.

Last summer, we hardly knew what to expect when we touched down in Amsterdam with our bikes.  We return to Europe this summer with the knowledge that there are overwhelming opportunities for off-pavement riding.  Last summer, we crossed borders from west to east until crossing into Ukraine, where things changed greatly.  This summer we return to the east and to Ukraine with an understanding of how things work, how some things just don’t work, and how to get around on two wheels.  We return to the Karpaty in spite of the cold rainy weather from last fall.  

This time around, being in Ukraine is familiar.  The weather is cooperating.  The roads and rides have been great, so far.  We’ve discovered that on Sunday mornings we can visit as many as a half-dozen churches, in active service, while riding through villages.  We also learned that the Ukrainian currency has plummeted in value by 50% in the last few months.  Last time we calculated about 8 hryvnia to the dollar, this time it is more than 12.  As such, a cup of coffee or tea is much less than a dollar, a cold pint of Obolon is often only sixty cents, and a cup of borsch is barely a full American bill.

Surely, there are reasons for this dramatic change.  We’re in Kolochava for a few days, enjoying the hospitality of a large guest house.  The televisor spits out images and details of the situation near Donetsk, in between dubbed American films, infomercials for butt-shaping walking shoes, and Russian soaps.  The Ukrainian border guard made jokes about Lael’s passport photo, calling out to his superior that she looks like a pro-Russian militant, laughing (she does).  The superior paused for a closer look, took a serious look at us, took another look at the passport, and waved us on.  There are some serious things happening on that side of the country, nearly a thousand miles away.  Not that nobody cares, but here it makes for small talk, mostly.  Tourism to this historic mountain village is reported to be about half of normal this summer.  For current English-language news from Ukraine, the Kyiv Post is a good source in addition to some major news organizations such as the BBC.  We’ve also discovered a substantial monthly publication entitled New Eastern Europe, full of essays and editorials from the region, in English.  The magazine is published in Poland, and the current issue focuses on the Ukrainian situation, through the lens of Polish, Georgian, Belorussian, and Ukrainan writers, among others.  The opening interview is with former Polish president Lech Wałȩsa.  

Riding from Slovakia, we detour though Uzghorod, and into the mountains on a series of forest roads and small paved roads.  We shoot for Volovets, to return to Polonina Borzhava.  Przemek led us up the mountain for the first time last year, before an impending thunderstorm sent us bombing down the mountainsides.  An long-term forecast for rain convinced us to catch a train to Crimea.  We intersect our route last year to follow an unfinished path through the Ukrainian Karpaty to Romania.  

Coming over the hill into Volovets.  One of the larger towns in the region, it features a regional train to Lviv for only a dollar or two, and more than a few food stores.  As such, it is a popular starting point for adventures.  There are nicer towns to visit in the mountains, although the setting is scenic.

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Soviet murals exist on large buildings and bus stops.  This is one of my favorites, featuring a couple in traditional mountain dress backdropped by sheep and a rocket and a radio antenna.  The man is holding a chainsaw.

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Packed with food for a day, we climb out of town to camp up high.

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Daily thunderstorms ensure our bikes remain muddy.  Logging trucks and six-wheel drive vehicles ensure some roads remain rutted.  

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We’ve been here before and know that eventually, the road improves.  The light improves as the evening passes.

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The mud ends, the sun sets, and we encounter a flat spot to camp.  Before dawn, people are quietly talking and walking up the mountain.  I suspect they are up early to pick mushrooms.  

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The next day, we discover that everyone is hiking up high to pick and rake blueberries.  These kids from Mukacheve are planning to haul a barrel of berries down the mountain at the end of the day.  They bring a sample of last year’s wine.

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We climb up the steep road at about the same rate as a 67 year old woman, walking.  Czechia?  Polscha?  

Amerikansky, I reply.  

Everyone thinks we are Czech.  In Czech, they all think we are German.  In France, they suppose we are Dutch.  In Holland, they know we are American.

She loves the Karpaty, and swoons when we tell her we have a whole month to enjoy.

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Plai is the first major peak at about 1300m, above 4000ft.  There is a weather station and an assemblage of antennae.

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From Plai, the trail pushes to Veliky Verkh, above 1500m, and 5000ft.

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Everyone is picking berries up high.  Dots on distant hillsides slowly work side to side, clearing only a fraction of the berries on the mountain. 

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This truck full of gypsies will spend the day collecting berries, before driving back down the mountain.  It is a steep drive up and down, especially with twenty people in the back of the truck.  The Ukrainian Roma are much friendlier than those in Slovakia, thus far.  

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Everyone is enjoying the weather up high, on Saturday.  People walk up from Volovets and Pylypets; motorcycles scream past, and a truck full of novice parasailers circle the sky.

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We continue on the polonina past our exit point last year.  The trail narrows as it descends into the trees.

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Our snack bags are nearly empty, and we point towards Mizhhir’ya at the end of this segment of the red trail.  Rutted roads, no longer is use by four-wheels vehicles, descend the mountain.

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Juniper.

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Eventually onto active farm roads into town.

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From here, a quick up and over into the next valley.  That road will descend all the way to Mizhhir’ya.

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Passing the first few homes, I stop to photograph an especially characteristic wooden home.  A woman calls out from the shade, “Dobre vechyr!”  I call back.

Within minutes, we’ve holding bowls of hot mushroom soup and bread.  She offers a bottle of cold beer.  No kidding.  We’re pretty lucky.

Soon, she’s talking about where we will sleep, and what we’ll eat for breakfast.  I compromise and agree to stay, but we will sleep outside, I tell her.  And for breakfast, we only want coffee and tea.  Don’t bother to make too much food for us.  She agrees, and we still awake to a feast of fried potatoes with salo, onion with salt and vinegar, tomatoes, and bread.  I oblige, out of necessity.

Христина was born here.  Her children live in nearby villages, and her mother died about five years ago.  She now keeps three small homes on this property, by herself.  She shows us pictures of her family.  We all sit down to watch the televisor, as she explains the complicated backstory behind Natasha and Mykyta’s love, and his relation to the other girl that lives on the Black Sea in a nice house, and the doctor, and the other red-haired woman and the attractive blond guy.  “Quiet.  Listen.”,  she says.  Then she continues talking about what is happening in the show.  The program captivates her imagination.  She turns it off and we sit outside on the grass for dinner.  

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