Albanian Dirt

Nicholas Carman1 1469

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.   

Nicholas Carman1 1935

Nicholas Carman1 1937

Nicholas Carman1 1654

Nicholas Carman1 1936

Nicholas Carman1 1939

Nicholas Carman1 1972

Nicholas Carman1 1940

Nicholas Carman1 1941

Nicholas Carman1 1943

Nicholas Carman1 1945

Nicholas Carman1 1946

Nicholas Carman1 1948

Nicholas Carman1 1950

Nicholas Carman1 1951

Nicholas Carman1 1952

Nicholas Carman1 1953

Nicholas Carman1 1954

Nicholas Carman1 1955

Nicholas Carman1 1956

Nicholas Carman1 1957

Nicholas Carman1 1958

Nicholas Carman1 1834

Nicholas Carman1 1959

Nicholas Carman1 1960

Nicholas Carman1 1961

Nicholas Carman1 1963

Nicholas Carman1 1964

Nicholas Carman1 1965

Nicholas Carman1 1975

Nicholas Carman1 1966

Nicholas Carman1 1968

Nicholas Carman1 1967

Nicholas Carman1 1969

Nicholas Carman1 1971

Nicholas Carman1 1974

Nicholas Carman1 1976

Nicholas Carman1 1978

Nicholas Carman1 1977

Ohrid and Galičica National Park, Macedonia

Nicholas Carman1 1918

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1854

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“.

Nicholas Carman1 1925

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1863

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1857

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1858

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1859

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

Nicholas Carman1 1860

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1861

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. 

Nicholas Carman1 1862

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1864

Nicholas Carman1 1926

Nicholas Carman1 1875

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

Nicholas Carman1 1867

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1868

Nicholas Carman1 1869

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

Nicholas Carman1 1873

Nicholas Carman1 1874

A quick bath before the end of the day…

Nicholas Carman1 1876

…and a climb out of town.  

Nicholas Carman1 1877

Nicholas Carman1 1878

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

Nicholas Carman1 1879

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

Nicholas Carman1 1881

Nicholas Carman1 1880

Nicholas Carman1 1883

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

Nicholas Carman1 1927

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

Nicholas Carman1 1882

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

Nicholas Carman1 1885

Nicholas Carman1 1886

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. 

Nicholas Carman1 1888

Nicholas Carman1 1889

Detailed maps are posted at major junctions.

Nicholas Carman1 1893

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

Nicholas Carman1 1891

Nicholas Carman1 1895

Nicholas Carman1 1898

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1899

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

Nicholas Carman1 1897

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1496

Nicholas Carman1 1900

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. 

Nicholas Carman1 1499

Even the Fox fork lets the muddy tire pass freely.

Nicholas Carman1 1498

Nicholas Carman1 1906

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 1903

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1502

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1907

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1909

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1910

Nicholas Carman1 1912

Nicholas Carman1 1911

Nicholas Carman1 1914

Nicholas Carman1 1915

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1917

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

Nicholas Carman1 1913

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1919

Back to Albanian Albania tomorrow!

Nicholas Carman1 1920

 

Willing hostages in Albania

Nicholas Carman1 1771

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1733

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1736

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

Nicholas Carman1 1737

Nicholas Carman1 1738

Nicholas Carman1 1739

Nicholas Carman1 1740

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.   

Nicholas Carman1 1742

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1759

Nicholas Carman1 1761

Nicholas Carman1 1762

Nicholas Carman1 1744

Nicholas Carman1 1746

Nicholas Carman1 1747

Nicholas Carman1 1751

Nicholas Carman1 1763

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1764

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1773

Nicholas Carman1 1769

Nicholas Carman1 1765

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1767

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1768

Nicholas Carman1 1770

Nicholas Carman1 1774

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1776

Juniper berries, ripe and ready to become raki.

Nicholas Carman1 1777

Nicholas Carman1 1778

Nicholas Carman1 1779

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1780

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1781

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1782

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

Nicholas Carman1 1784

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

Nicholas Carman1 1785

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1789

Nicholas Carman1 1788

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1791

Nicholas Carman1 1790

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

Nicholas Carman1 1792

Instead, we continue overland down to Cajë.

Nicholas Carman1 1793ë

Nicholas Carman1 1795

And down the valley back towards the pavement.

Nicholas Carman1 1796

Nicholas Carman1 1797

Nicholas Carman1 1798

Nicholas Carman1 1801

Nicholas Carman1 1799

Nicholas Carman1 1800

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1802

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1804

Nicholas Carman1 1808

Nicholas Carman1 1812

Nicholas Carman1 1809

Nicholas Carman1 1811

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1805

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

Nicholas Carman1 1813

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. 

Nicholas Carman1 1814

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1815

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1823

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…

Nicholas Carman1 1819

Nicholas Carman1 1817

Nicholas Carman1 1818

Nicholas Carman1 1821

Nicholas Carman1 1826

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1830

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1832

Nicholas Carman1 1833

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

Nicholas Carman1 1835

Return to Albania: Valbonë, Fierzë, Kukës

Nicholas Carman1 1721

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1658

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

Nicholas Carman1 1637

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

Nicholas Carman1 1639

Nicholas Carman1 1638

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.    

Nicholas Carman1 1641

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

Nicholas Carman1 1642

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1643

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

Nicholas Carman1 1645

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1646

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1647

Nicholas Carman1 1648

Nicholas Carman1 1649

Nicholas Carman1 1650

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1651

Nicholas Carman1 1652

Nicholas Carman1 1653

Nicholas Carman1 1657

Nicholas Carman1 1656

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

Nicholas Carman1 1686

Nicholas Carman1 1687

Nicholas Carman1 1688

Can’t pass up this opportunity.

Nicholas Carman1 1689

Nicholas Carman1 1691

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1693

Nicholas Carman1 1695

Nicholas Carman1 1694

Nicholas Carman1 1696

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1698

Nicholas Carman1 1700

The road climbs above the dam, rounding the hillsides.  

Nicholas Carman1 1701

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1702

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1703

Nicholas Carman1 1704

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1705

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

Nicholas Carman1 1706

And fish farms, in the mountains.

Nicholas Carman1 1707

Names of cities, of course.

Nicholas Carman1 1710

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1711

Nicholas Carman1 1712

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1713

Nicholas Carman1 1714

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1717

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.   

Nicholas Carman1 1718

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1719

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1720

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1723

Nicholas Carman1 1722

Nicholas Carman1 1724

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1726

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

Nicholas Carman1 1729

Nicholas Carman1 1728

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! 

Nicholas Carman1 1730

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1732

Eastern Enchantment on the Top Biking Trail 3, Montenegro

Nicholas Carman1 1551

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1604

Nicholas Carman1 1605

Nicholas Carman1 1606

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. 

Nicholas Carman1 1509

Nicholas Carman1 1464

Nicholas Carman1 1510

Nicholas Carman1 1512

Nicholas Carman1 1513

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1514

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

Nicholas Carman1 1515

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1516

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

Nicholas Carman1 1517

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1518

Nicholas Carman1 1524

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1523

Nicholas Carman1 1519

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1525

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1526

Nicholas Carman1 1527

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1528

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1531

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1529

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1545

Nicholas Carman1 1546

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1550

Nicholas Carman1 1533

Nicholas Carman1 1534

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1538

His sister sets about harvesting potatoes.

Nicholas Carman1 1541

He joins, joyously.  

Nicholas Carman1 1543

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1537

Nicholas Carman1 1535

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…

Nicholas Carman1 1549

Nicholas Carman1 1554

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1555

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1556

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1466

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1557

Smiling, stuffed and pedaling once again.

Nicholas Carman1 1560

Nicholas Carman1 1561

Nicholas Carman1 1562

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

Nicholas Carman1 1563

Nicholas Carman1 1564

Several options exist from the ridge.

Nicholas Carman1 1565

Nicholas Carman1 1568

Nicholas Carman1 1566

Nicholas Carman1 1567

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1569

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1570

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1571

Nicholas Carman1 1572

Nicholas Carman1 1573

Nicholas Carman1 1574

Off to Kosovo, in the rain!

Nicholas Carman1 1576

Albania! Albania! Albania!

Nicholas Carman1 1444

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1352

Nicholas Carman1 1355

Nicholas Carman1 1354

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1353

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1356

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

Nicholas Carman1 1357

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1358

Nicholas Carman1 1359

Nicholas Carman1 1361

Nicholas Carman1 1360

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1362

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

Nicholas Carman1 1363

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1364

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

Nicholas Carman1 1366

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1368

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1370

Nicholas Carman1 1378

Nicholas Carman1 1369

Nicholas Carman1 1371

Nicholas Carman1 1374

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1375

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1376

Nicholas Carman1 1377

Nicholas Carman1 1379

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1382

Nicholas Carman1 1380

Nicholas Carman1 1383

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1384

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

Nicholas Carman1 1365

He’s making raki.

Nicholas Carman1 1385

Amazing the things people make when they cannot be bought.

Nicholas Carman1 1386

Nicholas Carman1 1388

Nicholas Carman1 1391

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

Nicholas Carman1 1389

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1390

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

Nicholas Carman1 1393

Nicholas Carman1 1392

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

Nicholas Carman1 1394

We descend from Bratosh toward the main road.

Nicholas Carman1 1400

Nicholas Carman1 1395

It seems the road has been paved.

Nicholas Carman1 1398

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

Nicholas Carman1 1399

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1401

Nicholas Carman1 1402

Nicholas Carman1 1403

Nicholas Carman1 1404

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

Nicholas Carman1 1405

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

Nicholas Carman1 1406

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

Nicholas Carman1 1411

Nicholas Carman1 1409

Nicholas Carman1 1413

Nicholas Carman1 1414

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1415

Nicholas Carman1 1423

Nicholas Carman1 1422

Nicholas Carman1 1417

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1416

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1420

Cheeses and mustached men.

Nicholas Carman1 1421

Nicholas Carman1 1459

Nicholas Carman1 1460

Out of town, past the post office.

Nicholas Carman1 1424

Now begins the kind of rides we seek.

Nicholas Carman1 1426

Nicholas Carman1 1427

Nicholas Carman1 1428

Nicholas Carman1 1432

Nicholas Carman1 1430

Nicholas Carman1 1431

Nicholas Carman1 1433

Nicholas Carman1 1435

Nicholas Carman1 1434

Nicholas Carman1 1436

Nicholas Carman1 1437

Nicholas Carman1 1438

Nicholas Carman1 1439

Nicholas Carman1 1441

Nicholas Carman1 1442

Nicholas Carman1 1443

Nicholas Carman1 1445

Nicholas Carman1 1446

Nicholas Carman1 1448

Nicholas Carman1 1450

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.   

Nicholas Carman1 1449

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1462

Nicholas Carman1 1451

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1452

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

Nicholas Carman1 1453

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.

Nicholas Carman1 1454

Nicholas Carman1 1455

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  

Nicholas Carman1 1456

Nicholas Carman1 1457

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

 Nicholas Carman1 1463

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 1464

Nicholas Carman1 1468

Return to Borzhava, Zakarpats’ka Oblast, Ukraine

Nicholas Carman1 868

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.

Nicholas Carman1 789

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.

Nicholas Carman1 790

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

Nicholas Carman1 793

Nicholas Carman1 792

Nicholas Carman1 796

Nicholas Carman1 797

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

Nicholas Carman1 798

Nicholas Carman1 801

 

Nicholas Carman1 800

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

Nicholas Carman1 802

Nicholas Carman1 803

Nicholas Carman1 804

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 805

Nicholas Carman1 806

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.

Nicholas Carman1 807

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.

Nicholas Carman1 808

Nicholas Carman1 809

Nicholas Carman1 866

Nicholas Carman1 811

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

Nicholas Carman1 812

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

Nicholas Carman1 815

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. 

Nicholas Carman1 816

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 824

Nicholas Carman1 817

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.

Nicholas Carman1 819

Nicholas Carman1 822

Nicholas Carman1 825

Nicholas Carman1 827

Nicholas Carman1 828

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

Nicholas Carman1 829

Nicholas Carman1 832

Nicholas Carman1 830

Nicholas Carman1 831

Nicholas Carman1 833

Nicholas Carman1 834

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.

Nicholas Carman1 838

Juniper.

Nicholas Carman1 839

Eventually onto active farm roads into town.

Nicholas Carman1 840

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

Nicholas Carman1 843

Nicholas Carman1 844

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.  

Nicholas Carman1 849

Nicholas Carman1 861

Nicholas Carman1 846

Nicholas Carman1 848

Nicholas Carman1 865

Nicholas Carman1 851

Ukraine, so far

Nicholas Carman1 738

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 739

Nicholas Carman1 740

Nicholas Carman1 742

Nicholas Carman1 769

Nicholas Carman1 765

Nicholas Carman1 767

Nicholas Carman1 768

Nicholas Carman1 766

Nicholas Carman1 744

Nicholas Carman1 743

Nicholas Carman1 745

Nicholas Carman1 746

Nicholas Carman1 748

Nicholas Carman1 750

Nicholas Carman1 751

Nicholas Carman1 752

Nicholas Carman1 753

Nicholas Carman1 756

Nicholas Carman1 757

Nicholas Carman1 758

Nicholas Carman1 759

Nicholas Carman1 760

Nicholas Carman1 761

Nicholas Carman1 762

Nicholas Carman1 763

Nicholas Carman1 736

Nicholas Carman1 747

Across Slovakia, up high

Nicholas Carman1 590

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

Nicholas Carman1 726

Nicholas Carman1 511

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

Nicholas Carman1 514

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

Nicholas Carman1 516

Nicholas Carman1 518

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

Nicholas Carman1 522

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

Nicholas Carman1 524

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

Nicholas Carman1 526

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

Nicholas Carman1 528

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

Nicholas Carman1 529

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 530

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

Nicholas Carman1 532

Climbing into the rain…

Nicholas Carman1 534

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

Nicholas Carman1 538

The morning is foggy, without rain.

Nicholas Carman1 540

Nicholas Carman1 541

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

Nicholas Carman1 494

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

Nicholas Carman1 544

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

Nicholas Carman1 545

Nicholas Carman1 727

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

Nicholas Carman1 548

Nicholas Carman1 549

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

Nicholas Carman1 552

Nicholas Carman1 554

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

Nicholas Carman1 553

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

Nicholas Carman1 555

A hiking shelter.

Nicholas Carman1 558

Nicholas Carman1 559

Up…

Nicholas Carman1 566

Nicholas Carman1 568

up…

Nicholas Carman1 560

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

Nicholas Carman1 564

Nicholas Carman1 565

Nicholas Carman1 567

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

Nicholas Carman1 576

Nicholas Carman1 570

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

Nicholas Carman1 573

Nicholas Carman1 575

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

Nicholas Carman1 577

Nicholas Carman1 578

Nicholas Carman1 579

Nicholas Carman1 583

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 483

Nicholas Carman1 585

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

Nicholas Carman1 586

Down, down, down…

Nicholas Carman1 591

Nicholas Carman1 588

Nicholas Carman1 589

Nicholas Carman1 592

Nicholas Carman1 594

Nicholas Carman1 595

Nicholas Carman1 596

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

Nicholas Carman1 598

Nicholas Carman1 600

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

Nicholas Carman1 599

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

Nicholas Carman1 601

The route takes a hike over some high meadows.

Nicholas Carman1 602

Nicholas Carman1 605

Nicholas Carman1 604

Nicholas Carman1 606

Nicholas Carman1 607

Nicholas Carman1 610

And down grazing lands and logging tracks.

Nicholas Carman1 611

Nicholas Carman1 612

Nicholas Carman1 613

Nicholas Carman1 615

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

Nicholas Carman1 617

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

Nicholas Carman1 618

Nicholas Carman1 620

Nicholas Carman1 621

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

Nicholas Carman1 622

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

Nicholas Carman1 623

Six-wheel drive ensures the road remains a quagmire.

Nicholas Carman1 624

Nicholas Carman1 629

Nicholas Carman1 630

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

Nicholas Carman1 631

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

Nicholas Carman1 643

Nicholas Carman1 645

Nicholas Carman1 648

Nicholas Carman1 644

Nicholas Carman1 651

Nicholas Carman1 652

Nicholas Carman1 653

Nicholas Carman1 655

Nicholas Carman1 656

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

Nicholas Carman1 657

Nicholas Carman1 728

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

Nicholas Carman1 658

Nicholas Carman1 670

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

Nicholas Carman1 678

To Slovakia!–nothing not to like

Nicholas Carman1 453

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

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

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 314

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 305

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

Nicholas Carman1 356

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

Nicholas Carman1 357

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

Nicholas Carman1 358

What time is it?

Nicholas Carman1 363

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 364

Nicholas Carman1 365

Nicholas Carman1 366

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 367

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

Nicholas Carman1 368

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

Nicholas Carman1 370

Nicholas Carman1 371

Nicholas Carman1 372

Nicholas Carman1 373

Nicholas Carman1 374

Nicholas Carman1 375

Nicholas Carman1 377

Nicholas Carman1 380

Nicholas Carman1 379

Large Soviet housing projects are common in these eastern cities.

Nicholas Carman1 381

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

Nicholas Carman1 383

Nicholas Carman1 384

Nicholas Carman1 382

Nicholas Carman1 385

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

Nicholas Carman1 387

Dirt, right out of the city.

Nicholas Carman1 386

Nicholas Carman1 388

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

Nicholas Carman1 389

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

Nicholas Carman1 390

And plenty of signage.  Lots of signage.

Nicholas Carman1 391

Nicholas Carman1 392

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

Nicholas Carman1 393

Nicholas Carman1 395

Nicholas Carman1 396

Nicholas Carman1 397

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

Nicholas Carman1 398

Nicholas Carman1 399

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

Nicholas Carman1 401

22-32.  This one gets a lot of use.

Nicholas Carman1 402

Nicholas Carman1 403

Nicholas Carman1 404

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

Nicholas Carman1 405

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

Nicholas Carman1 406

Nicholas Carman1 407

Nicholas Carman1 409

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

Nicholas Carman1 414

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

Nicholas Carman1 415

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

Nicholas Carman1 417

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

Nicholas Carman1 419

Nicholas Carman1 420

Nicholas Carman1 422

Nicholas Carman1 423

Dobra Voda.

Nicholas Carman1 424

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

Nicholas Carman1 425

Nicholas Carman1 426

Nicholas Carman1 427

Nicholas Carman1 428

Nicholas Carman1 429

Nicholas Carman1 431

Nicholas Carman1 432

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

Nicholas Carman1 433

Nicholas Carman1 434

Nicholas Carman1 435

Nicholas Carman1 436

Nicholas Carman1 437

Nicholas Carman1 439

Nicholas Carman1 440

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

Nicholas Carman1 441

Nicholas Carman1 443

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

Nicholas Carman1 444

Nicholas Carman1 445

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

Nicholas Carman1 446

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

Nicholas Carman1 447

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

Nicholas Carman1 448

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 450

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

Nicholas Carman1 452

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

Nicholas Carman1 455

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

Nicholas Carman1 457

Nicholas Carman1 458

Nicholas Carman1 460

Nicholas Carman1 416

Nicholas Carman1 461

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

Nicholas Carman1 469

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 464

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

Nicholas Carman1 467

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

Nicholas Carman1 470

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

Nicholas Carman1 471

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

Nicholas Carman1 473

Nicholas Carman1 474

Nicholas Carman1 475

Nicholas Carman1 476

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

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

Nicholas Carman1 477

Nicholas Carman1 456

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

Nicholas Carman1 478

Nicholas Carman1 480

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

Nicholas Carman1 482

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

Nicholas Carman1 481