Albanian Dirt

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For the love of dirt, and Albania. 

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

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

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

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Willing hostages in Albania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Juniper berries, ripe and ready to become raki.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Instead, we continue overland down to Cajë.

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And down the valley back towards the pavement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Return to Albania: Valbonë, Fierzë, Kukës

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can’t pass up this opportunity.

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

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

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The road climbs above the dam, rounding the hillsides.  

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

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

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

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

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

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And fish farms, in the mountains.

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Names of cities, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Albania! Albania! Albania!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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He’s making raki.

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Amazing the things people make when they cannot be bought.

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

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

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

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

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We descend from Bratosh toward the main road.

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It seems the road has been paved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cheeses and mustached men.

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Out of town, past the post office.

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Now begins the kind of rides we seek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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