Wild Albania

8 Posted by - October 25, 2014 - Albania, Bike Tour, Pedal, Travel
It’s not quite sunrise yet but I’m awake as the first cars pass our tent, pitched at dusk the night before and shielded from the road by just a few trees. I squeeze my eyes shut and will myself to sleep, at least until the sun illuminates our life’s possessions, which have been whittled down to fit inside our three-pound-seven-ounce nylon home. It’s no use. I don’t know of a single person who has been to the country in Southeastern Europe we are about to roll into—or anyone who even desires to visit for that matter. It’s the first country that is more than “foreign.” It’s utterly unknown. And I’m terrified. Picturesque photos and tales of wonderful experiences from fellow bike tourers are what push me out of the tent, onto my bike and toward Albania.

20140918-DSC_2775 20140905-DSC_2047Don't let that smile fool you; Gabby Douglas is performing her gold medal routine in my stomach.

From the start, Albania—bordered by Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece—gives off a wild feel. At the border crossing, stray dogs weave through idling trucks. A few kilometers further, a shepherd crosses our path flanked by his flock. Colorful houses are adorned with vegetable gardens and livestock. 20140908-DSC_2146 20140908-DSC_2149 20140911-DSC_2324 Before we entered the country, we were warned that the roads would be bad. In actuality, the main road we are riding along has nary a pothole and is one of the first we’ve come across with an actual shoulder. We pull into a gas station attempting to find out where we can exchange money and buy food. Several minutes, lots of charades and three attendants later, we are told there is a bank in Koplic. We ride 10 kilometers to the town center and are immediately thrust into organized chaos. As cars speed by, we notice an equal amount of right- and left-hand drive vehicles. We withdraw 5,500 Albanian Lekë ($50 USD) and turn to look for a market, but are sidetracked by a passing train of cars embellished with red and white tulle, honking incessantly. The “conductor” gives Justin a thumbs up and passengers from the middle cars fling candy out of windows. I pull my camera out of my handlebar bag and just as I press the shutter, firecrackers—or are they gunshots?—jolt me to hyper-consciousness.

20140905-DSC_2053 A blurry thumbs up from the gleeful groom!

It’s our first of many Albanian weddings, on what just so happens to be our fourth wedding anniversary. The mayhem is overwhelming and so we begin the 24-kilometer climb out of town and into Albania’s Accursed Mountains. 20140908-DSC_2136 20140908-DSC_213520140908-DSC_2124 Rain falls and we pass wild pigs... 20140906-DSC_2092 wild blackberries... 20140905-DSC_2063 and wild…people. Really. Deep into the mountains (a.k.a. in the middle of nowhere), we come across elderly men in suits and ties the same color as their natural surroundings sitting on the side of the road.

20140905-DSC_2064 To Justin's left, a dapper gent blends into the wilderness.

Hours pass, the road before us steepens and I’m not sure how much more of Albania’s Alps I can handle. Justin tells me we’ll stop in a village a few kilometers up the road to get food and then set up camp on our way out of town. But when we get to Razma, he surprises me with this. 20140905-DSC_2076 We feast on locally-made food, swim in the  indoor pool and even hike to a cave with one of the employees at Natyral Razma Resort. We are booked for two nights, but Justin gets sick and can’t leave the bed on the day we’re set to leave, so we stay an extra night. With Justin still feeling slightly ill, we leave Razma and pedal 30 or so kilometers to a hotel in Shkodër, where a wedding reception is in full swing. Traditional music thumps on the first floor and the smell of pig, which is being roasted in the back alley, wafts through our open window. Justin’s health improves as mine starts to deteriorate and I’m sick the whole night and into the following day. We must be drinking contaminated tap water, we conclude, and switch to bottled. From Shkodër, we pedal pass horse-drawn carts, donkeys hauling heavy loads, women harvesting mountain tea, and numerous free-roaming animals until we reach a ferry that will take us to Fierza.

20140921-DSC_2873 20140910-DSC_2178 Harvested mountain tea is left to dry on the road.

20140911-DSC_2196

The boat ride is equal parts terrifying and amazing—many, many, people are crammed in with touring motos and our touring bicycles. Crepes and drinks are passed around, which is unexpected and welcome. Mountains tower above us on all sides as we make our way across Lake Koman. Halfway through, we make a pit stop to drop off a local at one of the few tiny houses dotting the landscape. 20140911-DSC_2230 20140911-DSC_2242  20140911-DSC_2279 20140911-DSC_2200 20140911-DSC_2257  20140911-DSC_229120140911-DSC_2298 After making landfall, we ride to Barjam Curri, and then on towards Valbona, a beautifully unspoiled area in the heart of Albania’s Accursed Mountains. 20140911-DSC_2359 20140912-DSC_2470 20140912-DSC_247420140912-DSC_2444 20140911-DSC_2340 20140911-DSC_2390 It's not in the plans, but after bumping into two bike tourers who tell us how welcoming Kosovo is to tourists, especially Americans, we put it on the map and pedal to the border for a day trip.  

6 Comments

  • LEK October 25, 2014 - 2:53 pm Reply

    Beautiful and well written

    • b_puliti November 11, 2014 - 3:18 pm Reply

      Thank you! It was so beautiful. I want to go back.

  • Grant Kruft October 29, 2014 - 2:49 am Reply

    Simply amazing. I couldn’t be more inspired and proud to know two such incredible people following their dreams and making the most of this short time we have on this earth.
    ps. Happy belated anniversary!

    • b_puliti November 14, 2014 - 4:17 pm Reply

      Grant! It’s awesome to hear from you! Thanks so much for the kind words. I’m so happy you are following along and I hope all is going well with you. We would love to hang out again when we’re back in the states. Take care!

  • Vince Noe November 25, 2014 - 7:01 pm Reply

    The image of the rider on the edge of the road looking out towards a valley sent shiver up my spine. Oh how small we are against the land.

    Thank you

    • b_puliti January 2, 2015 - 3:08 am Reply

      Small, indeed. Thank you for the kind words, Vince!

    Leave a Reply to LEK Cancel reply