The guard chucked my passport around the 1 inch plywood wall separating two brand-new, EU funded cabins. This thin wall also happened to be the border between two tiny countries. My passport had just flown from Montenegro to Albania.
Cycling through these cropless Albanian fields, I felt no culture shock: no airport teleportation and no boxed-in bus rides. This gradual blend and overlap of culture is noticeable when travelling by bicycle. Like interlocking fingers of two different cultural hands, severed by a line on a map.
The land was fabulously flat. A church and then a mosque. Empty currency exchange offices, a bar, a grubby hotel, people in the latent roadside heat: old men with squashed wrinkly faces and black flat-caps, a kid driving a tractor and another smiling “Hello! Hello!” and running after my bike. I rumbled over poorly patched potholes and past decrepit buildings reminded of my days in Morocco. It feels distinctly un-European. It’s quiet. Very few cars were around but most were surprisingly modern. The odd show-off in a new, luxury 4×4 would pass too close and continue his lonely drive. Even the poorest countries have rich people.
The culture was notably different when I reached the first city, Shkodër. A man on the street seen with blackened fingers waits for a shoe to polish. People sit outside and enjoy a coffee. A pregnant woman raids a bin for food. An old scooter whizzes by leaving a cloud of bluish smoke. And cartons bear fresh fruit for sale by the roadside. I’ll be brave and say there are more cyclists in this one city than in all of Montenegro, Bosnia and Serbia combined. They ride old, black and rusty stallions, relics of times gone by; witness to the brutal regime and murder in a country where people were not long ago shot for leaving. Those that cycle them are older still. And together when sitting dormant, they mope on the pavements of the dusty, bustling streets. And a different kind of cyclist heading east to Asia along the Mediterranean have been stopping here for years.
Food is cheap and good. I ate salad for the first time in weeks. And I found some much-needed shoes from a second-hand shoe market in town.
Ben would continue south to Tirana and onward to Greece, and the girls and I would detour to Kosovo and Macedonia. He thought it was too cold to cycle into the mountains. I think he was right.
Sunshine, horse-drawn carts and old scooters accompanied the ride out the small city along the farmland plains towards the mountains. Before long we were climbing up and down the crumbling, undulating road leading into the remoteness. We speculated that we could already be somewhere in far-flung Asia. It turns out you don’t actually need to cycle half way around the world to be isolated. And if anything newsworthy happened, we’d surely be the last to know about it.
Ben had joked that the girls would feed me three-course meals every day. I think he was also right on that. Quite wise for a 19 year old. I can see why he stuck with the girls so long.
As darkness fell we continued our isolated journey up the river valley…
We stopped just before the road came to an end to camp at the “city stadium” —nothing more than a small field and some rusty goalposts, surrounded by rocks. Amongst the steep cliffs, it was pretty much the only piece of flat land around suitable for camping. The nearby “town” didn’t have much to offer either: just one, poorly stocked shop. We made some dinner and a big fire which was quite necessary to keep warm and provide enough light. It’s cold and completely dark at 5p.m now, so it’s pretty useful to get some communal light and save the torch batteries.
The following day we woke up at first light—around 6a.m. to cycle the last kilometre up the valley to the dam, where the road ends and a small collection of cars wait for passengers from the boat. The cafe was full of men: out of maybe 30 people there was only one woman. I’m not sure why…though it’s clear most of the people don’t live here anyway—there are no houses. Probably they work in the nearby quarry or the small hydro-electric plant. Others will be waiting for the boat. I started the day with a coffee and a rakia and later would discover I wasn’t the only one having a cheeky bevy.
To get to where the road begins again, you have to take a boat for 4 hours, 30km up the river.
There wasn’t a designated driver for the boat. Whoever happened to be at the front took control. I counted three different people—all openly drinking beer. The last guy was pretty wrecked by the time we arrived to the other side.
The boat was really slow, and sounded like it had the bus engine stuck in first gear. The strangest thing about this journey was every so often the boat would almost crash up against the cliffs at random points and people would jump off and walk up the side of the rocks into nowhere.
They must live some very isolated lives in the mountains.
I didn’t expect much when we got to the other side. So I wasn’t surprised to find only a wooden shack that was an all-in-one café, bar and shop.
And an old rusty boat.
We grabbed some lunch and began cycling up the hills. We passed through some small villages where there appeared to be slightly more people than before, but still no notable towns.
Realising I still had about £10 of Lek left, I splashed out in one of the last shops in Albania before the Kosovan border and bought some beer, food and brandy. Things here are so cheap in comparison that I didn’t manage to spend it all.
The roads were pretty beautiful. We were only accompanied by nature, the odd car, cow walking on the road and power lines.
People had warned me of crossing into Kosovo. But true to the other rumours I’ve heard so far, it seems people will swallow any scare-story or media bullshit that’s provided to them. The people of Albania were very friendly. The border guards at Kosovo were some of the nicest I’ve met: they even recommended some nice places to stay nearby. But we just camped next to a little river not long after.
Then it was on to explore Kosovo, but I’ll tell you about that another day.