Wild Wild West

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July 11th 2013
Published: July 31st 2013
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Dragana and Me from BehindDragana and Me from BehindDragana and Me from Behind

Looking slightly lopsided (!) and quite frumpy. Thanks to Astrid for the photo. Leaving Shkoder and heading to Lezhe.
Lezhe to Albanian Border near Blato Macedonia

Ugh, I can’t believe it. I’ve just looked at my day diary and see that it’s only been 2 ½ weeks since I left Albania when it feels more like 2 ½ months. How does time manage to do that with one’s senses. And given that it’s only been 2 ½ weeks I really ought to remember what I did! Oh dear. Here goes…this little goldfish will try. And it's a bit of a long one so apologies in advance.

Last time I wrote I was in Lezhe. A small town, not much for a tourist to see (or rather, it’s probably best to say I didn’t see much). There is a castle, a memorial to Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu, a national hero and a couple of churches, and if my guidebook was with me I would be able to tell you a little more about the history of Lezhe. Did I see any of it? No. Although I did see the castle from the main road , don’t remember seeing the memorial and I’ve seen enough churches to last this lifetime (but there’s always time for a monastery if there was one). Suffice to say it’s still a bustling little place and I felt quite comfortable there. Staying in the simple but very clean Hotel Liss, staffed as it was by very wonderful and accommodating people who helped me to find somewhere to burn a DVD, fix my worn jacket and write out directions to where I wanted to visit as well as making me learn a little Albanian so I could navigate the menu, was a boon.

I decided to visit Kruje, another little town not far from Lezhe. It too has a castle, surprise surprise, but my main reason was to visit the old town which the guidebook had said was well preserved. So, a bus dropped me off at Fruje Kruje which is a small town at the base of Kruhe and from there I stalked followed a couple of tourists and jumped onto a minibus up to Kruje itself. Am very glad I had an empty stomach. That was one helluva fast, 7km hairpin bend ride up. I was very pleased to stumble out of the furgon at the top. Really not too sure what the rush was. Driving is the only thing that is done fast in Albania, everything else is done in first gear.

Walking through cobbled thoroughfare of the bazaar is really a step back in time. It’s not hard to imagine what life would have been like 100 or even 200 years ago walking along this walkway, except of course, the 21st century is ever present , showcased best through the tackiness of the souvenirs on offer.

In retrospect it was a long way to come to see not much. I did have intentions of seeing a bit more but well, the skies were getting darker and I just wanted to get away from the guy who was hassleing me. Harmlessly ofcourse but insisting that I should see the castle, see the teke, see the church all with him as my personal guide. Um, there is a reason I bought a guide book and am schlepping it over mountains…In the end I turned around and visited the little ethnographic museum which was interesting but not what I had in mind. The increasingly darkening skies were also not what I had in mind… The downpour came quickly and torrentially. I was lucky enough to be watching the storm from the inside of a café. Other tourists were not so lucky. White jeans and white tops may well look good and be nice to wear in summer but in cases of a downpour such as this well I think it borders on embarrassing. I speak from experience. But I’ve since learned.

No point hanging around so I caught the first furgon to what I hoped would be Frushe Kruhe. The driver, through a wonderful young woman translator, suggested it would be easier to go to Tirana in this furgon (this was more like a private vehicle) and get a bus heading to Shkoder. OK, he knows best. The woman asked me if I had been to Albania before. No, why? Because you seem so comfortable. Well, that was very nice to hear and quite true. I did (do) feel comfortable and really what he said made sense even though it was the long way around. When we got to Tirana, I went to pay I found that the woman had paid for me and wouldn’t accept any money from me. She then escorted me in the pouring rain to the minibus to Shkoder. Honestly, this generosity borders on embarrassing.
Souvenirs in KrujeSouvenirs in KrujeSouvenirs in Kruje

Can you see why I've bought nothing? Although Mother Teresa in the background there looks very tempting in a kitsch kind of way.

It was the right decision though. I would have been caught in further downpours had I stuck to the original plan. Getting on to a bus would have proven difficult too as I was to find out. The minibus was full and would not accept any more passengers, no matter how fervently the people on the side of the road waved their hands. It was at this point too that I remembered the window in my room that I had left wide open… I sheepishly apologised on my return to the hotel. No problem, no problem but you will need to sleep in the other bed tonight. Ooops.

The next morning I was bound for Burrel. I had been warned about this place. No real explanation other than, don’t stay there. Um, OK, we shall see. The quiet back road out of Lezhe before joining the main highway was a great way to see Albania at its everydayness. People walking to the fields, people hanging out the front of café bars, people waiting for furgons, and, most importantly, drivers not doing the ridiculous things I saw them do on the main highway to Tirana. What a relief!

On the way to BurrelOn the way to BurrelOn the way to Burrel

Can't take a photo without a damn power line getting in the way!
the main highway, once I joined, it was not too bad. It was relatively new with a little hard shoulder just for me. The cars could do as they liked – they had plenty of room. Until ofcourse, the turnoff onto the quieter highway where the road narrowed as it followed the Mati river - uphill. For once there was not house, after house, after house so the eyes could focus on other things… like the number of memorials (!!), the colour of the river, the colour of the cliffs (deep, iron rich red), the state of the restaurants’ toilets which were invariably located some distance away from the restaurant and had their doors open (enough to put you off eating there!), the multitude of rubbish thrown anywhere and everywhere. It made for interesting riding. I also had a car pull up beside me and was asked where I’m going. I just pointed ahead. Then the driver suggested I make a stop further up the road at his café. OK.

So on I plodded and I was indeed in need of a coffee. Did he read my mind? The café was beside the river and there Yani and Jonny were, waiting. It’s not like you can discreetly ride by and so I stopped. Alex made a perfect coffee and whilst Yani went off to undertake some ‘business’, and Jonny became waiter I quizzed Alex over the Burrel issue. Limited English may have hampered an explanation, in any case he suggested a camping ground a further 10km from Burrel which his friend ran. And so, a telephone call was made, his friend told an Australian woman on a bicycle was heading his way and with that any worries about Burrel were gone.

The road really was picturesque but not, as Yani had indicated, flat. Up and down and always following the contours of the river. And those skies… growing darker as the day wore on. I could see the storm coming, I had my wet weather preparations sorted, it only meant I had to pedal. Which I did and somehow, don’t quite know how, I managed to avoid the rain.

I stopped to take a photo of a haystack, this one looking particularly quirky with a big tire on the top of it with straw sticking up and out making it look like a ponytail. I never did
The River MatiThe River MatiThe River Mati

The road to Burrel
get that photo but I did get a coffee. As soon as I stopped this woman came bounding up indicating the universal sign for sleep with her hands. Yes, whilst a little lie down would have been nice sleep was not going to get me to the camping ground in Suc. But she was quite an insistent woman. No was not within her realm of understanding and so I wheeled my bike onto her property. She’s obviously an old hand at this, luring as she did now, a foreigner on a bicycle onto her property as her many photos from previous bike riders attested. Representatives from Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, you name it, had stayed here. I would have been another notch in her belt. No, not this little black duck. Although her conversation was quite entertaining. She was 55, smiled very easily, had beautiful green eyes and had given birth to six children, the latter point she illustrated by inflating and deflating her stomach like some sort of air-filled accordion. Ah yes, had I been born in Albania 55 years ago this could have been me too. Gotta go, there is a camping ground in Suc waiting for me!
The River MatiThe River MatiThe River Mati

Near the camping ground at Suc (and near the Roma camp)

Burrel was not the hell hole I expected it to be which is always a relief. Although it was equally nice knowing that I had somewhere else to go because, well, Burrel just wasn’t that ‘nice’. The campground in Suc, however was. Perfectly located in the grounds of the St Nicholas Catholic Church and with 5 (?) Italian nuns living within its grounds I did indeed feel a lot safer and it was, above all, wonderful to have the opportunity to sleep in my tent again. The nuns too, gave me a warm welcome responding especially fondly on finding that I was travelling alone. Thank you, I love your work too.

It also came as a pleasant surprise when young Portuguese José arrived, also on his bicycle (and who's also writing a blog - www.. So nice to have company with a like-minded person. We agreed to have dinner together so I went off to find the store. I always head in the opposite direction of where I’m meant to. Don’t know why that is but thankfully there’s always someone to point me in the right direction. In this case, three teenage girls who giggled at
View from my tent in SucView from my tent in SucView from my tent in Suc

The rivers are almost dry. Don't know if that's because they are heavily used for irrigation?
my attempts at Albanian speech. I would too. Who really knows what I was saying. I certainly didn’t!

When I got to the store and wanted to buy some tomatoes and onions I baulked at the price he asked. I told the guy I was not paying that when in Shkoder it was a tenth of what he was asking. There followed some uncomfortable silence and he then called the man who ran the camping ground (ofcourse everyone knew where I was staying!). How to explain over the phone that I think this guy is trying to rip me off and I’m not having a bar of it? In the end, Gientes came to the store to find out what the problem was. As it turns out, the guy was speaking old money which meant there was an extra zero in there. Apologies from both sides for the misunderstanding.

Dinner, although simple, was probably the most exceptional I’ve had on this trip. Nothing fancy. In fact, not fancy at all, but a great carb loaded feast of pasta with tomato sauce. As anyone who knows me knows, I’m no cook but I can chop vegetables and fruit and
Camping alla Chiesa, SucCamping alla Chiesa, SucCamping alla Chiesa, Suc

Jose and me with our respective bikes.
bake the odd biscuit but I think I outdid myself that night. Even José said it was good.

Although the camping ground was in a beautiful location, elevated just a little above the road with a wonderful view of the valley below and the mountains beyond, I felt like I hadn’t really slept a wink. Crying dog (was it that poor dog I saw at the Roma camp a little way back tied to a tree on a chain too short to allow it to lie down – honestly how cruel people can be. That image still haunts me!), the sound of the river, the silence of the road (no cars traveling at night – probably too dangerous) and a silly little decline which meant that the blood was rushing to my head all made for a poor night’s sleep.

The next morning was a late start. By the time José and I went our separate ways it was after 10. The sun was doing its very best to suck what remaining energy I had out of me – quite successfully. Add to it all, just 500m or so down the road the discovery of a missing screw
Escaping the stormEscaping the stormEscaping the storm

Enroute to Suc.
which holds my basket to Dragana (the bike)! I managed to stop at a little place normally used to sell produce by the farmer but today vacant and so Dragana was parked and everything offloaded in an effort to find my cable ties. Oh please be there one that fits. Whilst all of this was going on, a couple walking along the road towards me stopped to ask if something was wrong. I explained that a screw was missing and the woman suggested I go to the car mechanic just 100m away. No no no no problem. Thank you. Out I pulled the cable tie and proceeded to thread it through and ‘fix’ my problem. They both looked on, surprised and incredulous. They too will be devotees of the humble cable tie in future, mark my words. They left me on seeing that all was, indeed, OK and then the woman ran back and started to offload fresh figs into my basket. The kindness of strangers. What can I say? Thank you, thank you but really is too much (but delicious and sweet!).

As Jose said, after some time the road climbed, and climbed and climbed. Not aggressively steep
Building Albanian StyleBuilding Albanian StyleBuilding Albanian Style

Complete with teddy bear in top left hand corner.
just tiring. A couple of switchbacks but not too bad. And wherever I came across children they would run towards me asking where are you going, where are you going or what is your name, what is your name. It was never one question or if it was it was the same question repeated – even when I answered. Sometimes their tone implied a demand rather than curiosity and seemed more aligned with the kind of interrogation normally reserved for customs officials. Why is that? It makes me wonder how they are taught in school. Are they yelled at?

I got to the crossroads of Bulqize not quite sure which road to take. No one to ask but to slow down a passing car – thank you to the man who pointed me in the right direction. Always a bit dubious on a downhill (don’t want to have to come back up!). Bulqize is a mining town - not pretty but with a pretty nice road which will do me. Also busloads of men being ferried to and from the mines. I received a lot of stares. I don’t want to stay in Bulqize. Onwards. At this stage I hadn’t even thought about where I wanted to stay but I wanted to get as close to the border as possible. The border of Macedonia that is. So I just kept riding. It wasn’t hard. The road was mainly downhill. Although I can’t remember now exactly where I was when this young boy, say 14-15 years old, started riding behind me. I HATE it when people are behind me. I let him pass.

When I got to Shupene I thought I should start asking some questions. I stopped two women who were walking along the road. Is there a hostel or private rooms along the road heading to Maqallere? They told me there was one back in town. Then hustler boy came into the picture again and asked what I wanted. Then someone else joined in. Then a carload of people stopped. Before I knew it there was a flashmob and a traffic hazard. Everyone wanted to help or know what this strange woman wanted. In the end the car driver who spoke perfect English said I could stay with him and his family. His home was 3.5km away in Homesh and I could follow his car and ride behind. And with that the mob dissolved and I cycled my legs off keeping up! Thank you to everyone who tried to help.

What a beautiful family home - Grandma and Grandpa, Mum and Dad and two young boys. What a wonderful night’s sleep which followed an equally wonderful night’s feast. As it was Ramadan, we ate after sundown. There was so much food it was ridiculous and this, I was assured, was normal. Fresh yoghurt (from the two resident cows), homemade bread, bean soup, fish, chips (you have to keep the kids happy!), white cheese, peppers, tomatoes, pasta. Surprisingly, even on a full-beyond-belief stomach I managed to fall asleep when I eventually put my head on the pillow sleeping beside Grandma. Thank you Homesh family for everything you gave me – a shower, a belly full of food and a good night’s sleep.

The road to the border crossing into Macedonia was quiet. I don’t remember there being a sign for Debar (or Diber as it is known in Albania). In any case I missed the turn off at the roundabout and ended up in Maqellare which just seemed a town full of minibuses and not much
The road to BulqizeThe road to BulqizeThe road to Bulqize

Red mountains and not much else.
else. I was redirected to the roundabout (lucky because at that stage I was bound for Peshkopi 13km uphill!). I do know why I missed the turn-off –I hadn’t had a coffee yet that morning and the brain does not function properly without it. As can be seen! So, at the border, whose name I still don’t know, I sat down for a very nice coffee at a café bar. No women ofcourse but frequented by many men some of whom were moneychangers. I’ve never seen such BIG wads of cash. Wallets are not something they have here. Instead, notes are bundled and folded in half and ceremoniously counted at the speed of light. I’m sure I would have walked off quite a few banknotes lighter had I changed my money there.

Anyway, this little foray into Albania was an adventure for sure and I’m looking forward to returning soon. People were unbelievably kind, the landscape and mountains astonishingly beautiful and the atmosphere quite wild west. Not many places in Europe can tick all those three boxes but Albania can. I’m excited about the opportunity to get to know Albania more. But first there’s Macedonia.

Additional photos below
Photos: 20, Displayed: 20


Working in the fieldsWorking in the fields
Working in the fields

Just outside of Homesh.
Different types of haystacksDifferent types of haystacks
Different types of haystacks

Machine made - not as interesting as those handmade ones. Macedonia is on the other side of those mountains.

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