Having no idea what to expect on the journey to the village of Thethi. I stuffed my panniers full of bread, vegetables, sheep cheese and chocolate filled croissants (A local favorite), then went to the local konoba where I filled my belly with two orders of lamb fat cooked rice and an order of bean pasta. Completely stocked on carbohydrates I stopped in to the local pharmacy and without any means of communication I attempted to draw the chemical structure of vitamin C (l-Ascorbic acid), the structure has always been engrained in my mind as it was a challenge problem on one of my advance chemistry NMR exams, and the pharmacist did not seem to speak or understand any English. Minus a few -OH groups and a double bond the pharmacist quickly looked up the structure in her book and said “oh Vitamin C” Two minutes later I had over 100 pills of instant immune system booster, and was ready to hit the road.
Just before leaving I asked a few locals about the road conditions to Thethi, I got a few laughs and headshakes; some would raise their hands over their heads and shout “Boar” (snow) “No way”!! I have built quite a tolerance to people telling me that what I want to do can’t be done and as always I smile and whisper to myself “We will see..”. It is all up from here, leaving the banks of Shkoder lake, the road slowly climbed through humid green luscious valleys. It started to rain, but being so excited I neglected to take any precaution and continued to climb passing small villages and often being overtaken by the ever present Mercedes Benz off road van.
The vans were full of local women carrying supplies back to their villages, 50lb bags of flour, tools, electrical wire, blankets and clothes so much stuff that many vans had supplies strapped to the roof, and they would teeter as they bobbled side to side on the pot holed filled muddy roads. Most of the Albanians who live in this area survive on a 4 month tourist season income coupled with food from their flocks of sheep, pigs and chickens. To my knowledge every household has at least a dozen sheep (used for meat, cheese and warm skin), a few pigs (for butter and meat) and a dozen chickens (mostly for eggs). I stopped for food in a small village called “Boga”, and was shocked to be served fried bacon fat, fresh bread, homemade marmalade, sheep cheese and a hardboiled egg. There wasn’t one item of food on the table that wasn’t homemade or from the land. It began to hail, and even though there were plenty of guesthouses where I could find a warm dry bed I declined still having the urge to continue my adventures into the mountains. Not the greatest idea, the village of “Boga” was the last sign of civilization for the next 35 km.
The muddy, pot holed asphalt turned into a rocky hell, where I constantly would slip out and bang my crotch on my saddle. Fuck!! This was like riding an angry horse in a stampede or rodeo! If I stood up to pedal my back tire would slide out, if I sat on the saddle while pedaling the front end would bounce sometimes pushing me off the road or into large stones. This was the ultimate work out, forget the popular Los Angeles “Insanity” regime, my core, arms and legs burned climbing into the snow-covered mountains. Hail turned to snow, temperatures dropped and soon I realized that the farther I pedaled the colder and more snow I would have to camp in. I was also still pedaling in my shorts and sandals, and me teeth were beginning to chatter. “Shit”!! Finding a place to camp proved more difficult than expected, all the flat open ground was covered in close to a meter of snow. Finally at a hairpin in the road I found a small section of open ground, pitched the tent and jumped in. Stripping down, I got into my sleeping bag naked and opened my Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina. Dreaming of a Russian ballroom dance party I feel into a deep sleep.
Mom, Dad, John (my old ‘cello teacher)? I dreamed I was playing the Haydn cello concerto in D major at a master class in Idyllwild, I was totally rocking the thumb position and both mom and dad were proud…then I woke up. I peaked out of the tent and there was a patch of blue sky, and sun was now falling into the entrance of my tent. “Ahhhh how I miss the sun of the middle east”. I feel like I have not experienced a real sun since my departure. I turned my back to the warm rays and tried to remember more of my dream. My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a vehicle coming up the mountain, a moment later a blinging Benz van packed with villagers pass my tent on route to Thethi. Tea time!! “Sub Chai” as they say in Arabic. Before sleeping I placed both my cooking pans under my tent fly to collect rain water, now they were full and it was time to return to the middle east with some Bedouin tea. While in Jordan I purchased close to a kg (2.2 lbs) of local tea, it is a bit absurd but I still carry this around and the sight of the Arabic handwriting on the outside of the bag always makes me smile. Good Bedouin tea, begins with combining all three ingredients; leaves, sugar, and water, then bringing them all to a boil. Without the sugar the tea would taste extremely strong but boiled together with Albania mountain sage (found all over the alps), I sipped and breathed in the cold morning air.
Up, up and up. Every blind turn in the road reveled an endless amount of climbing to escape the valley I had pedaled from Koplik. Finally I felt the summit winds and saw the cursory Christian cross, and knew that my hours of climbing had come to an end. From the top I had a view of Shkoder lake and for the first time could see the village of Thethi. Starting from the crest the road began to slowly descend. A rough, steep muddy road with little to nothing of a safety barrier, there was little room to make any mistakes, and my hands didn’t leave the brakehoods. From the cold snowy summit, the road traveled down to a warm green valley interrupted by water falls. It took me close to an hour to descend and before entering the village the road ended into a fast-moving river. “Hmm, all the locals warned me about cold fronts and endless amounts of snow but no one mentioned anything about having to cross a river”!! I looked around and found a foot bridge made by two metal pipes leaning on a large rock, but both options across the river seemed dangerous so I wanted for a Benz van to come to my rescue.
After close to an hour of waiting I decided to try my luck at crossing the footbridge. The metal pipes were slick from the rain and did not provide much traction. I literally had to lift Gaby to keep her from slipping into the river. The bridge ended at a large rock, so I had to balance the bike, remove all the bags and then carry them over. The situation could have turned out much worse, all in all no major problems just a few close calls on the slippery pipe. Upon entering the village of Thethi, I hummed the tune of the Black Sabbath song Sleeping Village. “Red sun rising in the sky Sleeping village, cockerels cry Soft breeze blowing in the trees Peace of mind, feel at ease”
Thethi seemed asleep, there were no children running about, or people walking on the narrow dirt streets, only the sounds of cow bells echoing in the small valley. Debating my next move, a kid of about ten years old came up to me and asked me if I had a lighter that I could give him. He told me that if I was hungry I could go eat and stay at his house. I followed him down the road and met his parents who run a small guest house. After a big meal of beans, bread, cheese and sauerkraut I took a room facing a green meadow and listened to the rain in a warm dry bed.
The next day the rain continued to fall but I explored the small village; walking to the waterfall, climbing the siege tower (last stronghold of the Albanian resistance against communism) and shadowing my hosts. The Harusha’s (my hosts) had 5 children. Two girls (who were married and lived in the city) and 3 boys who lived in the village and helped run the business. There are 15 families that permanently live in Thethi, and most of them have been their for several generations. During the winter months the snow makes the roads impassable and sometimes for close to 6 months the villagers reside mostly indoors without power. On an average winter the family will butcher 4 pigs, 6 sheep and countless chickens to keep them through the freezing months. The wife, or woman of the house, makes loaf after loaf of bread, sauerkraut, sheep cheese and fermented meats. (It is not uncommon to enter an Albanian country household and see meats hanging from the ceiling drying). There are power lines that run to the village but it is unreliable during the heavy snow storms. Most foods are cooked over an open fire or in a coal oven, and all water is irrigated from the river (which can also be a problem during freezing temperatures). Several houses in the village didn’t have any road access making them only accessible by foot!
With a break in the storm I departed the following day and headed out the southern road towards Skhoder. The northern road which I had pedaled on my arrival is close to 70 km long and is in far better condition that then the 90 km southern road. Leaving Thethi I was quickly reminded of the rough rocky roads that I would need to pedal in order to get back to civilization. The first 20 km never deviated from the river, and I passed several secluded villages with little more than a foot path to reach each house. Eventually the road crossed the river and began to climb, these roads were a lot steeper than the others and on many occasions I had to push through mud, slick stones and large puddles.
The next day the road traveled though a beautiful canyon similar in beauty to the mountains of the Nepali coast on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The road stopped climbing and followed the river out of the canyon, I was back to civilization just a few km from the city of Shkoder. I stopped shy of the city and pitched my tent hear an abandoned stone house on the banks of the river. I woke up to a cold down pour, packed up and pedaled out of the city to another remote village, Koman. A daily ferry from Koman travels up river through the Albanian alps to the city of Fierza. The route is extremely popular as it said that the scenery marvels Norway!!
One hour from now I will board the ferry and hope to find a nice spot to dry my clothes and tent. Last night I arrived after dark and slept on the floor of an Albanian Polka restaurant. Albania is as fascinating as it is interesting. In these remote locations it is almost like traveling a hundred years into the past. From here I will travel the Alps into Kosovo, and on the lakes of Macedonia. Touch base again soon.