Albanian Alps 1
April 244, 2014
Departing Montenegro I climbed back into the interior and pedaled the coast of Shkoder lake. Leaving the sea, the interior was warm and humid. Spring is in full swing over here; frogs, snakes, and fireflies mate in the luke-warm, reed infested waters and tourist flock to the waterside hotels. Near the lake train tracks began to parallel the road and the scent of creosote brought back youthful memories of playing basket ball with my brother. This is Montenegro’s fertile region, I pass farm after farm and the warm moist air warns me that the mosquitos at dusk will be more than friendly. After spending my last few euros on some bread and burek I ride a dirt path to explore my camping options. Girls out here a so shy that they can’t even talk to me, when asked directions or information, they usually giggle for a few minutes followed by blushing before I give up and pedal off, almost like being in China already.
Albania is fascinating. This is the only border I have crossed in Europe where there is a distinct difference between countries. Farmers guide horse-drawn carts, donkeys plow barren fields, and farmers along with fishermen sell live fish and produce on the sidewalks. There is a huge Mercedes-Benz presence here. Word has it that Albanians are exempt from certain fees, and early census is that 7 out of ten cars here are Mercedes. The small towns have a very West Bank feel, where most of all good are sold in open stalls or on the streets. The sidewalks are packed with locals going about their business, and I am constantly whistled at.
I have been getting by on my limited Croatian vocabulary. No one speaks English or any Arabic, and when I speak Croatian, they respond in Italian! I guess neither of us have a good grasp on a diplomatic language, but it works. Food has also changed quite a bit, pilaf is the local favorite, which is rice cooked in lamb fat, spices and onions, topped with lamb sausage, super tasty!! The other popular dish is beans served on top of spaghetti noodles. I remember cooking this dish for my girlfriend in Santa Monica and she told me that no where in the world was this acceptable…Go to Albania.
My mission to the Alps begins today. There is over 2 meters of snow on the road, so my proposed plan of hiking between the villages of Thethi and Valbona is out of the question. Thethi is the most remote village in all of Europe, and although I will be making a roundtrip it is worth the effort to see the cultures of remote regions. There is also a ferry that travels on Komani lake, north to Valbona. The trip takes about 6 hours and passes through Albania fjords! This is my rough itinerary for the next few days, I am carrying 3 times my normal amount of local currency because I may need to sleep indoors if it gets too cold. All in all I am excited to pedal into the remote, today will be over 1,500 meters of climbing in the snow.
Will write again soon, I hope without the pictures you could draw a nice picture of the country. If not part 2 will be loaded, To be continued with good vibes! Insha’Allah -Julian Wong
Albanian Alps part 2
April 29, 2014
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.
Albanian Flower Festival
May 10, 2014
Closed!! The epic Kosovo/Macedonian border, which I had traveled so far to reach is closed. The highest border in the area, over 6,000 feet, located at the top of the snow-capped mountains is not only closed for tourists, but is completely snowed in. I turned around kilometers from Macedonia and had no choice but to retrace my steps back to Albania. In a way burned my bridge by entering Kosovo illegally and now I planned on returning to the same border that denied me access to Kosovo and ask them to let me back into Albania. My other option was to try to sneak back into Albania but pushing Gaby up the steep sheep trails, in the cold morning rain did not seem too enticing.
Pedaling the steep muddy roads to the border, I held my breath as I reached the guard kiosk. If I am denied access to Albania here I will have to pedal over 300 km northeast to get back to where I started. The guard was reading the daily paper and as always was extremely surprised to see a cyclist on at the mountainous border. “Hello” he shouted, ” America and Albania friends”! He shook my hand and let me through after glancing at my passport, if only all borders were this easy.
Back in Albania again, I decided to return to the village of Novosej where two days earlier I had met my friends who had helped me into Kosovo. The once quiet and lonely village was now bustling with people of all ages, and many women were dressed in bright-colored costumes. “Welcome to the Flower Festival”, a man in a sport jacket said. “I teach English at the neighboring village, and it would be my pleasure to have you stay with my family for the festival”. The “Flower Festival” seemed pretty interesting but staying in the village meant that I could learn about Albanian village life, as well as sleep in one of the ever-present rock houses. It also meant that I could start partying!!
The village center was now getting prepped for the traditional dance ceremony. Musicians were tuning middle eastern looking instruments, girls finishing their costumes and men practicing their traditional dance moves. The village was in the backdrop of snow-capped mountains and was towered by the Minaret at the local Mosque. The dancing started before the music. Men and women hand in hand formed a large circle and started doing footwork to an imaginary beat. Soon as if the tempo had already been determined the music joined the rhythm of the dancers. Men danced with women but on the side lines the sexes were clearly separated, almost like being at a 6th grade dance all the women were on one side of the center and all the men on the other. Most of the songs sounded the same but the singer would often hold extremely long notes with a very narrow vibrato which seemed to echo throughout the village.
I was attracting too much attention and constantly had a circle of people around me asking questions. On several occasions men would come up to me with their daughters and offer their hands in marriage. “Your daughter is beautiful really but no I am not ready for marriage”. I became overwhelmed and decided to wander around the village. Soon my host found me and invited me to a late lunch in his home with this extended family.
While staying in the village of Novosej all meals were the same and consisted of several of the following traditional dishes; Flee (thin dough baked in a circular pan, saturated in fat and syrup), Jeez (Cow or Goat Kurd served with spicy peppers), Diath (Thick slices of goat cheese), jumesht (Goat or Cow milk), Buke (home-baked bread) and Change (Lamb meat). Sometimes if I was lucky there would be salad on the table which usually consisted of chopped onions, cucumbers and tomatoes. While eating I was introduced to the extended family, half the village was family and almost everyone was someone’s cousin or nephew. I quickly locked eyes with a young girl by the name of Rilinda who was my hosts cousin. She spoke some English and to the notice of others we were attracted.
At sunset the whole village journeyed out to the forest to pick auspicious flowering birch tree branches, which would be kept until the following year. All branches picked must at least be at the head height of the picker and can not touch the ground. I picked few branches and watched as the crowed gathered around and collected countless branches.
This part of the Festival reminded me a lot of Chinese New Year. Where every year, on the first new moon of the year, usually in early February, my family, led by my ambitions father, would travel around my hometown of Murrieta looking for flowering Plum blossom branches for the family shrine. It’s not that we couldn’t grow plum blossoms on our land, on the contrary every house our family lived in always had a plum blossom tree but strangely enough they would rarely blossom at the right time for New Year. This usually lead my father and I on missions through town looking for flowering branches. This journey throughout town has become part of the celebration, and on my fathers last Chinese New Year I remember filling up his beautiful Lexus full of flowering branches growing on Clinton Keith and Calle De Oso Oro.
At 9 pm I heard the call to prayer from the local Mosque in the village and decided it was time for me to learn how to pray to Allah. After performing Obdest,( the ritual cleaning) I walked the stairs to the top of the Mosque and learned the proper method of Islam prayer. I retired to the stone house of my host, and slept in a cozy wooden bed near the fire-place. All night I heard the sounds of chickens, sheep, cows and the guard dog. But seemed to find some peace in the early hours of the morning.
Rilinda woke me up in the morning and asked me stay another day and sleep at her house that night. She said she would do my laundry if I stayed another day with her and I agreed. Together with her parents we walked to the neighboring village of Shishtavec where he uncle was having a party. The village, almost as interesting as the party, still had Leninism and Marxism written in bold letters on the largest building in the center.
The party was a real hoot, Rilinda’s uncle an accordion player, played traditional tunes while the family and I danced and sang. The food, extremely filling as always, filled the large tables in the small house. After a few hours of dancing and eating we retired back to Novosej to Rilinda’s house. “Do you want to come with me and milk a cow” Rilinda asked, “Sure” So I learned how to milk a happy cow in the Albanian countryside. Later Rilinda’s mother taught me to make goat milk kurd and then showed me her quilting collection of Albanian rugs, clothes and costumes.
That night, while sleeping I was guarded by Rilinda’s father who slept on the couch next to my bed. However I caught Rilinda in the hallway and kissed her, goodbye my Albanian princess, and I returned to sleep.
I am now headed the long way through the center of Albania into Macedonia.