Category — Albania
today’s distance: 81km
total distance: 2851km
riding time: 6h
It was a long night, I slept for over 9 hours after a hard day of riding and not much sleep the night before. I bid my farewells after a hearty breakfast with the family and set out. More winding road and then an uphill to get to Macedonia. The type of mother-of-an-uphill. You turn the corner and you see it and it’s the I don’t like it kind of uphill. Switchbacks alright, but steep ones. Lots of traffic. It was 45 minutes of work, grades being mostly in the double digits. Good fun though once you’re up. The views were amazing. Then it was time to say goodbye to Albania. I hope I’ll be back some day. I had been treated so well and the bad rep is not deserved as far as I am concerned. Maybe I was lucky. Could be. But the people I did meet were extremely open and forthcoming, even if they didn’t have much. Try to give something tangible back and it’s hard to do.
Macedonia greeted me with a downhill, rain and 10 degrees lower temperatures.
I was now at 1000m altitude but while warm on the Albanian side still, it was freezing in Maceonia. It soon cleared up and I arrived in Struga, the first town on Lake Ohrid. I was lucky again. I stopped to ask directions for an internet cafe - not knowing that I would have seen many had I continued just a bit more. The store owner said to continue on when Jetmir came around the corner and the store owner said something in Albanian (both are ethnic Albanians) and for the next few hours Jetmir and I talked about everything imaginable. I changed money, hopped on the web and we had a bite to eat. He beat me to paying and wouldn’t hear anything when I protested. He had been an exchange student in the US a couple of years ago. Things in Macedonia make a lot more sense to me afterwards (as much as they can), politics and religion included. Jetmir happens to not care about ethnic lines in a country where this is the norm more than the exception. Schools are divided, sometimes being used by one group in the morning, by the other in the afternoon. Macedonians in Struga protested to have a separate school by not showing up for class for a month. Flags are burned, the situation seems to be a bit ugly at times. But I found his stance to be admirable given the situation at the moment. We walked towards Ohrid, which was not his direction at all and continued our conversation. Jetmir, all the best to you.
Finished the day off by visiting Ohrid, left when I saw this ….
and continued on for another 20km or so finding a peaceful spot near a little stream to have dinner and turn in for the night. The ride was perfect with the sun throwing a gold glow on the surrounding hillsides and the forest I was pedaling through.
April 28, 2008 No Comments
today’s distance: 84km
total distance: 2770km
riding time: 5h
The night was short … we hit the sack at about 4 am and Mark was already at the hotel again at 9:30 am to pick us up for breakfast. Needless to say neither Sven nor I were ready. We headed downstairs eventually and after talking to Sven’s friends for another few hours, I eventually headed out just after noon.
The ride out was like the way in … Tirana showed itself in its full and non-existing glory. It is a way interesting city though and definitely worth a visit. After battling traffic for a while I eventually came to what I had thought was a mere ridge … but as it turned out it was a whopping 800m climb, bringing the daily total to well over 1000m in the end. The views were spectacular though. Sven had warned me that there would be some climbing, but I hadn’t calculated with anything of the sort that I had to contend with. But it was well worth it for the views. Many stray dogs and a pair of falcons in a cage were also noticable as well as steep climbs. But when you get to the top, you turn the corner and you see this:
More of this as I was heading downhill again (unfortunately the same altitude as Tirana again) when I encountered two Swiss cyclcists coming the other way. We chatted for a bit, they were on a month-long tour heading pretty much the way I had come.For once I was glad to not have a tailwind as I was seeing the smoke coming up from the local factories.
I passed Elbasan giving my first directions to Tirana to Albanians and headed up the valley.
It was a constant up and down affair with occasional rare stretches. When I reached Liberazdh I bought what I needed for the night and looked for a place to pitch the tent. More ups and downs, the valley was narrow. The first good opening I jumped at. The people looked at me puzzled. Then came a bunch of kids and all was well. It became dark … I said I should pitch my tent. Turns out the plan had been different all along … I was the only one not in on it. Only one person spoke a tiny bit of English, the rest was a hand and feet communication affair. I was to follow Astrid, a guy who had been sitting next to me when they had inquired where I was going and where I was from. I was led to his house and all of a sudden found myself in the kitchen/living room of his family. His father and mother, brother and sister were there, plus one brother’s wife and their two kids. There were nine children altogether and as before in Albania I was made to sit on the couch, the women working, the men biding their time. The TV was running (Belushi film) and when asked whether I was hungry I said I would just take from the bags and eat that. Nope was the answer. 40 minutes later then men and I were eating bean soup and pasta and a salad to top things off. Great stuff. Milk from the cow outside. We chatted about this and that … religion and life in general. Astrid was the only one speaking some English, but his father and I still figured out a great deal. The family was rather male-dominated though, any attempt of me helping with anything was brusquely put off by the women, pushing me on the couch and taking things out of my hands quickly. Thanks so much to Astrid and his family for hosting a total stranger.
April 27, 2008 1 Comment
today’s distance: 34km
total distance: 2690km
riding time: 1-2h
What a slow day it was … I woke up as Alex was leaving his house for a couple of hours. The plan was to fix up the bike with the new bike computer and do general maintenance. Then we headed out for the castle of Shkanderbeg to have a look there and got back to his place quite late in the afternoon.
Not to worry much, I had made plans with Sven to meet up in Tirana and spend Saturday night in a club or something. This we did and had a great time … thanks Sven for everything. The ride into Tirana was made easier by tons of kids who were smiling whenever they saw me and yelling out “biciclist, biclist …”. There was also this kind of stuff … interesting meat places.
Once in the city I made my way to the center to see what was going on, the kids liking the four wheels early on. This might explain why the driving is sometimes erratic, though not nearly as bad as the Lonely Planet made it sound. By no means, apart from maybe this kid …
April 26, 2008 No Comments
today’s distance: 81km
total distance: 2656km
riding time: 3-4h
The curtain opens: The door flies open with a loud bang … in comes Ujk’s wife and wakes me up. It was 5:45 am. Thought that I had dreamed about sone noise beforehand, but that was real. Slumbered off again for a bit, but 20 minutes later I was up and we just hung out watching the sun come up behind the hills, Ujk taking care of the horse and then taking a silent and smoke-filled rest.
I bid my farewells from the family … I owe so much to them and couldn’t really give anything in return. All I can say is a big faleminderit. Off I went to return to the bad roads and I am in Shkoder in no time. Meet a German biologist looking for a rare species in the nearby lake and wonder around looking for an internet cafe with the bike in view.
Enter the stage: Sven. He asks (in English) what I am doing and whether I have some time to talk to students at the university, 30 minutes or so. I thought: “Sure, why not? Fun places, those universities.” Off we strut and lug up the bike and the packs two flights of stairs. Little reminder of Venice on a bike. The students look puzzled. Sven leads a project on how to market bike tourism of any kind in Albania and is quite optimistic about it. So I introduce myself, say why I am doing this and where I am going and the like. Talk about bike touring and what I think is good and necessary, what people may be looking for and so on. It was a great half hour or so.
Then two students organize a country map and a fast internet connection for me and we agree to meet for lunch with Sven again. For some reason we didn’t meet up until they were halfway done with food and so Sven and I take a wander in the Marubi museum with a faculty member of the Economics faculty. The pictures were nothing short of amazing … showing life in Shkoder from 1850 onwards. Very good insights into the life back then and how Albania was part of the big power game.
(garlic as good luck charme in an internet cafe)
Sven and I eventually end up in a cafe and chat about biking (he’s an avid cyclist himself) and possible routes through Albania. Finally I head out, aided by a big bad wind from the North. I was eating miles quickly in the late afternoon sun and just had a good time flying along smooth roads with a good amount of traffic, almost all of them giving me an extraordinary amount of space.
Enter the stage: Anders (for those reading Swedish). A touring cyclist coming the other way, heading from Athens to Sweden, where he will run a marathon, head over to the US to make an East-West crossing, fly to Hong Kong, bike north and eventually take the Transiberian Railways to Moscow. All of this in seven months. Seems like I am somewhere inbetween Anders on the one hand and Julia & Holm from strassenkreuzer.org, who are on a very leisurely pace.
We both move our ways and after stopping briefly in Lezhe I bike on for another hour or so, covering roughly 65km in under three hours of riding. Great tailwinds helping me along. Then I start to get tired, hadn’t eaten much all day. Started looking around for a spot, couldn’t find anything. Started talking to two old men, they didn’t really know what to do with me … My Italian was too weak to explain things properly to one of the guys who had been circling me. There were about 6 or 7 kids on bikes as well. Not a good way to go somewhat undetected.Enter the stage: Alex. All of a sudden this big shiny black Mercedes comes along the narrow side road and the guy speaks perfect English. Alex. He eyes me and asks what I want. I told him I was looking for a place to pitch my tent. He says, just follow me … He translates what I wanted to the others and they all offered to stay at their homes after having looked at me suspiciously. I pedal behind Alex and we arrive at his place and he says: “You’re staying with me tonight. Not a problem.” A big thank you goes out to Alex, for putting me up for the night, to his sister for great slow food cooking (the lamb meat cum potatoes soup was amazing) and for his father for being a good sport about fixing his bike. And for good conversations about Albania and how things might work out in the future.
The curtain falls and Markus slumbers off.
April 25, 2008 1 Comment
today’s distance: 45km
total distance: 2575km
riding time: 2-3h
Rewind the time to yesterday … I forgot to mention something, which I had promised to do. While not an outright fan of the company with the apple in the logo, I have one of their products to provide some background noise. The jack was toast I thought, having checked with some other headphones. The Apple Premium Reseller store in Podgorica pops into view and the people in there were great. We checked the unit and it seemed fine, tested the headphones again and as it turns out it was only the headphones that had given up. Thankfully. I owe a big thank you to the two of them.
Thank yous are also due to the man of the day. He goes by the name of Admir. I was leaving the hotel when I realized that something was wrong with the bike. Something was seriously wrong. The threading for the screw holding the rear rack had completely given up. I had tightened it a couple of times on the way, thinking it would be alright, but as it turns out, it had completely ruined the threading. This wasn’t fun … could be really bad. So, off I went to find Tempo Bicycle in Podgorica. While not working there properly speaking, Admir and I hashed out what the options were. We looked for the right screws all over the store, but couldn’t really find one. Bad stuff … I saw myself heading back to Germany, cursing the manufacturer (I will do that at some point anyway). We finally opted for a not so obvious method and I am hoping that it will do the trick ultimately. The threading was done for the most part, so we reversed the screw position, using a bolt to hold things in place. Because everything was on the drivetrain side of things, there wasn’t much room and certainly none to leave the screw standing out. I could have lived without my highest gear, but I’m sure I would have inadvertently put that one in as well and then the chain and the screwhead would have been nudging each other a bit too much.
We rasped part of the head off. The only way to go apart from trying to put in a new threading. The result isn’t pretty, but should hold up well. The other side didn’t look too great either, but there is ample space for a bolt. Now, I am not carrying a lot of weight and haven’t gone over rough terrain yet. There is much worse waiting in store. I can only believe that the threading was faulty and/or the material not up to speed. Given how Velotraum treats its customers, there is a fat chance they would recognize this as a warranty issue. At any rate as I am tying this, I am in Albania and don’t feel like going back to have a discussion about this.
Back to the city for a couple of interviews … might get a pdf of them, we shall see. Then, the post office episode of the day. I wanted to send two books and a couple of DVDs. Hard to do apparently. They wouldn’t take it. I hadn’t sealed it, but said that as soon as I would put tape on it, they wouldn’t take it. Maybe the main branch would, they weren’t going to. This drove me nuts. I asked whether if I left it open it wouldn’t fall out. They just shrugged their shoulders. Oh well … I left and eventually, after bidding my farewells to the NTO staff (thanks Matea, Biljana and Emile) I made my way to the post’s main branch, which was on the way to Albania pretty much anyway. So … there I encountered a lady who didn’t want to understand me and just threw words after words at me although the look on my face must have told here that I didn’t have a clue as to what she was saying. We figured it out with the help of a colleague, who called a friend who told her what to say in English (instead of just giving me the phone). The books are on their way now though …
That one done, I took off to head to Albania. The panorama was nice, the cycling great. Over some hills and past an increasing number of mosques I got to Albania. The border crossing was easy enough, the Albanian border guards impressed enough so that I only had to pay half the entry tax. Thanks guys!
My first impression was … bad road. Really bad road. My second impression was more bad road. Run down everything, roads, wiring, houses, but beautiful countryside with a lakeside view on one side and high mountains with some remaining snowcover on the other. Chruches and mosques all over the place as well. Unfortunately also a lot of trash lying around. Not so pretty. But here is goodness …
My first town, changed some money. Big smiles already on the way and more curiosity than any other place before about the guy with the bike. Money here is different, they tell you they want 800 Lek for two bananas (which would be 4 Euros, a bit steep). What they really want is 40 cents. I did my shopping and in a couple of places, people wouldn’t take my money. It was small stuff for sure, but a bunch of oranges and some bread was simply stuffed in my packs.
I eventually looked for a campsite as it was getting dark. I was way too late and turned into a side road, hoping to score a good spot there. Nothing to be had. A farmer on my right. He spoke very, very little Italian - so do I. I asked for a place to pitch my tent. Idriz simply invited me into his house. Said, you sleep here, tomorrow you go again. That was that. I was ushered into the house, the whole family surrounding me. The youngest daughter speaks (Fatjona) some French and so we tried out whatever she could muster. It wasn’t much and her father let her know as much. Eventually the brother (Ujk) and his wife come around and turns out that I am sleeping at their place. So, I took my bike along, left other things there to not offend them too much and off we went into the dark. The kids all over the bike, but the hospitality was just amazing. We talked as much as we could with the limited common language, but it worked out alright. Shower and food, some pilav derivative, homemade bread and cheese and freshly milked cow milk. It was great … Idriz never quite getting around why I was traveling by myself and that I am not married yet and don’t have kids. We still communicated a good amount despite the language barrier, talking about religion (they’re Muslims), their life as farmers and their kids … some off to Italia and needless to say Berlusconi didn’t have a good name here.
The family isn’t well off, but they gave me so much and wouldn’t take anything in return. Thanks a million!!!
April 24, 2008 1 Comment