Chapter IV: A is for Adventure, A is for Albania

A is for adventure, A is for albania

Everyday insanity: artillery standing in the middle of nowhere.

Hello chaos, my old friend

Ryan Miri Statistics

Ryan

Albania! Finally! I have been there before in 2014, and the insanity and hospitality of this country overwhelmed me. So for our way towards Istanbul, Albania was a must, especially since Miri wasn’t there before, knowing it only from my storytelling. We got a lot of funny looks at the border. We met Stephane from France before, and with Simon on our side we were a pack of four heavy loaded cyclists, entering the country at once. Our goal was Shkoder, the first big city after the border. Everybody needed to buy some food and get some local currency.

Rolling into Shkoder was a good way to learn Albanian traffic: if you are a bicyclist, everything is allowed. If you are a car, almost everything is allowed except for going against the lane (which is no problem for cyclists). Thus, we followed the flow into the city center, where we restocked our supplies and withdraw some money while the muezzin was calling from the nearby mosque. Albania is a muslim country, which has the great advantage of open stores all week round. Aside from that, religion seems not a big deal for the daily life.

We went to the nearby Shkoder lake (road quality dropped from tarmac to mud within a couple of meters after turning onto smaller roads), where a huge meadow provided plenty space for our little village of tents. We cooked, listened to some music (Stephane never travels without), and gazed at the stars.

The next morning, a farmer came along and gave us some of his fruits. Albanian friendliness at its best. Stephane and Simon would leave us, while Miri and I rested for one day. Simons departure felt kind of strange, since we travelled one week together and shared some intense moments during our Bora night. After we were on our own again, we relaxed a bit and enjoyed the silence and peace of the flat landscape around the lake, which was a sharp contrast to the loud and busy city nearby.

After our rest, we initially planned to visit Theth in the mountains, but we changes our plans and cycled directly towards Tirana. Describing the Albanian chaos is difficult, because its so omnipresent and goes from quite subtle to extremely crazy. I try to give a glimpse: We passed an old military base with some Asian artillery still standing there, as well as a vacant, city-sized cement factory. We cycled through a marketplace next to the road, where you could buy literally everything, from shoes to cows. Shorty after this market, we overtook a man on a bicycle with a living chicken at the handlebars. Likewise, the road was sometimes hilariously bad, with the street grates missing and holes in bridges, leading directly to the river below, only to be in a pristine condition several Kilometers further (and of course without changing the street).

When we reached Tirana, we chose a central restaurant to have a drink an use their WLAN to book our accommodation. Unfortunately, their WLAN wouldn’t work, but when we told the waiter, he had an easy solution for this. “Give me your mobiles” he said, and after he handed them back to us, we had internet access. How? Well, he knew the WLAN password of the café nearby… 😊

We found a nice, cozy place to stay and rest. We did our laundry, did some sightseeing, worked on the blog 😉 and met with Simon, who stood in Tirana longer than expected. After those days, we decided to follow the old mountain routes towards Elbasan. On one hand we could avoid the highway, on the other side I knew that this route is tough but really scenic, and we wanted to make up for our missed Theth adventure. So we bought food for a couple of days, and left…

Miri

We entered Albania without any problems and after a few kilometers of backcountry, Simon, Stephane, Ryan and I dived into Albanian chaos in Shkoder. The traffic on the streets is much different than in Germany. Here cares seem to be confused if you stop for them, so I quickly adapted and just rode where I thought I might fit in. Our first move was to withdraw some money buy food and then ride through the city to a nice spot at a lake to camp. While putting up our tents one of Simons poles in his frame broke. But that was no Problem at all because Stephane is so well prepared, even better than we are, well there is always a bigger fish, he had the pole fixed in no time. And afterwards we sat together, everybody cooking with a different type of device, we with the Trangia, burning alcohol, Simon with his gas and Stephane has a fuel burning stove. Funny how you get three different types of cooking devices when three traveling parties meet, but all are using Ortlieb bags 😊. In the morning when we got up a man came bye. Probably one of the fishermen, and dropped a bag of pomegranates and khakis. Just like that, wanting nothing in return. Then we had to say goodbye, first to Stephane who cycled on to Kosovo and then also to Simon. It was strange seeing him leave. We had a lot of fun and even survived Bora together. But he wanted to move on to Tirana and we wanted to make a rest day before entering the Albanian Alps. Well we changed our plans quite quickly and also rode in the direction of Tirana the next day.

We took some backcountry roads to get a better feeling for Albania and even made a stop at a small bar. Initially we just wanted to ask if they sell Byrek, but we ended up eating French Fries grilled bread and drank Cola. When we were finished one man just came over and gave us a plate of melon. Again, just like that. Awesome People. The roads we took towards Tirana were not the main road but still not too small roads and still they were in quite bad condition. Lots of holes and also some gravel parts fore no particular reason and maybe not even the intention to change that. It was already a lot more adventurous than the rest of the journey, because we never new what would await us around the next corner. And we weren’t disappointed. Because we took a wrong turn, we landed on the same deserted military ground Ryan had already cycled through three years ago. That was awesome. Even some old rusty artillery was still standing there.

After two days we arrived in Tirana. We sat in a café in the center to book an apartment. And since the internet of the café was not working properly the waiter just gave us the password of the café next to his 😊 So we actually found something not too expensive, booked and cycled there. It wasn’t where it was shown on the map, but and English speaking girl helped us out and we found the apartment.

The owner were very nice and also speaking English quite well. The Apartment building itself was in a backyard, to enter it you had to cross the yard over probably self build bridges and even the first floor was lower than the street level, but the building and the apartment were nice. Another German couple was also there as well as an Austrian one Since Simon was also still in Tirana we met him again. We climbed the Pyramid together, enjoyed the view and eat pizza afterwards. After a nice evening we had to say goodbye again, but this time for, well at least the duration of our trip I guess😉. We stayed three days in Tirana to relax, wash our stuff and visit the few things in Tirana, which are worth visiting. So we went to the mosque which is really nice and old and had a little walk around the city center. One day we bought an Albanian whine, But since we had no corkscrew, we improvised, including parts of the door handle. Still it was a real struggle to open the cork, it was stuck so strong it took ages. But it was really worth the effort. The wine was sweet and strong and had a very full taste. So if you go to Albania, try the ‘Shesh i Bardhe’ wine!

Statistics

14.10.2017: 53,2 km Average: 15,3 km/h Elevation: 52 m

15.10.2017: 72,4 km Average: 15,5 km/h Elevation: 328 m

  • As we called it, our critical mass Albania

gravel

Ryan Miri Statistics

Ryan

On our first day, we had to climb two times. The first time was quite steep, but on good tarmac and offered nice views on Tirana. I was quite concerned, because this was only the first part of our way up, and he costed us quite some energy. And we dearly wanted to reach the top on the first day. One of the most beautiful camping spots of all time was waiting for us, offering stunning views on the surrounding mountains, while being well protected and flat at the same time. We reached the first pass after 800m of climbing at 14:30, so we had to hurry up to reach the top before the dark. Further 700m of climbing awaited us, this time on gravel. Needless to say: it was extreme in all concerns. The landscape was breathtaking, autumn arrived around us and red and orange trees covered the mountain ranges. The traffic dropped almost to zero, only some four-wheel-drives managed to climb this road. For us, it was quite exhausting, because you had to stay focused all the time to avoid falling off the bike, while pushing quite hard on some ascends. After endless turns and one semi-severe meltdown of Miri, we reached the top at dusk. It’s hard to describe, how awesome it is to ride along the flank of a mountain, with glittering villages down in the valley, while the first stars appear on the purple sky.

We set no alarm for the next morning, because the rest was dearly needed, and we wanted to enjoy our hard carved out place. It was awesome, standing level with the peaks of other mountains around, hearing nothing but the bells of some sheep in a distance and seeing birds flying below us. Nevertheless, we decided to go on, because we had some way ahead of us and weren’t sure how long it would take us on the old roads. This was a wise choice: riding on gravel was not too bad, because the main climbing laid behind us. But after a while, the road change to cobblestones, and these were awful. Often, going on the grass stripe between “regular” road and hillside was the only way to go on without ruining the bikes completely. While the landscape was still spectacular, there was barely time to enjoy it; our eyes were fixated on the next bump and the next edge ahead of us. Sometimes, we would push the bikes, even if the road descended.

Loose gravel would come in for diversion, and one stone thought that real diversion comes only with some on-the-road repairs. So I heard a loud “crack”, and when I inspected my bike, I found a torn spoke nipple, of course on the drive side. So now I had the first occasion to use some of my tools and the first spare spoke. Fourty minutes later, we were good to go, only to stop 200 meters further because of a flat tire…

It took us three days, until we reached the first villages and with them, asphalt. In the meantime, we had to use our water purifier the first time (it worked a charm), enjoyed a lot of awesome landscape, and endured some wet and cold nights. And last but not least, learned the value of good roads and recalibrated our scale about what a bad road is.

Miri

We did not do the trip through the Albanian Alps, because we already had enough Alps ... But Ryan would not let me leave Albania without a real adventure and so we loaded our bikes with food and took the old mountain road from Tirana to Elbasan. Ryan already cycled it on his tour three years ago and so he knew what awaited us. I didn’t, well not really except that he told me it was exhausting when he cycled it. Through the city it was normal and slow ascending, after that it was still ok. The road was paved and not too steep. And the view we had over Tirana was getting better as we went. The first pass was done before midday, 800 meter of ascension. It did not feel too bad but still was exhausting, and according to Ryan the worst part was about to come. The road was getting worse and smaller and was a rather dirty downhill onto a saddle and then back up the other side.

The road already changed from bad paved to gravel and back again. And we could see where the road was about to go. Far in the distance and high up on the mountain. I thought we never would make it, well I never would make it up there, at least not that day. But Ryan wanted to reach his old camping spot, his favorite camping spot in all his bike touring trips. So there was no pressure at all… After I lost my nerves a bit because of that we could cycle on… The road was getting worse and worse and finally there was no changing back to paved, only gravel. At least we could cycle on it, well most of the time I had to push more often the farther we came. And Ryan was telling me that we were almost there, since approximately 5 kilometers and there was no end near. Some parts Ryan cycled his bike up and had to come back and ride mine up, too. But most of the time I could ride my own bike. And then FINALLY we made it to the camping spot it was dark and I could see almost nothing, but still, we had made it.

I was so exhausted I couldn’t enjoy anything that moment and just wanted to sleep. After a good nights sleep I could enjoy the beauty of the camping spot. The view was amazing over the valleys and the colorful autumn trees between the stones. A bit later than normal we cycled on. The road was getting worse and worse as we went. The gravel changed to old stone road, and was really difficult to ride on and even impossible in some parts. The autumn leaves on the road did not make it any better, but it looked very nice. The landscape was amazing all the time. But I was really exhausted and we were riding so slowly. It was really hard. So we went on for one day and did not really achieve much. In the end we made camp in a small green and moist river bank. There we filtered water for the first time. It worked out perfectly.

The next day was no better. And the road showed us again what was possible. One stone got into Ryans back wheel and one spoke nipple broke. So we stopped and Ryan got it fixed in only 45 minutes, very impresive. But we should not come far. A small stone has gotten into the system and only 20 meters later we stopped again because of a flat tire. After that we could continue our slow journey through the mountains. This day we again came not very far. But the next day we actually made it onto the promised land, paved roads. It was amazing. Even the very bad paved road felt like heaven. The descent was only nice at the very end of the trip when we almost had reached the big road to Elbasan. But I lost my jacket there and so Ryan cycled back uphill to get it, my hero .

I was relieved that we made it and I also was a bit proud, but I am not sure if I would do it again if I knew what would await me up there. The landscape was really beautiful all the time but the road was so bad… I would really think twice about it.

Statistics

19.10.2017: 41,4 km Average: 8,4 km/h Elevation: 1529 m

20.10.2017: 21,2 km Average: 6,5 km/h Elevation: 275 m

21.10.2017: 20 km Average: 6,3 km/h Elevation: 179 m

22.10.2017: 67,2 km Average: 14,7 km/h Elevation: 284 m

  • Leaving Tirana (on asphalt)

1000 windows, 1000 ramps

Ryan Miri Statistics

Ryan

Afterwards, we went towards Berat. Unfortunately, the weather worsened, so gravel roads became mud roads (which forced us to remove our wheels to clean all the mess below our mudguards). We arrived in Kucove, an industrial town with oil pumps everywhere (literally everywhere, even on the graveyard), and of course they were in use. The most surprising thing about this is presumably, that we were surprised about it. The sharp smell of oil was everywhere, and the post apocalyptic appearance of this area fitted the grey weather nicely. Shortly before we reached Berat, thunder started, and since riding through thunderstorms isn’t our favorite hobby, we pitched the tent next to the city in an unfinished building.

Berat itself is beautiful and well worth a visit. Narrow alleys with weathered, tiny doors and a lot of corners everywhere set us back into the middle ages. Also, I really like the clean and light architecture of these houses. On the other hand its always annoying to come to touristy spots like these. We don’t know if he was desperate or simply pushy, but getting asked by the same guy four separate times if we wanted to sleep at his place is kind of funny and meddling at the same time….

Now Ohrid was our next destination, so we went part of the way back (although on the other river side) and followed the Devoll. We thought it would be kind of easy, simply following along his valley without bigger ascends. Well, the GPS told us it would be like this. And since you can never be sure what’s next in Albania, the GPS was of course wrong. The road was brand new and not mapped in OpenStreetmaps yet, so instead of relaxing climbing, we found ourselves climbing 12%-ramps one after another. And soon we knew why the road was brand new: a new dam was in construction. By the time this became clear to us, we were already surrounded by heavy traffic from the giant construction side, which made climbing the new road onto dam level not even easier. After passing the dam, the road became gravel again, but at least there were no more ramps.

The dam was our last adventure in Albania, shortly after we rolled towards lake Ohrid. Street vendors gifted us some fruits when we wanted to buy them from them, we spent our last Leke on the sweetest sweets of our life in a so-called Pasticeri, and some last pot holes later, we rolled towards the border. I guess you either love or hate Albania, and since it’s definitely love for me, leaving it was quite sad. Miru pafshim Shqiperia!

Miri

We rode along the Devoll to visit Berat. He road again was in parts just not passable, especially after the rain in the night everything consists of mud. Ryan got so much stuff stuck in his fender, that the wheel got blocked. So we had to stop remove the wheel and scratch the stuff out with a stine. It was so strong, you could build houses with this stuff, well actually some years earlier people might even have done that. The road was getting better the nearer we came to Berat. We came through an post apocalyptic landscape, there were old oil pumps everywhere, even on a graveyard was one. And the craziest was, they were still functioning and in use. Albania never disappointed.

The weather was getting worse, the strong wind came luckily from the back and so we were blown into the city. Just before it was getting to urban, we found a unfinished and deserted building, where we could put up our inner tent, leave our stuff there and rode on the naked bikes into the city center.

Berat was really nice. ¬¬It is called the city of thousand windows, and you see why when you’ve been there.¬ And all the little alleys, I really do love that stuff. Just one thing was annoying, an old man, wanted us to stay at his house and even after 5 refusals he still tried, he really wanted to sell his apartment but it was so annoying, out of protest I would have took another one then his. I don’t know which tourists would take his apartment when one is so penetrant. After a little stroll around the old city we rode back to our house. We even had a free wifi there, awesome 😊

After Berat we rode all the way up the river Devoll and then to Lake Ohrid. There was a dam right after Elbasan. We knew we would have to go uphill there, but Albanian people like to build steep… when we were on top of the wall we thought it would get easier, but Albanians like to build steep and so it was steep uphill and downhill all along the barrier lake. When we arrived further uphill and the road was very close to the river, it was finally not too steep anymore and the canyon was really beautiful.

But still Albanians like to build steep… there was another dam, still under construction, very huge and high. And we had to get up all the way the mountain next to the dam…very steep… and after that very steep again downhill, on gravel…. Wow that was such a great success…not. I was so exhausted we had to stop earlier that day. Fortunately we had more food with us and could provide another dinner and breakfast.

The next day was a lot easier and we reached Lake Ohrid without any further adventures. Well one guy, we wanted to buy apples of him, just presented us with the apples and some paprika, too. Very nice people the Albanians. At the lake we bought some sweets from the last of our Albanian Leke. It was so sweet it burns in the mouth, but was still awesome. With a sugar shock we left Albania, a very special country. You got to love the country and the people, and the Byrek, but you learn to hate the roads, well I did 😊

Statistics

23.10.2017: 29,6 km Average: 15,3 km/h Elevation: 84 m

24.10.2017: 71,8 km Average: 15,3 km/h Elevation: 747 m

25.10.2017: 40,3 km Average: 11,5 km/h Elevation: 883 m

26.10.2017: 64,5 km Average: 14,5 km/h Elevation: 438 m

  • Pay attention! (Not sure about what though, just pay attention...)

An now it goes onwards to Macedonia and greece

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