Alone in Albania

I was alone in Albania. The argument had shaken me. The Swede was gone, riding on to the capital Tehrani. A few hours after I made for a campsite south of Skhoder that showed up on my map, supposedly, in the middle of nowhere. But it was there, in Albania, down  twenty kilometres of  rural backroad, at the center of a vast plain of swampy fields. I hid in my tent there, sheltered from the winds, for two days. A strange place. Totally random. A dutch family, husband, wife, three teenage children were living in the middle of nowhere. Large walls and an iron spiked gate shielded the immaculate site from outside world, and it even had a pool, hot showers and internet. I pitched my tent in the centre of the empty field and lived there, by myself, for forty eight hours. Day-66-Camp Eventually I got up and made my way to the capital through the backroads, across the farmlands. The roads were terrible but fun! They weren’t really roads. Just gravel pits, dotted with large rain puddles due to the lack of irrigation. The highway was much better. Tight and dusty. It made my eye’s water, my throat dry up. Day-67-Road-06 Day-67-Land About thirty kilometres outside Tehrani the highway turned to motorway without any warning and, after some backtracking, I was riding along the base of the Balkan mountains, along one of the most unusable roads I have ever seen. Cracks soon turned to potholes. Potholes became entire chunks of missing road. It got to the point, late in the afternoon, where I was carrying the bike on my shoulder, for about two kilometres, down a sea of stone rocks. It was hard, slow work. I was worried my bike would snap in half if I tried to cycle. Day-67-Road-05 Day-67-House Day-67-Road-02 The deeper I journeyed into Albania the strangler it became. The towns were in ruins, dirty and polluted, but full of life. The face’s of the people were gypsy like. The countryside was brown and mountainess and damp. Everything felt like it was sinking in the previous days rains and all the time an orange haze lingered. I passed abandoned factories, empty half-built housing blocks, wild dogs, thin and frail, stray cats, wandering cattle. The shops were full of non-perishables like tinned tuna, toffees and chocolate bars. I adjusted my diet and started surviving on chocolate. Albania though was incredible. Such a surprise and, in the autumn haze, in the shadow of the mountain range that I’d eventually had to cross, it felt middle-eastern, sometimes desert like and wild. I reached the capital and found a guesthouse down some backstreets. The city was, basically, under construction. I didn’t see much of it. I just retreated to the guesthouse, its garden full of orange groves, it’s included breakfast and cozy living room. The outskirts of the capital had been full of desert-like shanty buildings, lining long, straight and dusty roads. The centre full of statues and spires and mosques and parks, very grey, very wide, very imperial feeling. Day-70-Orange-Trees-02 Day-70-Dog I took a few more days off. I had a lot to think about. It had been several weeks now since I’d left the Alps. I was starting to have nostalgic memories from my days in France. As if it were another trip, separated by those great mountain ranges. It was cold at night now. People sat, covered in blankets, watching movies or reading books. I started to notice how far I’d come and how long it had been. But, there was a second great mountain range to cross. The Balkans were next and, on the other side, Greece. So, out of Tehrani and into the mountains I went. Up over the sunlit Balkans. The winding roads coursed through the autumn hills. By the roadside Fruit sellers sheltered in the shade of wild olive trees. I cycled until nightfall, following a winding river through autumn forests that made it’s way deeper into the canyons. There was sun, but everything felt damp, cold here between the deep, eastern mountains of Albania. Day-70-Balkans-Shop Day-70-Fruit-Stall Day-70-Olive-Trees Day-70-Brown-Valley Something about mountains excited me. That solid, physical challenge. That obvious struggle. Knowing that the only way forward is up and over, into the clouds. Mountains offered a visible, immediate reward. something I needed in a trip of such magnitude and scale. Little peaks to conquer here and there, reaching the top and looking down upon the world, seeing how far I’ve come, even if just on that day. Day-70-Balkans-02 At night temperatures dropped. My hands, my eyes, were always freezing. The road pitch black. The towns powerless. I thought of wild dogs, wolves. I thought of hunters in the forests. In total darkness I tried to find safe places to camp, crossing rail tracks, dragging my bike through fallen leaves, mud, water to try and find sleeping spots. But the lights of passing cars would light up the forests in this cramped part of Albania. I was in the wild. I’d been reading about banditry that still took places in the mountains here and I was nervous. I just kept pedalling until  the land started to rise up and, before I knew it, I was crawling towards a mountain pass near the Macedonian border only a day out Tehrani. It was nearing midnight and I had run out of road. Behind me the city twinkled, I wanted to be free of it, to be somewhere safe. Albania felt so different to any other country, so much more wild, that I just felt afraid. I have no idea why. A mixture of the dampness, the shadows of the mountains, the remoteness of the Balkan Valleys, the browns, the purples, ominous colours. Day-71-Petrol-Staton In the half light, a mile up from a petrol station, I saw a small building by the roadside, half-built. I was so tired. I had to get some rest. I dragged my bike off the road when all the cars had disappeared and slid into the derelict building. Dust hung in the air. Bags of cement and sand lay about. Spiders amongst the rubble, scuttled in the dark, moving away from the light of my torch as I scanned the small breeze block building. Behind a wall I lay down my mat, crawled into my sleeping bag, pulled my bike beside me and, with the tent unopened, stared up through a crack in the roof at the distant stars, icy breath, eyes heavy, until I fell into sleep. Day-71-Border-Mountain Day-71-Derelict-Building When the morning came my bike was still there, my ears and hair were free of insects and I was safe. Day-71-Sleeping-Bag Day-71-Derelict-Building-02 I stepped out to see the mountain I had begun to climb and the city valley I had crossed the night before. A mile away the Macedonian border was waiting. Day-71-Border-Mountain-02 Day-71-Derelict-Building-03-Day


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