June 24, 2013
Distance: 47.3 miles Climbing: 2877.3 ft
The day started on a bit of a rough note. I had not slept well due to some stomach issues and was not in the best mood when we got up. The bee flies were driving me insane and Chandler, unknowingly, made a comment which set me over the edge. We didn’t get too far before we had to hash things out in the middle of the road. Soon enough, everything was back to normal and we were ready for the day ahead of us.
We continued along the reservoir which was quite beautiful, but the view was hidden by a number of large trees. We didn’t mind too much, considering we were getting some wonderful shade from the sun. Chandler was excited when we reached a nice dam, which he spent a while looking at. Past the dam, there was a small stream running alongside the road. Gradually, we started gaining elevation and above another reservoir, which led us to another dam. Two dams in one day, Chandler could hardly contain himself with glee. He was especially excited because they had huge “morning glory” spillways, where the excess water that doesn’t pass through the hydroelectric turbines dumps into a giant concrete drain out in the reservoir, then passes through the dam in a pipe before discharging downstream. According to him, they are not an especially common feature on big dams.
Macedonian earth dam
After a few photos, we hustled to get back to Albania. We peddled through the town of Debar, but didn’t bother stopping, especially since we were out of Macedonian Denar. Finally, we made it to the border and back in our new favorite country. Maybe it was just us, but we noticed a change right away. There was a small café right after the border and we opted to stop for coffee. As we were ordering, a man came up and started chatting with Chandler. When Chan brought out money to pay for our drinks, the man waved the money away and added our drinks to his tab. We enjoyed our coffees on the deck and our friend came out as we were finishing up. He tried speaking to us but, either his English wasn’t too good or the beers were starting to get to him. He proceeded to whip out his cellphone, call his friend in Oxford, England and handed the phone to Chandler.
Back in Albania
Chandler finished the brief phone conversation with the extremely confused man in England, we thanked our new friend and headed off. Neither of us could believe how happy we were to be back in Albania. The drivers were noticeably more courteous, the scenery more beautiful and the people more friendly. I felt like we were back in Cambodia with kids in trees shouting hello, people trying to give us high-fives as we biked pass and everyone honking to get our attention to wave. The most surprising thing is how friendly and encouraging the young men are towards us. We had several cars full of young dudes in Mercedes slow down to shout ‘ciao’, give thumbs up, clap or in my case, blow kisses.
Nothing could ruin our good moods. We went up a number of hills with the sun blazing down upon us, only the find a spring at the top to refill our water bottles. Then, suddenly, we encountered a fierce headwind. Having not stopped for lunch and considering it was near 3pm, we figured we were just bonking hard. We braked for juice and bread, but noticed the going was still really tough. As we were battling to go downhill, Chandler stopped and pointed out the water in the gutter next to the road and asked, “Is the water flowing uphill?” Yes, the wind was blowing so hard it was had changed the direction of flow in the gutter. Unbelievable.
Luckily, we only had a few miles to go until we got to the town of Bulqize. After one last hill to struggle up, we were ready for showers and dinner. The town was really strange, basically two separate concentrations of huge old concrete apartment complexes cleaved in half by the highway. Whole parts of both of the towns looked abandoned. We consulted the map and discovered there wasn’t going to be anywhere else to stop for a while, so here we were. As we angled into the more lively looking side of town Chandler noticed extensive signs of mining in the hills.
We must have looked a little lost because a man immediately asked if we needed help and pointed out a hotel. The hotel looked more like a bar and as we loitered outside, another man came up to help. Ellet owns a hostel in the capital but was in town as an election observer and spoke wonderful English. He immediately asked if we wanted to camp or find a hotel, then made all arrangements for us and our bikes with the bartender for a room. Bulqize is a town built to support the underground chromium mine honeycombing the mountain above town. We learned that the local favorite party was winning the national election, so the mood in the town was good, and things should be safe.
Our new friend left us to shower and find food. We walked down the main street until we found an Italian restaurant, which luckily had an English menu. Chandler ordered beef with eggplant and I ordered pasta with butter and roasted potatoes. We were a bit surprised to find that we each got a serving of what the other ordered. Good thing Chandler was hungry enough to eat two orders of beef with eggplant. Then we noticed that there were little bit of beef in our buttered pasta. Then the roasted potatoes came out and we discovered there was a slight typo on the English menu, it was actually beef roast with potatoes. So, Chandler ended up eating 6 enormous plates of food, while I had cheese with bread and the uncontaminated potatoes. The bill came and some of the prices were a little inflated from what was on the menu. We didn’t have the heart or the energy to protest over being ripped off a few dollars, especially since the total price was less than a meal for one in most restaurants back home.
We had a few beers in the hotel room while watching an episode of Top Gear where the hosts drove across Albania in a Mercedes, a Rolls Royce and a Yugo. It was pretty entertaining, but we thought they did a poor job of accurately characterizing the country, perpetuating the horror stories about how dangerous things are and the poor condition of the roads.