Unexpected events

June 28, 2013

Distance: 27.6 miles Climbing: 1292.7 feet

The morning brought the reality that we had to leave Albania, no matter how much we liked it there. We had 10 miles before the city of Shkoder, where we planned on spending the last of our Albanian currency before heading to Montenegro. We ended up having a lot more money than we wanted to spend in one day, so Chandler went into a bank to exchange some of it. As I waited outside with the bike, a man approached and asked our trip. I noticed his appearance we very similar to my own, sweaty looking, super tan and clearly a foreigner, another biker!

He was travelling in a group of three, all cycling from France to Istanbul. With almost the same route in reverse, we had a lot to talk about. One thing led to another and we found ourselves at a café enjoying coffee and figuring out where to get pizza. We have meet quite a few other cyclists on the road and don’t always end up connecting with others, but that was not the case with this group. We had to keep making progress but considered taking another rest day just to be able to hang out more.

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New cycling friends

After several hours, it was getting on to 330pm, we forced ourselves to say goodbye and get back on the bikes. We had a few miles to travel before reaching the border. The views were beautiful, but we didn’t take time to stop besides to snap a few photos.

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Castle of Razofo

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Lake Shkoder

We experienced another quick and uneventful border crossing. The Albania guard looked at our passport, handed it off to the Montenegrin guard, who stamped it and handed it back. The was a long line of cars waiting, so two bikers didn’t attract much attention.

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Another country added to the books

We pedaled to the nearest gas station to purchase drinks and refill our tires with air. We discovered that we had reached a country which uses the Euro, meaning things would be expensive.

When Chandler finished filling his tires, we headed into the hills. We had been told that the route through the mountains was beautiful and not to be missed. We made it about a miles up the first hill before Chan noticed a camping spot in a pasture hidden by trees.

We made the usual dinner of pasta before setting up the tent and inflating the sleeping mats. As soon as it got too dark to read, I was ready to fall asleep. Chandler was reading with his headlight next to me when I heard a sound. I asked Chan if he was making the noise, when the heard it again, footsteps really close to the tent. Expecting someone coming to tell us to move on, Chan opened the tent. Outside in the grass, only a foot away, was a small and cute little hedgehog staring up at us. We scrambled to get the camera, but were too slow before the hedgehog turned around and walked back into the brush.

We heard a few more of the little guys, but were no longer concerned and I could sleep soundly.

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Slow food for slow cyclists

June 26 – 27, 2013

Distance: 46.8 miles   Climbing: 2437.7 ft

We woke up to a beautiful morning and were very excited knowing that we would not have to go far to find coffee. The cafe owner was playing with her grandchild when we got up to the restaurant and her daughter brought us delicious espressos immediately. We lingered over our cups while watching the sun rise and trying to coax Bianca, the granddaughter, to smile at us. Soon, it was time to say goodbye and the owner refused our money, just wishing us well and making sure our water bottles were full. We are continually surprised at the generosity of strangers.

Too shy to say goodbye

Too shy to say goodbye

The riding started out with gradual hill climbing as we followed the road along the river gorge. We were treated to really stunning views of the river, small farmhouses and vineyards way down below on the shore. We marveled at how lucky we felt to be in such a wonderful place. After a little while we came to a bottleneck in the gorge. Chandler was happy to find out we had been riding along a reservoir, which led to a dam. Next to the dam was a tunnel through the mountain. We don’t like tunnels, and this one wasn’t lit as usual.

View from the climb

View from the climb

Surprise! A dam!

Surprise! A dam!

After the excitement of what turned out to be a short tunnel, we were funneled onto a major highway. We attempted to stay on the old road, but it promptly led us to someone’s house before ending at a cliff over the new road. We looked at the map and realized we would only have to be on the highway for a short while, so we turned around. We were actually very pleasantly surprised to find the new highway had a huge 5 foot shoulder on our side (curiously no shoulder on the other side, so we got lucky) and very little traffic. We made really good time with a tailwind, flying along the pavement before having to exit at the town of Milot. The road condition deteriorated but we didn’t notice too much because we ran into some other cycle tourists. They were two boys from Denmark cycling to Macedonia during their break from University. We talked routes and exchanged amusing antidotes from the road. The boys also suggested a slow food restaurant in the town of Fishta.

The rest of ride was along rolling hills weaving through small villages, which we didn’t pay much attention to because we stent the whole time keeping an eye open for the restaurant. When we reached Fishta, the restaurant was obvious because it was nice. A lot nicer than what we were dressed for in our sweaty bike attire. The owner immediately offered us seats outside and explained the system. The menu was in Albanian, which we don’t speak, so he asked how much we want to spend, per person, and he would arrange something nice. We decided on 10 Euros each and explained I am a vegetarian. We were then presented with the most incredibly, amazingly delicious feast!

Best restaurant in Albania

Best restaurant in Albania

Chandler is ready to eat

Chandler is ready to eat

Our meal included wine and beer and an assortment of cheeses, olives and breads as an appetizer. We were then given various steamed or breaded vegetables with more cheeses and homemade sugar syrup made from pine cones packed with sugar in jars left in the sun. Next came the main course of pasta with a mushroom sauce for me and leg of baby goat for Chandler, with a side of roasted potatoes to share. Dessert was fresh fruit and coffee. We spent about three hours enjoying the food and were contemplating camping on the lawn so we could do it again the next day.

A little something to get us started

A little something to get us started

Ready to burst

Ready to burst

Feeling extremely full and happy, we waddled back onto the bike in search of a hotel. As luck would have it, we encountered a fierce headwind, which cut our speed down by half. Normally, I would be cursing the wind, but I actually appreciated the extra effort to help work off the meal. When we reached the town of Mjede, we decided to call it a night instead of continuing to struggle another 10 miles. The hotel had reliable wifi, so a rest day was in order for the next day. Plus, we were avoiding leaving Albania and wanted to stick around one more night!

Checking the map

June 25, 2013

Distance: 37.2 miles        Climbing: 2424.5 ft

We walked around Bulqize in the morning looking for breakfast and Ellet, but found neither. We still haven’t figured out breakfast here. There are tons of cafés, but they only serve drinks, and we never see anyone eating anything in the morning. In the larger towns we can usually find a bakery selling pastries, but there wasn’t an obvious one here. Chandler settled for a chicken gyro since he was starving. I was able to find some bananas, which at least gave me some fuel.

We got back on the highway and rode up a steep but short pass on the west side of town. On the other side we found a very long winding descent. We had a perfect view of the valley below, full of fields with limestone mountains in the distance. We made our way down into the valley to the town of Klos. We saw on our map that there was a rail line starting near there, so we thought about catching the train to change things up a little bit. The streets in the town were under construction and in a chaotic torn up state. It was quickly apparent that we were not going to be taking the train when we saw that the railroad ballast was excavated in some areas, maybe borrowed to help rebuild the roads? The rail bridges were all still intact but the rails themselves were gone. We rolled along through a valley full of family farms, with lots of people waving to us as we passed.

Good spot to pose for a photo

Good spot to pose for a photo

Down to the valley, we go

Down into the valley we go

We stopped at a gas station for some espresso and one of the guys sitting in the café spoke some English so we found out that the vote counting was still going on and there wasn’t a winner in the national election yet.  Back on the bikes, we rode along through the valley until we made it to the outskirts of Burrel, which we quickly found out was up on top of a big hill. Our map showed two roads going in our direction, one up through Burrel, the other almost straight north. The north route looked shorter and we almost took it when we saw that the map had the road going straight through a large reservoir. We double checked on the GPS and saw the road dead ended at the reservoir, and now another road made a circuitous route around the east side, and up some big hills. So we climbed to Burrel. It wasn’t anything amazing, and we didn’t see a place to stop for pizza, plus it was just packed with people milling around in front of local national party headquarters. The whole place felt a little tense so we kept moving, back down the big hill on the other side of town.

Not the flag we were expecting to see

Not the flag we were expecting to see

Looks a little too big to jump off

Looks a little too big to jump off

We rode along a ridge overlooking the south side of the reservoir and then made a big climb before descending into a river valley below the dam, which was out of sight from the road. After crossing a huge stone bridge we started chugging up the road perched up on side of the river valley. We saw a little café and stopped for a cold drink and a snack. There was a nice older lady running the place and she made sure we sat on the side of the deck with a gorgeous view overlooking the river. It was a really nice spot with a vineyard planted on the steep bank between the café/house and the river. After relaxing for a while we realized we were pretty beat and asked if we could camp for the night down below. The old lady seemed like she expected this and motioned that we should go down and stay in one of the small wooden sun shelters by the river. She handed us a big bottle of frozen water and we brought a couple of beers down with us too.

Chandler relaxing

Chandler relaxing

Free campsite

Free campsite

We cooked dinner and then the women’s two sons came down to do some fishing. They went out on the river in a rowboat and set a long line of baited hooks for quite a way downstream. They came back to shore to wait and they showed Chandler all the fruits that they grew, and they talked about fishing by waving their hands around. As it got dark we said goodnight and went to sleep.

Back in Albania

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.

Lush reservoir

Lush reservoir

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

Macedonian earth dam

Morning Glory

Morning Glory

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

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.

Beautiful Albania

Beautiful Albania

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.

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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.

A Macedonian detour

June 22, 2013

Distance: 40.6 miles  Climbing: 2349.1 ft

Due to some confusion the day before, we missed out on the brewery tour, but were told to come back in the morning. We had a quick breakfast and showed up when the brewery opened ready for the tour. We spent about half an hour engaged in confusing dialog with the lackadaisical security guard before a woman who worked in the office came by and found someone to give us the tour. Our guide turned out to be production manager for the whole brewery. He ended up being really cool and opened up a lot once he realized Chandler and I knew a lot about brewing. His whole brewery is controlled with a SCADA system which means he can manipulate the most minute details of the brewing process from any computer equipped with the proper software. He knew a ton about lagers and the beer he brewed, but when we were comparing malt to water ratios for our American style India Pale Ales, he kept saying “Impossible!” He had been on a tour of a Budweiser brewery in Florida and assumed that was how all beer in America was created. We tried to explain craft brewing and “100% malt” but it didn’t seem to translate. For as saturated as the micro-brewing culture is within the US, it doesn’t seem to have penetrated to the Balkans!!

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The raw ingredients

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Beer nerds

While chatting and looking at the computer system we sipped some of their black beer which was just a lager with some black patent malt to color it. The last part of the tour was through the bottling and kegging station, and then we hit the road before 10am. Being so close to Macedonia, we decided to take a swing through for a few days before passing back through northern Albania. The ride to the border was mostly flat with a few hills that made for easy riding. Crossing from Albania to Macedonia was as straight forward.

Lovely flat road

Lovely flat road

Church, mosque and donkey

Church, mosque and donkey

We planned to make a circuit around Ohrid Lake which saddled the border, through the town of Ohrid and then back up a river gorge into Albania. Since on the map the road appeared to follow the lakeshore, we assumed it would be flat and mellow so we could make good time. The road was actually shoulderless and narrow, winding up one steep hill after another, leaving us sweating buckets. There were tons of tourists in sporty rental cars out for a drive passing way to close and too fast for the quality of the road.

We were planning on camping outside of Ohrid, but it quickly became obvious that was not going to be an option. The closer we got to the town of Ohrid, the more developed the land around the lake became. When we reached a small town offering apartment rooms for rent, Chandler suggested we stop. We ended up finding a great room which included internet and a balcony overlooking the lake for 20€. We parked our bikes around the back on the building, carried our panniers to our room and then had a swim in the lake.

The water was the perfect temperature after a hot, sweaty ride. We swam around for an hour to cool off. There were a lot of little fish that would come and nibble our legs if we held very still. The sensation reminded me of the fish pedicure I had in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We had fun seeing who would attract the most fish.

Swimming in the lake

Swimming in the lake

Feeling much more relaxed, we headed back to our room to shower, do laundry and use the internet. Once chores were out of the way, we headed to a restaurant for pizza. We had access to a kitchen at the apartment, but with prices so low, we had to take advantage of not cooking or cleaning.

Korçe

June 20 – 21, 2013

Distance: 27.9 miles Climbing:1968.5 ft

We lingered the next morning as long as possible over second cups of espresso before forcing ourselves to get on the road. It was a short ride to Korçe from Erseke, up and down hills and past meadows filled with flowers. We had one big pass to climb, but again the traffic was almost nonexistent and the grade was mellow. The cars that did pass us were courteous and friendly. With both of us feeling so strong, it was almost a shame we had such a short day.

Chandler and his "bar of justice"

Chandler and his “bar of justice”

Another beautiful view

Another beautiful view

Maybe I will switch from a bike to a horse?

Maybe I will switch from a bike to a horse?

Who's next for a haircut?

Who’s next for a haircut?

Normally, when we hit large cities, people ignore us and treat us like any other tourist. Korçe was completely different. Old men were leaning out windows to wave and young men were banging on bar windows to get our attention. I felt like a celebrity as we traveled through town. We biked around and after some meandering, we found the small local “Hotel Vienna” which rented huge rooms at 20 Euros a day. Unfortunately, the rooms were on the third floor and there was no air-con. We rearranged the room so we could open the windows behind the beds, which let in a little breeze. We spent the rest of time exploring town.

There was a pretty extensive market at the center of things, rivaling anything we had seen in Asia. Pretty much any item of construction material or hardware was on sale at cheap prices. There was also a central nucleus of food sales where women sold cherries, olives, peaches, tomatoes and all sorts of other produce at rock bottom prices. Chandler got caught in a bidding war between two olive sellers and ended up buying a half kilogram from each at a total cost of less than $3. There was a lot of cheese and butter on sale also which we didn’t buy since we don’t have a great system for long term storage.

We took a rest day in town and gorged ourselves on cheap pizza and lamb and chicken gyro’s for Chandler. We discovered the Korça Brewery which was a major highlight. There was a lovely shaded beer garden serving food outside where we spent several hours relaxing. The atmosphere was great and the prices we unbelievable. We added up the price of every item on the menu and it worked out to less than $40. We ordered up a feast and stayed well within our budget.

A small feast

A small feast

Albania so far was a cycle tourist’s dream come true: friendly people, good traffic and roads, beautiful scenery and cheap food and accommodations. We were already making all kinds of fantasy plans about future vacations.

First day in Albania

June 19, 2013

Distance: 38.8 miles Climbing: 5232.9 ft

We were excited to experience Albania. Jenny and I came in through a remote corner of the country, so we weren’t sure what sort of towns we’d come into first, but we knew they wouldn’t be touristy. We rolled into a town which we think was called Carshove, but we’re not 100% sure. There was suddenly a lot of hustle and bustle, mainly people working on the engines of big diesel dump trucks, and washing them. A man wearing a fluorescent vest waved us into a café offering espresso, which sounded heavenly.

After two pretty decent coffees and a couple of bottles of cold water, we were on our way. We didn’t have any Albanian Leke yet, so we paid in Euros at an extortionate rate. Luckily, coffee is cheap and even paying double is way less than paying full price at home!

We rode on, and soon we started to get into some serious views. The mountains in southern Albania are really high and held some big snow fields and maybe even some glaciers up high. We were really excited to be in some big alpine terrain, which reminded us a lot of Alaska in some ways. Even though we were climbing like crazy we were both in ecstatic moods.

Standard jumping photo

Standard jumping photo

Greece was a letdown for us, even though it had the great landscapes and food, the bad car driving, the tepid attitude of the people and the cost of things was a bit deflating. We were ready for something new.

We read about Albania’s complex recent history and a lot of common knowledge seemed to indicate it was still kind of dangerous. Briefly: Albania was the most extreme Marxist communist country ruled for decades by a paranoid and oppressive dictator, Enver Hoxha. The country did not join up with the Yugoslav bloc, had a shaky relationship with the USSR, and then became more aligned with the Chinese before becoming more isolated. A massive amount of time, money and resources was spent building thousands of these miniature concrete bunkers designed to repel a land invasion. Enver died in 1985 and since then the country has been on a rocky road to democracy.

Communist era personal bunker

Communist era personal bunker

We read a few blogs on cycling through the country and found that a lot of people stuck to the coast and found the roads in awful condition with loads of traffic. The few people who cycled in the interior had nothing but good things to say about the riding and the people. We decided to give the place a shot and stick to the mountain roads away from the cities.

Mountain village

Mountain village

Our first full day in the country provided a huge measure of encouragement. We rode through rugged hills up and down again with really light traffic. The roads were really bad, but on a bike they were 100% ride-able and with almost zero traffic, we felt very safe zigzagging all over the place to find a clean line through the potholes. Even though we were on a major national highway, it had the feel of a paved, but rundown Forest Service road. They were narrow and the grades weren’t great, but we only passed a few Mercedes and felt totally relaxed the whole time.

We climbed over the semi infamous Barmash Pass, which was listed at over 1700 meters in our Lonely Planet, but was less than 1200 meters in reality. I think we hit a higher section way before that. The highlights of the Barmash pass section was that it was hot as hell, getting chased by sheep dogs and there wasn’t a store or anywhere to get a cold drink on the main road.

Views worth climbing for

Views worth climbing for

It’s hard to explain why, but the combination of stunning scenery, quiet roads and a feeling of exotic isolation made it one of our all time favorite rides of the whole trip so far.

The only traffic on this highway

The only traffic on this highway

After a while we made it to the town of Erseke (Err-Sek). We found an ATM and finally got some Albanian cash. We were shooting to get to Korce for the day, since we knew there were hotels there, but we passed a little wedding/hotel place in town and decided to check it out. It was family owned and had 20 Euro rooms, so we were in. After a few beer Korcas, we made it down to the dining room where we made the usually fruitless effort of telling the waiter Jenny is vegetarian. To our surprise, the girl spoke passing English and totally understood us. From the kitchen came courses of fried zucchini, squash and potato, then cheese, piles of bread and a salad. I got a bunch of fried chicken. When we settled up the bill our whole meal including 4 beers cost less than $15!

We lounged in our room and tried to watch TV, but none of it was in English so we had no idea what was going on. With no wifi, we quickly lost interest in the outside world and fell asleep.

Enver Hoxha