Humility, kindness and Raki. A month in Albania

Mountain Bike Trails with Kim Jones

Here’s a question for you: If you were in a cafe and outside sitting at one of the tables you saw a dusty, dishevelled cyclist of unknown nationality sipping coffee and eating cake, would you go and talk to him?

Let’s assume you would, after all there is no reason you wouldn’t is there?

Now, would you then order a coffee and sit with him for twenty minutes or so with no common language, and when you have finished, say your goodbyes and discreetly pay his bill?

Would you?!

This happened on several occasions during my month in Albania and not as somebody said to me, simply because the people there want the tourism. Yes of course they do, but that is not the reason. The Albanian people do it out of a genuine hospitable kindness, something increasingly rare in this materialistic world of unnecessary purchases in which some of us live. This is something I have often found on my travels, people who have nothing share everything, whilst others…..

Here’s another example. I was pushing up a ridiculously steep dirt track when an elderly man came running out of his home shouting ‘Jo, Jo’ (no, no) gesticulating that the path over the mountain was far too steep and impossible with my bike, loaded as it was. I showed him the map, and pointed out my intended route seeking affirmation, again much gesticulating and shaking of heads before he invited me into his home for a coffee. This was becoming a regular occurrence and went some way to reducing the daily mileage.

Greater distances or chance encounters?

Give me chance encounters anytime.

He sat me down next to his wife who was knitting a pair of socks from wool she had spun herself. This fascinated me, especially when opening his shirt, the husband proudly showed me the woollen vest his wife had made. I nodded my approval and the husband disappeared to I assume get some coffee. Instead he returned with another woollen vest, made by his wife which he presented to me as a gift. His wife sensing my bemusement and laughing, snatched it from her husband and rushed inside the house, returning with one more appropriate for my size. I was made to take off my shirt and sit with them, wearing my new attire whilst we all drank coffee together. I was touched and felt incredibly humbled by this kind gift. This magnanimous couple grow all their own food in the garden surrounding their house, bake their own bread and financially are very poor, yet that day they shared everything they had with me.

Cheap flights to Corfu and a short ferry crossing facilitated a visit to what turned out to be an intriguing country. Though I must admit, I was terribly disappointed by Corfu, an island that is without doubt rich in wonderful scenery and people who seem to be incredibly tolerant but unfortunately one that has sold its soul to tourism. Despite spending four days travelling the island by bike and camping as and where the mood took, it was impossible to escape what is without doubt, a tourist destination. And one which unfortunately attracts ‘Brits abroad’. On the ferry over to Albania, there was a woman who got herself in a terrible state and indeed became very angry when one of the crew was unable to speak any English. When I asked her if she could speak Albanian, I was met with a quizzical look and “Of course not!” And why would she even make an effort? For when on holiday she drinks the same wine and eats the same food as she does at home. I’ll say no more.

One positive thing that came from the visit to the island was my new ‘man bag’. I’d harboured the idea of a leather bag for my handlebars for some time and one day whilst out wandering I got chatting with a leather craftsman who just happened to be a cyclist. We talked of trips and journeys made and I kicked my idea around with him, he said to leave it with him and to call back tomorrow. This I did and he presented me with a rather cleverly adapted hand bag which I thought was brilliant. Okay I know it’s not some super duper light-weight fabric, it’s not water tight, it’s leather and I love it! And like a fine wine, it seems to be improving with age.

The short time in Corfu gave me an opportunity to reassess my kit. The bike was far too heavy and a brutal cull was needed. There are obvious necessities that you can’t do without – stove, mug, pan, tent, sleeping bag etc., the only kit that can really be reduced to a bare minimum is your clothing. As long as you are prepared to wash certain items every day, it is surprising how little you actually need. Personally I am a huge fan of Merino wool; t-shirts, jumpers and undies, it doesn’t harbour the smells of some modern day activity fabrics and can be worn for several days without seemingly emitting any unpleasant odour. Managing to unpack what I hoped would be unnecessary items, I now needed somewhere to leave them. Ilia and Mila who hosted me for my first night in Sarande, Albania, kindly offered for me to leave my bag with them and after a fine breakfast I said my goodbyes. The loose plan was to travel north up the west coast for a few days then catch the bus to Skodra from where I would cross the country and head south, returning to Sarande three weeks later. The majority of the time I would camp, or as a friend said, sleep rough, then every four or five days I would book into a hostel or cheap hotel to shower and wash my clothes.

There is no gentle introduction to the hills of this country, they are immense and a few times during those first few days I was off and pushing, slowly though as the days went by I got stronger and by the end of the trip would think nothing of climbing for two hours or more. The first night I managed to get to Himare where I camped on the beach. The west coast has some truly amazing beaches though I think it’s fair to say this wasn’t one of the better ones. I soon fell into a routine of early nights followed by early starts, sometimes taking a break mid-afternoon to seek shelter from the sun on some of the hotter days and slowly the daily distances increased. It was time for a pit stop though, so I decided to travel by various buses to get to Skodra where I wanted to take a ferry on Lake Koman. Putting the bike in the back of the bus usually entailed removing all the kit, then repacking once the bus had driven off. At one village I realised that I’d left some of my straps on the bus and had to make do with a combination of spares and some old rope. The following morning the same bus on his return journey passed me and with a wave pulled over. I explained as best I could that I thought I might have left my straps in the boot, we both looked and there they were lying amongst the various bits and bobs seeming omnipresent on every bus here. We both laughed at this, the driver then motioned me to a cafe across the road where he bought some coffee and we sat and chatted about life in Albarnia, with an ‘r’. Albarnia was the world’s first and for a time only Atheist country, and it seems the majority of the people are still non-plussed about it. It is however noticeable that things are changing slightly, in one village I was awoken by the Imam giving his call to prayer and there are now some newly built mosques funded by the Saudis who are also sponsoring some of the infrastructure in the form of new road schemes. The people still seem unperturbed by this though and there is no overt sense of religious belief here.

Local bus journeys in Albania are similar to bus journeys in Africa, the Himalaya or the Andes, anything goes and nothing is a problem. Sitting at the back of the bus, my bike hanging out of the boot, I was woken by what I thought was a baa ing sound. No, surely not, it can’t be? It certainly was. At the last stop, in the boot with my bike they had put an adult sheep! I can just imagine turning up at the bus station in Swansea with a fully loaded bike and a sheep in tow – sorry mate, health and safety.

One of the benefits of this mountainous country is the abundance of fresh clean water. There are springs throughout Albania, particularly in the hills which to a touring cyclist are very welcome and incredibly refreshing. During the bus journey and to my puzzlement, the driver stopped at one and filled up six 10 litre plastic bottles. I later found out that piped water in this country is phenomenally expensive so whenever they can, people fetch their water from the springs. This is one of the many quirks here, whilst water is in abundance in the many lakes and reservoirs it remains the most expensive in the world. And this in a country where a hotel manager will earn only two hundred and fifty euros a month.

The birth of democracy in 1992 brought the promise of a new life but if you talk to the people, they all say the same thing, little has changed here, it is the same old thing. Corruption is still prevalent in government and the people, by UK standards are very poor. One thing that did surprise me was the attitude of people towards the local police. Even though armed, they were shown little or no respect, the people often arguing with them and one instance when two lads on an old superbike were actually taunting a policeman who was riding what to all intents and purposes was a Honda 90. This was done in good humour. And did raise a smile from him.

The end of communism was very much a result of ‘people power’ and during the riots at that time, the police walked away, not wishing to be involved. Many of those policemen are still in service now and I wonder if they are still wary of public opinion and remembering those events, feel reluctant to enforce the law.

Finally arriving in Skodra, I found it to be a delight, a young vibrant town with some great cafes – Albanians do coffee and food rather well – and a fantastic inexpensive hotel with a particularly good shower. Clean after my first good wash in a few days – I stepped straight back in and showered again. The following day I cycled to Lake Koman which turned out to be one of the many highlights of this trip. Though called a lake it is actually a huge reservoir, some 34km long and is surrounded by dense almost vertical forest walls, reminiscent of Norway’s fjords.

The ferry journey takes a few hours and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Disembarking the ferry late morning the following day and not really knowing which route to take, the entire afternoon was spent climbing and ended in a small village where leaning the bike against the cafe wall, I pulled out my crib sheet. I always carry one of these which I make up myself listing various useful phrases. Often pronunciation can be challenging and can raise a smile, but your efforts are always appreciated. This was especially handy in Albania when a shake of the head can mean yes and a nod mean no, very confusing.

I asked in my best Albanian if I could camp in the field adjacent to the cafe, this was met with a confused look and a nodding of the head. I tried again and was met with the same response. This time though, he took my sheet read it and laughed. No I couldn’t, I must camp next to the cafe! A space was cleared and I pitched my tent.

 ‘Mr Kim, Mr Kim, football!’ Oh no, I am not a football fan, never have been, yet spent the next two hours drinking Raki with twenty or so people from the village watching Liverpool playing somebody or other in what turned out to be a lively and entertaining evening. And here I learnt to trust. Outside in the dark, was my unlocked bike and all my kit. Every ten minutes or so I would get up and have a quick look outside, this of course didn’t go unnoticed and when I went to get up for the third time I was told. ‘Mr Kim, your bike is safe, you are our guest now’ and a glass of Raki was thrust at me. And that is Albania for you. When you are invited into someone’s house, whether it be for a coffee or to spend the night, you and your belongings are safe.

The second week my search began, I had promised a friend a photo of one of the ubiquitous bunkers. There are some 173,000 of these bunkers dotted throughout the landscape. These bunkers were constructed during the communist regime under the leadership of Enver Hoxha and designed by Josif Zagali. Your man Zagali was so confident in their steel and concrete construction that he stood inside one whilst it was fired on by tanks, re-emerging unscathed after the bombing had ceased. The regime under Hoxha was intent on militarising the population and the idea of the bunkers was that they would be the first line of defence. Some 800,000 people were armed and in the event of an invasion many civilians were assigned to a bunker which they were to defend to the death. All of the one man and two man bunkers were within sight of a control bunker which was manned continuously. I’m not sure how comfortable I would have felt in a three metre diameter concrete dome armed only with an archaic rifle.

After a particularly long and hard day during this second week I declared it was time for another pit stop in preparation for the Black Drini gorge. I stopped in the town of Kukes this time, where I was bought several beers by the hotel manager and some Raki which I swear burnt the back of my throat. During my time in Albania I became quite a connoisseur and was pleasantly surprised by the different tastes. This one was particularly strong, though not unpleasant to drink.

The gorge was everything I hoped for and arriving in Peshkopi a few days later, it was time for a rest day. During my two days there I found myself in the same cafe several times as the coffee was particularly good and each time I would leave a small tip. Leaving Peshkopi on the second morning I popped in for one last coffee and a cake when I was told there was no need to pay because it was covered by the extra money I had been leaving. I tried to explain, but it was futile, partly because we couldn’t understand each other but in the main he insisted there was no need to tip.

Now Peshkopi just happens to be close to Macedonia so I thought I’d pop over for a few days. Here I travelled and camped enjoying the same levels of hospitality that I must say, I’d become quite accustom-ed too. On a shower night I stayed in a camp site alongside Mavrovo lake where I was given both beer and coffee ‘on the house’.

And so the trip went on, there were many highlights.

The hot springs near Permet were a real joy and a place I spent a lazy afternoon soaking my tired and weary body. It was one of my best nights out for a while; there was a storm of truly biblical proportions and I slept in my tent under a pagoda together with other cyclists. Nature was truly at her, wild, unmanaged, untamed best. The sky was split with fork lightning and the thunderclaps seemed to shake the ground. It was truly fantastic and I felt so ALIVE!

There were days spent travelling with other cyclists; a Raki infused night in Gjirokaster where a gang of us who had all previously met independently, happened to all be in the same town and agreed to meet up in a restaurant where we ordered one of everything off the menu to share; some long days on the bikes when we climbed thousands of metres; the sense of community and camaraderie with fellow travellers, Germans, Dutch, Czech, Canadians, French and Russians; the incredible night skies up in the hills; snakes around the tent, take it from a man who knows, never ever wander around in the dark barefooted whilst wild camping in Albania!; the frog chorus on a night by a stream. A chance encounter with some fellow cyclists at the end of the trip, our paths had crossed just after I disembarked the ferry, they were struggling with a broken rack and between us all we managed to effect a botched repair which lasted the duration of their trip. A wonderful chance meeting with a farmer in his small orange tractor ….. the list goes on.

It seemed that whenever a car overtook me, they would beep their horn and wave, my left arm would often be going up and down like a piston rod. On this occasion though, speeding down a long hill into a valley, it was my turn to overtake and as I cycled by a farmer we exchanged waves. He soon passed me though on the long climb out before disappearing ahead of me. It was late in the afternoon and I was tired and hot so I pulled into a roadside cafe and ordered some lemon soda. Sitting there wondering where I was going to spend the night, I looked up to see the same farmer rumbling passed, so I waved. He immediately pulled in and without hesitation sat down next to me. Again no common language but we had some great banter before he made his apologies and left. I was about to do the same when the cafe owner came out with a delicious spinach byrek (a large stuffed pastry), a huge plate of chips and a lemon soda. The byrek was courtesy of the owner, the chips and soda were paid for by the farmer. It was moments like this that I found so utterly humbling and often failed to find words that were gracious enough to convey my gratitude.

The last night of my trip, bearded, six kilos lighter and an awful lot fitter and stronger, I returned to Ilia and Mila where I was greeted with wonderful Albanian hospitality. The following morning, Mila gave me a bunch of flowers she had picked from her garden as a parting gift and which I fastened to the front of my bike before cycling away. These flowers now dried are on my map wall and serve as a reminder to myself that I promised to return, and one day I will.

One of the things I struggle with is when people pass an opinion on somewhere they have never been. This happened a lot when I said where I was going, particularly during my short time in Corfu. And I suppose, travelling with your bike for a month you could be seen as vulnerable, but I wasn’t beaten up, I didn’t have my passport taken by the police, I wasn’t gang raped, and at no point did I ever feel threatened or intimidated, in fact, quite the opposite. So much happened in this incredible country during my relatively short stay, and I had so many wonderful experiences I could probably write a book. But if I had to take just one thing from this trip it would be the kindness of the people, something that will stay with me forever.

Writing this now it is interesting how this trip has really unsettled me. I love all this, the travelling with the bike, the experiences en-route and the people I meet. Yes, not every day is wonderful, but you learn to become pragmatic about those days. Things will break, you will get cold, you will get hungry and sometimes you’ll be unwell. But they are rare occurrences and pale into insignificance when you look at the trip as a whole. It would seem the chances of me returning to work, full time at least, are resting on a horizon which seems to be a long way off and for the moment getting no nearer.


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