Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Northern Albania (Theth and Tirana)

The official welcome to Albania sign.

Albania. Albania will be a country that I carry with me a long time. From the moment I crossed the border, it started leaving an impact on me. I can't believe just how drastically different it was from its neighbors.

A much better welcome to Albania sign.

The first difference was watching a family fight to be allowed to leave Albania. I had not seen anything like this and it wasn't pleasant. Shortly after that, I saw, or rather felt, my next indicator of the differences, potholes. Sometime after Democracy took over, Albania fell apart for a while. Money did not end up going to infrastructure and it shows. There are more potholes in a square mile than probably any city in the US has in 20 square miles, even Pittsburgh. At first, it was a little entertaining, but you could not dodge them. There were just too many. It made for very unpleasant riding. My brother's coworker from Albania says that me complaining there are potholes is a compliment because that means that they at least have, or had, paved roads at some point. Ugh.

The mountains of northern Albania.

I entered Albania without any money. No exchange in Montenegro had any. This made me a little nervous, but I figured the first town would have an ATM. It didn't. It did have potholes. It also had a fascination with me. I was a Hollywood superstar for fifteen minutes. People stopped and stared. Every kid said hello, or rather they said 'What's up' in a perfect American accent. If I answered back, they did not know what I was saying. The attention was a little entertaining, but also unnerving to have so many people paying attention to my every movement.

A quick example of never being left alone from the Internet cafe.

Countryside in Albania.

I pushed on to the next town, Koplik, and received similar treatment on the way. Kids would drive up on their motobikes and slow down to say hi before zooming off. In the next town, it continued to happen, but it was not nearly as intense. In Koplik, I met Orgon who spoke perfect English in an Internet cafe . He took me to the town's ATM and helped me get situated.

A church just outside Koplik, Albania.

A quick video of the countryside between Koplik and Theth.

After a quick pit stop, I set out for Theth, a hard to reach town in Bjeshket e Namun, the Accursed Mountains. There is supposed to some amazing hiking up there. One map showed one road up. A newer map showed a second road that I hoped to take back down when I was done. Neither one ended up happening. After an amazing ride up the cultivated valley, I found a spot to camp for the night. The road had been paved the entire way but apparently turned to dirt 50 feet past the cafe I was stopped at. I decided to save the 20km unpaved part for the morning.

Cem River Valley to Theth.

Camping at the cafe was interesting. The cafe wasn't really a cafe. It was someone's house with a bar attached to it. Their menu consisted of snacks you could buy at a grocery store and drinks. There was nothing fresh and no hot food. There were two kids who spoke a little English. They were fascinated by my tent and bicycle. Their dog kept coming to visit and was happy for any loving it could get. Adorable. As the night carried on, two Polish people joined me and when we tried to sleep three pigs decided to join us too. They were running around the entire night looking for foor and oinking away.

The road that kicked my butt and turned me around.

In the morning, I got packed up to leave. Just as I was about to go, the cafe owner came running out with a shirt and shorts. I don't know if she was trying to give them to me or sell them to me. I turned them down and wondered just how bad my clothes looked or smelled to encourage such a gesture.

Riding back down the Cem River Valley.

The unpaved road to Theth was bad. If I was not sinking in deep gravel, I was hitting a huge rock and getting knocked over. It sucked. I might have covered 2km in thirty minutes. A guy who could give me a ride was supposed to be going by at some point, but never did. After too many struggles, I opted to turn around. The unpaved road group on maps needs to be broken up into two subgroups for dirt road and good luck (4x4) road. I had really wanted to get to Theth, but without a ride it just wasn't going to happen. The second road was even worse. The Polish campers had tried it the day before and turned around as well. They made it about 10km, but it is 70km of gravel instead of just 20. Ugh.

Pigs have no idea how to get away from you on the road. They turn one way, then the other repeatedly, but never commit and really just try to outrun you. It was difficult not to get bowled over.

Shkodra, Albania.

My next destination was the captial, Tirana. To get there, I would have a very long haul back down the valley and across the entire northern half of the country. I could do it one big day if I pedaled hard. Unfortunately, pedaling hard over potholes is a bit of challenge. The road did improve, but it still sucked. There were signs of improvement though. Next to our road, they were building a new one, but when I went by no one was actually working on it. I hope that the money didn't run out. The roads need help.

Rozafa Fortress, just south of Shkodra.

As I understand it, the roads were built under communism, but were not maintained. Albania was under a strict communist rule under Hoxcha from 1946 to 1985. At the start of that time, Albania had been aligning itself with the Soviet Union, but in 1968 it shifted its ties to China. In 1992, after student demonstrations, elections were finally allowed. The Democratic party won and a free market was born. It was a free for all.

Albanian countryside.

One way you see the result of the open market is the number of Mercedes Benz on the road. When the free market opened up, Albania became the final destination of thousands of stolen Mercedes Benz vehicles. I would guess they make up over 50% of the cars on the road. It is amazing. They are only outnumbered on the road by potholes. On the highway down to Tirana, three other things dominated the landscape, gas stations, car washes, and furniture stores.

A random statue on the road to Tirana.

An unfinished, but lived in, house on the way to Tirana.

I have no idea why there are so many furniture stores. Under the free market, I bet people wanted to choose their furniture but the sheer number was overwhelming. The gas stations make sense because there were so many cars. Each gas station advertised a market or cafe, never both. However, if they had either one open was a guess. I pulled into so many gas stations that said they had a market, but actually didn't. A lot of them had room for a market, but nothing in it. I don't know if they are building it and just didn't want the sign guy to come out twice or what. The car washes, or lavazh, were everywhere too. I rarely saw any cars in them. I was told there are so many because it is a great start up business. Anyone can tap into the local water supply for free so there is minimal start up costs. I don't understand why so many would be open though. It didn't look like supply was meeting demand.

One of hundreds of Lavazh (car washes) on the road to Tirana.

A typical gas station scene. One guy works. The rest hang out.

The number of empty car washes seemed to give their employees a chance to just hang around and play cards. Actually, that was the same thing at the gas stations. There was rarely a gas station attendant alone at the station. He had friends or family members (not working as far as I could tell) to keep him company. There were no women. In fact, seeing any women between the ages of 15 and 40 seemed impossible. Only men were out and about. I guess the women were at home.

More Albanian countryside.

The Et'hey Bey Mosque off the Sheshi Skenderbej square in Tirana.

After I finally arrived in Tirana and checked into my hostel, I explored a little. Tirana didn't grab me and I was intending to hit the road east the next day. That didn't happen. The people in the hostel were fun. They highly recommended Berat to the south. It wasn't on the way, but I figured I could catch a bus back. That didn't happen the next day either. In the morning, I explored after hearing the dawn Muslim call to prayer. When I was about to leave, a group of open source programmers in the country for a conference offered me lunch. Then, I called someone. Then, it started to rain. Then, I gave into inertia and just stayed put for one more day. I think I needed it anyway. I was mentally and physically tuckered out. It also gave me an extra day to find out what the hostel water that I had been drinking for two days, but shouldn't have been would do to my body.

Boulevard Deshmoret e Kombit in Tirana.

Formerly, the Hoxcha museum, this Pyramid is now a disco and conference center.

My last night in Tirana was a good one. I kept my theme of not doing much and spent some time on the computer and chatting with folks around hostel. However, I wrapped up the evening over Oregon Chai and curled up watching Slumdog Millionaire, just like I might have been doing on a rainy day in Colorado. It was fantastic and exactly what I needed instead of just pushing onto the next adventure.

The public buses in Tirana were as full as the subways in Tokyo.

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