Saturday, October 02, 2010


Welcome to Macedonia!

Macedonia is one of the old parts of Yugoslavia. In order for Macedonia to join the European Union, Greece has insisted they change their name to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Greece feels there is confusion between its own province/state of Macedonia and the neighboring country. Some people take this very seriously. I think it is dumb and say boo for politics. Perhaps, they can call themselves Macedonia, the Second Coming, and birth a new Philip or Alexander. Though, that might get Greece up in arms too.

St. Naum Monestary.

My original plan was to hug the coast line of Greece, but there weren't too many spots there that interested me. My new plan was to pass through Macedonia, using it as a short cut. By cutting through FYROM, it would let me check out Lake Ohrid and see Meteora, Greece while saving me a lot of miles.

Central church at St. Naum's Monestary.

My visit to Macedonia started at Lake Ohrid. My hope was to visit the St. Naum monestary, Galicica national park, and the actual town of Lake Ohrid before heading east to Bitola, and then south to Greece. I took the St. Naum border crossing right by the lake. I think I even saw St. Naum as I crossed the border. However, I had to bike another few kilometers passed it to the driveway that then wrapped all the way back towards the border before I was allowed to check it out.

The ornate rooftop of the church.

Near the start of the driveway, a man asked me to get off my bike. He said it was because it was a monastery. The monastery was at least a kilometer down the road. The driveway was just fifty tents of people selling their tourist crap. At the end of it was peace and quiet. It was wonderful. The front grounds were fountains, sculpted plants, peacocks, and two girls taking photos of themselves in sexy poses in front of everything, including a non-sporty red car. They might have trying to out do the peacocks. As far as I know, these sexy poses are a recent trend. I never noticed them before when I was traveling. Someone told me it is a Eastern European thing. It makes me laugh. I need to start doing that, but I have no idea what my sexy pose would be. Maybe, I'll borrow Blue Steel.

Peacocks on the grounds of St. Naums.

The monastery was much smaller than it looked. The largest building was occupied by a hotel. Another one was a restaurant. Another one was quarters for people who lived there. We were only allowed to stroll the grounds and, for a fee, to visit the church. I don't if it was the lake or the juxtaposition of people trying to sell their crap, but it was beautiful and serene. While I was there, I met a guy on a bike tour. He had come all the way from Bulgaria, just to visit this monestary. I wish I had taken a picture of him and his gear. His gear was made out of the material they use for 'hippy' bags. He also had two extra tires.

Looking out over Lake Ohrid.

After soaking up the scenery, it was time to move. I biked all the way, passed the guy who had told me to get off the bike, and towards the main road. On the way, I thought I was going to have my first major run in with dogs. A pack of four or five came running out of the woods. I saw a fence between them and me and was not too worried until I realized there was a hole in the fence right where we were going to meet. Crap. I biked faster. My legs complained, but I out paced them and then took a long breather.

Kicking back.

Lake Ohrid.

I needed that breather to get ready for my big climb of the day. I was heading uphill 1100m into Galicica National Park. On the way, I'd get better and better views of Lake Ohrid. At the top, I'd continue back down to the town of Lake Ohrid, or at least I would have if I did not miss the turn. I saw the road. I just didn't realize that the road I would be taking would be a dirt one so I ignored it. By the time that I realized I had made a mistake, I was already three-quarters into my descent to Lake Prespa. I started back up the hill, but I was completely unmotivated to climb the mountain again. Also, some gnats were pestering me so I just said screw it. I had heard good things about the town of Lake Ohrid, but it will have to wait. I'm adding it to the next time list. That list is getting bigger and bigger.

The road I was supposed to take is somewhere up there.

Lake Ohrid.

Lake Prespa treated me well. The roads were great and there wasn't litter everywhere, but that might just be comparing it to Albania. On its own, it was beautiful, not well trafficked, and led me through apple orchards. Everything about that day felt like fall in Pennsylvania. The leaves were starting to change colors. The apples were ready to be picked (which I did). The temperature was right. The smell was right. I started seeking out apple cider, but didn't find any. The whole scene definitely made me a little homesick.

Lake Prespa

Apple orchards.

Random house.

Eventually, I made it to Bitola, the capital of southern Macedonia. It straddles the Dragor River. I rode in on one side of the river and back out on the other. In town, I found the main street pretty quickly. It was a pedestrian thoroughfare which made biking a challenge. I had intended to just stay there for dinner, but ended up staying the night. It had a great feel about it. I can't really explain what it was. The two distinct things that I do remember were all the 20-something cool kids were in the two adjacent bars. Most of the other bars were empty. Also, when I got lost looking for lodging, a woman responded to my request with 'What's that?' which led me to believe I was just saying a Macedonian word wrong, but she did speak Engligh. It turned out that it was her only response to anything I said. I eventually just biked away. I said goodbye. She asked what's that. Oh, one last thing, almost all of my Internet access in Albania and Macedonia came at Playstation 3 centers. They have one or two computers and then a ton of PS3's for online play.

Central square in Bitola, Macedonia.

The slowly changing colors of fall in Bitola

The next morning after a beautiful 10 hour sleep, I was up way too early and waiting for breakfast. To pass the time, I turned on the television. I think overhalf of the stations were in English which mirrored the way it was in the rest of the old Yugoslav Republics that I visited where I saw TV (Slovenia and Croatia). It may teach their youth English, but seems a little weird to me. Anyway, breakfast was going to be too late, so I skipped it and had a quiet ride to the Greek border.

I love that gummy snacks are marked as Halal (safe for Muslims).

Friday, October 01, 2010

Southern Albania (Berat, Pogradec, and Lake Ohrid)

Biking home with dinner.

After my rest day, I was ready to go. I got packed up and woke up Cynthia, a fellow Coloradan, up to see if she still wanted to go biking with me. She thought it would fun. I was wary since she didn't bike that much and tried to warn her, but she said she ready. I figured I had given her the details and she had made an educated decision. Later on, we discussed that she heard 60-70km instead of 60-70 miles. Before this ride, the most she had ridden was around 30miles, but she did it and did it pretty well. To read her take, go here.

A standard small town with almost all men.

Mud can be fun, honest.

The conditions were not looking great, but with taking a day off and taking a detour, I couldn't sit still anymore. We set off for the coast on a side road so we would not be on the busiest road in Albania. As we got closer to the coast, we encountered our first hills and our first drizzle. By the time we hit the coast at Durres, the old capital, we had rain. Then, we turned south onto the highway. There was a lot of traffic, but we were able to use service roads for some of it. One of those service roads was still being built and was covered in clay that I am still scraping off my bike. If we were on the highway, it was smooth though. That wasn't the case for the service roads. They had mud and potholes. All of these put together would have made for one of my worst days of riding if I had not had company.

Fruit stands on the highway (Photo by C. Ord)

The Balkan nations have the curious custom of building long lasting roadside memorials. I am not sure if the body is near there or if that is just the scene of the death or some other option.

Cynthia hadn't eaten any and I was not thrilled about her trying to do bike so much on just bread. Also, since the conditions were miserable, it seemed like a good idea for a morale stop. I walked right into the cafe, but they would not let Cynthia in. They directed her direcly to the lavazh special where she was supposed to hose herself down. Brilliant. There are so many things you can communicate without knowing the language.

Sing it . . .At the car wash, at the car wash yeah . . . (Photo by C. Ord)

Lavazh special? This is not suggestive.

You might think this sign means don't ride your bike here, but the gas station attendant says otherwise. Ride on. (Photo by C. Ord)

After a long breakfast which included a hot chocolate that was thicker than a milkshake, it was time to get moving. The first thing we did is hose some of the clay off our bikes. Then, we hit the road for some easier riding. We were moving pretty well until we got to an autobahn. The sign clearly said 'No Bikes.' The gas station attendant across the way said no problem and told us to keep moving. We saw two other bikers, including an old guy going the wrong way on the road. Gas station attendant one. Sign zero.


These potholes are ridiculous. (Photo by C. Ord)

I don't remember too much from the last third of the ride. A headwind picked up to round out the full list of biker woes. Cynthia started to fade, but she kept pushing on. I encouraged and harassed her until we made it. We were both pretty happy when Berat finally appeared. Once we were done, Cynthia said she felt like she had paid someone to take her on an adventure trip. I might need to consider that as a line of work. For me, it was just a day's ride. It could be easier than I think.

These kids rode a couple kilometers with us doing tricks and almost wrecking all the way. (Photo by C. Ord)


Berat is two cities, the quaint beautiful part you read about in tour guides and the ugly regular city around it. Stick to one and you'll enjoy it. Go to the other and you'll take a pass. The one you should visit is two collections of white Ottoman houses climbing up hills with one of them ending at a castle. On the castle side of the river, there are restaurants, roads, and cars. The other side of the river is more residential. There are almost no cars because the cobblestone streets are not wide enough. That is where are hostel was surrounded by whitewashed walls and tile roofs.

Arriving at Berat, Albania. (Photo by C. Ord)

The lawn mower at Berat Castle. (Photo by C. Ord)

We checked into the one hostel available in town and got a double room. It is so nice to travel with someone else. Usually, for just one or two Euros more, you can get a private double room instead of being tossed into the dorm with who knows how many people. That lets you spread out and usually get a better night's sleep. Yet another reason I need to find someone to go on these trips with me.

Our room at the Berat Backpacker.

Berat residential streets.

We went up to the castle to catch sunset. The castle, Kalasa, surrounds an old neighborhood called Kala. It is beautiful to look at, but there was one very large problem that permeates all of Albania. Garbage. I don't think there is any official garbage disposal in the country. I have heard a number of reasons why, but the gist is this. Under communism, there were huge fines for littering and almost everything was recycled. After communism, the people are lashing out a bit like a teenager in their first year at college. The second reason is that with the open market, a lot of money poured into the country which allowed them to buy more new goods. Before everything was reused, but now used items are tossed out the window. One garbage can on the main street of Berat had a bottom. The rest were rusted out. We watched cafe owners empty bags in the street. The final straw for me was seeing a UNESCO World Heritage site, the castle, have a pile of garbage as tall as the castle wall piled against it. Yuck. A lot of Albanians don't understand why they aren't in the EU yet, but things like this explain it in a hurry.

Other than the garbage, the castle was great. Sunset was amazing. At dinner, I tried to do something I have not done since living in the US, customize a dinner order. The waiter knew just enough English to let us order a half and half a pizza and pasta order. It was fabulous. The next day, we were supposed to do a bunch of stuff, but it didn't happen. We hiked to some ruins, strolled around town, found a turtle, and enjoyed a slow day. It was wonderful to really take a breath before heading out for the next adventure.

A turtle in Berat.


The countryside behind Berat.

As luck would have it, the next adventure came sooner than expected. There was no bus. I have no idea why. Some people at the bus station spoke both languages and could not figure it out. The schedule said there was a bus. A bus was labeled with my town. Yet, there was no bus. I looked at taking other buses and biking farther, but eventually just scraped it. I chose the path of least resistance. I would catch a 4:30am bus the next day and take it all the way to Pogradec on Lake Ohrid instead of half way there. I was irritated, but it ended up being serendipitous.

Cynthia and I at Berat Castle. (Photo by C. Ord)

Berat at night.

There were more people at the hotsel that I knew and we had a great night. We ate food. We did 'the tour' that Albanians seem to do every night where they dress up in their finest and walk on the main street. I don't know why they do this, but they do. It was great to see and even greater to see the attention our shenanigans drew. Somewhere in our tour, we rode bumper cars. So much fun. I have not done those in over a decade. Also, we got ice cream, but this was different that my usual ice cream. It was medicinal for Wilma. Her throat hurt and her doctor prescribed ice cream three times a day to reduce swelling. We wanted her to drink hot tea, but she was having none of it. I don't know if ice cream works, but I might need to switch doctors. Perhaps, that will fix my shoulder too.

Berat Castle.

Berat Castle at night.

Odds and ends. At the hostel, there was a Norwegian who worked on the Israel Lebanon border for NATO. He is basically doing the same trip as me, but on buses. He said that I should have no problem visiting southern Lebanon which I had planned to avoid, but am now considering it. The bridge over the Osum River that connects the two sections of white houses in Berat has a blue light underneath. It is very Las Vegas and incredibly tacky.

I am curious what people, particularly Americans my age and older, think when they see the Albanian flag. It is a deep red with a two headed eagle emblem on it. My first instinct when I see this flag is to think negative thoughts. I believe it is tied into the dark red background that is similar to that of the USSR, China, and other 'evil' nations. I realize that notion is complete crap. Albania is not even on most Americans radar as existing, let alone being evil. Does anyone else have this instinct when they see the flag? In Tirana, there was a German who had the same impression.


Sometimes they call themselves Facebook centers instead of Internet cafes. That is scary.

Under Hoxha's rule, he wanted enough bunkers built for everyone in Albania. That resulted in around 750,000 concrete bunkers being built around the nation. Some have been removed. Some have been converted. One became a tattoo parlor. Others are garbage bins or toilets. Lonely Planet says they are a quiet place to get away with your lover. The story goes that they can withstand a full tank assault and to prove it, the lead engineer had to stand in one while it was bombarded.


Lake Ohrid.

After catching a bus to Pogradec, I biked towards Macedonia along the shores of Lake Ohrid. Before I left town, I stopped at a pastry shop to spend the rest of my coins. I got some ridiculous yummy stuff and some ridiculously weird stuff. Unfortunately, they put it in a box which made it pretty hard to bike with. The strangest one was something I thought was a cupcake. It turned out to be just be a whipped cream like substance that was rolled in something to make it look breaded. That was too sugary, even for me. Next up, a day in the Former Yugoslov Republic of Macedonia.

Me. (Photo by C. Ord)

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.