After leaving my apartment in Tivat, Montenegro on the 24th of June, I cycled for two days down the country’s mountainous coast before cutting inland, passing through dozens of dark tunnels and flat country back roads.
Less than 20 kilometers from the border, it started to rain and I slipped on my jacket for the first time in months.
Suddenly, an oncoming car peeled to a halt in front of me. A dark, gray haired man in the driver’s seat rolled down his window and barked something at me in Serbian.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t understand you. Do you speak English?”
“Be careful!” the man said. “Some people on bicycles crashed on this road. It is very slippery.”
I waved at the man and thanked him for the warning. I wasn’t sure, however, if he meant that people on bicycles had crashed right now, at this very moment, or if he had simply seem a group of bicyclists crash on this road at some distance point in the past. Cycling on, I quickly discovered what the old man had meant.
After passing through what must have been the 8th or 9th tunnel of the day, I came across three cyclists (two young men and a woman) who were standing on the roadside, tending to one another and wiping blood from their arms, backs and faces.
I pulled my bike to a stop and asked, “Are you alright?”
Both men smiled and the woman waved me on, saying “Yes, we’re fine. The boys were trying to go as fast as the cars and slipped in the water. We are okay.”
I looked at the young man the woman was tending to and assumed it was her boyfriend. He had his shirt off and had just put on a fresh new pair of tight black bike shorts. His others lay in a tattered mess on the earth beneath his feat. He had obviously taken a fall on his left side as his thighs and shoulders were red with blood and black with tar from the roads. He looked like he’d survive, but his male riding partner looked a whole lot worse.
The other male rider, who was much taller and skinnier than his bruised and bloody companion had taken a serious hit to the head. Right above his eye was a deep three-inch gash that spout dark black blood down the rider’s face and neck.
“Where are you from?” I asked the young woman.
“Russia” she said. “We’ve been here for 15 days.”
“And you are going to Shkoder?” I asked her.
“Yes. Albania. Tonight.”
With the bloody mess I saw before me and the pain I knew was sure to follow in the coming hours, I wasn’t so sure these bruised and battered riders were going to make it across the Albanian border, let alone the extra 10+ kilometers to Shkoder – Albania’s second largest city.
“We’re okay.” The woman told me again.
I would have liked to have stayed and heard more about their travels and possibly cycled with them for a while, but it seemed as though they wanted to get rid of me. I think they were just embarrassed at having crashed and at having caused such a scene. So I said goodbye, wished them luck, and quickly made my way to the border.
By the time I reached the Montenegro/Albania border, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out again. Three or four cars were all that separated me from what I had been told was Europe’s poorest and most dangerous country. But even with so few people crossing the border, the wait took a good half hour.
Cars leaving Montenegro were forced to sit idle at a small bridge, about 100 meters away from the actual border station. When it was your turn to pull forward and check in with the border officials, a female officer would step out into the street from 100 meters away and wave you in. Finally it was my turn and I cycled up, parked my bike near the curb and handed a man sitting in a small booth my passport. Without a word, he scanned my document under a small light, stamped a page, and that was that.
With my passport in my pocket, I stepped back on the bike and cycled 200 meters east, where the road suddenly turned to dirt and gravel and I checked in with the Albanian border officials. Again, my passport was scanned, I was asked where I was headed, and a stamp was added to my book. “Welcome to Albania!” I thought to myself as I stepped on the bike and rode past a small group of border officials gambling on a rock pile on the side of the road. I was in Albania!
After having spent the last two days cycling up and over countless hills, my first impressions of Albania were surprisingly pleasant. The roads were flat and the scenery was lush. I was in farming country and it smelled of dried grass and horse manure.
Simple country homes made in traditional Adriatic style were perched on hills in nearly every direction. Men on mules pulled trailers filled with dirt and tools and various Albanian knickknacks.
In small villages, school children chased beside me as I rode past. Old men on mopeds zipped by in well-kept suits. And every once in a while, circular concrete bunkers would emerge from the hillsides – the remnants of a war gone past and a sure sign of the lack of money this small European country had to respectfully defend itself.
After passing a sheep hearder and his 100+ goats, I suddenly came across a long wooden bridge and was surrounded by teenage boys with dark skin and ratty clothes. There were so many of them I was forced to stop and they swarmed around me and my bike, poking at my handlebars, squeezing my tires, and grabbing onto my clothes. They were just curious to see what this strange little bicycle was all about, but the swarm was blocking the bridge and I was unable to pass until three old men came over and chased the boys off with sticks, waving me adieu and pointing me across the bridge and in the direction of the city.
Across the bridge I hung a left and followed a newly installed brick riverfront lined with small, shadeless tress and green metal benches. A boy with one leg wearing a roller blade was being pulled by a friend,on a bike. But as I rode by, the one-legged boy grabbed onto my rear rack and I pulled him for a good tenth of a mile before he let go and shouted something at me in Albanian, smiling the entire time.
Back out on the main street, two attractive girls around my age approached on foot. The blond one was wearing a pair of huge baggy black pants – a style I’ve never seen any attractive girl in California wear, but she pulled it off with amazing grace.
“Excuse me” I said. “Do you speak English?”
The blond girl’s friend looked at me and smiled. “A little.”
“Oh good! I’m trying to find place to stay. A hotel perhaps. Do you know where I might find one?”
“You want a room to sleep?” the blond girl asked, looking at her watch.
“Yes, an apartment or a hotel.” I replied.
“Hmm…” the girls looked at each other and giggled, the way that girls seem to do when they have a secret that is only between themselves and not intended for you. “No. I’m sorry” The friend said. “I do not know.”
“Okay then” I shrugged. “Thanks anyway.”
I darted out into the street and the girls walked off together, grinning and laughing in that way I’m sure I will never understand.
The streets of Shkoder were wild and wide. Tall decrepit buildings lined the roads, where bombed out sidewalks (if you can call them that) were filled with dirt, concrete and litter. Cars parked in the gutter, on the sidewalks, ten feet out in the street, and seemingly wherever they pleased. In the road, people walked on foot; bikes roamed in every direction; carts pulled by donkeys, horses, and elderly men brought traffic to a slow; and cars honked and swerved as they made their way through this wild mix of transport modes.
Intersections were ever crazier. With no street lights to direct traffic, most intersections were left empty and cars, bikers and pedestrians were left to fend for themselves. Larger street crossings, however, were manned with a single police officer in a light blue uniform waving a tiny wooden board, which every bike, car and pedestrian seemed to completely ignore. When the officer would turn his back, a flow of traffic would suddenly creep out into the street and cars would dart across the intersection, just missing the river of people and vehicles coming the opposite way.
Escaping the roads for just a moment in an attempt to figure out where I was exactly, I rolled into a small city park, shaded by a giant iron statue of some unknown Albanian war hero. I sat on a bench and pulled out my map, which showed no more than four or five roads leading into Shkoder and was completely useless for any type of citywide navigation.
As I sat quietly on the uncomfortable wooden bench, a small boy crept over, looking interestingly at my bicycle and the strange gear I was hauling on my small-wheeled vehicle.
I looked up from my map and smiled… and the boy crept closer, finally doing as the other Albanian boys had done, he squeezed my brakes, ran his hand down the frame, and patted my panniers.
The boy obviously didn’t speak English, but I could tell he wanted to ride the bike. And with no one else around, I let him do so.
With a huge grin on his face, the small boy mounted the bike and took off like a pro. The weight of the bike and the height of the seat didn’t slow him down. He zipped around the park with ease, waving at friends in nearby windows and parked cars. You could tell that he enjoyed it… and I washed closely, making sure he didn’t dart off down a nearby alley and disappear with my bicycle forever. But that didn’t happened. The boy simply circled around the park, jumped off the bike and handed it back to me.
Down the street I spotted a dozen or more bike tires hanging from a dilapidated wooden shed. It was a bike shop of sorts, and I peeked inside to see who was running this tiny roadside business. But there was no one there.
I looked around and a spotted a woman making eye contact with me. She pointed to a man across the street. I looked at him and he pointed to his left, to a nearby restaurant, where a man was running toward me, his eyes fixed. “A customer!” I could hear them screaming.
As the man approached I explained myself. “Hello! I’m sorry to interrupt your dinner. I just wanted to ask if you knew of a place where I could sleep for the night. A hotel maybe?”
The old man couldn’t understand a word I was saying. So he waved over two young boys, not much older than myself, and asked them to interpret.
Again, I explained that I was looking for a hotel or an apartment or simply a place to pitch my tent for the night.
“Ah yes,” one of the boys said. “There are hotels in the center, but they are expensive. How much money do you want to spend?”
I didn’t want to reveal how much money I was carrying, nor did I want to quote a price that might be too high for this run-down Albanian city, so I avoided the question, saying that I wanted something cheap. “I just need a place to sleep” I stated again.
For the next ten minutes the boys talked back and forth while nearby men and women came over and joined the conversation. Fights broke out, arguing ensued, and throughout it all I couldn’t understand a thing.
After what seemed like an eternity, one of the boys turned to me and said, “You see that old man on his bicycle? Follow him and he will take you to a place. It is cheap. Go with him.”
So that’s exactly what I did. I jumped back on my bike and followed the old man down a busy main road on the streets of Shkoder before making two sharp left-hand turns down an alley, past a row of street vendors and aged old women, before finally rolling to a stop outside a busted up three-story building located in a culdesac just steps away from the city’s abandoned train station.
Inside, a velvet curtain separated the small dark entry room from a set of stairs leading to the second and third floors and a man sitting behind a small folding table in the corner. A tiny cash box sat on top of the table and the man stood as we entered and came out from behind the velvet curtain.
My tour guide on a bicycle spoke to the man and explained that I needed a place to sleep for the night. A conversation ensued and after a few minutes I was told that it would be 12 Euros. But I didn’t need to pay now, the old man explained. “Pay when morning” he said in broken English.
My tour guide then pedaled off on his bike and I was left alone with the innkeeper, who walked me upstairs, past rows of scantily clad women hanging from posters on the walls. My room was on the third floor and it was a dump. It didn’t look like it had been cleaned in years. The bed was made, but dirty. A used towel hung from the bedpost. Two posters of women in lingerie hung from the dresser near the window. And the shower in the bathroom was nothing more than a hose sticking out of the wall and a drain in the middle of the bathroom floor.
After hauling my panniers upstairs and securing my bike in the hallway behind the “porn star” velvet curtain, I hosed off in the bathroom, put on my freshest pair of pants, and walked into downtown Shkoder.
Off the bike, few people noticed me. I wasn’t be swarmed by children, nor were old women starring at me as I walked past. Without my bike, I was just another resident, walking the crumbled streets of Albania… looking for my next meal.
I made my way through trash covered streets, across police controlled intersections, and past both cars and donkeys parked on the sidewalks until I finally reached the center of town.
I spotted an Internet cafe on the one street in the city that looked clean and modern. I paid with a twenty cent Euro piece and took off to find a bank and get myself some real Albanian money.
Unfortunately, the bank across the street was closed and the ATMs in town only accepted VISA debt cards, which was unfortunate, because I was only carrying a Mastercard.
Finally, I went into a nearby tourist agency an asked the gray haired woman behind the desk if she knew where I could get some money. She informed me that she could exchange money there, in the office, if I had some money to exchange. So I handed her 100 Euros and was handed back 1,260 Albanian Lek.
Back out in the streets I heard loud music playing in the distance. “A concert in the park?” I thought to myself.
I followed the sound of the music and stumbled across a stage, built in the middle of what appeared to be the city’s largest intersection. Thousands of people were gathered around, as men on temporary metal platforms ran cables and prepared video cameras. “It is a concert!” I thought to myself at first. But then a large white and red banner was hung, announcing the appearance of the democratic party of Albania. I was in the middle of a huge political rally.
When I began reading up on safety and travel in Albania, I visited the U.S. Department of State website, where they warned “All gatherings of large crowds should be avoided, particularly those involving political causes or striking workers.” Yet here I was… my first day in Albania… and I found myself in the middle of the largest political rally in the country! But you know what? I was loving it!
The rally began with a series of musicians performing songs in both English and Albanian… and ended with a rain storm and a brief talk by a female politician.
Having not eaten anything all day, I left the rally early and jumped inside a street-side pizzeria, ordering a large vegetarian to go.
The man inside spoke excellent English. He had worked in the UK for several years and then moved to Germany for a while before returning to Albania to run this tiny roadside business. I had great fun recounting my travels with this worldly Albanian man and hearing about his adventures in northern Europe.
After my pizza was ready I paid 350 Lek (about $3.75 USD) and ran back to my hotel, which by this point I had realized was just a place where people came to have sex.
Back in my room, I locked the door and devoured my pizza – the best I had had during my entire time in Europe. It was pouring rain and as I watched the final minutes of the political rally through a fuzzy TV broadcast, I quickly fell asleep.
I woke the next morning around 9 AM, hosed off in the bathroom once again, packed my things, said goodbye to the nearly nude women hanging from my dresser and ran downstairs to pay my bill.
Unfortunately, the man who had checked me in the previous day was no longer there. Instead, a young Albanian woman, who was about my age, sat at the table with the cash box.
“Do you speak English?” I asked. But she did not. “I haven’t paid for my room yet” I tried to explain, but she failed to understand.
I pulled out my money to try and get my point across, but quickly realized how big of a mistake that was. Inside this hooker hotel, she thought I was trying to buy my way into a roll in the hay and she quickly stood up and shook her finger in my face.
A man came out of a nearby room and asked me what I wanted. Again, he didn’t speak English, but I tried to explain that I had yet to pay. He finally got the message, but told me not to worry about it. My room was free! So I thanked the man, packed up my bike and headed down the road, out of the city and into the mountains of Albania.
The road to Vau i Dejes, a tiny town I needed to reach before cycling into the Albanian mountains, was unlike any I’ve ever traveled before. A dirt and gravel mess that winds through the countryside, the road was flooded with water from the previous night’s rain storm and the 22 kilometer stretch was filled with gypsies, ancient homes, military installations, and old world towns lined with tiny street-side huts.
At first, the mountains that ran alongside this narrow dirt road didn’t seem all that bad. But as Vau i Dejes grew closer, the mountains grew larger and I quickly realized that my climb and descent into Kosovo would be a long one.
Before beginning the climb, I stopped and bought a soda from a shirtless child in a roadside stand who waved me down and asked me in broken German about my travels. When our conversation came to an end, I crossed the street and spoke with a group of Russian men who were riding motorcycles from Turkey to Croatia. I asked if any of them wanted to trade vehicles, but I got no takers. “Are you crazy one of them asked?” But at that particular moment, about to cycle into the mountains of Albania, alone, on a fully-loaded bicycle, I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer that question.
Lucky for me, the first little climb wasn’t all that bad. It started out with a short series of switchbacks, which I tackled with relative ease. As the hill flattened out, I popped out of my lowest gears and began to make steady progress, cycling alone on this beautiful mountain road.
“If the rest of the road is like this, Albania is going to be a breeze” I thought to myself.
But Albania wasn’t a breeze. In fact, the roads made little forward progress. Twisting and turning in every direction except forward, it took hours to cover just a few miles on the bike.
After nearly four hours of riding, a long series of downhill switchbacks and a ride across an old concrete bridge meant yet another long ascent up countless sharp ascending roads. After the eighth or ninth switchback I stopped counting the turns and soon thereafter realized just how tired I had become.
I stopped to rest under the shade of a tree and though to myself, “This would be a great place to stop and spend the night.” It was beautiful, green, and isolated. But stopping wasn’t an option. I needed to keep going, as I had a schedule to keep and needed to be in Macedonia by the 29th of June.
So I kept riding, giving up my hopes of reaching the small mountain town of Fushe Arrez and instead, set my sights on the tiny town of Puke. But you know you’re tired when you find yourself stopping every three minutes for a ten minute break. I was totally wiped, completely out of food, nearly out of water, and I still had no idea how much further I had to go.
Eventually, I pulled into Puke, an almost microscopic town situated high in the Albanian mountains, with a county-wide population of approximately 6,500. My legs were shaking as I asked an old woman hanging out a shop window if she knew where I could get a pizza. She didn’t speak English, but two Muslim women walking up the street in head scarves did, and they pointed me toward an old man with two front teeth, whom they told me to follow. “He will show you were to go” the women told me.
I followed the old man through the streets of Puke, back in the direction I had come. The man spoke no English and was obviously very well known in this tiny hillside city. Old men greeted the man like they would a brother and shop keepers came out to address him with the deepest respect. Teenage boys, after seeing the man in the street, would run at him with water pistols, and he would chase them off, laughing as he did so.
I parked my bike outside an empty cafe on the corner of the street and stepped inside.
“Do you have pizza?” the old man asked the waiter as we entered. (He said this in Albania of course.)
And as it turns out, they did have pizza! I ordered a large vegetarian (my safety meal when traveling in places where I can’t read the menu) without asking for the price and took a seat at a table near the window. The old man sat down with me and ordered a cappuccino. It was then that I realized he was going to sit with me the entire time I ate my meal.
When my pizza came out it was absolutely huge. It was bright yellow, on a thin crust (almost like a tortilla) and covered with a cornucopia of vegetables.
I dove right in, but even after a full day of riding, was only able to eat half of the monstrous pie. I asked for the bill and that the rest of the pizza be wrapped in tin foil so I could eat it later in the evening.
A few minutes passed and the pie was wrapped up and my bill was presented. The old man’s cappuccino, which I was happy to pay for, cost 130 Lek ($1.39 USD) and my pizza, which I expected to cost a near fortune, was just 150 Lek (a measly $1.60).
Now that I was stuffed, my next goal was to find a place to sleep. I asked the old man and several men in the restaurant if they knew where I might stay, but there was only one hotel in town, so the old man walked me to the place after I paid the bill and I booked a room for 20 Euros and secured a modern, fresh and clean room on the third story with a superb view of downtown Puke.
After showering, I stepped back out into the streets of the city and found myself amongst hundreds of locals walking up and down the city’s main drag – a street no longer than a quarter mile. Up and down the street people went, talking to one another, holding hands (men with women, women with women, and men with men), and chatting with shop keepers and women who sad idly on the sidewalks.
I imagined this same scene taking place every night in this small town. Hundreds of people, the same people they likely see day after day, walking this same street, time and time again, night after night, for years on end. Apparently, this is what you do in Puke… and I absolutely loved it!
Back in my hotel room, I felt like the King of Albania. There were three beds in the room, but I was alone, looking down on the tiny village people from my monstrous window three stories up. The people of Puke were wonderful and Albania was certainly growing on me.
The next morning I made a decision. The plan for the day was to get to Kukes, a large city on the northeastern side of the country. But after the previous day’s ride through the mountains, I knew that I would be unable to reach Kukes by nightfall. So I waded out to the street with my bicycle and bags and thumbed a ride.
A man of about fifty, driving a red Mercedes Benz, pulled up and asked where I was headed.
“Kukes” I replied.
“I can take you. But it will cost 40 Euros.”
“Ouch!” I thought to myself. “I thought Albania was supposed to be cheap.”
“It’s 92 kilometers to Kukes and I have to have money to get back” the driver explained.
I told him I would go, but only for 30 Euros. He wouldn’t budge at first, but then I got him down to 35.
After settling on the price, I loaded my things into the trunk of his car and took off into the mountains yet again, on the three-hour drive from Puke to Kukes.
Along the way, I chatted with the driver, whose name I can’t recall, but he spoke very good English. He told me about his children, the poor economy in Albania, the new freeways that were being installed throughout the country, the political problems, the importance of wearing a condom, and a number of random, crazy things you could only expect to discuss with a stranger from Albania.
Along the way, the man would stop to pick up other passengers, people standing on the side of the road in both small towns and in the middle of nowhere. In Fushe Arrez we picked up an old woman in a vale, her mouth and nose covered with a white cloth, and an old skinny man carrying a basket of nectarines. The man handed me a piece of fruit and a couple stale pretzels before we dropped them off near a bend in the road in what seemed like a completely isolated location.
“Where are they going?” I asked the driver.
He pointed to a small dirt trail that shot directly up a steep mountain pass.
“There is a small village up there. These are mountain people.” And that was all I needed to hear.
I waved goodbye to the couple as they began their ascent up the tiny hillside trail and we continued on by car down the windy, twisting road to Kukes.
The drive was beautiful, but the road was dangerous. Narrow roads meant passing cars would sometimes have to stop and wait or pull to the side as you slipped by. Sharp turns meant not being able to see oncoming traffic. And giant holes in the road, which dropped several hundred feet, were marked off only with simple rock piles placed just feet in front of these giant death traps.
The drive seemed to take forever, but at least I was getting my money’s worth. The whole time I was in the car I kept thinking to myself, I can’t believe I was going to ride my bike over this. I could have done it of course, but the thought of having to cover so much ground in a single day was absolutely mind boggling. A road like this would take at least two or three days to cover on bike.
After what seemed like an eternity, we rolled into Kukes and my driver pulled to a stop on the corner of a crowded dirty street.
Stepping out of the car, I was immediately surrounded by children and curious onlookers who looked on in amazement as I handed 4,500 Lek to my driver and quickly assembled my tiny folding bike.
“Are you okay?” the driver asked me before jumping back in his car.
“Yes, I’m fine” I told him. “Thank you… and drive safe.”
And with that, my driver was gone… and I was alone, yet again.
After assembling my bike, I found a small market run by an overweight man with dirty fingernails and a poster of Bill Clinton on his wall. I loaded up with snack foods for the road and paid no more than two dollars for a mountain’s worth of food and drink.
I had planned to get to Kukes that night and then continue on toward Kosovo the next day, but it wasn’t even four o’clock yet, so I decided to ride on and try and reach Kosovo by nightfall.
Cycling out of Kukes, I realized that this was the last I would see of a major Albanian city. And while I had loved the country up to this point, I was happy to get out of this particularly dirty and crowded place.
The road out of town was complete dirt and rock and made for slow travel. I passed a truck hauling giant panes of glass and stopped for photos with tourists in a tiny black Jeep.
The construction of the new freeway that would take future travelers from Kukes to Tirane, Albania’s capital city, was still under construction, so giant cranes hung over unkept roads. A long, narrow one-lane bridge was crossed and dust filled the air as I struggled my way through heavy construction up and over a small mountain pass.
At the top of the road, I paused for a photo. It was beautiful. Purple flowers mixed with green grass and brown straw filled the fields in the foreground. But in the background, tiny brick homes and towering green mountains filled the scene.
As I cycled past a row of trees, the road came to an end and I was waved down by two men sitting in open cars on the newly paved road that would soon become a major Albanian highway.
“This way” they yelled at me, signaling me to ride on the freeway.
“Are you sure?” I asked them. “ I can’t go this way?” pointing to a road that looked to lead into a nearby town.
“No, this way!” they both said with smiles on their faces.
“Okay” I thought. “I’m going to ride my bike on the freeway, in Albania!” And that’s exactly what I did.
For the next forty minutes or so, I rode almost completely alone on this major unmarked road. Cars would pass every once and a while, but for the most part, the highway was entirely mine. The white lines that would separate the lanes of traffic had yet to be painted and scores of construction workers spotted the highway in numerous parts. Some would wave. Some would yell. And at times, I worried that they might be telling me to get off the freeway. But I couldn’t understand them, so I just kept riding.
Finally, I reached a small lake and what I knew was the border crossing that would lead me into Kosovo.
I fished out my passport, placed it in my pocket and rolled up to the gate. Somehow, Albania seemed like home. I had become comfortable here. I had enjoyed the place. I loved the people. And everything I had ever been told about this tiny seaside country had been wrong. But now I was just two steps away from Kosovo… and once again, I was unsure as to what I should expect from my cycling adventures in this new, tiny, and disputed region in the Balkans.
Stay tuned for the next part of this story as I cycle my way into Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece.