The few people we had met coming the other way had used a common word in describing Albania- interesting- so we were unsure of what to expect. Often when crossing a border in Europe there is no immediate difference, this time it was not the case. In Montenegro the only thing you might see by the side of the rode would be a donkey, here there was really rubbish everywhere and a number of small fires filling the air with a disernable aroma. Also whereas before we might get the odd beep and a wave here about 8 in 10 people were doing so, we really felt like celebrities. We cycled through Shkoder, which Rhiannon describes as being like the wild west, to a campsite on the edge of Lake Shkoder. On the way we did a crazy thing, we just rode across a train tack without stopping to look, guess what, a freight train was coming and only 80 metres away! We scolded ourselves for our stupidity.
Here we met Swiss Martin who has been riding around the world on this motorbike for 6 years, he was a really nice guy with lots of great stories. We share a moment of jealousy as he departs at 60kmph knowing he can see 10 times as many places today than us. However we remember that we get to see everything in slow motion, absorbing more and anybody can speak to us at anytime, we are often meeting local people this way.
The next day with some local knowledge advice we head south, after hearing about the craziness of main roads in Albania I tried to steer us down some nice country lanes (the white roads on the map). We started on some tarmac, then it turned to gravel, then gravel and mud, then mud, then a grassy path and then we were just in a field. Oh yeah, this must be why everybody is on the main roads. It was really nice to cycle through the little farming villages and speak to people but we got nowhere slowly. We stopped for coffee in a small village, the man spoke no English, he refilled our water and when we came to pay he would not let us. A small gesture like that was a nice touch.
Another problem with cycling these routes is that there are many viscous street dogs and guard dogs. We now know to walk past slowly with the bike between you and the dog and carrying a few stones to throw at them, often just imitating a throw will do the trick. But the first time we were set upon I just pedaled as fast as I could until the dogs were out of breath, Albanian street dogs must work on their speed endurance if they are going to catch me. I then turned and heroically, from a safe distance, photographed Rose and Rhi being defended by a nice lady with a big stick whilst her son on his moped giggled hysterically.
That night we could not find anywhere to camp and a nice chap called Leon helped us find a hotel and negotiate a room in Hotel Ambassador for £15. I was then invited to drink some beer with the owner and Leon translated. It was a nice time. Albania is so cheap we realise we can afford to eat out and going against previous advice we ventured out post 4pm and were rewarded with a feast of grilled meat, salad, rice, chips and bread with a beer each for under £10.It was just pot luck as we were in one of those rare places where English is not spoken or used in the menu, this is a good thing. In the morning we collected our bikes from the bingo hall they had been locked in and set off, it was not until 10km down the road that I realised my compass had been stolen, this made me very unhappy. It was probably the most used piece of kit and a present, also it hurts to be stolen from. I vow not to let one person spoil my outlook, however it takes a few hours until I can take my own advice.
On the roads here you will find everything and everyone. From lorries to donkeys and fruit sellers to kids playing football, the road is for everyone. But everyone is in it together and everyone wants to get home at the end of the day so we felt pretty safe in comparison to other main roads in other countries. After following an OK yellow road we bite the bullet and join the motorway, to our surprise despite the hype it isn’t too bad at all. We have cycled on similar in almost every country. The difference here is that all along both side there is something being sold or made so we cannot pull off for a rest. Don’t forget we are being waved and jeered at by almost every passer by and children run alongside or chase behind us wanting our attention. There is one 5km stretch as you enter Tirane, the capital, which is blooming bonkers but after that we cruised in to the centre and settled in the National Opera House cafe. Here we met 2 other cycle tourers who have been cycling in Albania for 3 weeks, they gave us the low down on all the roads and high passes, they also advised us to just ask people for a some grass to camp on. So that night we set are sights high and asked a 4star resort if we could camp, of course we could but only behind the resort in the field, this is fine with us and we slept well with the soothing sounds of heavy machinery from the all night quarry.
After a good day’s ride over a high-ish pass, more grilled meat and navigating our way through the pot holed roads of Elbasan we asked at a small hut bar if we could camp somewhere. Of course we can, we can sleep on the floor of the newly built restaurant. At this point Jonny (later to be ‘Crazy Jonny’) arrived much to the amazement of the locals, there was now to be 4 strange English people travelling on bikes sleeping in the restaurant and through the evening many people came to look at us. We did not mind as it was all very good natured. They even brought us plates of fruit and came to join us at one point, not speaking any english, just sat staring at us all. It certainly made for stories to tell their mates about the “crazy engliagh people”. Jonny has also cycled from the UK and is heading to Sofia to take the bus home. He is living on a diet of bread and chocolate spread and wearing denim to cycle in- the definition of crazy!
The next day we all cycled together slowly through a valley knowing that at the end we must go over a high pass into Macedonia.
It was a real slog but the views were fantastic and we felt really good on reaching the top, it was the biggest climb we had done to date. Not for Crazy Jonny though, he has cycled through the alps to get here.
We blew are last few Lek on all the vitals- wine and beer- and rode down the last 2km to the border. Albania we have had a bloody good time, thanks.