Things were instantly different when I crossed the border from Montenegro. Where there had been clean streets and small towns full of people going about seemingly quiet, normal lives, there were now crumbling buildings and children begging at car windows. Two approached me as I stopped to take a photo of the small, unremarkable sign that told me I had arrived in Albania.
Of all the countries that I’ve been to and all that I will go to, Albania has been one that I’ve been warned about above all others. Even Iran earned fewer words of warning. Some advice is good and worth paying attention to. For example, I’ve heard that the water and the illness it can cause is nicknamed ‘Hoxha’s Revenge’ after the former dictator who did nothing to improve the countries water supply as he was too busy painting the capital’s buildings pretty colours. This is the first country where I’ve been forced to buy bottled water for cooking, drinking, and (on special occasions) brushing my teeth. Other advice I took with a large pinch of salt.
If the stories I heard about Albania were true then I was entering a country where thieves rule the streets and small gangs of armed men spend their time hunting for Englishmen on bikes so they can beat and rob them, day or night. To make matters worse, camp sites and hostels are unsafe as the managers and staff will sell you out to the murderous street gangs for a few Lek. Then, when you’re beaten, bruised, penniless and alone, out come the vicious, rabid, wild dogs to finish you off. Only discouraged by the crazy drivers who swerve and slide wildly down the awful roads, taking out anything and everything unlucky enough to get into their path of destruction. This is a country where even the ice-cream is deadly.
And it’s all true!
Kidding. Needless to say most of it is overblown and exaggerated by people that have never been to Albania. Fear of neighbouring countries has been surprisingly common throughout this trip. It’s certainly true that Albania is the poorest country that I’ve travelled through. Most buildings seem unfinished, many are abandoned, and many that should be abandoned have families squeezed into them. The quality of the roads, while not as bad as I was led to expect, is pretty bad. My spine took a pounding at times as even main roads can be uneven with the occasional mean pothole. Stray dogs are everywhere and will often chase you on the bike. I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with them, stopping the bike and staring them down. It usually works well and if they keep coming it sometimes helps to move towards them on the bike until they back off. They can also claim to have one of the ugliest buildings in the world, The Pyrimid. Designed by the former dictators step-children. Yuck!
Drivers can be a little worrying. They are usually not a problem and give enough space but they also have a habit of ignoring rudimentary road rules, like only driving on the correct side of the road or only overtaking when it is safe to do so. The people outside the cars, however, caused me little concern.
In fact, the Albanian people made the country for me. Most stared as I passed, until I gave them a wave or a nod, then they seem to realise that I’m real and will suddenly start smiling and waving back. Once, when I stopped to eat my lunch, a toothless old man beckoned me into his café/bar (it had tables and half a bottle of whisky on the shelf) to eat my own food and drink my own drink in the shade, he even gave me some tomato and delicious marinated aubergine. Then he waved me off when I left, expecting nothing, just being nice.
It is unfortunate that so many are desperate to leave Albania. Young men regularly attempt the crossing over to England. I stopped for a bite to eat and a beer in the capital after a long morning cycling in the heat, and got talking to an English man who now lives in Albania. As we talked about Albania and England we were regularly interrupted by the guys working in the restaurant. They wanted to know the best ways to get into England. They seemed to think that if you went via Ireland you don’t need a visa. I told them I couldn’t help but it might be possible to skydive into the country. The Englishman told me not to put ideas in their heads. They also told me it cost 5000 Euros to attempt the journey illegally, and they sounded like they would go in a second if they had the money.
Later that day I also met a huge fan of England in a small town in the mountains. His name was Elis and I met him outside a shop where I was buying dinner. He was wearing a vest and shorts with ‘England’ printed on them and he invited me to his barber shop. I got a shock when I walked in. The walls were all bright white and on the ceiling, resplendent in red, white and blue, was the flag of the United Kingdom. It filled the whole shop. In addition to that, above the large framed mirror was painted the London skyline. He offered me a beer, which I refused as I’d already had about three, but I did get a much needed haircut. While he was cutting my hair we got chatting about England. It turned out he had been to England once before. Unfortunately for him he didn’t make it to London as after only four days he was found, arrested and deported. His little holiday had been an illegal one.
Another warning that I got was about Albania’s wildlife. The woodland and mountains in Albania are home to wolves, bears and the usual stray and wild dogs.
I sleep in a tent most nights, usually wild camping on national parks or land that isn’t being used for growing crops, or stealth camping when I have no choice but to trespass on private land to camp for a night. I do my best to leave no trace of my being there. I don’t light fires unless it’s safe and I’m in a place that I won’t be doing any damage. I take all my rubbish with me and I follow the ‘Leave No Trace’ guidelines for camping and poop disposal. Excavate before you evacuate.
I spent my first night in Albania camped behind an unfinished and abandoned house and had no problems at all. My second night I asked at a petrol station and was allowed to camp behind it. That night I even had a guard dog, I named him ‘Racket’. My final night was in the mountains around Lake Ohrid, wolf country. Sleep didn’t come easily that night.
I had just finished a big climb. It had been getting dark so I powered up five or six long switchbacks in about 45mins. It was impressive, I was impressed. I was also dizzy with dehydration by the time I reached the top of the pass, so spaced that I couldn’t even tell the time. I dragged Dora away from the road and up into the hills and set up camp in the darkness. As I was setting up camp and began cooking I could hear dogs all around me, six or seven spread out across the hills out of sight in the darkness, barking constantly. I wasn’t happy about them being there but at least I knew that while there were dogs there wouldn’t be any wolves.
Then the barking stopped dead. Every dog, after almost an hour of continuous barking, went silent. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Why did I decide to have sausages for dinner?
It was pitch black now. The only light was from my head torch which I used to search for glinting eyes in the tress around me. Then I heard a long, low animal call. Like a moan. It wasn’t a bark and no barks were returned. It was time for bed. I quickly zipped myself in and and lay with my eyes open, about as far from sleep as it’s possible to be. I had taken out my safety blanket, which is shaped a lot like a knife, and my pans so I could make lots of noise if anything got too curious. Eventually, I couldn’t keep my eyelids open and I fell into uneasy sleep.
The next day I left Albania, crossing the border into Macedonia (decision made by facebook vote). I enjoyed Albania, though unlike lots of the countries I’ve been to, I’m in no rush to go back.
If you would like to support me on this trip then please help me by helping Hope for Children. A charity that works to help orphaned, poor, and exploited children around the world. If you’re in the UK you can text ‘JJVW50 £3/£5/£10′ to 70070 or go to http://www.justgiving.com/jamesvsworld and donate online.
Disclaimer: One of these photos was not taken by me. Can you guess which one? Message me for photo source if nessessary.
James Vs World