Entering the unknown…

(James) It’s very easy to form an opinion on Albania – let’s face it everyone seems to have one – and as we had ridden down the Balkan coast over the last week we’d had a constant stream of people telling us not to go, saying the country was dangerous (bandits in the north; terrible driving; awful roads etc) to the extent that we had considered alternative routes. For every person who told us the country was worth seeing, there were a dozen advising us to avoid it altogether. So it was admittedly with some trepidation that we set off from Ulcinj the next morning towards the Albanian border. The road to the border itself was bizarre – given it was the main road south from Montenegro, it got smaller and more rural the further we went. After 40 minutes, just as we were starting to worry we’d taken a wrong turn – the ‘road’ had become little more than a track – we rounded a corner to see a large modern border checkpoint.  We pulled up behind the last car in the queue but were ushered down to the front and then up on to a kerb where we were told to ride along a pavement and down a corridor to a window where our passports were taken off us for our ‘exit’ stamp and we were told to roll the bikes to the next window (2 metres away) which it turned was Albanian passport control where we were quickly stamped and told to enjoy Albania (presumably the Montenegro official simply passes passports over his shoulder to his Albanian counterpart!)

Normally as we ride I make a point of alerting Em to any hazards or oncoming vehicles so she doesn’t have any nasty surprises and our first few miles in Albania certainly kept us busy with Em getting a constant stream of warnings as I listed the obstacles on the road – “donkey on the left, goats crossing the road,  stray dog ahead,  tortoise in the road (no, really!)”, and even “ football about to hit the road” – it did, landing on the front of the scooter ahead of us smashing his screen and almost wiping him out! But as we passed through our first villages the one thing we noticed, other than the fact that the main form of transport seemed to be donkey, was the warmth of the people who waved and called to us as we passed to the point that Em said she was starting to feel like a bit of a celebrity!

After about 20 miles we arrived at our first ‘junction’ (a choice of tracks) and opted to turn right – the compass said it was south) and soon arrived at a rickety looking wooden bridge over a wide and fast flowing river. We started across (you could feel the bridge dipping as you crossed!) and when half way we suddenly saw an old truck unbelievably overloaded with hay coming towards us from the other side. As it got nearer I moved over as far as I could to let it past, and then was forced to lean the bike on to the side of the bridge to give it every possible inch. Judging by Em’s laughter in my earpiece it was an hilarious sight as I was forced to duck by head down onto my tank to avoid the hay that was piling over the edge of the truck! Sadly I had the camera so that moment is lost forever to all bar Em but it was certainly an entertaining an event filled first hour.

Our instinct to turn south across the river was proved correct when finally we came upon our road sign for Tirana and the main road south. The next couple of hours proved to be something of a learning curve as we came face to face with the reality of Albanian driving. What became clear was that pretty much anything goes, with overtakes happening on either side, and as we approached our first of several major road works on the road – there was no diversion and we were expected to drive ‘through’ the work site, round the diggers that were operating, and across sodden muddy ground more suited to tracked vehicles – we saw that the art of queuing is still unknown in Albania as once in the roadworks it became a complete free for all with everyone taking a different path a trying to pass everyone else! It was mayhem!

Our one relief throughout the day had been that the weather had been perfect but as we rode further south we could see grey skies ahead that only seemed to be getting darker and heavier. We didn’t think we had a chance of making it to Tirana without getting wet and true enough when just 40 kms away the heavens opened turned the driving  conditions from bad to worse (and the road work sections into quagmires!)

As we hit the outskirts of Tirana at rush hour the level of traffic increased significantly and we had to ensure that we rode increasingly close to each other to prevent people from coming between us (the road was about four lanes  wide but nobody was ‘using’ the lanes). All was going relatively well and we had survived the many obstacles that we’d come across (foot deep pot holes etc!)  and then the traffic slowed for another obstacle. We couldn’t tell what was ahead as our view was blocked by a couple of large vans but when we got to the front, we were at a level crossing with  15cm deep ruts in front of the rails with no chance of avoiding them. Metal when wet is like ice and this, combined with the trenches before the rails, caused Em to lose the front wheel and down she went.  I then tried to get out of my trench to help her but it was no good and I soon joined her on the ground!! Between us we’d managed to block the entire road but rather than continue beeping (Albanians seem to drive with one hand constantly on the horn – my dad would fit right in!) we were inundated with people desperate to help us. Em couldn’t move as her lower leg was under the bike but she quickly had half a dozen or so people helping to get her and the bike upright. Once we’d managed to get the bikes to the side of the road people couldn’t help us enough, offering local mechanics if needed and calling people they knew from nearby workshops. The important thing was that we were both ok – the bikes had some minor damage with Em’s steering being a little bent and me having lost a pannier (the mechanism that attaches it to the frame had bent – an intentional design weakness to ensure the frame of the bike doesn’t get damaged). After a quick assessment we thanked those who had helped and the bikes ‘limped’ into central Tirana as we tried to find our hostel. The rest of the journey proved no less eventful and an hour later we rocked up at the hostel wet, muddy and exhausted (we must have looked quite a sight). We were welcomed in by Claas, the owner, who was more than happy to let us park our bikes inside the grounds and immediately invited us to the evening BBQ before we went off for a much needed shower. What a day!

5 Responses to “Entering the unknown…”

  1. Team Australia says:

    Good to hear from you and that all is well. Sad to read that the infrastructure in Albania has changed very little since I was there in 94. I remember the road from the border to Tirana well!The Albs deserve better as they are a very generous people, tried to find the address of my interpreter but lost it as he would have been a good contact. Sorry. By the way my driving has mellowed!!!!
    Stay safe and enjoy you are both doing a great job, continue to live the dream.
    Love, D,S and M.xxxx

  2. John & Bex says:

    Glad to hear you’re both ok! What an adventure already and you’re only 1 month in!! AMAZING!! Loving the weekly updates & photos – the website’s great! Look forward to your next posting!!

  3. Mum aka Jackie says:

    As you so rightly say, what a day. I’ve been trying to picture in my mind your journey across the border from Montenegro into Albania, the onward trip into Tirana with eventual unfortunate incident at the level crossing !! The mind boggles. However the main thing is you are both ok and all ended well with no serious damage to the bikes. Rain seems to be playing a large part in your trip so far, let’s hope you move on to sunnier climes soon. Take care, thinking of you all the time. Lots of love, Jackie xx

  4. Martha says:

    Albania sounds interesting, I of course had no idea of the history. My hairdresser is from Albania – I will tell him you visited! lots of love Marthaxxxxx

  5. Emily says:

    Glad to hear you’re both ok! What an adventure already and you’re only 1 month in!! AMAZING!! Loving the weekly updates & photos – the website’s great! Look forward to your next posting!!

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