The pearl of the Balkans – A trip through the ‘Cursed Mountains’ of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, Part II

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Day 8: Reke e Allages – Kucishte

Shortly after continuing on the trail towards today’s destination, we fill our water reserves at a nearby water fountain. A herd of cows makes it perfectly clear whose water we are drinking but are generous enough to share.

At the next intersection we take the wrong turn but soon find this route to be shorter and less steep. We enjoy the walk downwards and start philosophising about the trip. We realise that last night was the first one we spent purely alone, and that we were already on our way back to Theth where we started only a week earlier.

When we reach the valley the trail starts to ascend again, a usual pattern on this hike we got used to. The heat is overwhelming here but with the right amount of motivation and the help of a chocolate bar that we wolf down, we make it to the village of Dugaive. The first thing we notice is a castle-like building that towers over the surrounding houses. Curious, we walk towards it to ask the inhabitants for directions (as here the trail seems to have vanished). We are promptly invited in by the owners where we are given a tour through the truly splendid interior and learn this house is turned into a guesthouse. We can only marvel at the exquisite furniture, the accurate stonework of the walls, the medieval battlements surrounding the roof terrace and the eye for detail in every corner. Two of the six brothers and their families renovating the house are present, and we have a great conversation about their plans, their professions and Balkan politics over a coffee and water melons.

What we hear is captivating: One brother is an artist living in Switzerland who specialised in mosaics. As a political prisoner, he spent 10 years of his life in a Serbian prison where he created mosaics from breadcrumbs. With the help of the prison guard, the artwork made its way beyond the prison walls which allowed him to use the money he earned to start a new life when he was finally released. By now, he has sold hundreds of mosaics to admirers around the world, one of them, he claims, now decorates the house of former King Carlos of Spain in Barcelona.

Ramiz, his brother lives in New York where he spends his time writing poems, drawing and hosting his own TV show with a local channel in the Bronx. He starts criticising the Kosovan bureaucracy and its system of corruption which hampers any economic venture in the country. The missing infrastructure further increased the challenges.

The bothers’ moods turn quickly when we open our map of the trail to show them our next destinations. They immediately notice the line that marks the Kosovo-Montenegro border. They exclaim angrily, this was not where the border is supposed to go. They explain this was a common problem and blame Montenegro to constantly and illegally expand their territories (over 12,000ha we learn later) through producing false maps and replacing landmarks along the border. Although we do not have any evidence to support their claim, we have noticed on a few occasions that borders on maps followed different courses. Later, we learn of the currently ongoing diplomatic negotiations regarding the exact border.

When the two start talking about the ancient Albanian culture and pyramids in the area that are supposedly over 25,000 years old, we decide to politely take off to continue on the trail. We feel like celebrities when, before we leave, the brothers’ wives and daughters take several pictures of us from all directions, constantly giving us instructions on where to stand and how to pose.

Back on the trail, we get lost and, despite the directions we got from the brothers, take a wrong turn. This time, we are not as lucky. The trail is a long, winding road that leads farther away from Kucishte than we like. When we reach the road in the valley, we follow it, hoping for someone to give us a lift. Indeed, a few minutes later, we are picked up by a local in his rickety ride. As it turns out, the man is a Montenegrin border officer and speaks German very well. We learn he is friends with the owner of the hotel we wanted to spend this night at and offers to take us there. However, shortly afterwards we run into said owner on the road. Busy dealing with one of his cows which was killed by a bear the previous night, he tells us to wait at a nearby coffee shop where he would meet us later. The ride to the hotel saves us from walking the remaining 300m of elevation. For £8 per person we take one of the cabins and enjoy the first shower of this trip and have traditonal Albanian dinner with a fantastic view over the surrounding mountains. Exhausted from this day, we go to bed at 8pm and sleep for almost 12 hours.

Day 9: Kucishte – Babino Polje          

We have breakfast and coffee on the house. We pack our stuff and start the steep climb towards the Jelenka pass. We reach a lake where we encounter newts and a Japanese traveller with a ladybug backpack. The second lake further ahead is completely dried up, again a clear result of the dry period this last summer. On the pass, the mountains give way to a breath taking view over the Albanian Alps and into the valley of Babino Polje, today’s destination. Before we can take the trail downwards, we have to cross the plateau we already walked over on day 6.

The descent towards Babino Polje (Montenegro) is frustrating. Barely marked with no visible trail, walking is slow, and our knees and joints are soar from the long days of hiking. When we reach the first farm in the valley, we clumsily climb a fence and are called upon by the farmer. The funny-looking fella who misses a few teeth invites us over in broken German. His wife quickly brews coffee and with the help of our hands and the guidebook we explain our presence in the valley.

We leave for the final leg of our trip today: a short walk towards a bungalow camp in the village. Unfortunately, the camp already closed for the season. A young local working outside his house notices our situation and, as hospitality dictates in these parts of the world, invites us into his home. We hear that Armen, the Kosovan’s name, lived in Babino Polje with his beautiful wife and adorable daughter 4 months of the year. As a result of the dry period, he can only provide a small amount of water but offers a place in front of his house where we could pitch our tent. Additionally, we are allowed to use his outdoor oven and stove to cook dinner for us. While our rather meagre meal boils over the fire, his wife decides to share their dinner with us: a massive portion of flat bread and fried potatoes. We are, once again, blown away by Albanian hospitality. Before we go to sleep, Armen comes over with peaches and oranges for a night’s snack. We are incredibly grateful. During the night, a heavy thunderstorm blasts through the valley (the first day of bad weather on our trip). We do not sleep well this night.

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Pitching out tent in front of Armen’s house.

Day 10: Babino Polje – Plav   

We have left-overs from dinner for breakfast. Armen’s wife greets us in the morning with coffee and tea. We take a final picture with the ladies of the house (Armen already left for work) and start this day’s hike. The trail after Babino Polje offers two alternatives: a longer, more scenic route along the ridge line and a shorter, flat section through the valley. Because of the lack of sleep, hurting knees and stomach issues we choose the shorter route.

We mainly walk along the road towards Plav and hope to be able to hitch hike. Except for a few already packed cars and construction vehicles, no one is willing to offer a ride. We wonder about the number of construction personnel and vehicles along the road and later learn about a new hydroelectric power plant being built in the middle of the National Park. Montenegro seems to have a rather loose interpretation of nature conservation laws. We also notice piles of garbage along the road and in the riverbed, something we have not seen in Albania or the Kosovo.

As expected, the route does not offer the incredibly beautiful views we are used to. We arrive in Plav, the first proper town on this trail, in the early afternoon and find a simple guesthouse behind the bus station of Plav (£5 per night and person). We leave our bags in the room and start roaming the streets. We decide to have beer and cevapcici…unfortunately, in exactly this order, hence, we zigzag through Plav and find a café where we have strong coffee (by now, it should be clear that the word ‘strong’ is always associated with coffee in this part of the world). While we enjoy the rush of caffeine through our system, we notice that only young men appear on the streets. Are there no women in this town? Only when we walk into the supermarket, do we meet three examples of those rare specimens. We get their full attention: giggling, smiling, flirting…we enjoy it to the full!

With plenty of provision for the day, including loads of junk food, chocolate-covered cakes with berries and half a litre of almost unbearingly sweet lemonade, we make our way down to the lake where we relax watching the great scenery of Plav around us. On the way back, we have a shisha in one of the local bars, before going to bed.

Day 11: Plav – Vusanje           

Today, we have a difficult time getting up. We know the tour ahead of us will be one of the toughest on this trip. 27 km with an immediate 1,000m-ascent, only to drop back down to the same elevation. With a combination of guide book, map and a good sense of orientation, we reach the first stop of the day: Gropa Memima, a small shepherd’s hut in the mountains. We are greeted by the head of the 7-people family. Without asking (the language barrier between us and the shepherd would have made this difficult anyway), he immediately put glasses of fresh milk in front of us. It is delicious, with a slight flavour of herbs the cows ate on the meadow. What we thought was going to be a quick stop with a drink, turned into a multi-course meal including tea, coffee, feta cheese and blueberries. Between courses, the shepherd served homemade Raki which almost blew us off our feet. After the second one, we try to continue on our way…without any success. The shepherd’s wife and three of his children arrive from the mountains where they spent the morning berry picking. We offer them crème-filled wafers and feel awkward about it. When we make our second attempt to leave, two Albanians come up the trail. With a quick gesture from the shepherd to hide the wafers, he welcomes the Albanians. We have our third round of Raki. We start feeling slightly dizzy. We know we have to make a last effort to leave before it is too late. This time it works and we say goodbye.

The following miles are one of the hardest of the trail, mainly though because of the Raki rather than the physical challenge. We reach the mountain pass much later than we thought. We can see Vusanje valley from here but it is going to be a long way down and we must hurry, if we want to reach Vusanje before darkness falls. The rumbling clouds in the distance speed up our pace, as well. We reach Vusanje in the evening. Walking through the village is exhausting. Locals continuously ask us to stay in their guesthouses while we only want to know the direction to the next campground. We find it behind a little kiosk where we buy beer and soda which we have over dinner.

Day 12: Vusanje – Buni e Jezerces – Liqeni Geshtares

Today marks the officially last stage of the trail but back home we decided to split the trip to walk up the last existing glacier in this part of the Dinaric Alps. Scientifically described only in 2008 by a team of geologists from Manchester University, this remnant of the last ice age lies in between high mountain peaks where it is sheltered against the sun….at least for now.

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In Vusanje, we desperately need water. Unfortunately, the water in the swallow hole ‘Grlja’ is out of reach.

Our plan to reach the glacier seems uncertain though. We are dangerously low on water and might not make the trip unless we find a spring along the way. We ask a jeep driver, if he knew of any streams which had not run dry. He is very pessimistic about finding water but gives us his last bottle for our trip (Balkan hospitality at its finest!). We decide to make the ascent, hoping for water at the top. There is ice, after all. The trail is hellishly steep and leads through thick vegetation. When the trail flattens out again, we notice the existence of a gravel road leading up to a farm house. The shepherds welcome us and not only give us directions to the glacier but also to the nearest spring. Our trip is saved!

After another 4 hours, the narrow valley opens up above the mystical fog, giving way to the view onto what clearly are remainders of glacial activity. The karst landscape rises slowly until it climbs steeply where the surrounding mountains stand like silent giants. A white spot glistens in the sun…might this be ice?! It looks just within reach. We leave our bags behind for what seems only a short trip to the glacier. Our sense for distance up here is highly diminished and we realise quickly that the climb is going to be a longer one…much longer.

We finally reach the coire and are overwhelmed by what we see. Although not large, the glacier stretches out in front of us. We cannot believe our eyes…solid ice in this heat seems impossible. We are electrified, run around like little children, take pictures and relax on the many rocks scattered on the ice. We notice, however, that time is running and decide to head back down the valley, not before stopping at a small cave a little higher up the rocky wall. On the way back, we come by hundreds, if not thousands of fossils, all preserved in the rocks around us.

After a quick coffee, we meet a group of four Serbs who attempted to climb Maja Jerzerce, Albanias highest mountain (2,700m) above the glacier. Unfortunately, we have to learn they had to abandon the project 200m from the peak. The thick clouds moving in were a bit too scary for them to make it to the top. Probably a wise decision considering their equipment…or rather the lack thereof: running trousers and trainers, only one compass for the entire group and less water than we carry with us. They get on their way down, and we overtake them shortly after, as we have to hurry quite a bit now, if we want to reach our next camp site before darkness. At the shepherd’s house we refill our water bottles to the full (no gambling this time!). Ron plays with a cow (Gertrude) who clearly wants a share of the water.

 

Although this time we take the gravel road down (which makes it so much easier to walk), we discover that, to get to our designated camp site by the lake, we have to walk up a surprisingly steep slope. We are compensated by the fantastic view that opens up on the top: the lake surrounded by a high mountain range. The lake below us has dried up. We set camp, make dinner and have an intentionally smoky fire. This is bear country and we want to let them know we are here and are better left alone. This night is freezing and, for the first time on this trip, we are putting on long johns.

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Probably the greatest campsite on this trip!

Day 13: Liqenis Geshtares – Theth

Last leg of the trip. I am glad to get back to Theth soon but also sentimentally enjoy every step now. The landscape up here is breathtaking. Although we have covered a bit of today’s section yesterday, this last stage of our journey is going to be mentally challenging considering what we have already accomplished so far and with the end being so close.

The morning starts off with an extremely steep passage to the pass, not exactly what we had in mind. Once we reach the Peje pass, we will only have to drop down into Theth valley…or so we thought. Reaching the pass turns out to be a massive pain: whenever we reach what seemed like the top, another uphill section presents itself in front of us. Ron is moody and swears consistently (Hell yeah, I was!! Annotation by Ron).

When we finally reach the pass, the view is astonishing. We can almost see Theth in the distance…or so we thought! The steep cliffs below us seem to offer no way of reaching the bottom of the valley (a descent of 1,000m) without proper climbing gear. It turns out the trail, though slippery in parts, is manageable. Shortly before reaching the valley, we look back at the incredibly steep mountains behind us and cannot believe we have just come down that way.

The rest of the walk follows the dried-up riverbed. We walk for hours. Mile after mile, we get more frustrated with this part of the hike. Theth does not seem to get any closer. The map promised us a much shorter route, yet again!

With hurting knees and feet we finally reach Theth and quickly find a guesthouse (we decided not to stay with Roza again, as we wanted to try one of the many other guesthouses in the village). We have thought about the moment of returning to Theth quite a few times on the trip and wondered what it would feel like. We imagined being absolutely overwhelmed by the accomplishment of having walked over 200km. Surprisingly, sitting outside the guesthouse with a beer in our hands, we do not feel euphoric, at all. Only when we go through the photos on the camera and have a final look at the map, we realise what we have achieved and feel a little proud.

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Cuteness beyond words!

We are not allowed to pitch our tent yet. An Albanian tour guide we meet tells us the local tax office has announced a general check-up on all commercial operations in the village. Most guesthouses are therefore either closed for the day or do not allow guests to move in before the officials have left. We wonder, how much of the income is actually being declared by the locals. As penalties are drastic and also include a prison sentence, we do not mind and enjoy our time sitting in the sun, chatting away with the guesthouse owner and the tour guide. Later we realise: false alarm. The tax mafia does not show up and we can officially set up camp. We have proper homemade dinner at the guesthouse and give some advice to another German traveller who just arrived in the village. In the evening, we meet a group of Saxons who travel Europe in their 4×4-VW-busses. We have great banter over a campfire and even witness how a 15-year old local asks permission to take one of their cars around the village. To our surprise, the group agrees, not before the youngster confidently declares he had been driving cars since the age of 6! With windows down, he soon races through the village listening to blasting Albanian pop songs a la Sinan Hoxha’s “Bomba”!!!  Highly amused and under rainfall, we fall asleep.

Day 14: Theth – Shkodra

Rain is still pouring down. Before getting up, we decide, contrary to our initial intentions, to leave Theth and make our way back to Shoder. Ron organises a jeep for the trip. We spend the time until departure having breakfast and packing our stuff. For £8 the driver takes us on the 2.5h-journey over the wet mountain pass. We come by the same small villages in the mountainous region between Theth and Shkoder and, for the first time on this trip, we notice the poverty of the region. In Shkoder we check in at a hostel with the wonderful name ‘Mi casa es tu casa’ which the Polish had recommended at the beginning of our trip. The owner, an elderly confused lady with a tendency towards the supernatural (to put it mildly!), shows us around. We love this place! The lady tells us about a small restaurant not far from the hostel. The place is managed by an organisation dedicated to fight domestic violence against women and the still very common abortions of unborn girls. They serve a small selection of meals which change daily. We eat a hearty soup with crispy ciabatta, aubergines filled with onions and tomatoes. Ron wolves down a few qöfte and I enjoy a courgette moussaka. Including coffee and drinks we pay no more than £4 each. We leave plenty of tip for the charitable cause and return to the hostel to pack for a little tour to the city’s fortress. The old building is said to be one of the oldest castles in Europe. The steep climb to the castle gates rewards with a great view over the city with its Mediterranean-style old town, meandering rivers and Lake Skutari. We observe an adorable group of Chinese tourist running around with selfie sticks. On the back we stop at a pharmacy to restock our supplies. The communication with the beautiful pharmacist who doesn’t speak English becomes hilarious when we try to mime the illnesses we need medication for: try to get the word diarrhea across to someone without saying a single word. When she runs of change, she cuts off a few paracetamol tablets…another great example of Albanian pragmatism. The streets are filled with people in the evening.

Day 15: Shoder – Tirana

We have breakfast. Ron tries brewing Turkish coffee with little success but it does the job…it almost knocks us off our feet. Ready for the day, we get a bus back to Tirana. Our joy over the air conditioning on board vanishes quickly when we notice that the bus is packed to the last seat. Back in the capital, the chaos of cars and hordes of people hit us right in the face. It takes some time to get used to civilisation again. Traffic in Tirana is special, to say the least. Two lanes turn into four, stop signs are mere decoration and as pedestrians we are forced to bravely walk into traffic trusting the drivers to stop. They do and we quickly become part of the remarkably well-flowing streams of cars, lorries and pedestrians.

We get a dorm at Tirana Backpackers Hostel again. We spend the rest of the day in the backyard relaxing and reflecting on the trip. I climb onto a platform in an orange tree and start reading. We meet one of the Albanians Ron spent some time with prior to my arrival. We have pizza and Fati takes us to the entertainment district of Tirana. Access to this part of the city used be highly restricted during the communist era of the country when it was a residential area for members of the communist party. We walk into the ‘Ruin Bar’ and get ourselves a few pints of Austrian Gösser, listening to German reggae: Gentleman, Ganjaman, Nikitaman. When the DJ puts on a best-of playlist of Bob Marley we decide to leave. We spend the rest of the evening in the hostel’s backyard chatting away with a group of German and Canadian tourists.

Day 16: Tirana

The last day of our trip. When we open our backpacks in the morning, the smell of our socks almost kills us. We pack, trying to ignore the disgusting stench. I join a sightseeing tour in town, while Ron spends the afternoon at the hostel to relax. When we head to the airport for our 2am-flight, we become a bit sentimental. We leave our Albanian adventure and swear to be back as soon as possible.

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