LET’S PUT PREJUDICE aside here. What the title says really happened. But it could have happened in any country.
ALBANIA / Day 15: Shkodër – Fushë-Krujë, 18/02/15
My first day in Albania starts in a spectacular way. In an effort to avoid the main roads that I’ve been warned about, I decide to go on a side route through the villages. Which is way more interesting than the main road anyways. Often, I am waved at, honked at, talked to. „Ciao“ and „where are you going?“ are the most common phrases. The further I get away from the main road, the worse the tarmac gets. Until it stops completely. A bumpy mud slope is all that connects one farm to another. Oncoming drivers give me a questioning look and honk, but I don’t mind them. According to my GPS, I’m still on track. In the end, this all turns out to be a huge and dangerous detour. But let me tell you beforehand: I was not harmed and if I had been, it would have been my own fault anyways.
Loose Barbwire And A Rusty Gate
Adrenaline. A couple of barking dogs follow me. I don’t know whether they stop chasing me because I pedal at 35 kph or because I’ve left their territory, but I manage to get rid of them after some hundred meters. Only to realize that I’m at a dead end. The road goes on, but is blocked by an iron gate and barbwire. To the left, there’s a river—taking a bath is not an option. To the right, a slope rises steeply—no way. And behind me, a bunch of dogs are only waiting to rip me in pieces. Admittedly, I have a flourishing imagination when it comes to dogs. I’ve never been bitten by a dog but I also don’t want this to be the first time. Plus, turning around would also mean a long detour back to the main road.
I review the options. The map tells me that this road, which is a very polite term already, continues through the fenced area. The gate is rusty and cannot have been opened in a long time. I see a few deserted house ruins inside the area. No people around.
Leaving my bike at the spot, I take a closer look at the fence. It is but a loose part of barbwire on the ground. I lift it up and put it aside. Can’t be more than a kilometer to the other end of this fence, I estimate. The way is free. I’m going.
It is not the first time I’m lifting my bike over a fence, and it does not take long to do so. Not much excitement on my part. I am still alone and feel unobserved. This will only take a minute and I’m through, I think.
Until I see a three men in the distance. All dressed black. Two of them walking, the other one running—sprinting—at me. They seem to be in uproar, shouting and waving at me, but I’m too far away to hear them. I do get the signal though: I’ve done something wrong. Legally, this is trespassing, and I immediately regret my action.
I stop and raise my hands in surrender. It’s the first thing that comes to my mind: Surrender and explain my mistake to them. But then I see something hanging from the side of those men. It’s black and long—too thick for a fire weapon (for all I know), but something like a baton or a stick. This, and the fact that one of them is still running at me Usain Bolt style, gets me slightly worried. I have no idea how long it takes a fast runner to cross the distance between us, but I don’t want to find out either.
Heartbeat: Squirrel Level
I put my hands back on the handlebar, turn around and start pedaling. Very casually and relaxed at first—I don’t want them to think I’m fleeing because that would suggest I’m a criminal—but increasingly faster. Back at the fence, I turn around once more, reassuring myself that the man is still running at me, which he is. Only a small barrier separates me from safety and freedom: a pile of stones, sand and barbwire. This is where I start panicking. I try to push the bike up, but it feels really heavy all of a sudden. Hastily, I put all my force against it, telling my bike to “cmon“ and just get over that damn fence already. Everything goes really quick and really slow at the same time. My right foot slips on a stone, I fall to my knees, get up again, push, push more, push harder. The man is still coming at me. I push one last time and finally get the bike over the barrier. While running, I jump on the bike, rush past the dogs, and the first time I turn my head around, I don’t even see the gate any more. Heartbeat: squirrel level!
What happens next lets me believe in the existence of some kind of higher power, be it faith, karma, feng shui or God. The moment I get back to the main road—finishing this detour of almost 15 kilometers—a cyclist rushes past me. A touring cyclist with bags and panniers and a helmet! In the middle of Albania! I can’t believe my luck. Intuition tells me: I’m going to share the road with this guy for the next days. And so it is.
We Cycled Our First Highway
This cyclist’s name is Luca, he is Swiss and on his way East—to Asia, ideally. (Follow his tumblr: velorosio.) He wants to follow the coast down to Greece, and so do I (all my thoughts about taking an East turn to Lake Ohrid and Macedonia I gladly bury this moment—sometimes, destiny makes the best choices). We decide to continue together and camp somewhere. Both of us are glad to have a travel companion in this country we still have to accommodate to. For example, we’re still insecure about cycling highways. Which doesn’t keep us from doing it.
In the afternoon, a farmer grants us permission to pitch our tents on his property—a peach tree plantation. The whole village comes and watches us from afar. Ernik, the farmer’s boy, brings us water and fresh eggs. He gets to take a spin on Luca’s bike. I provide pasta, Luca provides tomato sauce. Candle light, a bottle of Tirana beer and a nice conversation top it off. What an exciting day!