The second day on the tour was as if I am travelling for a long time. I had no more doubts about the journey nor about my mental and physical readiness. I was out there, travelling. And I was loving it.
The morning I get up without worries for the day ahead. It was around 9 am and I had a slowly start. I figured, Tirana was not far, some 50 km away so I could take my time.
Around 10 am I had my bicycle saddled up and I was ready to roll. I went outside the hotel and everything started to open up. I spent a lot of time riding the road, the previous night. But it was night. I could not see anything then. Now it was like I got my vision back. I saw that the road passed a river on the left side. The river bed was incredibly wide. It was so wide, that most of the river bed was bare and dry at the time, and even then the water flow of the river was wide about 20 m. It was a river that looked like that it makes big floods during the rain seasons. The river, later I found out, is called ‘Shkumbin’.
On the right side of the road there was a mountain going up, very steep. And there was another mountain across thee river. It was a big canyon. The mountains were covered with shrubby looking, Mediterranean vegetation. It was all too dry. I thought it could use some trees.
In a moment I was caught by a surprise. Just a meter away from the road the railroad track was passing. It was half past 10 am. The train going to Librazhd was passing very slowly. I thought that it was with a speed of walking. But I noticed it too late to take a descent photo. Carrying a DSLR may be nice so I can take good photos, but it takes some time until I dig it out of my panniers. I should consider options for some handier bag or even a handier camera.
The road goes along the river with a slight descent towards the town of Elbasan. Parallel to the road on the opposite side of the river, goes the rail road. It is fairly straight forward. Until entering Elbasan, that is. I knew that I need to go west, so I even took some side streets deliberately so I can see the inside of the town. I figured, eventually I would get to the end of the street. Elbasan is not a very big town. But the central area seems messy. People and cars running around everywhere, making jams at moments, basically easily to get distracted. I am used to this kind of mess on the streets from Macedonia. So I had no problems with it. But it did not hurt to be extra careful.
Exiting Elbasan posed a challenge. The main road simply went to the west and straight on to the sea. But I needed a road that would go over the mountain to Tirana. The one I needed was smaller road. It took some time and map checking, but I found it. There were some signs, though not well placed. Even the first kilometre did not give me confidence that I am on the right road.
The road going up the mountain was very exhausting. It was winding along the steep side and was completely bare. I even choose the worst combination – I was riding uphill at noon, on a hot sun and with no shade. And did I say that it was a steep uphill.
The road passed olive plantations. They all looked quite sad. Like not a lot of care had been given to the trees. Since the hill was steep, almost all of the trees had small supporting stone walls to prevent erosion and to retain water. It was an interesting view.
Along the road there were many people that would sell fruits and olive oil from improvised stands. Since I felt hungry and exhausted by the sun I decided to stop at one of those people. However I was prolonging that stop for a long time. I wanted to stop where a shade was, and this was not easy to find.
The people sold fresh, ripe figs. This was my treat I though. And it really was. The figs were so sweet and juicy that I ate a lot of them. The most appealing thing was the price – it was extremely cheap. I just gave the person some money, like one or two Euros, and told him to make a fruit mix for that. Everything was very tasty. I started talking with the old man. We did not share a language, but had no problem to understand each other using some more or less international words. I learned that he lived in the village above Elbasan. And he would stand there on the street every day to sell something to earn for a living. It was striking to learn that he transported the goods, every day, up and down for about 3 km, in a metal, wheel cart for construction. The man also told me that his main business is the olive oil, which he made by pressing the olives. He had barrels at home, but would bring only several used plastic bottles from juice, that he refilled with oil. I figure it was most probably home made virgine olive oils, but I could not take any. The man, at the end gave me some water to wash up and to drink. I thanked him and I was on my way.
I continued the uphill. Soon I understood that I stopped at the right place since I did not see much of those olive oil sellers along the road. But the sun had gotten even worse. The uphill, I think, was not that terrible as much as the sun. Previously I spent a year in The Netherlands and forgot all about the burning sun in the Balkans. This was not a pleasant reminder. I decided to find a place where I would stay away from the sun. It was around 1 pm and the sun was getting unbearable. I stopped at one turn. There was a big olive tree, with a shade that looked promising, and a football field around. I laid there, under the tree. I closed my eyes and hoped that no one would see me and complain. I stayed there for about an hour or more. The short sleep under the shade gave me strength to continue. So I did. It did not take long but I got out on a straight road that still went uphill, but not with such a steep ascent.
The traffic was very frequent all along the road. There were cars, busses and trucks passing by me constantly. And they were all in a hurry. Most of the cars were Mercedes Benz of any kind and age. And looked like they are competing in a race. At a moment like this, one car (Mercedes) driver was trying to overtake another one (also Mercedes) driver, while this second driver would not simply let go and added even more speed so it would not allow easily to be passed. The next moment a herd of goats run out on the street out of the right side of the road. Literally jumped out of the steep cliffs. Instantly, both drivers hit the brakes and stopped, while the goats simply looked at the cars without any interest. It was a very close call, but nothing bad happened. The goats moved along, and the drivers continued their way. I just cycled along watching all of this and thought about the issues of having rules versus not having rules. The sheer lack of strict rules in Albania made the drivers to look like they are reckless, but they are very alert to any movement. And all the ‘chaos’ that I saw is actually their rules, that may not abide to those that are in the rest of Europe. Drivers would not give me 1 meter of space, as in The Netherlands do, but they sure did not push me out of the road either. I just had to be confident and most importantly not afraid.
When I got to what seemed to me that it is the end of the terrible uphill I made another pause. The place was at a reef, so I could see both sides of the mountain I was crossing. It was a very beautiful thing to see, since the road stretches along the whole reef of the mountain. But I was tiered and dehydrated so I did not notice it much at first. Luckily there was a stand selling fruits and olive oil (naturally) and they had a refrigerator with drinks. I had some, too many even. And some more fruits. When I come to think about it, the road, though difficult under the sun, it was very pleasing to have possibility for refreshments with fresh fruits all over.
At this spot I also talked with the people sitting there. They were from the opposite village, the name to which I still do not know. One was the seller, while the other man was a friend that came to keep him company. It was Sunday so the man did not have work engagements and was free to enjoy the company. Again, we had to resort to aid to talk. We used a piece of cardboard and a pen. Sometimes some Italian, since we all had some limited knowledge of Italian, and it seemed to me that Albanian language has quite an influence from Italian, or at least people used Italian words in colloquial language. I was impressed by the story of the friend of the seller. He was working in the construction business, mainly trading cement, since there is a cement factory in Elbasan. He had been doing that for 20 years, and made a good living and a growing business, as he said. He even worked with companies in Macedonia. All in all he was doing well. But what amazed me was the attitude he had. He said that he would never leave his home village, even though he has money to move to Elbasan or Tirana. This, sense of belonging to a place, and a will not to desert that place was quite evident throughout, since I did not see a deserted village. On the opposite, quite alive villages there were along the road. It was something that is opposite from many opinions and examples I’ve seen in Macedonia. While in Macedonia are eager to leave the village and head into the big town, in Albania seems that people prefer to stay in their home village. A true patriotic sense by the Albanians, I would add. I do not know the background to this attitude, and whether the whole country shares this attitude. However for me, it was very positive to hear it.
The people told me that there was a tunnel being built parallel to the road I took. Going straight from Elbasan to Tirana, avoiding the uphill. If all was going under plan, the new road would be opened in 2013 or so. It would make the connection easier for the transport of people and goods. However, I just thought about all those people that were selling fruits and olive oil. They would be gone, since there would be no more customers. I was happy to experience this in its last days.
The road from that point forward seemed quite straight. There were some scattered restaurants along. One, just at the descent to Tirana impressed me with the open air, fully equipped, washing sink.
The sun was starting to set by then. I did not have a lot of light, but I also did not have a lot to go. I just had to pass the remaining of the downhill. And it was a long downhill with a lot of winding turns. I had to brake on every turn because of my extra luggage weight. My hands got very stiff, just from the braking.
I developed a kind of a bicyclist’s mantra for this descending ride. It was fast, and the cars were more frequent. And as I explained, they were driving like mad. At one moment it just came to me: “I’m not afraid of cars. I’m not afraid of cars. I’m not afraid of cars. Yes, I’m still alive and not afraid of cars.”
There was a situation when I was going downhill. The road was with two lanes, and on the opposite lane there were five cars rushing uphill. Then, the last car decided to cross the other four cars and came straight at me in my lane… it all happened so sudden. The car crossed one car and went back to its side of the road just in front of me. If I had been afraid of cars, I would be out of the road and falling into the cliffs.
No scratches, no bruises, all in one piece I arrived in Tirana. Tirana was big. It was getting dark. I had to use a map to find my way around. Luckily, my friend lived on the side of Tirana I was arriving, so I had no problems in finding the place. I was tiered from the whole thing with the mountain and the sun, so I decided that I should have one whole day of rest in Tirana.
Date: 9 September 2012
Difficulty (1-5): 3. It is a road that goes straight up the hill from 90masl to 600masl on 8km road. In combination with hot sun, it is something that one should avoid. Unless you really want to get to Tirana using this road, over the Kraba pass, then there is no other option. I’d suggest making a very early or late evening ascent to avoid the uphill in the sun.
Time spent riding: 4:48
Average speed: 12.8 km/h
Length: 61.71 km
Landscape impression: Since it is a mountain pass, there is a constant view on the valleys around. At the beginning there are olive tree plantations that change into Mediterranean shrubby vegetation somewhere close to the end of the uphill.
Water availability: There is water in Elbasan and Tirana, however along the road there is no water spring. In summer there are people that sell water and some restaurants here and there.
Security issues: To cycle in Albania means not to be afraid of cars. Albanian drivers may seem reckless, they are very cautious and alert. The lack of strict rules on the road makes their driving chaotic but also aware. Drivers react to sudden changes on the road, like a cow or sheep appearing out of nowhere. And they are mindful to cyclists in their own way. Which means that cars passed me on mere centimetres away, almost touching my handlebars, with great speed.
The last issue is that this particular road is very steep, going up then down. The down part is a bit scary with all the steep curves. I think my hands are now capable to squeeze oil from walnuts, from the braking I applied going down.
Contact with locals: People are generally communicative and hospitable. Language is an issue since they know Albanian, and most of the time Italian may be their second language. However, a pen and a piece of paper can make up for lack of language.
Accommodation: There are hotels in Elbasan and Tirana that go down to 10 Euro per night. But one must look for them outside towns. For Tirana, the Backpacker’s Hostel is a great place to spend the night.
Food availability: Along the road there are people that sell fruits, vegetables and olive oil. The fruits are fresh and very tasty, but also seasonal, so do not expect them any time of the year. Restaurants are located near the towns.