Struga to Tirana Albania 122km
It's a balmy 4°C as I leave my hotel in Struga, and I realise I've got too many layers on. I strip one off, and immediately start a 15km climb, into the snowy mountains..... to find a border post on the ridge between Macedonia and Albania. It's snowing..... familiar, so the layer goes back on.
In 1979, Eileen and I sailed past Albania, on a ferry between Italy and Greece. Albania was the first country I'd ever seen, that would not permit me to enter. Albania was locked tight. As I watched it slide past, a hunger to return and explore this hidden country developed. Thirty something years later, I enter Albania.
I'm on a wind swept, snowy ridge, with very little vegetation. To my left, way below is a huge lake. To my right, even further below, is a town, hidden amongst clouds. Wow. This feels so like Central Asia. I begin an amazing descent. It's raining, so my glasses fog up, and I can't see alot. But it's better than a couple of days ago when my breath had frozen between my corrective lenses and sunglasses, and there was a later of ice on the rim of my helmet..... frozen breath. Today it's only rain. I can choose between foggy view, with glasses, or blurry, distorted view without. I choose the second option.
The view as I descend is amazing. It feels like another world, and I'm not cold. The similarities with Central Asia continue as I enter the first town. The centre is abuzz with local men "hanging out". The predictable, unpredictability of the Mushukas, buses and taxis is all so familiar. I stop and ask a guy where I might exchange some money. He leads me to the back of the crowd of milling men, and introduces me to a well dressed elder man. This guy produces a small calculator, shows me the exchange rate, brings Euros from one pocket, Albanian from another. I've got no idea, so trust he will not rip me off too much, and accept a handful of notes. Great. Now I can at least buy something warm to eat and drink.
The road drops away in front of me. My gloves are soaked, my raincoat and raintrousers (that have only been used once before) are soaked, but I'm loving the ride. I'm not cold. Although it's winter, the colours of the dead leaves still clinging to the trees are outstanding. More Central Asian memories, as I see donkeys being used for transporting grass, hay and firewood, goats and sheep being herded, and horse and carts carrying whole families.
The crazy driving is so familiar. Passing on blind corners. Passing three abreast. Double and triple parking. But they are all very curtious to this cyclist. People are calling out greetings, waving, tooting "Hello". I've missed this in recent countries.
I'm following an in spate river. Looks pretty boatable, and fun. The road and river are following down a gorge. Less than 50m in front of me, I hear a roar. I look up to see a landslide coming down towards the road. My brakes are not frozen. I'm able to stop in time. I wait for things to settle, and weave through the rubble almost completely covering the road. It may be a while before regular vehicles get through.
I see a sign. 45km to Tirana. 50m later another one. 51km to Tirana. I stop at the junction and ask. "It's 45km if you go on the motorway, and through the tunnel. It's 51km on a steep windy road if you go the non motorway option." "Am I allowed on motorway on bicycle?" "No problem." No choice really then. 1km along the motorway, a huge sign tells all what the speed limit is for various vehicles. Down at the bottom, in the small print, it says no horses, no bicycles. I choose to "not see" the small print.
It's a long slow climb, but I'm well away from the zooming traffic. Eventually I reach the tunnel entrance. There is only one open lane, and there's quite a bit of traffic..... no problem. I cycle in the closed left lane. I'm out of the way, I'm safe, and can easily skirt any hazard that has closed the lane. There is no hazard. After the tunnel, the motorway finishes. It's still raining, it's still mostly downhill, and I'm buzzing. The euphoria of breaking the law and not getting caught?
It's dusk as I enter Tirana. I have to find somewhere I can keep my phone screen dry, so as I can navigate to a hostel. Not easy when it's torrential rain, but weaving through narrow streets, filtering through traffic, going down oneway streets the wrong way, and dodging the Mushukas is pretty fun. The hot shower, and being in dry clothes is even better. Tirana was where Ju was going to meet me for our European ride together. She's not here because I'm a month early, but it's pretty exciting to finally, after 37 years, or 19 months of cycling, to have ticked another box. And Ju will be in Rome.......