Balkan Tales – Sunbaked in Albania

Sunbaked in Albania is the third part of a running series of recollections from adventures in the Balkans. You can read the previous update, about a Roman city that stands in ruins mere footsteps away from the modern capital of Montenegro, here.

How to build a road in Albania

Things just haven’t been making sense lately. It was barely high noon, but I was already fed up with everything. Fed up with the mountain roads that snaked on and on, leading me into one suicidal blind curve after the other, and with the Balkan sun that, despite the peaks which seemingly surrounded me on all sides, still managed to always get in my eyes. After almost colliding with several large trucks hauling lumber in a suspiciously unsafe manner, I finally pulled in to Plav, the last city on the Montenegrin side of the expansive mountain range that, in spite of their countless historical differences throughout the years, both Slavs and Albanians alike agree to call the Accursed Mountains.

I had decided to take the route through the Accursed Mountains on a whim the night before. Warning me that getting through the main border crossings near the coast could take hours due to the mid-August tourist rush, the owner of my hostel in Podgorica remarked that she had heard about a big road-laying project that had just wrapped up in the Albanian side. However, to get there, I would first have to drive through several mountain ranges to the tiny border post that marked the beginning of the new road.

Plav, a relatively large town by Montenegrin standards, was well connected to the rest of the country through a few twisty – but asphalted – mountain passes. However, even though the border crossing had been open for decades, the pavement always ended right past the customs post. Albania, one of Europe’s most impoverished countries, had sat through most of the Cold War hermetically sealed from outside contact by Enver Hoxha, one of the most paranoid, totalitarian statesmen in the history of mankind.

In Hoxha’s eyes, Albania faced no greater threat than Yugoslavia, a country that held not only a dramatically different socialist ideology but also ruled over a substantial number of ethnic Albanians. He hated the fact that Yugoslavia, including its Albanian minority, enjoyed a far more integrated and wealthy economy that traded with both the east and west. But above all, he was terrified at the pan-ethnic politics of Tito, who openly dreamed of one day expanding his multi-national state to stretch across the entire region. And so, on the sparsely populated Albanian side of the Accursed Mountains, there were no paved roads for dozens of kilometers. Instead, the only concrete structures around were the countless bunkers that were mass-produced in factories and scattered everywhere throughout the nation, including precariously (and by helicopter!) on the hillsides and ridges which followed the perilous one-lane gravel road that was the only thoroughfare.

That finally changed in December of 2016, when asphalting of the road was completed, and transit through the Kelmendi region from Montenegro to the rest of Albania became feasible for normal passenger vehicles. And with the road came forth a flood of modernity. Once seen as one of the ‘wildest’ preserves of Europe, a near-impenetrable expanse where the famous stories of Albanian blood feuds took place, the Accursed Mountains were now home to dozens of quaint, brand-new guesthouses. However, I rarely saw any domestic Albanian tourists. Instead, by cutting down the distance and time to travel through the Accursed Mountains, Albania had made it easier for Montenegrins from Podgorica and the rest of the country to cut through to Plav and the north. SH20, the nicest road by far that I would drive in Albania, had become a Montenegrin motorway.

How to get gas in Albania

At that time, though, none of that mattered to me. All I was grateful for was the fact that the narrow, shoulder-less roads had finally given way to a proper two-lane road, with lines painted in and everything. However, modernity couldn’t take the mountains, and so the curves continued. Hairpins up, twisties down. The smoothness of the brand-new tarmac did nothing to soothe my now aching arms.

After an exhausting hour through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery I had ever seen in my life, I pulled into the first gas station I could find just as Lake Shkoder was coming into view. Against the backdrop of the azure pond in the distance, I crawled out of the driver’s seat. Sure, filling up the tank could never hurt, but what I really needed was a Red Bull. However, I soon felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. From what I had heard, most Albanians didn’t speak English at all. The older ones sometimes spoke Italian, but that was it. How was I going to communicate?

The gas station attendant, in his crumpled blue and yellow mechanic’s jumpsuit, suavely walked up to my car. “What can I get for you, a full tank?”, he asked in perfect English with an unmistakably Midwestern accent. I froze for a second, checking my surroundings. Behind me, the rock faces of the Accursed Mountains soared towards the mid-day sun. In front, the road took a sharp turn to the left, giving the impression that it was dropping straight into the distant Lake Shkoder. “I’m not Kansas anymore, alright. This ain’t Ohio, either,” I thought. “Yeah, fill ‘er up please! And do you have anything to drink?”.

“Okay! You can take a look for yourself in the shop, we have water, juice, energy drinks, pop…” I froze again. No one says “pop” anymore… Except the Michiganders. Could it be? I ruminated on this while I ran inside to grab a Red Bull. 500ml of sugar and caffeine in hand, I came back out to the car just as he was screwing the gas cap back on.

“Say, your English is really good. How did you learn it?” I asked, trying to make conversation.

“Oh, I lived in the US for almost 25 years! And your English is really good too, for an Asian,” he replied, with a warm smile that emphasized the lines on his tanned face.

“Thanks,” I said, “but that’s because I grew up in Michigan.”

“Well.” He looked at me, smile turning into what seemed to be a slight look of concern. “I’ll be damned. I spent twenty of those years there, bouncing back between Dearborn and Hamtramck…” He trailed off for a minute. “But now I’m back! Back in my native land.”

“Oh wow! I’d go to Hamtramck often, back in the day. I’d usually have the Arabic food, but would always get some paczki for dessert on Jos Campau!”

He perked up again. “Jos Campau! How nostalgic! You know, I used to live by the big church. St. Florian’s, was that its name? But this was before all the Yemenis and what not moved in.”

I laughed. “So, why’d you come back? Did you miss home?”

“It wasn’t my choice. I was deported.” He said, with a faint grin still lingering on his face like a Cheshire Cat. Twenty-four years I stayed in the US, and one day, BAM! Back here, in the middle of nowhere.”

“Well, do you like it here?”

“What choice do I have? I have to survive, somehow. And I was away for so long, I don’t really know anybody anymore. It’s life.” As the man slammed the gas nozzle back into its receptacle, a huge SUV with a few too many jerry cans strapped to its sides rolled up to the pump. German plates. More of those “expedition” types. “Well, it was nice talking to you. But I got to go. Another customer, another story,” the man grumbled as he waved me off.

I settled back into driver’s seat, taking a sip of that sour-sweet Red Bull. Not thinking too much about anything, I pulled back onto the blisteringly hot asphalt.

How to get shot in Albania

It was now almost two thirty, but sun seemed to be showing no sign of budging from its perch high in the sky. Even though I was relatively comfortable inside my car, with its ice-cold A/C running at full blast, the overpowering glare of the sun and the threat of going outside into the heat killed whatever appetite I tried to muster. So, I just kept driving, right past Shkoder, and onto the highway toward Tirana.

I didn’t make it more than five kilometers down the road before the high shrill of several electronic beeps sliced through the drone of my engine, alerting me to the fact that my back-right tire was losing a significant amount of air. Quickly pulling into the next gas station I could find, I set about looking for any signs of a rock or a nail poking a hole through the rubber. Not seeing anything I decided to fill it back up with air, just enough to get me out of Albania, or at least Tirana. Anywhere but here, I thought. There’s nothing here.

The attendants were sitting at a table not far away, drinking their coffee as I started getting ready to pump the tires. As soon as I reached for the air pump, the younger one jumped down onto the ground and walked towards me, telling me in broken English that he would have to do it with me. Smiling, he gestured me back into my car, and proceeded to top off all four of my tires.

I asked him how much it would be.

50 lek, he said. It wasn’t even 45 cents. The problem was, I had no cash.

“No Albanian”, I replied similarly simplistic English. “Euro, or Montenegrin?”

“No, no. No Albanian? Then free.” He waved me off.

Feeling bad, but not especially guilty since I’d tried to withdraw money from several ATMs without success, I got back out of the car to hand him a pack of Drina cigarettes, souvenirs from Bosnia.

The man smiled, and ran back to the other attendants to share the smokes as I started pulling out of the gas station. He must have noticed that he was still holding onto several of my tire caps when he opened his palms, though, because I saw him frantically waving at me in the rear-view mirror as I was about to turn back onto the road.

As I got out to thank him for being kind enough to come running after me, I noticed two young backpackers sitting under the shade of a palm tree, right next to the gas station’s sign.

I shouted at them to get in. “If you’re going south,” I said, “I’ll take you there.”

“We’re going anywhere, man. Thanks!” the two said as they started loading their heavy sacks into the back.

Thanking the gas station attendant one last time, I got back into the car as the hitchhikers hopped on.

Driving down the highway, we made small talk. I told them about how I was an American, fortunate enough to be wandering the Balkans by car instead of out in the August sun. They told me that they were from Poland, and had run away from unfulfilling media jobs to try and get as far as they can on as little as possible. I agreed to take them as far as they wanted, since I had no plans of my own anyway.

I glanced at my phone as we cruised leisurely down the street. A couple kilometers up the road, and a bit to the right, was a big yellow star on my map. I had marked the place out months before, along with a billion other places that I had “starred” while daydreaming about one day visiting the area. The place was an abandoned airfield, back from the days when Hoxha stayed up late into the night, fearful that the next day would bring a massive invasion, be it from the Yugoslavs, the Soviets, or NATO. I asked the Poles if they were interested, and when they answered me in the affirmative, I pulled off the main road.

After driving through a few parched and empty fields, we pulled over next to a ditch. According to my phone, we were next to the airport, and we agreed that it was right over the ditch. Climbing across, we were greeted with the sight of a vast, broken concrete surface. The unused runway stretched on as far as the eye could see, with grass and shrubbery growing through the cracks like on an abandoned block in the bad part of Detroit.

The runway was also completely broken up, with huge concrete blocks being put every ten meters or so to prevent any kind of use. Albania, a member of NATO since 2009, had long since phased out its old Chinese and Soviet fighter jets and gotten rid of fixed-wing aircraft from its air force completely. Without any planes that needed that take off and land, why would one need a runway? And so, as nature reclaimed and chewed up the concrete surface, animals had come back to graze on the plants: the entire place was littered with sheep feces.

So when we saw a figure moving around in the second story of the blown out concrete shell that was once probably the air traffic control tower, the three of us decided that it had to be the local shepherd, looking over his flock. We started walking down the runway and towards the building, thinking that maybe he had something interesting to say.

However, when we arrived at the base of the building, where several completely overgrown trees were bending under their own weight to create an area of much-welcomed shade amidst the desolate concrete expanse, we quickly realized that we were sorely mistaken. The figure had emerged from the building in combat fatigues and holding an assault rifle, finger tensely held over the safety.

“This, Army. Go! Go!” the man shouted.

“We, tourists, from Poland, and America,” one of the Poles replied, gesturing his hands in a non-threatening manner.

As he finished his sentence, a second figure jumped out of the second story window, and ran down the trunk of one of those twisted trees down its base, landing right behind us.

“You need go, now. Or we shoot.” The second man said, in heavily accented but crystal-clear English.

With our hands held high up in the air, the two Poles and I hesitantly left the shelter of the trees and headed back down the sunbaked runway. As we got back into the car and recovered our nerves a little, we burst out laughing. Things just haven’t really been making sense lately.

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