zondag 1 september 2013

GR2013 Day 19 & 20: Vlorë & Ulcinj

Well, this was it. I'd completed the first leg to Brindisi, the second leg through Greece, and now it was time for the third and final leg of the trip. Going back up, through the Balkans.

And the start of that leg first heralded the country of Albania, the one I was most apprehensive of. Prior to departure, I had people raising their doubts at my choice of route, but others (who had actually been there) said I would not regret it. The various Greek people I spoke to agreed - the country and people are fine... it was just the roads (and the people driving them) I was to be careful with.

Myself, I wasn't all too sure what to expect. I just hoped for the best, and also felt a little relieved I had Maria and Konstantinos with me as well.

After going to a local camping store to find some fresh sticks for my tent, we set off.

(but not before filling up, checking tire pressure, and seducing the women at the pump)

Riding behind Maria and Kostantinos, I marveled at how they'd managed to get all their gear on their Yamaha. Somehow, everything stayed where it was.

(even the sleeping bag screaming for its life, dangling right beside the rear wheel)

Greece herself in the meantime, gave us a nice parting present.

Evcharistw gia ten filoxenia, Ellada. It was a truly humbling experience being here.

It didn't take long until we'd come across the one thing I'd been dreading for the past few days:

The Albanian border. 

Now the way it worked was pretty straightforward. As Albania is not a part of the EU and Greece is, you first have to exit Greece, and then enter Albania. So there are two borderposts, with a de-facto no-man's land in between.

The guys on the Greek side are OK. Nothing to worry about - the man who had to check the vehicle registration just waved me off, asking purely out of own personal interest what year my Transalp was from.

 But the guys on the Albanian side... well, let's just say that those unwelcoming dictatorial roots are still lurking somewhere under the surface. Those guys can put the fear of god into you, merely by alternating between looking at you and their computer screen and saying the word 'dokument' after you've already given your passport.

I (correctly) assumed they wanted my vehicle registration, but still, those 4-5 minutes felt like 4-5 hours. 

But eventually, we all made it through without getting life imprisonment.

And those first few miles were pretty awesome. Not because we knew we'd made it into Albania...

...but well, just look at the scenery! I was just overcome by the vastness of it all.

First stop would be the city of Sarandë, so we knew that eventually, we had to turn left on this road, and cross the mountain we saw on our left.

And soon enough, the climbing began.

As I said, just look at it. I really didn't expect to see this so soon after crossing the border. 

The road slowly twisted itself upward...

....giving me a taste of what was still to come.

At the other side, things got even better. Amazingly, we also got our first taste of what Albanian roads can be like. You can ride along on nice tarmac, no problem at all, when all of a sudden the cars in front of you slow down tremendously.

Why? Well, there was about 30 feet of gravel to cross.

This proved nothing however to what would await us when we got to Sarandë.

At first, things are fine ofcourse. Going towards and into the city centre, there's pretty good tarmac. A bit slippery may be, but fine. I didn't really know what all the fuss was about. 

But then we got to the suburbs...

...and things just sort of... stopped.

And I do mean: stopped. No tarmac, at all. I instantly became worried about my riding abilities on this surface, but I just remembered not to use the front brake, let the Beast do the work and hope for the best.

See? It's already over!

Ack, spoken to soon.

Way, waaaaay to soon.

Things just detiorated further and further, leading our little convoy onto amazingly steep inclines as well..

Up until this point we just figured we'd just follow the coast and move North from there, but after the past few gravel paths, we re-evaluated our strategy and tried to ask a local. Thankfully, most Albanians speak Greek.

And a passerby told us to go back where we'd come from. Oh joy!

Yet more offroading!

Eventually, with my camera lens sandblasted by all the dust from Konstantinos, we made it back into the city centre of Sarande

Where the car of choice was, once again...

...a big blue bus.

We retraced our steps back to a junction just before the city, where there had not been a sign in the direction leading into Sarandë, but mysteriously, there did appear to be one in the other direction. So coming into Sarandë you don't know where you're going, but leaving Sarandë you do.

This was just a small taste of the random Albanian madness that still awaited us.

So it was time to gobble up the miles, absorb the scenery...

...and overtake everyone MHAAHAAHAAAAA!!11

We'd just been in Albania for a few hours or so, but the scenery just kept on improving itself.

Even the lifestock went out of picture for a better shot. How nice!

Once we'd come across the coast again, it was time for a break so Maria and Konstantinos could have a cigarette, and I could clean my camera.

That's better.

The heat was bearable when you were on the move, but during a break it was terrible. The views just made it all worthwhile though.

Both the views, and the roads.

Fast flowing bends going up and down or around the hills...

...snaking past the coastline. This truly wasn't something I'd been expecting, at all. 

And the tarmac was still fine!

It was by this time that words from my garage mechanic started echoing in my head.

A week prior to departure, I'd brought the Beast away for its new tires. When I returned to collect the bike, the mechanic said they'd taken out a bit of the brake fluid in the front, because otherwise the brakes could boil (which, if you're wondering, renders them useless). Alright, no problem.

Now, a motorcycle normally has two brake fluid reservoirs. One for the front discs, and one for the back. As your brake pads wear, the level of brake fluid slowly drops, and on these reservoirs there is a little stripe, indicating when minimum capacity has been reached (which in turn, indicates when the pads need to be changed). If the level drops below, you run the risk of air getting into the brake system, also rendering your brakes useless.

Normally though, it should take a pretty long time for the brakefluid level to reach the minimum.

So when I looked on my front reservoir and saw this, you can imagine I was less than thrilled. I'd seen the bubble appear in Greece, and the past days it had apparently been slowly expanding itself. I immediately checked for brakepad wear and leakages when we stopped, but the pads weren't even halfway and everything was bone dry - ergo: the mechanics at home had apparently taken too much fluid out.

Now there I was, in the middle of Albania, nowhere near a big city, and I needed to have some DOT4 brakejuice - the one type of fluid I hadn't brought with me, and of which I knew it probably wouldn't be particularly easy to obtain in these parts.

But this was when my friend Murphy showed that he also had a good side to himself. We pulled into the first petrol station we saw, right in the middle of a godforsaken town where men in big Mercs stopped in opposite directions, handed something over through the driver's window until carrying on their merry way.

We were immediately met by a big Albanian woman, saying 'No petrol, no petrol!'. Konstantinos tried to make clear to her that we didn't need petrol, but something far more specific.

And wouldn't you know it, she actually had what I was looking for. No petrol, but brake fluid? Oh yes. I have never been more glad to pay 2 Euros.

After some roadside surgery in scorching heat (which is included in today's randomness vid), we went on our way. And progress proved tough, really. The roads kept on twisting through the country side, which wreaked havoc to our speed and in turn, to the distance we covered.

We'd started around 10 at Ioannina, but around 5pm, we hadn't reached Vlorë yet... and that town was not even 250 kms away. When we got there an hour later, we quickly gave up looking for a camp site and chose to look for a cheap hotel.

And we found one. Strictly speaking it hadn't even opened yet (it was scheduled to open its doors in 2014) but it was OK. They even let us park our bikes in the pristinely empty lobby! Two incredibly dirty bikes, on a white floor in which you could see your own reflection. 

Welcome to Albania.

That evening we were told that most of the proprietors from big hotels put in a lot of money to attract customers, and just walking by those places looking for a spot to eat we knew what that entailed. Guys approaching you, trying to persuade you to come to their restaurant. But then you look inside, and you see that the place is nearly deserted... which didn't bode well from our point of view. 

Because if you want to know where the quality is, you follow the locals. And so we did. We ended up at a small 'open-air' restaurant right on the beach, where they'd just put tables and chairs on the sand. A small kitchen served about 40 tables... and the place was packed.

This was also where we got our first lesson in Albanian currency.

You see, Albania uses the Leke. First, if you had 1000 Leke then you'd have a 1000 Leke. Eventually, the government decided to change things - a 1000 Leke became 100 Leke. They just took a zero off the end. No problem, so far.

But the thing is, the Albanians themselves still tend to refer to 100 Leke as 1000 Leke. So if someone writes you a receipt for 1700 Leke for the dinner you just had, it doesn't actually mean 1700 Leke, it probably means 170 Leke. And if a label on a packaging reads 170 Leke, the cashier will probably tell you to pay 1700 Leke.

Don't worry, it also had us confused. Further explanation is in the randomness vid!

The next day, we wanted to get into Montenegro.

And that's when I noticed that the key for my room (room #3) had another number on it as well.

Coincidences, the cornerstone of every nutritious breakfast.

Time to get on going!

By this time we'd more or less started to ride like Albanians. 

Strangely enough, they ride pretty similar to Italians and Greeks.

Screw the rules, respect each other!

Today we were going towards Fier, then Durrës, and then Shkoder. So basically, just follow the signs!

Wait, what's that? Is that...

A highway!? Hallelujah!

This proved to be such a relief from all the hairpin madness from the day before. Finally we could make some proper progress.

I could really sense everywhere that Albania's a country that's still in its infancy. Alot of the things are surprisingly modern, like this road with the power lines and all...

...but it doesn't take long before you reach the bit of the road that's not finished yet, forcing you to go back to the smaller roads.

Oh well.

Back in the hotel I had hatched the greatest idea of the trip so far: putting my Camelbak in the fridge the night before. So I now had ice-cold water to drink!

Soon enough, Fier was upon us.

It was quite amazing how welcoming the Albanians were. People coming the other way would sound their horns or wave, and passerby would offer help if we'd stop somewhere.

Mind you, the roadsurface was getting slightly more evil by the minute. There were more potholes, tears and cracks, and at one point I even rode past a manhole without a cover on it!

Thankfully, the motorway wasn't too far away. Not that the cracks, potholes and huge bumps stopped or anything, but still... dual carriageway baby!

It also didn't stop the surprises falling into our lap. There's no such thing as a highway exit on the 100km/h roads. They just brake on the right lane, and turn off.

And I found out only when someone had done that about 100 metres in front of me. That wakes you up in the morning!

But anyways:

Horse and carriage: check.

Moped: check.

Traffic jam: check. 

Let's pass it Albanian style! I crave me some gravel!


Take a close look at this picture. We were just crossing a roundabout here, and turning into an exit. If you look at the far end, you can see that alot of drivers were fed up with waiting, and just took the roundabout the wrong way. But ofcourse, with enough people doing that, you soon have two traffic jams...

...with a bonus one going the other way. I love this country.

Still, the madness was far from over.

Cyclist crossing the highway: check.

Random roadworks: check.

Allow me to interrupt myself, for Durrës is upon us!

Time to fill up, and try and figure out where to get an Albania sticker for my panniers.

This proved harder than it seemed. You see, I'd seen alot of Mercedeses cruising along with stickers from Great Britain or Germany, but no cars I'd seen up until now carried an Albania sticker.

We tried asking one of the pump attendants... and this was what happened:

Inside the café, Konstantinos managed to get some instructions, so we set off and tried our luck.

But we got distracted by this peculiar wedding car.

The road to Shkoder was probably the biggest eye-opener when it came to Albanian motoring. People overtake pretty much anywhere they can... so soon enough, we started doing the same!

But because this road goes from Tirana to Shkoder, it is also lined with policemen stopping people at random intervals.
I'd heard plenty of stories about the corruption, and that they'd try to scam tourists out of money if they got the chance.

For some reason though, I always managed to hide the Beast and me really well behind other cars whenever one these dudes could be seen in the distance. The car would get pulled over, I'd move past behind it, and bye-bye! Stealth-mode, oh yeah.

What became most apparent though, was how much the Albanians like overtaking.

And when in Rome, you ride as the Romans do!

It didn't take long for us to reach Shkoder because of this. We had some lunch, and spent an hour laughing about the madness we'd seen the past 24 hours (the majority of which is in today's randomness vid).

Just before the border, I found an Albania sticker at a small souvenir shop. It seemed closed, but just when I walked past the woman owning the shop came running towards me. Oh yes!

After another harrowing border crossing (where strangely Konstantinos had to pay 10 Euros for insurance despite showing his green card, and I didn't), it was already time for country number 8!

And the road welcoming us into Montenegro, well... just look at it.

I'm just gonna shut up for a second.

Because these few kilometres...

...don't need any artificial sweetening.

See my point?

We even didn't mind it dumbing down to a single track road eventually. Albania didn't have border crossings in Hoxha times, so it was no surprise that the road leading to the border was brand new.

To me, it felt nice to see the Adriatic again. It just felt different, being in Montenegro.

It had been a good day. Even Maria losing her gloves didn't change that.

We hoped that these views would be an indication of things to come. 

(and they surely were, but more on that tomorrow)

We arrived in Ulcinj soon after, and after I used my stubble-bearded awesomeness to fix my tent, Mario and Konstantinos went to buy groceries for the following day. We'd agreed Konstantinos would pay for the food in Albania, and I would do so in Montenegro as the country carries the Euro.

This was probably what got me the nickname 'Dutch Bastard', as a full bag of groceries cost them only 8.50 Euros. And in the end, Konstantinos still didn't let me pay for it. 

Greek hospitality, so it seemed, extends beyond its borders.