Extra day in the bubble. We meet Eni and Nico again. The city has Sunday night blues.
Atomised in mattress cosmos we revolve like silent monoliths each entranced by the serenity of their own orbit and atmosphere. Albania V Denmark is broadcast rousing appreciation for the home performance and instigating fireworks across the city. Venture to the Blloku, the party zone of Tirane, so named because under dictatorship it was an exclusive area for party officials and their families. The search is on for Tirane Rock, the only alternative party in town, yet we find the counter culture baked in the street and Eni, Niko and Evja lead us down dead ends, towards and away straight edge gatherings and eventually to good sounds but thin crowd. Night ends climbing an abandoned pyramid to gaze out over the city.
Throb swells on the pulsating foundations of the previous day. We leave Enzo the empty bottle and a thank you message attached like a marooned sailor’s last statement. Marco departs, on his way to Portugal and then South America. The three of us head to Tirane, the Albanian capital. The day hot, the terrain flat we cycle on motorways between the coast and the mountains, passing an inconceivable amount of carwashes and petrol stations that line the road. After Lezhe Martin blows a tyre and we have to leave him to dash to our rendezvous. After 70km Tirane pixelates into covered clothes markets, more carwashes, giant potholes, sound of drums from a tattoo parlour, Italian architecture and 4 lane highways that swallow us up in the afternoon rush hour traffic. Alleys befuddle us but eventually we find our temporary home to meet urbane, young professionals and lug bikes and bags up 6 flights of stairs to our top floor apartment looking out over the city. Too exhausted to join the throng for Friday night party we disintegrate into our beds.
Woken around 05:00 by the Brits packing up and eating breakfast. With throbbing instability we rise and pack up on autopilot. They depart in a rush leaving the 3 of us to stare at each other with partially packed bags and collectively wonder what the fuck we are doing awake and haphazardly attempting to leave so early. Hair of the dog is the only cure for our ailment so the three of us cycle back to Shkoder for beer and kebab at 08:00. Thirst stimulated we move to a patio to street watch and drink the bar dry as we enjoy the looseness and the liberty. Gypsy beggars hone in on us pointing at their pregnant bellies. One comes with her 12 year old pregnant daughter with a lazy eye and I get jovial with her demanding to know who fucked a minor and asking them for money to the hysterics of local guys at the next table. They enjoy the banter and the girl gives me 40 Leke as they leave. We spot another cyclist and beckon him over. We appear to have joined a cycle touring silk road. He is Martin, a 59 year old German cyclist who has been touring the world on and off for the last 20 years. He is broad and barrel chested, hair like Sonic, and carries 60kilos of weight on his bike. He has come for South America and went to Morocco but turned back because of worries about the spread of Ebola. He plans to gather more info and attempt to enter Africa from the East.
We are passed the point of saviour so to the pleasant surprise of Enzo we return as 4 to camp in his field again. He moves his cow, offers us light which we politely refuse, and then brings out another bottle of grappa and more fruits. Local girls come and talk to us in good English, quickly followed by their father. Enzo sits proud on his stylish Italian racing bike. The girls bring us eggs to boil. We strum and cook up as the grappa flows. Experiences of trips and tribulations merge with ideological discourse much to the bewilderment of teetotal Martin.
Excitement builds in anticipation of Albania. Curiosity, stereotypes, the mist of geographical anonymity dissipating. We pass Vladimir, Sukobin, then cross a border with 1 meter of no man’s land.
Another parallel dimension of the social model. Classes of school children are out picking litter, they greet us with colloquial English phrases. Everyone waves and beeps and says hello to us. We pass Muriqan, Zus and then over a river to enter the city of Shkoder where men sell fish gasping for air in small tanks by the road, people cycle towards us and against the traffic flow, cars go multiple directions at roundabouts, smell of kebab sausages grilling at road stands, private security guards emerge from sedans from 1970’s Blaxploitation films brandishing AK-47’s, Indian skinned gypsies thrust children in our faces, men in suits cycle with fishing rods, clothes laid out on the street for sale, police direct traffic with whistle and gesticulations while a guy sitting on the curb adds to the noise as he fixes a chainsaw. We sit and take it all in. The absurdity, the casual precarious behaviour, the uniqueness and profundity of the first time.
Sitting outside the city another cyclist spots us. He is Marco, an Australised Uruguayan who is riding a racing bike with drop bars, 2 gears and is carrying 2 rear bags and a bar bag weighting around 13kilos. He has arrived here via from a few planes from Australia after 7 months cycling through Indonesia, South-East Asia and India. As we talk 3 more cyclists pass, they wave but don’t stop, then change their minds and double back. They are 2 Scots and an Englishman cycling from London to Singapore who are raising money for Medicine Sans Frontières, and have taken 1 month to arrive at the spot that has taken us 3 months of meandering and detouring to arrive at. We notice something strange about the two Scots’ bikes but it is only later that we learn that they have bikes made of bamboo which they spent 1 month building themselves in London. Marco is heading to Portugal but has doubled back to find somewhere to camp so we agree to cycle together and so departs our 6 strong convoy, a most satisfying sight. Slipping down a side road we spy a couple in a garden and ask to camp in their field. The man is Enzo, and he speaks Italian so we converse and he brings out a light for us, followed by fruits and a bottle of grappa. Beer run while dinner is prepared as we swap stories and share plans.