Sunday, September 21, 2014

Valbona to Thethi - The Getting There Part

This was a summer of epic trips, vaguely mentioned in previous posts. This tale is all about our hike over the Valbona Pass, up in the "Accursed Mountains" of the Albanian Alps. You know, Voldemort's old hangout. 

My friend, Erin, lives up north and organized the whole trip for our group of six (Megan, obvs, Dan, and Jill have made appearances on the blog before, plus Erin's Albanian friend Ermal from Vlore.) A friend of hers owns a furgon+boat tour trip for "adventurous" travelers to Albania's beautiful northern mountains, and he gave us a ride from Vau Dejes (our starting point) to his ferry at Lake Komani, which we would take to get up into the mountains (and tried to charge us fully for it, after promising a lower price, at which Erin took him to the side and, I imagine, kindly reminded him she was friends with his mother so don't be an ass.)

The boat ride was about three hours and since there was no space below decks, we spent the entirety of the trip on the roof. Thankfully the rain held off (mostly), and we enjoyed spectacular views of the moody, foggy fjords, with mountains looming out of the mist around every turn. I may or may not have sung some Pocahontas more times than I care to admit.

Every so often, the ferry would come up alongside an apparently arbitrary rock, only to regurgitate passengers with supplies to last the next six months (or so it appeared to us, above decks and unaware of the passengers below): boxes of salt, pallets of sugar, car seats, building materials, clothing, and in one case a brand spanking new baby.

And we saw a boat with a cow in it, which the lone Wisconsinite enjoyed a bit too much.

We landed in Fierza and took a furgon to Bajram Curri, where we added another volunteer, Ian, to our group, ate some lunch, and then packed back in the van for another hour's drive up to Valbona.

The road literally ends in Valbona. The north is getting more and more popular with European tourists, so Valbona is dotted with picturesque small hotels and guest houses. We marched right past them to the trail in the old riverbed, as it was now early afternoon and we had about 15 kilometers to hike to get to the head of the trail, where we planned to camp for the night.

So magical and mysterious and marvelous and melancholy and majestic were these mountains, after months of drab, dusty Lushnje, I literally had to stop multiple times and just breathe, eyes closed, trying to soak up the clear, bracing air. I wish I was a poet. I was literally bobbing along, the lightness of the air causing me to feel untethered to earth (despite my heavy backpack).

We reached the trail head at the village of Rogam (which seemed to be just the one house and family). The owners of the house had a small outdoors eating area, covered, thankfully - it began to rain in earnest just as we approached the "village" - and a cleared area for tents.

We plopped ourselves down, guzzled some deliciously sweet chai mali (mountain tea - slightly minty, definitely delicious), and settled in for the evening, entertained by the antics of the establishment's two flirtatious toddler boys. Our hopes for an epic bonfire were dashed by the the dreary weather and our own exhaustion, but we gamely attempted to roast some sausages around a little fire anyway before heading off to bed.

I awoke early the next morning and stood on the little knoll upon which perched the little house to try and take in the beauty and crispness of it all - my self-indulgent reverie only broken by the grandma of the house, who accosted me as I walked back to the tents, wanting to know if she knew me and what on earth was I doing using her outhouse?

Everyone else slowly awoke and we assessed the situation: rainy and wet, one possible sinus infection, three with gastrointestinal distress - one of which confirmed was giardia, one with cramps, one defective backpack, and seven utterly determined and excited hikers who were going to kill this trail, circumstances or no.

And we did. But that's Part Two.

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