Up to the neck
01 June, 2018: I woke up early and headed over to the dining room for breakfast, which consisted of eggs, hot dog links, and bread with butter, homemade jam, and cheese. Having skipped a proper dinner the night before, and with a long day of hiking ahead, I enjoyed it very much. Skender made me a perfect cup of coffee, lamenting that he hadn’t yet managed to train the village boys as proper baristas, and then got out a full-size topographic map to direct me on my hike for the day. He also offered to drive me through the valley to the trailhead, which I accepted gratefully as my leg had been bothering me the day before and this would shave nearly two (fairly uneventful) hours off my overall hiking time. I waited for him to finish up his morning tasks to get the guesthouse running smoothly for the day, and then we hopped into his old pickup and were off.
Our drive was maybe 10-15 minutes along a dirt road with potholes that would swallow a lesser driver’s vehicle, and then we turned off between two bushes and headed off along the “riverbank” which turned out to be another way of saying “riverbed, except the water is a little lower than usual at the moment”. It wasn’t low enough to prevent us having to literally drive in the river at a few points, though, including one where the water came up to the doors and Skender had to rock the truck back and forth a few times to get us moving again. He kept up a lively conversation the whole time, while dragging the steering wheel around to guide us past boulders, shifting constantly to keep us from getting stuck in the gravel and/or water, and veering off through the bushes sideways on steep embankments when he felt it was a better route than the riverbed. I only closed my eyes a couple times, and at one point asked him weakly if he’d ever gotten the truck stuck, which he laughed at only slightly maniacally. “Oh, now and then, but we always get it out again” he grinned. “It is worse in the winter, when the snow is very deep, or in the spring when the river is high.”
When we reached the trailhead we said our goodbyes and I headed up the mountain. The trail was well-marked and the day was fine, with just enough chill in the air to make the uphill walking pleasant. I passed a couple cottages with signs advertising coffee, and quickly left civilization behind. The views were wonderful from the start, and quickly got even better:
After maybe 1.5-2 hours, I reached the first “bar” — there are two, one on each side of the pass, run by villagers who bring all their supplies up on horses and by hand. It was near a mountain stream that came out of the hillside as a crystal-clear and breathtakingly cold spring, and featured a covered sitting area, water and sodas, and a fire out back with coffee brewing and a couple options for hot food. I wasn’t hungry yet, and I had brought a packed lunch from my guesthouse, but I did ask if the spring was safe for drinking, and they assured me it was. It was my first time drinking from a mountain spring, and it was hands-down the best, crispest, freshest, most delicious water I’ve ever tasted. As I was perched on a board over the stream, drinking from my cupped hands, a packhorse and boy arrived at the bar. Some of the locals earn extra money by using their horses to transport baggage over the mountains for tourists who do the through-hike with their luggage. He stopped so the horse could rest and so that they both could have a drink, and then visited for a bit with the two men running the bar, while I headed on up the trail.
After a half hour or so I hit the snow line, and shortly after that crossed a snow/avalanche field where the packed snow was about six feet deep. The trail markers were bit lost, but I used my compass and my picture of Skender’s topo map to estimate my position, and guessed that I should head off to the left, even though there was no obvious trail in that direction, and straight ahead looked more promising. I ventured on straight for a hundred feet or so just to be sure, and encountered a trail marker in the right colors but with a different shape, that reminded me a bit of a stop sign. I decided to trust my instincts, but also figured that getting lost in the snow wasn’t the best plan for the day, so I climbed up on a large boulder to stop for lunch and wait for the boy and his horse to pass by and indicate the right trail.
My lunch involved bread, little hot dogs, a hunk of feta cheese, an apple, and half of a cucumber, and it was delicious. After I had been there for maybe fifteen minutes a group of young hikers I had seen on the ferry happened by. They considered the options and we chatted, and I told them that I was fairly certain the trail went left but that I had decided to wait a bit to be sure. They decided that straight was the better option, and struck off up the valley.
A couple minutes later a group of five came by: four older British tourists and their local guide, (Ben, as it turned out) who was singing at the time. He saw the young hikers making their way through the snow and gave a shout at quite an impressive volume.
“Hallooooo! Where are you going?”
“To Theth!” they replied.
“Not that way! If you go that way, a bear is gonna eat you tonight!” He hollered back. “Come with us!”
Later he assured us all (in between songs and perfectly-imitated birdcalls) that we were perfectly safe from bears; all we had to do was “tell the bear you are a friend of Ben, and he will leave you alone!”
I joined the group, which now consisted of the four Brits, Ben, and the half-dozen younger hikers. We continued up a series of switchbacks, chatting casually, and then the younger group struck off ahead at a quicker pace. The English tourists were moving a bit more slowly, and my leg was bothering me a bit, so I kept their pace, and they immediately adopted me as one of their own. We soon reached an extremely narrow section of trail (to the point where I unabashedly went on hands and knees for a couple stretches), and Ben was consistently encouraging and cheerful, talking us over the scariest parts and in a couple spots running back and forth to lend a hand or arm to those who were struggling a bit with vertigo, including me. The boy and his horse caught up to us, and we let them pass by since the horse was not particularly troubled by the narrow trail, and wanted to be on its way. The views got more and more spectacular as we neared the pass:
Eventually we reached a section where the trail crossed a snowbank that went straight off down the mountain at a terrifying angle. The trail was, well, snow; approximately a foot wide and maybe 50 feet long, with a downhill bit at the end for extra fun. The boy stopped his horse and went back and forth over the section a couple times, kicking at the snow and testing parts with his walking stick to make sure it was safe for the horse. Once he had decided it was, he went back, circled behind the horse, took hold of its tail (though how that was supposed to help either of them I still don’t know), and gave a little whistle, at which point the horse set off. I saw one hoof slip at the start and then had to turn my back until Michael (one of the Brits) assured me that they had passed the section safely.
Ben led the humans in our group across the snow one at a time, with an iron grip and a quick pace and constant chatter telling us that we were nearly there, and to only look at him. I will be forever grateful for that; I honestly don’t know if I would have been able to convince myself to cross that section alone.
From there the trail continued with narrow switchbacks and frequent drops, but at least it was rock instead of snow. I was definitely questioning my choices for the next 45 minutes or so, though—it made it difficult to enjoy the views (which were stellar) when I was feeling genuinely nauseous from vertigo and constant adrenaline. Eventually, though, we reached the neck! Qafa e Valbonës, to be specific, which is the [extremely narrow and very high] pass over the mountains. Qafa means neck, and it’s named because the villagers say it looks like one (if you imagine the mountain range as a sleeping giant, it makes more sense).
Down to Theth
The start down the other side was equally dizzying (with the added bonus of loose gravel, for extra excitement), but it only lasted a half hour at most before the trail widened and we entered the trees. I decided to move ahead on my own, then, because the clouds were lowering and Ben assured us that it would rain soon. He encouraged me to stay with them, but they were stopping for lunch and I thought I could beat the weather, so I thanked them profusely and went on my way. We had caught up to the boy and his horse at the pass as well, but they went on ahead. I later learned that the two of them would cross the mountains four times that day (two round trips), the last one ending after dark.
I reached the mountain bar just as it started to drizzle and thunder rumbled in the distance. I snagged a covered table with enough chairs for my adoptive group and waited for them to arrive, which didn’t take long. As the storm approached more hikers stopped in, including a group of Albanians who proceeded to engage in some wonderfully raucous folk dancing. Eventually lightning was flashing constantly over our heads and the thunder was crashing and it was a full-on downpour. Ben was certain it would pass quickly, and naturally he was right; after a half hour or so it let up and we were off. I discovered then that he had stopped along the way to find me a good sturdy walking stick, as he thought I might need it for the steep, rocky downhill sections of trail. He was right about that too, and I was very happy to have it. There were peaceful mountain meadows covered with wildflowers:
I stayed with the group the rest of the way, asking Ben about Albanian history and chatting with the Brits about travel. Ben kept up a lively stream of conversation, history lessons, and those stunningly accurate birdcalls the whole way down; it was lovely. Near the end of the hike the group unanimously invited me to join them in their ride from the end of the trail to the village, which was a great kindness and saved me a good hour or more of walking to my guesthouse at the end of the day. Ben and I squeezed into the back of a 4X4:
The drive down into the village once again involved fording a river several times, but I was fairly used to the idea by that point. When we arrived at the guesthouse where the group of Brits were staying, Ben walked me through the back garden to point me to the farmhouse-turned-guesthouse where I would be spending the night. I said my goodbyes and gave him a hug and thanked him profusely, then went on my way.
At the guesthouse I was greeted by the owner and invited to join him for a glass of homemade rakia (a kind of brandy, this one made of plums). I thanked him and only later realized that a) I was the last guest to arrive that day, b) he had made the same offer to the other 10 or so guests and most had accepted, and c) part of the tradition decrees that the host share a drink with the guest, so my poor host was about a half-bottle of brandy in to his day, and was also supervising a construction project on the house. Fun! In any case, the rakia was very good.
Then he showed me up to my room, in the attic of an old stone house. It was absolutely charming, with gorgeous mountain views out both little windows, a little bathroom with a shower over the toilet, and a comfortable bed. I went back downstairs to sit outside and drink a beer (which I rarely do, but after that hike it seemed well-earned).
After that I had a long shower and then went downstairs for the communal evening meal, which was amazing and featured salad, coleslaw, potatoes, lamb, mushroom soup, bread, and more — much of it cooked in an old-fashioned stone wood-burning oven outside. I chatted with my tablemates, a group from Poland, and after dinner I went straight to bed and fell asleep to the sound of the river outside.
The spirit of hospitality in the Albanian Alps is incredibly strong, and manifests everywhere you look. It’s not even terribly overt, it’s just that everyone sort of accepts your presence and greets you openly as a fellow human. Sometimes that results in a certain lack of personal space, like a child casually leaning on you on the bus or sitting on the edge of your seat after a smile to say hello, because you’re there, and they’re there, and it’s crowded, and why wouldn’t they lean against a stranger? Sometimes it means a local who doesn’t speak English passing you with a smile with his pack horse in the mountains, and then twenty minutes later you come to a challenging section of trail and discover that he stopped and has been waiting for so that he could offer you his hand to help you across the snow, and then he grins and bounds off again down the trail. Sometimes its your host driving you to the trailhead and then looking you in the eyes and smiling and telling you that he will remember you, and you believe it more completely than you’ve ever believed anything and can’t help but start crying as you walk alone into the mountains. It’s the most welcoming place I’ve ever been, and it was difficult to leave.