Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Peaks of the Balkans Trail: Day 4

Like every other day on these trips, Day 4 started off with a steep climb.  This time it was to a meadow that the trail description said would have a good view.  They weren't kidding:

The day's route involved briefly crossing into Montenegro but then returning to Albania for several more kilometers, passing through the small village of Doberdol, and then crossing over into Kosovo for the third section of the trail.  As we climbed out of Cerem and crossed into the next few valleys, the scenery changed from Alpine to a bit like the Pyrenees:

All was going well until about 1 kilometer after the summer shepherds' village of Balqin, where our trail markings abruptly ended in the middle of a large meadow.  It was back to map and compass time, which was a slight mental blow when we had gotten used to being off navigation duty.  The real problem was that we weren't sure if the markings were actually gone or if we had just gone the wrong way, so we spent a fruitless hour or so searching for the trail before deciding to plan our own route to Doberdol.  On top of this, we had pretty much polished off our remaining pite and the few snacks we had managed to buy in Valbone.  We sat down and assessed our situation:

Alicia:  So we have a couple of snacks left but no dinner?
Maria:  Right.  And no breakfast.
Alicia:  Okay.  So we have no dinner, no breakfast, and we don't know where we are, but other than that...everything's good?

After what felt like a very long time of making our way across a ridge in the hot sun, we arrived in the village that we had assumed from a distance must be Doberdol.  In one of our few lucky navigational breaks, it was.  When we got there, though, we stared up at a signpost, trying to figure out how the arrows pointing toward various other villages could possibly fit with what the map was telling us.  This problem was solved a minute later when a friendly guy from the village walked up to us, looked up at the signpost himself, and then rotated the entire post about 90 degrees.

The guy, who we decided to call Dimples, then took us back to the Doberdol mountain hut for some food:  milk, yogurt, fresh cheese, bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers.  All good, though at this point I was really ready for some variety; we'd largely been eating this same meal, or parts of it, for the past few days.  We ate a little and put the rest in our packs to save for dinner.

Hiking up the very steep hill out of Doberdol, we met a shepherd and proceeded to have a conversation that we'd also been having over and over again for the past few days:  the discussion of where we were going. This was not exactly a language barrier but more like a fundamental state of mind barrier.  The problem was, our trail was essentially a long, thin oval.  This meant that at any given point, it would have been faster to go across the oval to get to a particular town further down the route, rather than to continue around the oval.  So when I would say to someone that we were going to Town B via Town A, they would invariably point out that we were in fact going completely the wrong direction to get to Town B and that Town A wasn't even remotely on the way to Town B.  In most cases this eventually led to an impassioned discourse on why we needed to turn around and go a different way; I didn't have the language skills to explain that the whole point of the trip was to go the long way around.  The upshot was that we left a trail of people in our wake who believed we were complete idiots. Much the same as everyday life, no doubt.

After continuing on up the hill, we made it to the triangular border area between Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo:

This was a beautiful, very runnable section of trail, though we spent far too long trying to decide if we should be looking for trail markers, since the trail description claimed that the whole section was marked, or if we should just use the map to get to the next village by the best route we could come up with.  It got frustrating quickly, especially as the day went on and the sun started to go down while we were still on the high border ridge.

We knew we needed to get down before dark, partly because the trail description warned of a scary descent and partly because we didn't have warm enough sleeping bags to stay the night up high.  Our bodies were starting to complain from the long day and various aches, pains, and niggles appeared (Maria, staring at her feet:  "Is that my skin?!").  Eventually we found the right route--there was in fact no scary descent, and what the trail description called 4km was actually 10km according to signposts--and headed down to find a camping spot just above the village of Roshkodol, Kosovo.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Peaks of the Balkans Trail: Day 3

After a restful night in Okol we started off Day 3 with the climb up to Valbona pass.  This was a steep climb but fortunately it was broken up by a cafe three-quarters of the way up.  We happily traded our pure wilderness experience for the chance to have a coffee.

The other side of the pass was steep, grey, and beautiful:

The thin line across that hillside is our trail

On the way down we made a couple of new friends and played around on some boulders.  This was yet another place that I would have happily spent several more hours in if we had had more time in the schedule.

We climbed a nice V0 together.  The ascent in a suit was probably the most stylish ascent this boulder has ever seen.

Coming down onto the valley floor, we got to a "road" of crushed white stone.  The blinding whiteness of the rock plus the pine trees lining the sides of the road gave it an eerily Arrowhead-like feel:

After a few kilometers the gravel road dumped us out onto a paved road, the first we'd seen since Plav.  We had hoped to hitchike but when we still hadn't had any cars pass going in our direction by the time we got to the town of Valbone, we decided to hire a taxi for the remaining 13 miles of road to get back onto the trail.  These 13 miles took us to the small (7 or 8 houses?) village of Cerem.

Cerem ended up being one of our most interesting stops.  For a start, it was our first experience of the typical way of finding somewhere to stay the night in the small villages.  This way consists of essentially walking up to anyone in the village and asking if they know of anywhere you can stay.  We weren't in Albania long enough to be sure, but I suspect the answer is always "Yes--at my house."  That was the answer in Cerem anyway, so we were taken off to a beautiful house which fortunately had a nice warm stove going (it was cold and just starting to rain at this point).  The house belonged to a couple who had four kids, including one very smiley, sweet oldest son.  As soon as we arrived the son ran off to fetch his cousin, who was a 16-year-old dental student who spoke great English.  The cousin, like the rest of the family that we were staying with, lived in a relatively big city in Kosovo for 9 months of the year but came out to Cerem to farm for the summer.  It was impressive:  out of all the options he must have had for what to do with his summer (he was smart and undoubtedly a good student as well as funny and charming), he chose to come out to a village with no electricity, running water, or phone signal, and to do hard work every day, because he enjoyed spending time with his family and working on the farm.  He told us he would find us on Facebook--but only after September when he got internet access again.

Cerem was also the scene of our most amazing trail food.  The wife in the family that we stayed with cooked us pite, which can apparently be made in many different ways with different ingredients but in this meal was a large, round, potato and onion pie.  It was excellent, especially after a day of being hungry and living off yet more bread and fresh cheese.  The next morning we were thrilled beyond belief when the wife sent us off with more pite for the trail.

One cultural note that Maria and I both thought deserved attention is that in all the areas the trail passes through, adult villagers will always refuse money for food and accommodation.  However, as we were fortunately told in advance by an Albanian man who helped with our border crossing permits, it's okay, and appreciated, to give some money to a family's children in exchange for food or a room.  We're hoping that future editions of the official trail description will include that information so that if hordes of hikers do descend on the trail over the next few years, they don't unwittingly eat local families out of house and home.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Peaks of the Balkans Trail: Days 1 and 2

After a first evening of wandering around lost in the pouring rain and a morning of wandering around lost in the sunshine, Maria and I spotted salvation:  a signpost on top of a hill!  Surely that would tell us where we were and we could be properly on our way around the trail.  I ran over to the sign.

"What's it say?" called Maria.
"Turn back now..." I answered.

Maria laughed at my joke, which unfortunately was not actually a joke and was what the sign really said.  Whether it was referring to land mines or just the end of a day hike, it wasn't the most inspiring message for the start of a run, especially when you've just run across the ground behind the sign.

We were in Montenegro to run the 200km Peaks of the Balkans loop trail, which takes in a national forest area encompassing Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo.  What had happened was that we had accidentally started our run on the one section of trail that is completely unmarked.  Our starting point was Plav, Montenegro, and we were supposed to be headed in a counterclockwise circle through the rest of Montenegro and then Albania and Kosovo.

Coming out of Plav, a brief break in the rain

But with only a large-scale map that didn't show most of the trails on the ground and zero trail markings to help, we had been reduced to using the compass the whole time and going in the general direction that the trail was supposed to go.  The first evening, after 3 hours of running/walking in the rain, we spend a very soggy, cold night camping, unsure if we were even anywhere near the trail.  In the morning it was still cold and a little rainy-looking, and I was silently in favor of turning around and going back to Plav.  But fortunately we pushed on and eventually came upon the "turn back" sign, which, despite its negativity, did name the hill it was on, and that hill was on our map, so we were able to plot a cross-country route to intersect the trail.

Our navigational worries were far from over, but eventually we did find our trail that morning.  Everything improved dramatically at this point.  The trail was perfect and runnable.  We had great views on all sides.  And soon we were treated to our first experience of the region's amazing hospitality:  running through a small summer shepherds' camp, we were invited into a family's house for coffee, fresh milk, cheese, and honey.  In the two days before the trip, I had given myself a crash course in Albanian, and it was now time to attempt to actually speak it.  It worked!  At least, on my five-year-old level of ability it worked.  Maria improved our standing greatly by having remembered to bring cigarettes and chocolate to offer in return.  We left well-fed, caffeinated, and seriously impressed by everyone's friendliness.

Just after the shepherds' camp was one of the most beautiful sections of trail:

After this section the trail started being marked, which made our lives much, much easier.  We could put away the compass and map and just enjoy a pleasant, gradually downhill run into Vusanje, a village where we were planning to buy food for the remaining 20k over a big mountain pass to Theth.

But buying food was not to be.  Vusanje's one small food store ("store" is a little optimistic; think small roadside shack) was shut.  We were generously invited by a woman we saw out working in her garden to stay overnight at her house, but we had to press on since we were on a limited time schedule, not to mention that we were going to run out of food soon so it was a good idea to try to make it all the way to Theth that night.

From Vusanje we went up an easy trail through a deep valley lined with towering limestone spires.  The climbing here is undoubtedly good...

This was another excellent section of trail, though we did get a little demoralized by the false summits near the top of the pass.  We were getting seriously hungry (this would remain a theme throughout the trip...), though despite this Maria shared her remaining food with me.  My morale was also improved by getting to climb a nice little boulder problem near the top of the pass!

We saw a few people in this section--a couple of Germans, a guy who spoke Albanian but who I think was from Serbia, a shepherd with a huge flock of sheep and several herding dogs who were not amused at our presence--but overall the trail was quiet as usual.  Even in this section, which was one of the less remote, it was always noticeable how few people there were around.

Eventually we reached Qafa e Pejes pass:

 From here it was a beautiful but quad-bustingly steep descent into Theth, or actually Okol, a small village about 2km outside of Theth, where we stayed a very relaxing night in a guesthouse.  Staying in a guesthouse was so much better than camping!!  I had failed to learn the word for "dinner" in Albanian so I really struggled to ask if we could buy dinner there and for a half hour or so we weren't sure if we were going to get to eat.  But soon an enormous dinner appeared on the patio for us--eggs, cabbage and tomato salad, peppers, fried potatoes, pork, and bread.  It would turn out to be by far the most varied meal of the trip, and also, somewhat surprisingly, the only time we saw meat.  (I had thought Maria, a vegetarian, would struggle to find non-meaty food, but in reality there was barely any meat available.  The people who would have difficulty eating here would be those allergic to milk.)  Mirash, the guesthouse owner, drank some raki with us and did his best to keep us entertained despite my limited vocabulary.  We went to bed thrilled to be (a) inside and (b) not soaking wet.

Day 1:  Approximately 8km
Day 2:  At least 40km, probably around 45.