Saturday, October 13, 2007
Fier and Loathing in Albania.
It was the worst shit hole I've ever been in.
Well, maybe that's a bit harsh, since we didn't stick around long enough to really find out, but it impacted our senses hard enough that we knew we didn't want to.
Fier is the name of the town - about halfway down the albanian road (there's only one road that runs the lenght of the country). All was going well up to that point - the road out of Tirane to Dures (where we saw an overpriced and undermaintained roman colleseum - one had the impression we were the only ones to visit it in a long time) and south was smooth and fast (of course, continuing to be full of drivers that honk at you every. time. one. passes. you., half built gas station-hotel-bar-restaurants, hand carwashes every 50 meters, and the occasional pile of burning garbage).
Then things started to get worse. the road... well, disappeared. They're in the process of building a new one (and doing a terrible job of it - the new stretches arent properly blocked off and are being ruined by impatient drivers grinding gravel into it) and the old one doesn't even bear mentioning, add to that its over congested . We jumped onto a stretch of unfinished gravel highway and stuck to it happy to be free of cars. As we got closer to Fier, things got worse - the air thickened with a sort of acrid fog and traffic got worse.
We arrived at the edge of town just in time for sunset - we were greated by a black and grey river of sludge, massive piles of burning garbage (the source of the mysterious fog) and a sort of mortal panic. This place felt like one of the gates of hell. We stopped to take a picture or two of the river (it was the worst we'd yet seen), but soon the smoke and darkening sky mingling to create a sort of ominous haze, the traffic and noise, the stench of burning plastic began to get to us. This place felt wrong. We wanted out. A quick conferenece and it was decided to get the hell out as fast as possible, never mind the ruins near the city, nevermind anything just go go go - this is one of the gates of hell.
That was sort of the low peak, but it serves as a bit of a metaphor for how bad things can actually be there. The traffic is bad. The roads are worse (where they exist) - nothing south of Fier is either built or driveable, really. Every. Single. Car. Honks. At. You. As. It. Passes. There is garbage everywhere. Everywhere. I don't think I can over-stress this point. People dump it into rivers or down the side of ravines, and set fire to it. We met a french speaking albanian in a town called Ballsh (right before we witnessed an entire lake that had been covered with a three inch layer of black oil), who rather embarrasedly explained that Albanians just haven't quite developped the culture of putting trash in the bin yet. As if to emphasize his point, moments later one of the children in the crowd who had come to surround us (a regular occurance in Albania. Cute at first, then increasingly annoying) plucked a bit of trash from Duncan's handlebar bag and threw it on the ground, seeming to say 'geez you idiot, don't you know where that goes?'.
I guess I shouldn't be so hard on the place - they are trying. They've just been so badly fucked by history and circumstance. But the ball has certainly been dropped since the conversion from dictatorial 'communism' to 'democratic' capitalism, that's for sure. Its not that there are rotating power outages or that no large supermarkets exist. I can get by in conditions like that just fine. Its more the psychological despare I felt seeing the rivers of fucking garbage, the polluted and toxic environment, the wholehearted embracing of cars (even though they can't afford them), and the fact that they dont seem to fucking care. It hurt, really.
There are advantages to the place of course - its cheap; there are very, very few tourists there; its warm; its not hard to find good food. Gjrocaster, the largest town in the south is actually quite a nice place - clean, green, and with a genuinely charming old town (in contrast to the obsession with concrete boxes that the rest of the country seems to have. Progress!) The problem is that Albania just looks like a twisted vision of the post apocalypse... Again, I'm not being fair. Had I come through on a mountain bike and put some time into getting into real, rural Albania, I'm certain I would have been pleasantly surprised. Urban albaia then - well, be warned.
I crossed the border to Greece with my british companions (Duncan and John for the record) feeling like it couldn't have come too soon. Greece has been wet, and invlolved a surprising amount of mountain climbing - but clean, green, smooth roads... a dream really.
I'm in Thessaloniki now resting for the final leg of my journey - I can't believe there's only 5 or 6 hundred kilometers left...
Oh yeah, new photos up - both from my riding with Tim, and from the last little while..
Here and Here