A donkey walks into the middle of the road and looks at our van. It opens its jaw wide, shakes its body and lazily walks straight toward the van. Unfazed by us, it steps around the vehicle at the last minute.
Ahead an excavator blocks the road. We stop while it lifts gravel out of the way. Lined up along the edge of the road are eight workers, although none are deserving of that title as they stand there smoking cigarettes and staring into the van.
The excavator moves and we continue the roughest and most bizarre journey I have ever taken.
I am travelling to Theth, a village in the Albanian Alps. It’s about 70km from Shkodra, but I’ve been told the trip will take about four hours. My ride is an orange Mercedes van. In the 24 hours I have been in Albania, I have yet to travel in anything other than a Mercedes. “In Albania, Mercedes is number one,” one local tells me.
The ride to Theth
Sam, an American girl also travelling to Theth, and I are picked up from our guesthouse on the outskirts of Shkodra at 8am. There are two young boys in the backseat. One is wearing a blue jacket with “New York” written across it. For the entire trip they play music from their phone, favouring an Albanian hip hop tune about “sexy ladies”. A teenage girl, perhaps their sister, sits in the front seat. Her dark hair is in a sleek pony tail and her long fingernails painted red. Our driver, who I again assume is their dad, is a jovial character, but says barely a word to us. His phone rings a lot and his daughter often checks the caller ID before passing it over.
After 15 minutes of driving he pulls into a petrol station and shouts at the attendant who disappears and returns with three large bottles of Sprite. Barely 100m up the road we stop again and all get out at a small store. The next stop is a bakery. More shouting from the van results in a woman passing two loaves of bread through the window. The driver throws some coins on the ground and drives off.
The boys restart the music on their phone (sexy ladies again) and we’re on our way.
There are mountains around us, but they are just shapes in the distance because of the haze. The number of houses and paddocks gives the impression we’re in a rural area, but there is plenty of activity. Men sit at tables outside roadside cafes, people walk along the road carrying bags or leading a cow and the road is busy. Some of the houses are quite big – two or three storeys – and often painted bright colours; pink, purple or green. The driver is still on his phone. His ringtone is a standard Nokia tune, which I start to hum.
At Ducaj the road gets interesting – in both condition and events. We’ve hit the roadworks, but they are not responsible for the poor state of the road. It’s just a terrible, uneven road with large rocks that I want to call boulders and potholes that would be better described as craters. I start gripping the side of my seat to stop my head hitting the roof. Instead of the Mercedes sedans we’ve seen so many of, there are now more Toyota and Mitsubishi utes and four-wheel-drives.
We start to go uphill. The van has slowed, but I am still bouncing from side to side.
There are a lot of vans and jeeps coming from the other direction, some have backpacks tied to their roof. Most of time our driver stops for a chat. A white four-wheel-drive pulls up alongside us and our driver winds down the window. A passenger in the car hands over a wad of cash to our driver through the window. Everybody waves goodbye and the white car speeds off in front of us. I curse myself for not learning Albanian in school, for I would give anything to know what that was all about.
The roadworks continue up the mountain and we stop for another excavator. The road is so narrow the excavator has to dig its scoop into the ground to leverage the rest of the giant machine in the air, before hoisting itself up onto a bank to let us pass. There are few barriers along the edge of the road and a lot of loose gravel. It would be a very dramatic fall down the side of the mountain. There are no seatbelts.
The road snakes steeply up the side of the mountain and I doubt we’re out of first gear a lot of the time. A couple of the turns have the wheels spinning, but the van always makes it onward and upward. I have no idea how. The mountains around us are impressive, but reaching for my camera means releasing my grip on the seat and all I can manage is one blurry photo before I give up.
We haven’t seen a building for ages when we turn a corner and see a man standing on the edge of the road. Our driver stops and winds down the window. The man on the road hands some money to our driver and we head off again. Sam and I look at each other. “What is this all about?”
It didn’t seem like we hit a peak, but now we’re going downhill. The road is still narrow and the drop off the side is more unnerving when going just a tiny bit faster. At 10.30am the van stops outside a small building. “Kafe,” the driver says. We all get out and I see the girl in the front seat is wearing dark skinny jeans and kitten heels, an odd choice for our destination. Teenage girls are the same around the world.
Another car pulls up and loads stuff into the back of our van. I see about 10 large packets that could be sugar or flour.
Our driver sits down at a table outside, eating a bag of Oregano flavoured chips and drinking from a green Fanta can. The café owner joins him, sipping a bottle of Corona. The bar inside the building has bottles of vodka and Jack Daniels. It’s well stocked for what is little more than a shed on the side of the road. We all use the squat toilet at the café, which is surprisingly clean.
A herd of sheep trot up the road, followed by an old woman. She is dressed is a long skirt, stockings, headscarf and apron and carrying a stick, which she waves at her herd. Her other hand holds a mobile phone to her ear, which she is talking into while walking.
Behind her a jeep revs its engine. The driver honks the horn, eventually convinces the sheep to move and then speeds away, its exhaust blowing black smoke as it heads uphill.
Back on the road we start to see signs for guesthouses. We stop and the kids climb out. Sam and I are wondering if we also need to get out when the door slams shut. Apparently not. We wave goodbye and continue on. It’s only 11am so I presume we have another hour to travel.
The driver stops for old man with a walking stick and a tartan scarf tied around his head. The man was walking towards us, but after a short discussion, climbs in the passenger seat and comes with us. We are travelling on level ground now, but the road is no less challenging. I start to wonder how much longer this can go one for when the van comes to a stop at a gate across the road and the driver turns to us.
The drive home
Pjeter, the owner of our guesthouse, has arranged our ride back. We’re expecting a similar vehicle when a black Mitsubishi ute pulls up at the house a little after 8am. Our driver is John, who was sanding back some wood at Pjeter’s house the day we arrived. I pull on my seatbelt and John adjusts the air conditioning. I expect I’m in for a different experience this time, but I am not disappointed.
John’s family has a guesthouse in Theth and also a guesthouse and hostel in Shkodra. I’m shocked and impressed to hear he makes this trip up to five times a week. From the front seat I keep an eye on the speed dial and for one hour we don’t go any faster than 20kmh or any higher than second gear. John blames the road on the “corrupt” government.
Not far from the village we pick up a man standing on the side of the road who is also heading to Shkodra.
The road seems no easier to navigate in this modern four-wheel-drive than the rusty van we arrived in. When we approach a tight turn, John beeps the horn to alert any cars on the other side. There are some crosses and memorials on the side of the road, usually near a corner.
John’s fuel light flashes several times, but he seems unconcerned so I hope it’s just a mechanical fault. I’d like to think the two big drums in the back are full of petrol, but I’m pretty sure it’s rakia, a potent traditional liquor that made me cough up my insides when I tried a sip.
The sky is cloudy and many of the peaks around us are hard to see. Near the top of the pass the clouds sit below us and block any view of the slope below. At the bottom of the mountain the road levels and John speeds up. After travelling so slowly for so long the jump to 50kmh feels rebellious. John’s English is good and I spend most of the trip asking him all sorts of questions about Theth, tourism, the government, communism, life in Albania and, of course, the Mafia. The Albanian Mafia, one of the most powerful in the world, still operates, but with less control and influence than it once had.
There is less traffic than during our trip to Theth until we near some villages and see a lot of smartly-dressed people walking along the road. Not far from where I saw the donkey two days ago we pass a Nun in a starch white outfit and shiny black shoes walking on the side of the work. “They are going to church,” John tells us. I’d forgotten it was Sunday.
At one town we stop at a café across from a church. There are lots of people waiting outside. Most women are in dresses and the men in shirts and slacks. Some are wearing ties. There are lots of parked Mercedes. John orders rakia, finishes it quickly, and we are back on the road.
We have not been driving long when a motorbike carrying two people comes around the corner travelling on our side of the road. It swerves to miss us and I immediately think “that could have ended badly”. Then John slows down. He is looking in the rearview mirror. The bike has crashed on the next corner. It takes a while for him to come to a stop, as if he can’t decide whether to check on them or not. He eventually gets out, walks down the road and calls out. A few minutes later John comes back and doesn’t look impressed. “They were shouting at me and I say ‘why are you in the middle of the road?’” I turn around and can see the couple standing. Some other cars have stopped. John is quiet for a while.
While there doesn’t seem to be many road rules observed in Albania, there are certain displays of etiquette, for example when a driver is about to overtake, they flash their lights to alert the car in front and probably the car coming the other direction (which is often scarily close). The closer to the city we get, the more nerve-wracking this behaviour becomes. We overtake several trucks with cars coming from the other way in sight. When John overtakes another truck as we approach a crest, I grip my seat and feel my eyes widen. I wonder how strong that rakia was he drank at the café.
Just after 11am John drops us right back where we started.