Saturday, 26 July 2014

Albanian Maja e Jezercěs

Hoxha bunker
Albanian drivers must be amongst the worst - I bet they think a Hollywood car chase is tame. However the frequent traffic police along the main roads seem only interested in whether vehicles lights are on, in line with the policy of dipped headlights at all times. I had only driven a short distance from the border (where there were none of the usual traffic regulations signs) when I was stopped. The traffic policeman started writing out a ticket. However, near Podgorica, I had picked up two Polish students hitching around eastern Europe. They managed to speak to the
officer and when he realised their nationality the ticket was torn up. Just goes to show it is useful to have a Pole handy.

As for the cliché that all Albanians drive Mercedes, it is not quite true. Some drive Audis instead.

Most of the road signs seemed to be full of bulletholes like this one at Boge
I spent the night in Boge, a tiny village along a narrow road on the way to Thethi. Like most roads in Albania there were many, sometimes very large, potholes. I parked up alongside a bar, that had a 'kamping' sign, run by a delightful woman. She managed to rustle up a very cheap, but more than ample, meal very quickly. She understood the English words for no and eat, but not meat. With a bit of sign language and pointing to a cow that had wandered into her garden I thought she understood until a large and vicious looking sausage appeared on the plate.
Or barely legible like this pointing to Thethi

Maja e Jezercěs P2036 2694m is part of the considerable barrier that helped Albania be cut off from the rest of the world for many years, especially when communist dictator Hoxha was in charge. Apparently one of the things he did was order the building of 750000 concrete bunkers that were never used and nearly crippled the economy.
Just getting to the start point at Thethi is a challenge. However EU funding for a paved road will probably make it a lot easier in a year or so. I ended up relying on a ride on a minibus to negotiate the currently treacherous road, apparently made worse by bikers.

The driver insisted I get out at Jimmy Guri's place. Jimmy gave me his card stating that he was the Director/Manager of Theti Park. (see and introduced me to the local chief of police (he was more interested in telling me the superiority of Munchen Bayern over Manchester Utd). Jimmy has a broad American accent acquired from living in the Us after escapinbg from Albania during the breakdown of communism in Yugoslavia in 1989. Jimmy turned out be extremely helpful to the extent that he loaned me some money to pay for the jeep ride back to Boge as I missed the last minibus of the day. Nearly all my cash, in Euros, had been spent on getting a Green card at the border and had cost me a lot more than I expected.
From Jimmy's there was a good track down to the dry river bed below. Turn left at N42.41735 E19.75605 and cross the wide almost waterless river bed to a Hoxha bunker at  N42.41962 E19.75834 (870m). From there the trail is waymarked and follows the river bed through pines to the foot of the vertical wall that surrounds the valley. There is a way up, obviously. It goes past a giant overhang which provides a perfect spot for a bivvy and then emerges on a flattish 'alp' called Qala e Paja N42.44265 E19.77027 (1668m). The painted waymarks are replaced by occasional small cairns. I continued along the ridge as far as N42.44146 E19.77900 and set up camp for the night. Whilst I was putting the tent up a passing shepherd indicated there was a much bigger area for camping further on and lower down. However,  I had already had a look down there and spotted several herds of sheep each accompanied by Barling dogs. I had heard the reputation of these Albanian sheep dogs and did not fancy getting any nearer.

Typical Hoxha bunker - at least this one is useful as a trail marker. Only 749999 to find.

Imagine this is a raging torrent and difficult to cross after snow melts.

There is a way up there.

Next morning I followed the cairns around the edge of the large sinkhole being used by the shepherds and up onto the steep rocky slopes of the mountain which forms a giant cirque around the first part of the ascent. As there are many steep crags it is essential to keep to the path, especially on the way back down (I managed to lose the way on descent and had to retreat back uphill when faced with a near vertical cliff with no obvious way down). The route twists and turns a number of times before you get a view of the summit; I had speculated on various false summits before spotting the whereabouts of the true one hidden in a cloud. Eventually the route comes out on the narrow ridge of the cirque at N42.44368 E19.80844. From there it is a combination of walking along narrow talus filled terraces and scrambling up and over large (sometimes exposed) rocks, some of which are a bit crumbly so that handholds come away. The summit is marked with a cross and abox containing a visitor's book. Judging by the entries in the book this mountain does not get a lot of visitors and definitely not English speaking ones.
My descent route varied a bit when near the sheep, I collected my tent and made my way back to Jimmy's. When crossing the dried up river bed I missed the track and ended up walking through a large meadow into a garden, where a mother and daughter were stood. I must have been a strange sight, jabbering in a strange language about how to get to the unpaved road. Without hesitation, though, the daughter ran to a spring in the garden, filled a bottle with water and presented it me. A lovely gesture.

Qala e Paja

Summit cross

Took me a while to remove enough stones for comfort 

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