Albania. I'd been warned not to venture into its interior and up until now I'd planned to take heed of this advice. "Albania is mafia country" I was told by a hostel owner in Dubrovnik. I was also warned of the poor quality of Albanian roads and I had even heard rumours of Albania being home to terrorist training camps. The UK foreign office site gave advice on travelling in Albania and did little to convince me this would be a sensible path to take...
"Gun ownership, crime and violence widespread"
"Driving can often be aggressive and erratic"
"Fatality rates from road traffic accidents are amongst the highest in Europe"
"Minor traffic disputes can quickly escalate, especially as some motorists could be armed"
"Risk of unexploded ordnance from the conflict in neighbouring Kosovo"
Even the Albanian flag, a black two headed eagle on a red background, to me looked decidedly sinister. I decided my idea of adventure probably stopped short of risking losing vital body parts in exploding land mines and on my journey I reasoned my legs would be quite useful accessories. I would get my head down and edge northeastwards.
I continued on, head down. Ten minutes later I paused again, intensely frustrated as another gust stopped me dead in my tracks. But I should push on... I looked up at the road in front and saw another farm dog yapping, growling and coming in my direction. In an instant I turned and was heading towards Albania. As I whizzed along with the breeze I thought about the perfunctory decision I had just made. The direction of the wind and a small dog would now shape the next month of my life. The experiences and challenges ahead would be dramatically different on this new route to Istanbul. I thought about Albania and my head was full of negative imaginings; a lawless land of landmines, terrorists and bandits. What was I getting myself into?
I crossed the border into Albania and immediately my fears were confirmed. The road became a hotchpotch of potholes and craters. But then what I didn't expect, cheers and waves from Albanians out working in the fields. I was even saluted by some of the children as I rode past. People were clearly surprised to see me. Horses and carriages now shared the road with bashed up old Mercs and the occasional new one which I secretly hoped was occupied by the Albanian mafia. My first night in Albania was spent drinking vodka with a group of men in a metalwork shop. In fact Albania has been the most welcoming country of my journey so far and nothing better highlights the generosity of the Albanians than my experience near Elbesan.
I was on my way to the "Summer day" festival, a carnival with pagan roots which celebrates the end of winter. After my chilly start I was in the mood to cheer for warmer climes. I put up my tent on a small makeshift football pitch close to a few houses in the hills above the town. The local children seemed fascinated by this strange bearded curiosity camping under their goal posts and they watched my every move in silence. I was just settling down for the night when a man arrived with the cheekiest of the children, Albert. They couldn't speak any English but it became clear that they wanted me to take down my tent and come into the house. This was an invitation and I followed them inside. The front room had a crucifix adorning one wall and a picture of Mary Magdalene on another. There were no other colours, carpets or decorations to be seen. Eight of them lived here, a Greek Orthodox family and clearly religious. Mum, dad, four children, the grandmother and the father's sister who was profoundly deaf but knew a little English and I answered their questions in writing which she would then translate. She had suffered "nerve damage" and didn't have enough money for the medical treatment for her hearing loss. The father was the only money earner after the grandfather died two months ago. The female members of the household were still wearing black. We took it in turns to ask questions. I established that the children wanted to be an economist, a nurse and Albert... a boxer. They had lots of questions for me, the usual regarding my family, whether I am married, whether I worried about travelling alone and finally to my amusement the sister wrote "Princess Diana. Accident or murder?"!
After the questioning I was led to the shower and afterwards sat down, watched intensely by the whole family and a small table was pulled up. They discovered my socks were wet so these were removed and a pair of the father's socks brought for me to wear. A coat was placed over my shoulders. The women brought out food... sausage, egg, gherkins, yogurt, a nondescript meat dip, bread and cheese. Every time I finished the father would click his fingers and someone would scuttle off to fetch more. I refused and gestured that I had had my fill but he wasn't taking no for an answer. When I persisted he looked suddenly dejected and gloomy. Even a bit frustrated. So I kept eating. They served me a plum spirit, beer, coffee and wine. Then at the end a cigar. "No thank you". The look returned. I would smoke the cigar. I felt ridiculous sitting with a family who didn't have enough money for basic healthcare, in a house where eight people slept in three rooms, wearing someone else's socks, beer in hand, full to bursting with food and smoking a cigar.
The next day I got up early and went outside to my bike to find the plastic bag of food missing. The father looked upset as he showed me round to the back of the shed and there was the bag, shredded with food spilt over the ground. He pointed at the dog and started beating it. I had felt totally unworthy of such hospitality but now due to my stupidity by leaving my food outside they were feeling guilty. But one thing did cheer me up. I watched the dog getting whacked and couldn't help notice that instead of flinching it was wide eyed and jumping around manically. I looked to the ground to find that the mutt had devoured several of my three in one coffee and chocolate sachets. I think he was having a little trouble handling the caffeine high.
In the capital Tirana I stayed in a hostel for a few days. One evening a figure entered in an immediately familiar outfit, looking I suspect, as ridiculous as I often do. A luminous workman's jacket, trousers tucked in, glasses and helmet. It was another cyclist and the first I have met so far. Robin left England roughly when I did and had followed the Danube for most of his route across Europe. His girlfriend lives in Korea and being both English and a bit nutty he had decided the best way to get there would be by bicycle. I enjoyed winding him up by suggesting she wouldn't be there when he arrived. We shared advice and tips and mused over maps. It was great to find someone who had their own woeful canine stories to tell and finally someone who was both excited and in awe by the sheer variety of Jaffa Cake-type confectionery in Eastern European supermarkets. He laughed at my inability to fully close two of my panniers due to the huge amount of useless tat I was lugging whilst I laughed heartily at his large rear pannier which was full to the brim with one commodity only... food. We walked through Tirana's bazaars in the rain wearing the last of our clean clothes, indulging in the occasional impulse buy (me - a novelty horn for the bike, Robin - more food), ate ice cream and looked thoroughly English.
During the night I had heard barking nearby but the last farm I had seen was around twenty kilometres behind me. I was on the road for 6.30am. The day before perhaps one car had passed every hour but this early I knew there would be no vehicles coming by. As I cycled I caught sight of a small dog racing out of the scrub. No worries. I had a couple of stones ready to launch in its direction. Suddenly another larger animal appeared and then more barks from the scrub. Another two. Two more. Larger, barking relentlessly and bearing down on me fast. I sounded my mega-horn but there was nobody around to hear it. Now three more grizzly creatures, tufts of fur missing. Who could need this many dogs? There was no farm in sight. I chucked a couple of pebbles at the group to little effect. More appeared and by now I'd lost count. Certainly more than ten. Several were large and all highly aggressive. This felt different to my experience so far. Frenzied. It was as if they were goading each other on. The pack mentality seemed rife through the group. Two went for my legs and I kicked the air trying to fend them off. The road went steeply downhill ahead. I could out run them if I could get there quickly. In my effort to get away I pushed down hard on the pedals and the inevitable happened. "Clunk". I looked down despairingly to see the chain lying limp against the crankset. I jumped off and started to push. The dogs were coming in to bite me and I jumped around wildly to avoid them. Finally I reached the incline and gravity came to the rescue. I freewheeled down the slope taking me away from the attack.
I have learnt two important lessons of late. Firstly I will try not to be so paranoid and will have faith in the world being a friendlier place than it is frequently portrayed or perceived. The foreign office I think is often over-cautionary. After all, it does have a vested interest. If a British citizen gets into trouble overseas if may be them who has to help, financially or otherwise. I will trust people more and listen to the doomsayers less. Secondly I am getting some proper protection from these troublesome mutts. A friend will bring me a Dog Dazer in Istanbul, a device with emits a high frequency sound, above that of the human range, but which is allegedly unpleasant for dogs and acts as a repellent. But this doesn't seem enough. You get viciously threatened so what do you do? Make a loud noise? Come on. I'm going on the offensive. I don't want to, no wait, I do want to inflict permanent injury on these pesky beasts but I empathise with those of you who think this may be a little heavy-handed. So bearing this in mind in the comments section below please leave your suggestions for weapons I can carry with me and use against aggressive dogs en route. Please include some sensible suggestions. This is not Doom 3 and I can't imagine being able to get a rocket launcher or plasma gun across borders.