Thursday, July 17, 2008

Qafe Krrabe

(Editors Note: The photos were taken recently, 9 years after the events described)

Traveling in Albania is always an adventure. Part of the reason is geography, part infrastructure, part history, and part culture. All of these reason combine to produce unforgettable moments in Albanian motoring. The most impressive for me was my first time over Qafe Krrabe (Krrabe Pass). It lies on the main road from Tirana to Elbasan and I'm told it was built by the Austrians.

In Nevada, a pass is generally a point on a road where it crosses a mountain range. You go up. You cross over. You go down. So when I was offered the chance to take a quick trip over Qafe Krrabe in 1999, I thought I knew what I was getting into.

We headed south out of Tirana on the Elbasan Road. A narrow, two-lane asphalt road that generally did what roads do; stuck to the riverside, followed the line of least resistance, and passed through several small villages. Cars and trucks jockeyed for position while attempting to avoid villagers, chickens, and cows. All was well ..... at first.

I sensed something might be amiss when we parted ways with the river. It continued south and our road started sidling up the mountain. Small steps at first, then steeper. As we passed the village of Krrabe I was trying to get a picture of a communist statue commemorating some battle or local martyrs when the road went nuts.

No more sidling. This was a direct frontal assault on the mountain which threw up stone ramparts in defense. The road carved a series of switchbacks into the solid, black rock and we twisted our way up. No guardrail, no visibility, and no indication of when it might end. Back and forth. Now facing south, now north. The turns swung through 270 degrees so rapidly I swear at one point I was looking at my own backside. "Oh dear! I need to lose some weight."

We rounded the last turn, past a roadside restaurant with a lamb slowly rotating on a spit outside, into a deep pine forest. Still going up, but more gently, following the contours of the ridge. "Wow! Am I glad that's over." The driver smiled ... and then accelerated.

We were flying up the road looking off to the left down into the valley we just fought our way out of. On the right, trees whipping by in a blur of deep green. Did I really want to know what's on the other side? The driver shot me a quick glance and grinned, "We call this The Sky Road." I learned why.

One minute a comforting barrier of green on the right while the left fell away to the valley floor. Suddenly, bang! My forest is gone, replaced by thin air. At something like a million miles an hour we crested the top and traversed to the other side on a wafer thin ridge. Almost two lanes wide, no shoulder and a near-vertical drop of 300 meters on each side. Through the panic I recall thinking, "Hey, I can see the ocean!" He told me the name of that place later, but I still call it "The Place Where I Nearly Crapped in My Pants." Gross, I know, and it doesn't sound any better in Albanian.

We continued climbing, forested slope to the left now, dizzying void to the right, winding upward along the mountain contours. Where it was particularly precarious there was a guardrail of sorts consisting of a concrete wall just high enough to to trip a small toddler with a series of semi-circular concrete rails mounted on top. Painted white.

We re-crossed the ridge several times before reaching the highest point, and at each crossing the driver glanced over to watch my reaction. Evidently getting a chuckle out of my expression of fear was more important to him than us actually staying on the road. Finally we reached a small village at the highest point called Gracen. It's pronounced "Gratchen" and should be Albanian for vomit. When I got out of the car to stretch and take pictures I noticed little piles of the stuff all around on the pavement. (Have I mentioned Albanians appear to be the people most vulnerable to carsickness in the world? Is it them or the roads? Chicken or Egg?) True to form, as I was taking pictures, a mini-bus pulled off the road behind us and out tumbled four deeply nauseous travellers. We drove away with their retching in our ears: "Grraaaaaatchen."

Heading down toward Elbasan was relatively sedate compared to the ascent. Still up high. Breathtaking views over range after range of mountains marching east and west. In front, the snow-capped massif of Cuka Partizanit shone in the clear winter air. We came to the end of the ridge and dropped into hell.

The road, spiraling off the end the ridge like a coil of tattered clothesline was bad enough, but where it led was surreal. I gazed over a giant derelict industrial complex shrouded in soot and smoke, it's presence violating the natural beauty like a tumor on Angelina Jolie's inner thigh... like a ring of hickeys on a nuns neck, like.... OK, you get it. It was gross.

"Celiku i Partise." "The Steel of The Party." Built during the Hoxha era to process chrome and steel, the gigantic complex sprawled over the valley floor. A Stalinist monstrosity meant to demonstrate the industrial might of the Peoples Repulbic. Unfortunately the communists didn't give a hoot about the environment or the workers. "EPA? What's that?" It sat abandoned and rusting save for one furnace churning out thick, grey smoke. The brilliant decision to put the factory in a narrow valley prevented the wind from clearing the smoke quickly and a thick haze hovered over the plant and the people of Elbasan.

I passed on the chance to descend into the funk. That could wait for another day. I didn't want to smudge the memory of my first exposure to the wild beauty of Albania with what surely awaited me at the other end of Qafe Krrabe.

1 comment:

A.L said...

Very good story i travelled through krabbe alot of times. im an a New Yorker born in Elbasan and miss it alot, there is a beutiful culture and way of life in albania that makes it so attractive. I love every think in my home town from the corner venders selling "bugaqe" or the outdoor cafes/restaurant/diner that are nowhere to be found in american culture along with millions of other things. Most travelers go to the amazing beaches in the south and Tirana which is a city of it's own but your the first outsider i know to travel to Elbasan so congrats in a way and well written. Albania is a hidden gem in europe that everyone forgets because Hoxha hid it for so long.