Friday, August 1, 2008

Road Trip!

One of my favorite activities is getting out of Tirana on the weekends and driving. Don't care where, don't care why. Give me an excuse to saddle up and drive and I'm on it. You need fish from Kavaja? I'm there! A visitor needs a guide to Berat? I'm your guy. Gas costs somewhere north of six bucks a gallon? I'll put off buying a new set of shoes for a month or so. So many roads and so little time.

My most recent walkabout led me south to Korca, then to Vithkuq, and beyond. I'm not exactly sure what the reason was. Something about a little family dispute over land inheritance and use. Did I want to drive down? Let's see ..... six or more hours on the road including 25 kilometers under construction between Pogradec and Korca ..... off-road driving up past Vithkuq... and then the whole thing over again in reverse the same day. Schweet! Where do I sign up?

I'll fast-forward through the parts up to Korca. If you're interested in seeing pictures of Korca, try Google images. I want to show you how beautiful the countryside is.

Once you turn off the main road from Korca to Leskovik and head for Vithkuq, you pass by the reservoir at Gjanci. Kinda looks like Montana, doesn't it?

This was our eventual goal: the valley above Shtylla. Green, clean, and at almost 2000 meters above sea level it is cool. Bliss. Drop the windows, kill the AC and breath deep the pastoral smells of grass and flowers carried by the slight breeze. Yeah, I could live here.

Up the valley we continue on a pretty good dirt road, save for the parts that cross the wet meadows. There the passing of laden trucks has gouged gaping ruts in the mud and we tiptoe across trying to keep the wheels of our car on the high central mound of mud. Even with 4WD, it's hard going at times. The view is worth it though.

Albanian literature is full of vivid descriptions of the beauty of the country and the names given to prominent features often reflect the poetic nature of the Albanian soul...... like this soaring spire. It's called "Shkemb i Gjate" - The Tall Rock. OK, I shouldn't be sarcastic, but I asked one of the guys with us, "What do you call that?"
He replied, "Shkemb i Gjate."
I said, "I know it's a tall rock, but what's its called?"
"Shkemb i Gjate," he insisted.
"No, no! What's its name?"
Then I realized we had gotten trapped in an Abbot and Costello moment and started laughing my head off. When I calmed down long enough I was able to explain the whole "Who's on first?" routine, kind of.

This, then is the end of our journey. Mali Rungaja. The north face of this mountain is part of the land in dispute. It's currently used as pasture for sheep herded up for the summer. We need to do a little investigating to find out what's really been going on up here so we seek out the guardian of this pristine realm. Wait. There he is!

Our intrepid party finds the guardian of this natural splendor a-snooze in the shade of a few trees near the Tall Rock. Once he's satisified we are not going away without a little information, he shares what he knows about the activity on the disputed land and offers to show us what's what. So we saddle up and.... no, really, he saddled up and headed further up the valley.

Finally our new guide led us to what we feared. A little further up the creekbed we come to the place where the forest is being chopped down, burnt into charcoal, and shipped off to Bulgaria. Evidently Bulgarian goat burgers taste much better if cooked over illegally produced Albanian charcoal.

It was kind of interesting to see how they made the charcoal. A pile of wood is built, set afire, and then buried under sand and dirt. The fire burns slow and leaving a lot of unburned energy in the coals. Once cooled, it's packed in bags and trucked out.

To add insult to injury, this fella drives by loaded with pilfered wood stacked to the rafters. Going to Korca to sell it for firewood. This explains the large pastures all over the mountains and lack of forest close to the road. With our mission accomplished, we started the long drive back and allowed ourselves to indulge in a little schadenfreude when we came upon this truck stuck to the axles in one of the quagmires created in a stream crossing. "May you stay stuck for a long time." When their hands are busy digging in the muck, they're not chopping down trees.

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