Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fool Me Once ...

A few years ago I took a quick trip in August to Theth and have been meaning to get back again to further explore the area.  Alpine scenery, dirt roads winding over high mountain passes, authentic Albanian culture preserved by the remoteness of the valley.  What's not to like?  This year I chose the May Day holiday weekend to make the journey. I reasoned the valley would be even less busy with tourists as schools had not let out and the locals would be even more welcoming of paying visitors after a long winter's isolation.  Heedless of relatives warnings, I packed up the family, convinced some co-workers what a glorious spring outing it would be, and headed north for adventure.
The first clue things might not go my way was when I got lost on the paved portion of the road up from Koplik to Boga.  Usually I have a keen sense of direction and good memory for roads I've traveled before, but something went wrong and we ended up at a dead-end in a village I think might have been Rec but I can't be sure.  The road was newly paved and seemed to be "the way" rather than a little side road.  At least we got to see some cool old military storage tunnels.
Back on the right road I felt a little unnerved by my unplanned detour and this feeling of unease wasn't helped when the road ended in Boga.  I mean, it just ended.  I remembered the end of the paved road from the last trip.  The gravel road into the village seemed like the right one.  Then...... pffft, nothing.  Road dead ends in a creekbed. Map consulted.  Head scratched. Alternatives considered.  Against my best instincts, which now seemed to be sorely lacking, I took advice and drove up what looked like a driveway paved with boulders from hell.  After 200 meters we were back on familiar terrain with the road heading up the valley like I remembered.  Either the road had been recently re-routed or I had "sleep-driven" that section last time around.
Once the ascent started up the steep Qafe Thore road I started to regain confidence.  From here to Thethi there's only one road and it was looking mighty familiar.  The emerald fields of grass before the switchbacks start; check.  Broad views down onto Boga as we crisscrossed the face of the pass; check.  Amusing, yet tragic, roadside monument to a truck driver who lost his life on this perilous road and left one word for his epitaph engraved on a roadside marble slab: "Accidentally"; check.   I was on familiar ground now..... Oh, wait... make that "snow."  Near the top of the pass there was still snow on the ground.  By the time we crested the pass, drifts up to two feet high lined the road.  "It's May, for crying out loud.  This is not supposed to happen!"
The kids loved it, but the prudent adults in our party were starting to doubt my rosy depiction of flower-strewn meadows and sunny afternoons spent basking under the pines.  The lowering grey clouds did little to ease their doubts.  Then it started to rain.  Just a little.  At first.
Dropping into the valley, we began to pass the first of many guesthouses which operate in Thethi.  I knew of four from first-hand experience and had read of many more.  They all had one thing in common: closed, closed, closed.  Evidently the road had been cleared on snowdrifts only the week before and the owners of some of these places had not yet returned to gear up for tourist season.  I kept my hopes up as we finally entered the village of Thethi proper and began to see signs of life. Some people working on the roof of their house.  A truck rumbling down the riverbed, loaded with construction material.  The one sign of life we didn't see was electric light.
Four false starts later we settled on our accomodation for the next two nights.  The other places we visited that were inhabited were just not ready for guests.  They would have accepted us but it would have meant we lived with cement dust everywhere and climbed over piles of stone and wood to get to the bathrooms.  Our default home ended up being the guest house of Ndoc Gjecaj, smack in the "center" of Thethi.  They were eager hosts and soon arranged for our families to occupy two rooms on the second floor with a recently upgraded bathroom right next door.  They even moved a Dutch gentleman to a smaller downstairs room to make room for us.  I don't know which suprised me more; their willingness to accomodate us or the fact that we were not the only guests!
By now it was dark, the rain had started in earnest, and we were hungry.  Our hostess explained that the small hydropower station was out of service so there was no electricity.  Thethi is not connected to the national power grid so when the aging Soviet-built turbine conks out, it's back to the 14th century.  She assured us the village "specialist" was working on it and light was expected soon.  We were joined for a candlelight dinner by the Dutch tourist who was returning for his third trip to Thethi.  His guide, the 10-year old son of the guesthouse owner, spoke good English and helped relieve the kids boredom from being trapped in a dark, cold, wet vacation by their overly-optimistic father.  We rewarded Ronaldo with uniquely American treat of marshmallows roasted over a woodfire.
The lights did eventually come back on but with only enough voltage to push 5 watts of light from a 100 watt bulb.  Depressing.  Better to light a candle than to curse the Russians... or something like that.  As we tucked ourselves under a large pile of blankets and drifted off to sleep my wife snuggled close and whispered in my ear, "We are SO leaving tomorrow morning!"  I agreed but crossed my fingers, hoping for a bright sunny day to lift the gloom and change her mind.
Not so much.  Morning came in exactly as night fell.  A pale dawn and persistent rain.  Quick showers, stuff packed back in the car, and down to breakfast.  The fresh bread, yogurt, and jam warmed us up a little but was not enough to counter the negative effects of the rain and overcast clouds.  We paid our hosts and promised to return when the weather was better.
So, what is the proper reaction when your optimistic forecast for pastoral bliss turns into a nightmare ordeal of disappointment, discomfort, and gloom?  Apologize?  Lick your wounds and retreat tail between legs?  Hell, no!  Double down on the crazy!
"You see," I explained, "the road leading south out of the valley is shorter and stays open all winter.  It's only 40 kilometers and couldn't possibly be worse than the one we came in on.  Plus we'll get to see the storied Shala river valley, the canyons of the Kir river, and the famous bridge at Mesi."  I truly believed these statements (or had talked myself into believing them) and did my best to convince my companions in misery that this route would redeem what was until now a sub-par outing.  You know the old saying, "Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me?"  We've now replaced that with "I will never travel with you again, idiot!"
Thethi - Not So Bad When It Doesn't Rain
I must say things started out OK.  The rain let up as we visited the church in Theth.  We had nice views of the tower of refuge, one of the finest examples of the defensive architecture used to harbor men who were at risk of revenge killings.  Th road out of town followed the river and was better than the one we arrived on.  The narrow gorge of Grunas was dramatic with the Shala river roaring below and the waterfall of Grunas putting on quite a display due to last night's downpour. 
 We continued without incident down the valley, green fields on each side set against rocky hillsides which rose to meet the still-snowcovered peaks which disappeared into the clouds.  As we passed the turn-off for Nderlysa, I mentioned there was a guesthouse there which might be a nice place to spend our second night.....  aaaand so we continued.
Nderlysa - Maybe Next Time
The Shala river valley is a gem.  Isolated, clean, green, dotted with occasional small farmsteads.  We continued along and spirits rose as we began to enjoy the pleasant drive through this majestic scenery.  OK, it would have been better if we could have seen the tops of the mountains instead of just clouds, but so far, so good.

Shala River In Spate

Just as our spirits began to rise, so did the road.  We crossed the river for the last time and started to climb.  It was as if they countryside had heard my interior dialogue about not seeing the tops of the peaks and decided to remedy the situation.  Evidently, you can see the tops of the peaks, you just have to get above the clouds.  We did that by scrambling up one of the most rugged roads I've crossed since... well since my last trip to Qafe Shtama.  Endless rocky switchbacks led to more switchbacks which led us into the clouds.  At times the views of the cloud draped mountains were fantastic with valleys below shrouded in mist.

This Is One Of Those Times

So Is This
At other times, the fog wrapped our vehicles in a shroud of thick cotton, limiting visibility to a few feet.  This may have been a good thing as on the few occasions when the cloud parted, the view of the road and the sheer drop to the left was terrifying.  When we crossed a bridge over a waterfall as the road clung to the cliffside, I quietly chanted, "Bring back the cloud.  Bring back the cloud!"  Eventually we dragged the bottom of the car over enough boulders to satisfy the road's bloodlust and it brought us down to the Kir river valley where we passed a small group of neatly attired children walking along the road.  We stared at them wondering what they could be doing all dressed up in this place while they stared at us wondering who could be so clueless as to take this road from Thethi to the outside world.  "That would be me."
Kir River In Grykemadhe
We continued punishing our vehicles and kidneys as the road wound through the big gorge known as Grykemadhe. It means 'Big Gorge" in Albanian. By now my fellow travellers were seriously doubting this trip would end. A lapidari on the side of the road graphically demonstrated this gorge had seen the end of many journeys, but not in the good way. The large slab of polished marble was inscribed with the names of 19 unfortunates whose journey ended prematurely in the 1950's when their vehicle plunged into the river. We kept our speed down and our attention up to avoid a similar fate.
Finally the rocky road gave way to new asphalt as we reached Prekal. What relief to be back in civilization! The village center was playing host to a political rally of sorts with a huge speaker blasting out the Democratic Party's theme song "Shqiperia Po Ndryshon" or Albania Is Changing. We smiled and were glad of the change which included asphalted roads..... until it ended at the other side of the village. Seems the pavement only lasted as long as the population density of registered voters! Back to the non-stop vehicular shiatsu massage.
I have vague memories of the rest of the trip as the road paralleled the river which cut a narrow canyon through the white rocks around Ura e Shtrejnte. I think I tried to comment on the unusal nature of these little slot canyons and their resemblance to similar features of southern Utah. The response? Let's just say it can only be described in polite company as "One finger, two words." The bridge at Mesi was as beautiful as the tourist brochures described, but seeing it from the upriver side was a letdown as you could also see the modern bridge just downstream. Or maybe it was a result of having all my motivation beaten from my skull by the road and the oppressive glares of my passengers who just wanted to go home. Still, it's a cool bridge worth seeing.
Please? That's My Bad Side!
Forty kilometers in six hours! Would I do it again?  Of course, but we've already established I'm a glutton for punishment.  The real question you should be asking is, "Should I go?"  And I think you already know my answer!


Mom said...

Steve,Steve,Steve: Do NOT take Mike and Donna on a trip like this; scared me just reading about it. M.

Beyond Belief said...

Why 3+ months until the report. Beautiful bridge, BTW... much nicer than the one at the banjos of Permet...

I may drag the family over some day, but we have to go to Thethi if I come. :-)

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