Goats and bridges
Day 16 (21 July): Shengjin – Ulez
Distance: 50 km
Total distance: 917 km
The last night in Shengjin I checked the map and our route once again and I noticed that the road we wanted to take was not just very low category (meaning that it could easily be a gravel road) but it meant having to climb from 200 m to over 1200 m again, a deadly combination. So I changed the route at the last minute and decided to reach Berat from the plain instead. The problem is that this area is where the capital and the second largest city (Durres) are located so it has the worst traffic. But now it seemed it was possible to avoid the worst roads and we could even spend another day by the sea near Durres.
I was sorry to leave out the mountaneous part and because we won a day with the new route I thought we could take a little detour to the reservoir by sleepy Ulez. It was another place we wanted to show Anita and when we were there on our way back from the mountains with Aron we just had a drink by the water. This time we were going to sleep there.
But first of all, we had to find another bicycle mechanic because I felt my pedals were loose yet again. So once in Lezhe, I bought a local SIM card to have internet wherever we needed it (I chose Vodafone and its weekly 1GB package, which only cost 400 lek or roughly 3 euros) and then asked around for a servis.
The one we found was run by two brothers across the road from the police station. They agreed to repair both bikes out of order at an agreeable price. Mine got a new monoblock and they replaced Aron’s worn 3-ring crank with a used set of only 2 rings but in fine condition.
This meant that we had to continue cycling in the hottest part of the day but it felt great that there were no annoying sounds any more and Aron didn’t have to pedal like mad to keep a decent speed.
After Lezhe we had to cross the Mat river, the historical heartland of Albania. There is an unofficial way to reach the other bank through the now closed old bridge. Today it is mainly used by local kids who jump into the water from its arches out of boredom.
Of course, they loved our bikes and wanted us to take their photos. Then one of them showed how he could jump headlong into the not so deep water. Knowing how Albanians treat rubbish (they simply dump it in or near a river), we knew it was far from being clean but we couldn’t resist the temptation.
We left the bridge and the boys and looked for a more quiet place to spend half an hour cooling down in the fast-flowing river. Luckily, Aron noticed the dead dog (sheep?) in the water at the last moment so we walked a few metres upstream from it.
Our relaxed moments were cut short by the arrival of a truck laden with all sorts of rubbish. Two men jumped off and quickly heaped it all on the river bank. It was time to leave.
For a few kilometres we had to take the highway to Rreshen but then the Burrel road forked off to the right and soon we were back in the mountains again. We still followed the Mat, or its lower reservoir (Liqeni i Shkopetit). It is a beautiful valley.
There are several springs along the way to keep you fresh and you can see some old footbridges. The colour of the water is mesmerising.
It was only another 20 kilometres to Ulez but we moved ahead a bit slowly because we simply forgot to have lunch. And the last 4 km just before the village were killing…
Ulez is not what you’d expect to find at the end of such a narrow mountain road in Albania. It looks more like a Spanish town with its pretty main square, bars and church.
We sat down to empty a big bottle of Tirana beer (and an Ivi orange for Aron) and answered the curious owner’s questions. We bought some basic ingredients for the dinner and descended to the lake to see where we could camp for the night.
To our surprise, the lake was about 10 metres lower than earlier. Later we met a young man from the village, who explained in fluent English that this is quite normal as the rivers can’t carry that much water in the summer months. He was really interested in our tour and had very modern views about society and economy.
We also met our “neighbours”, an elderly woman, who returned home with her cow and goats and her husband, who just returned from the lake, where he spent the day fishing.
When we were alone again, we put up our tent, cooked our dinner and when it was completely dark, we walked (or stumbled) down to the shore and had a starlit bath. A great way to end the day!