On Sunday morning I said goodbye to Peshkopi and we traveled down to Tirana to start our journey up to the "Forbidden North." The northernmost part of Albania as well as all of Kosovo is currently off limits to Peace Corps Volunteers and other US government employees living in surrounding countries. I have heard several justifications for this restriction. For the northern part of Albania it is because the area is still extremely isolated and hard to get to, especially in the winter when several feet of snow blocks the only roads in. Other reasons I've heard include the persistence of things like blood feuds and other old (possibly dangerous) traditions. As for Kosovo, the ban stretches back to the war in 1999 and the unstable conditions there since then and the establishment of diplomatic relations since they declared independence from Serbia two years ago. While all of these may be perfectly valid reasons, I tend to think that it is mostly political. Whoever makes the decision to open up these areas puts them on the line, because if anything happens once it opens up, then they will inevitably be blamed. Second, for Kosovo, the US government employees (embassy, USAID, military contractors) currently in Kosovo are getting hazard pay for being in a "dangerous" country- there is still a presence of the UN and NATO forces there. As soon as it is opened up, however, it isn't a hazardous place anymore and bye-bye hazard pay, so the people working there (and there are a lot- many more foreigners in Pristina than in Tirana) don't really want that to happen. The Peace Corps staff have actually been working hard to get these areas opened up, so hopefully sometime soon volunteers will legally be able to go there . . .
In the meantime PCVs either have to go illegally, or just wait until after they COS (we did actually have one girl sent home for being in a restricted area). I went ahead and went for the second option. So after a night in Tirana and a night in Shkoder getting ready and figuring things out, we left for Thethi.
You have probably never heard of a woman named Edith Durham. I had never heard of her either until I moved to Albania. She was a British woman that traveled to the Balkans in the early twentieth century and traveled around the area mostly by herself. At that point in time it was almost unheard of for foreigners to go to some of the places that she went, much less a woman on her own. She wrote several books about her travels and one of them, High Albania, chronicles her journey through precisely the same part of Albania that we were headed to- but she did it on foot. Anyway, since I read High Albania last year I have dreamed a bit of retracing her steps. When planning his part of the trip, it seems as if we did do that to some extent, except we were going to have to drive a bit. Also, a few weeks ago on the bus down to Tirana from Burrell, I met the most awesome old man (who gave me raki at 8 am on moving bus- only in Albania) who compared me to her, so this leg of my trip was dedicated to the memory of Edith Durham 102 years later . . .
A tip for travelers planning on going to Thethi (which I do highly recommend)- you can pay a lot for a private car, or you can furgon it like a local by going to the Kafe Rusi in Shkoder. To get there, walk on the street headed out of town to the north until you get to the area with the fruit stands, the furgons leave early in the morning (7 am).
The road to Thethi is certainly one of the most dramatic in the country. Although it is not the road in the worst shape (that honor goes to the Peshkopi-Kukes road) it is surely the scariest. Barely wide enough for one car, the furgon descends on hairpin curves over the pass and down into the valley. If another car is coming in the other direction one or the other usually has to back up to a wide enough part of the road for passing. When we got to the bottom, I understood what all the hype was about. Thethi is basically a perfect little village deep in a river valley surrounded by beautiful high peaks. Within short walking distance of the village there is a waterfall and a canyon, not to mention all the mountains that had my dad literally drooling.
Thinking of the steps of Edith, we could see the pass that led to the Valbona river valley, a hard 8-hour hike away. After much discussion and deliberation, we decided that it would not be a good idea for us to try that hike, as we were told that it was very difficult. Instead, we enjoyed a lovely day exploring the village and around and then returned on the furgon the next day.
The next step in the adventure was to take a ferry up the artificial lake created by the by the hydroelectric dams from Koman to Fierza. This is something that I have heard about and have wanted to do for a long time. Last year when my parents visited, I tried to figure out a way to make this trip, but there was no way to do it in the direction I wanted in the time that we had, so this was one of the first things on my list for this trip. We got up early in Shkoder and found the bus that would take us to Koman. At the end of the ferry trip we arrived in Bajram Curri and decided to hard straight on to Kosovo. After discovering that there was no afternoon bus, we flagged down a car on the road to the border. Our driver took us into Djakova, bought us coffee and delivered us directly to the bus to Pristina.
In Pristina, we met up with Tien-mu, a G10 volunteer that is doing a summer internship at the ministry of foreign affairs and just happened to have an apartment that we could stay in. It was great to hang out with Tien-mu, and Pristina is a nice town. It feels a lot smaller than Tirana, but is very vibrant. While we were there, they were celebrating liberation day (I assume from the Nazis) and there was a stage set up in the main square with music and dancing. It has a great xhiro street, perfect for strolling up and down slowly on a summer evening. Unfortunately, most of the "old" or historic buildings have been destroyed, so there's not actually a ton to see in town (except of course the big, gold, Bill Clinton statue!) They have a small, good, free museum, which's most interesting point is that it is missing a lot of its collection because much of it was "borrowed" by Serbia and never returned. There is a campaign to try to get their collection back.
On our second day, we headed to Prizren, close to the Albanian border. Prizren has a cute old town and a pretty bridge. The best part about Prizen was probably the museum about the Prizren League starring my new favorite Albanian folk heroes, the Frasheri brothers. I've heard the names of the Frasheri brothers here and there for the past two years (schools, street names, random statues), but never really knew what they did. Contrary to Alexi's position that they were the most famous Albanian doo-wop group, they were (especially Abdyl, with that sexy beard) leaders of the Albanian resistance movement and "Awakening" in which they started the fight for independence.
Leaving Kosovo, we headed down the brand new (and newly reopened) super highway. The only four lane divided highway in Albania, parts of it were opened last summer just in time for the national elections and tourist season (this road is mostly used as a way for Kosovars to get to the beach . . .) and then mostly closed in the fall because it probably shouldn't have been opened that early at all and the big tunnel was probably not safe for cars to go through (I went through it once last summer, on my way back from the tube trip and it didn't feel or look very safe back then). Now more of the road is open and appears to be much safer, just in time for the beach season.
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