MOUN­TAIN DUES

The U-turn of the van sent out a screech of rub­ber, wak­ing the neigh­bour­hood dogs of Shkodër, Al­ba­nia. Once in­side, we wedged our­selves be­tween a few lo­cals on the back seat also mak­ing the early trip to Lake Ko­mani. The road cut across the flood­plains an

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - M itchCollins

SPILT MILK WAS noth­ing much to cry about. Spilt blood, how­ever, was. Al­ba­nia is fa­mous for its moun­tain code; Ka­nun – cen­turies of tra­di­tion and con­duct gov­ern­ing re­la­tions. Death at the hands of a mem­ber of an­other fam­ily would ex­pect ex­act­ing re­venge and ret­ri­bu­tion in a ‘ blood feud'. Over 3,000 Al­ba­nian fam­i­lies are es­ti­mated to be em­broiled in such on­go­ing feuds over the last 20 years, with thou­sands of at­trib­uted deaths. While this prac­tice ap­pears alarm­ing to trav­ellers at first, it cer­tainly isn't a risk. What isn't as well-known is the other prac­tices that their code ex­tends to. The Four Pil­lars of Ka­nun are built around Kin Loy­alty, Hon­our, Right Con­duct and Hos­pi­tal­ity. The lat­ter two, in par­tic­u­lar, are most rel­e­vant to all vis­i­tors to Al­ba­nia.

Now find­ing our­selves aban­doned at the ferry ter­mi­nal – a col­lec­tion of worn build­ings on the side of a cliff atop a hy­dro-dam – we had to make friends. After a few had ex­changed glances and po­lite smiles, we were di­rected to the car ferry with sev­eral other trav­ellers. It wasn't hard to no­tice that, as we boarded, the lo­cals waited back. Even­tu­ally, an­other boat came across the lake to pick them up. It was in the form of a con­verted school bus, com­plete with a hull and in­board en­gine.

The three-hour jour­ney into the high­lands saw steep moun­tain land­scapes, shep­herds herd­ing goats, farm­ers stack­ing hay and small boats ea­ger to hitch a ride, ty­ing their boats to the ferry. The Ac­cursed Moun­tains bear their name from be­ing both in­sur­mount­able and wild. The ranges do not, how­ever, live up to this name as in­creas­ingly trav­ellers have found ac­cess. Once we ar­rived on the rocky shore, we were herded to a wait­ing car, which was full by the time we got there. After a few min­utes, we re­turned to the ferry op­er­a­tor to ask when the next would ar­rive. With a puz­zled look on his face, he made a short phone call and five min­utes later, the same car came back, still full of pas­sen­gers and their bag­gage. I guess we would be squeez­ing in for the hour drive to Val­bonë.

The vil­lage it­self was an es­tab­lished start­ing point for our jour­ney hik­ing the Ac­cursed Moun­tains. The re­gion bor­dered Mon­tene­gro and Kosovo. From the in­for­ma­tion cen­tre and ac­com­mo­da­tion, many signed and guided paths took you across passes and up val­leys to iso­lated vil­lages. We were mak­ing our way 20 kilo­me­tres across the Val­bonë Pass to Theth, and it was rain­ing heav­ily.

Hitch­ing a five-kilo­me­tre ride to the start of the trail kept us dry a lit­tle longer. Once out­side, it be­came tor­ren­tial. It must have been a sight, see­ing a few tourists in their dis­count­priced, but tech­ni­cally well-equipped wet-weather cloth­ing, soaked to the bone as wa­ter found a way through where the bag straps pressed against the body. Com­ing across a lo­cal guide, it was a dif­fer­ent story. He was side sad­dled on a mule, warm and bone dry.

He was us­ing an um­brella as a more ef­fec­tive shield from the el­e­ments. We had all the gear, yet no idea.

Be­ing late Oc­to­ber, we were on the shoul­ders of the hik­ing sea­son. But still, ser­vices re­mained open as a wel­come refuge to trav­ellers. Small shack cafés along the trail pro­vided re­fresh­ment, shel­ter and most im­por­tantly, log fires to dry our clothes. Steam quickly evap­o­rated from fab­ric and with spir­its re­stored, we looked out for gaps in the weather. For the café pro­pri­etors, it must have been a fair hike ev­ery morn­ing to open up shop. With only a few of us this late in the sea­son, they didn't fare too well. Even­tu­ally, the light be­gan to fil­ter down in the next val­ley, and the bright fiery colours of au­tumn were on dis­play. The spruce of leaves in shades of yel­low, or­ange and red were be­gin­ning to lit­ter the karst path. Hos­pi­tal­ity, as we re­mem­ber, is one of the main pil­lars of the Ka­nun; one that we were about to re­ceive. Stay­ing up­stairs in a two-storeyed grey house, smoke bil­low­ing from the fire­place be­low chok­ing our room, we opened a win­dow to let both the fresh air and the cold back in. Sit­ting down for din­ner we were en­ter­tained by our host who spoke lit­tle English at best. With­out her son to trans­late, she en­ter­tained us by mak­ing small ges­tures and im­pres­sions of the cat. Me­ow­ing as she came into the room, she car­ried a home­made burek pas­try and bean soup. This was to be washed down with a shot of home-dis­tilled raki. This evap­o­rated in a plume of fumes that trav­elled back up your throat, the re­main­der sink­ing and pierc­ing your stom­ach lin­ing; best to sip this one slowly.

Wait­ing for our trans­port out of the Theth Val­ley we watched sev­eral 4WD ve­hi­cles drive past. Rugged Lan­drovers, it ap­peared, were dom­i­nant, and for good rea­son too. The climb out was not only steep but rocky, which caused the utility to lurch wildly around the nar­row road. Hitch­hik­ers seem­ingly in the mid­dle of nowhere would thumb a lift up the moun­tain, to be dropped off again in an­other re­mote lo­ca­tion.

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