Lost in the Albanian Alps

My teeth chattered as I wiggled toward the wood-burning stove. For warmth, Jenelle had curled up beside me. In about 10 minutes, her alarm—set for every hour through the night—would ring as a reminder to stoke the fire. Waiting for the bell to ring again, we clung to each other’s shivering, sooty bodies while exhaust filled the hut.

Hut_Jenelle
Jenelle is always armed with a smile, even while lost in a strange land.

Laying in an abandoned shepherd’s hut miles from anyone or anything, I began to take stock of our situation. What if my backpacking partner got hurt? I would be forced to desert her. To reach the nearest village would involve an eight-hour hike through the mountains. Then I would be tasked with finding someone with a phone, and a car (uncommon items in these parts), who could drive me to the nearest area with cell reception. My sore muscles tensed up at the thought.  I knew I had to purge these thoughts from my mind—to stay warm I needed to conserve every last bit of energy.

In planning our trek through the unexplored, aesthetic Balkan peaks, we had set out to get off the grid. But neither of us could have known just how remote we would soon find ourselves.

DSC_0636
A few abandoned shepherds huts sitting in a high altitude valley. Gazing at the huts from afar, Jenelle and I took a gamble that one would be unlocked.

Our trek began five days earlier in the picturesque Albanian mountain village of Theth. To get there, we drove in a violent rainstorm on a road carved into a mountain. A man we met in the city of Shkodra was our shifty chauffeur. Turns out, he wasn’t the most experienced nighttime mountain driver. While Jenelle fought not to lose her Albanian pizza, I clenched my fists. Each precipitous turn delivered us closer to the edge of a sharp cliff that, fortunately, I had trouble deciphering in the darkness.

ViewofTheth
Splashes of fall color dot the village of Theth in November.

When we finally arrived in the valley we felt like we were victors in a dubious battle. But the real battle had just begun.

We told the driver the name of our guesthouse and showed him a screen shot of the address. He shook his head, rejecting our request. Instead he drove us to a van where a man waited for us. The man opened my car door, ushering plumes of cigarette smoke into the vehicle. He pointed to a photo of what was presumably his house as he spoke to us in Albanian. We quickly realized that this was where the men intended for us to stay. A language barrier detracted from our persuasion skills. So we were reduced to repeating ourselves.

“Villa Gjejac,” we firmly insisted again and again, our voices growing louder. In response to our demands, the driver simply shook his head and acted confused, as though he had never heard of the place. Instead he pointed to a loaf of bread he had purchased on our way and adamantly declared something in Albanian.

VillaGjejac
Villa Gjejac seemed so close, yet so far from our reach.

Jenelle and I exchanged uneasy glances. What had we gotten ourselves into?

To be continued…

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