Of shellcasings and bunkers in the land of milk and honey
Tramping through the last patch of forest towards the end of Day 7 we are in anticipation of what the next guesthouse was going to bring. Every evening, capping a day of hiking along the pristine 'peaks of the Balkans' trail, stepping into the rest stop was like unwrapping a xmas present.
We could not have predicted the experience at Guesthouse Shqiponja in the Drelaj village. The Shala family runs it and the senior Osman Shala had a personal war journal which was subsequently published and in the forms of books we all could take in. Flipping through with trembling hands, you are transported to the horrors of the not-too-distant-past war that ravaged these parts. The dark history that kept the western Balkans under wraps and isolated from the rest of the world, rears its ugly head.
Until this point, our encounters of the myriad bunkers on the trails were mostly curious photo ops. Not so much thoughts of war or divided peoples. But Mr. Shala's diary makes one confront and learn what makes people tick even in the midst of jaw-dropping beauty. The war crimes unspeakable, the scarring permanent for most who endured it. A few seemed to wear it on their faces, given all this transpired a mere 20+ years ago.. in our generation. Not a distant Nam memory or a WWII tale from grandpa. But what stood out in the 10 days we spent hiking was how resilient people are, how fast they rise back up and build livelihoods.
The warmth and genuine affection they offer complete strangers, the smiles as they worked their butts off. As if only they knew all too well how blessed it is to have the moos of a cow and the baahs of sheep penetrate the cool nights in the place of artillery and gun fire. The prayer call from the mosque snapped us back to the evening and the pleasant company of fellow hikers in a cozy home. Dinner was promptly served and we are once again treated to the riches the land offers - produce from the garden, freshly baked bread and the fresh milk, cheese, curds from our company in the latter part of the hikes as we descend into valleys lined with pastures of cows and sheep.
On cue Ranga asks for chili or hot sauce only to get back an all too familiar shrug that seemed to say no and 'nice try' at the same time. We won't get into the ifs and but ifs of the long and bloody war, complexities of the former Yugoslav territories far exceed the layers of the Flija bread! The flija bread of the Kosovo region is a labor of love, takes a few hours to bake and transports you to a special place as you peel the delicate 40 something layers and indulge in its buttery goodness.
As we hiked from one hut to the next and met with some of the folks who run the guesthouses, we heard tales of the visionaries and planners of the PoB or Peaks of the Balkans loop trail. Some of them we later learnt actually worked on it, like Enko and Pavlin Polia! After the war, they set to work on an ambitious blueprint- A 120 mile cross-border trek through the Accursed mountains (part of the Dinaric Alps) and unite people in a shared goal of establishing a spectacular hike through pristine regions while providing means to the shepherds of the region.
They were convinced to open up guesthouses for the hikers, thus creating one of the most beautiful and unique experiences for people on the multi-day traverse. For decades, these mountains dotted with thousands of bunkers installed by the paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha seemed impregnable and imprisoned its own people within its giant massifs and steep gorges. These days, some of the only reminders of the past are the occasional shellcasing in the dirt.
It truly is one of Europe's last remaining wilderness. The endangered Balkan lynx, wolves and bears are known to roam its mystic corridors. We were stoked to see the Triton newt in a few glacial lakes. These prehistoric creatures are so agile and thrive in the vegetation-rich waters. A diving rat was making their lives hard though, he would dive every few minutes, grab a newt and bring his catch to his borough on the lake shore for a quick meal and swoosh..back in the water. A couple of days, the huts are in very remote regions, basic but comfortable and most true to the sensory lode of living among livestock and the hardy people inhabiting this rugged landscape.
Staying in a Kulla or a miniature stone fortress offers a peek into the traditional style of living of affluent mountain folk forged by weather, culture and need for security. One of the highlights of the path is that it is filled with fresh, ripe berries (black, blue, rasp.. and bilberries) all over, giving us purple tongues and making us unwitting seed dispersers . In the valleys and close to the pastures, the way is lined with fruit trees - apricot, plum, pears and apples, all in season. These fruits go into making a potent mountain spirit called Raki or Rakia, a strong distilled liquor made with fermented fruit. It's been called the drink that unites, for good reasons that I can't seem to recall..hmmm.
The slopes on the Albanian side are famed for their rich bio diverse plethora of prized herbs that bring about everything from flawless skin to eternal life. The mountain tea (Caj Mali) from some of these herbs is soothing, flavorful and an excellent starter on cold mornings. Colorful bee boxes dot villages in lieu of post boxes and produce decadent honey of varied tastes and hues, also a daily treat served with the day's dairy output.
Even the stray dogs seemed to inherit the fierce independence distinctive of the region. On our very first day from Theth to Valbone, over a 1000m high mountain pass, a dog from the village of Theth accompanied us all the way without so much of a hint of weariness or doubt. On the first few turns, heading out of Theth, we were convinced she would turn around and head home. But no, she was surer than us, seemed at ease and definitely pushed us too! This became the common theme over the upcoming days as we chatted with other hikers who shared similar stories. I was glad to save juicy morsels from our guesthouse meals for them keeping the 'bland' cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese for my trail lunch. The dogs wanted no part of that trio and we too shared that sentiment by Day 5. Oops.. did I say that out loud!
The multi-day hike has a bit of everything - gorgeous mountain scenery shrouded in cool mist in the mornings, craggy peaks that sometimes straddle the boundaries of 3-5 countries, forests and meadows covered in a riot of flowers & insects, turquoise alpine lakes and sheer knee-shredding descents into valleys and pastures. Some of the sheep, in their unshorn splendor reminded us of Bob Marley and seemed too mime.
'One love, one heart.. Let's get together and feel all right'. How apt in this place and in these times!
One love, one heart
Let's get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying (one love)
Hear the children crying (one heart)
Sayin', "Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right"
Sayin', "Let's get together and feel all right"
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa
Let them all pass all their dirty remarks (one love)
There is one question I'd really love to ask (one heart)
Is there a place for the hopeless sinner
Who has hurt all mankind just to save his own?
San Diego, California