I started hiking around 7:30am. I was a bit concerned about how I would fare, as I haven’t done a lot of big hikes like this. I walk a lot in Istanbul and I’m naturally athletic, but I was afraid a seven hour hike might be a little bit difficult. But I figured that having been a professional cyclist at one point, walking for a few hours over a mountain pass shouldn’t be too hard. Just in case I needed refreshment I grabbed a cola from the store in Thethi. If I got thirsty I would probably come across a little stream along the way and refill it. My initial plan was to hike until noon and then take a break.
The path out of Thethi started out on a rock path that could have passed for a road were it not for the size of the rocks and the few times it crossed a few little streams. After about a mile or so the path turned into the forest and went up. Even with tiny gearing I don’t think I could have ridden a mountain bike up this pitch. I was grateful for the hiking sticks the German backpackers had given me because it was so steep. I had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath. It was quite strenuous but I kept telling myself that I’d done harder things, recalling the bike rides and races that were real death marches. There was that epic stage of the Tour of Virginia in 2007 with the seven mile climb, the road race in the 2008 Tour of Elk Grove that was basically a 110 mile criterium (felt like we were doing 35 miles per hour for the first two hours), that epic 140 mile ride in Northern Michigan when I was 17… Or there was the 50km cross country ski race I did, the 25km running race I did with no training… Yes, I’d done much extreme athletic endeavours, so walking up this mountain wasn’t difficult at all, I kept telling myself. But maybe I should have brought myself some food.
Eventually the path left the forest and opened up into a field and I stopped to take some photos. The scenery really was amazing. The path went back into the forest briefly again and I decided I needed to have a rest. I’d made it until 9:30, so a bit short of my intended plan. But I was thirsty and my shirt was drenched so I drank some of my cola, rested my legs, changed my shirt, and hoped that the grade wouldn’t be so steep anymore. I started out at 10:00 and hoped to be over the pass by noon.
I kept going uphill for a while and eventually saw a sign that read KAFE. How odd, I thought, this doesn’t seem like a likely place for a cafe. Some guy has a little building that has wooden chairs that look out over the mountains and valley and has a bucket full of coke, fanta, iced tea and beer. I drank an iced tea and tried to communicate with him, basically playing pictionary with my journal. I drew a picture of a house, and gestured around, wondering where he lived. Thethi, he responded. What?! What are you doing up here? It took a long time, lots of scribbling in my journal, but I found out that he comes up here from 7am to 7pm, and that it’s a one hour hike for him. I was three hours in to my hike with a heavy bag, but I wonder if he lives further up the trail, where the grade turns steep.
I couldn’t figure out whether he comes up here every day or not. My guess is that he comes up when he knows there are tourists doing the hike. Thethi is small and everyone knows everyone, so I imagine the guest houses communicate with everyone else and this guy heads up the hill when there are tourists around. I also drew a picture of the sun and a snowman, trying to figure out if he lives in Thethi in both winter and summer, but my pictures weren’t enough to communicate my question.
Thethi down the trail to the left, Valbone to the right
I took a few drinks for the road and kept heading up. Within an hour or so I had reached the top of the pass. I took a few minutes to hike to a high point a bit off the trail to look around and take some photos. Thethi was visible in the distance below to one side, and in the distance on the other side was a collection of houses. I set off again, thankful to not be heading uphill anymore.
Rogam below, Valbone around the corner
I had started to wonder a bit about where I would spend the night. I hadn’t made any sort of arrangements and had no idea what there was in Valbone, but surely it would be like Thethi and there would be guesthouses and some family would take me in. After a bit of walking downhill I heard voices coming up from the other direction. Walking up the hill was a horse with a pack strapped to its back, followed by an Albanian boy and a German tourist.
I asked the Albanian if he spoke English, and if he knew of a place where I could sleep that night. He said that I could stay at his house. That was settled then, I didn’t need to worry about lodging anymore. The German was hiking up the mountain and would spend the night somewhere up there, so the Albanian boy would be heading back down a bit later. I said he could just catch up with me at some point and take me to his house.