Out of Tehrani and into the mountains I went. A day spent riding up over passes, into browner lands. The landscape was changing, dying, saturating, muddying. I was heading into to Greek and Turkish climates. Following a winding river, through autumn forests, I made my way between the Balkan valleys. There was sun, but everything felt damp, cold here between the low mountains. At night temperatures dropped. My hands, my eyes, were always freezing. The road pitch black. I thought of wild dogs, wolves. I thought of hunters in the forests. In total darkness I tried to find safe places to camp, crossing rail tracks, dragging my bike through fallen leaves, mud, water to try and find sleeping spots. But the lights of passing cars would light every spot in this cramped part of Albania.
I was in the wild. I’d been reading about banditry that still took places in the mountains and I was nervous. On I kept on cycling until the mountain widened out in a vast brown valley, a huge sprawling town covered the valley floor. In the darkness it was hard to see where the city ended or make out what were forests and what were buildings. In the end, I just kept pedalling until the land started to rise up and, before I knew it, I was crawling towards a mountain pass near the Macedonian border. I had run out of places to camp, it was nearing midnight, too late to cross into another country. I had no idea what I was going to do.
Behind me the city twinkled, I wanted to be free of it, to be somewhere safe. Albania felt so different to any other country, so much more wild, that I just felt afraid. I have no idea why. A mixture of the dampness, the shadows of the mountains, the remoteness of the Balkan Valleys, the browns, the purples, ominous colours.
In the half light, a mile up from a petrol station, I saw a small building by the roadside, half-built. I was so tired and, since Croatia, I was not interested in cycling the whole night through. I had to get some rest. I dragged my bike off the road when all the cars had disappeared and slid into the derelict building. Dust hung in the air. Bags of cement and sand lay about. I looked for signs of human use; cigarette butts, drink bottles. There were none. Only the excrements of passing animals. Dogs were my greatest fear, but these looked like the work of cats or rabbits. Spiders amongst the rubble, scuttled in the dark, moving away from the light of my torch as I scanned the small breeze block building. Behind a wall I lay down my mat, crawled into my sleeping bag, pulled my bike beside me and, with the tent unopened, staired up through a crack in the roof at the distant stars, icy breath, eyes heavy, until I fell into sleep.
When the morning came my bike was still there, my ears and hair were free of insects and I was safe. A pink haze was developing in the growing light outside. I stepped out to see the mountain I had begun to climb. I saw the city and the valley I had crossed the night before. I had slept very little during the night but I was almost proud of having slept there at all. A mile away the Macedonian border was waiting to be crossed.