Ashhadu alla ilaha illallah...
The Islamic Call To Prayer rings out across Lake Skadar in the early hours of the day. The sky is still dark and velvety, and cracks of light are just beginning to appear behind the clouds as we rise from our bed into the frozen morning air. One of us starts the van’s engine, sending clouds of condensation billowing up toward steely mountaintops, tinted lightly orange by the streetlights that line the dead end road on which we slept.
It’s 4am, but the coffee shops of Shköder are already bustling as we take a short but sleepy drive into the city to meet our guide. We sink a sachet of sugar into our coffee cups as we watch the city waking up through poster-cladded panes of glass, vendors depositing crates of fish and baskets of fruit onto the pavement, cafe owners and restraunteurs unstacking chairs and lines of people queueing up to buy their morning bürek and cigarettes.
This is just a normal day for the citizens of Shköder, the Northernmost city in Albania, a country with a dwindling indigenous population of just 2.8 million where you’ll find the most curiously tolerant mix of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians living together in perfect enduring harmony. A normal day for them, but it would turn out to be one of the greatest adventures of our lives so far.
As dawn begins to break we pile into the van and begin the two hour long journey to the edge of the Albanian Alps, locally known as the Accursed Mountains for their wildly inhospitable conditions and severely limited access. Many of the residents, those who remain, have no road access to their houses, instead relying on boats and mules to bring supplies from the city on the same journey we set out to make that morning.
A fiery orange sky licks the distant mountaintops as we drive, buzzing on caffeine and two hours of sleep, dodging potholes and the occasional goat-herding farmer. Crumbling walls snake along adjacent to our route, the sparse landscape dotted only by the occasional tumbledown house; only the glimpse of a rising smoke stack from a chimney or a washing line hung with clothes betrays the idea that these houses are inhabited at all, for they look quite abandoned and in fact many of them are. Their hollow windowless eyes seem to follow us as we round bend after bend, the electric blue waters of Koman Lake piercing the otherwise inky darkness.
The sunrise seems to last an eternity as the road becomes progressively bumpier, littered with commuter minibuses that overtake us one at a time in their hurry to deposit workers at the hydroelectric plant.
We pass through a small yet bustling village whose only road is lined with roadside vendors selling all manner of fruit, snacks and beer, a hive of activity despite the early hours and crisp temperatures. Our guide asks if we want to buy anything; this would be the last semblance of a shop we would see for the next few days. We decline and carry onward, our van already well-stocked.
We leave our van in the courtyard of an elderly hotel owner with kind eyes who gives us a lift to the ferry port, where we huddle inside a lakeside shack built of such rickety wood and thin-paned glass it was a wonder it didn’t collapse under the fierce mountain winds that hailed it. We sip another coffee, listening indistinguishably to the locals talk gathered around the large wood stove in the cafe’s centre and the ominous creaking of its wooden facade as gust after gust berates it.
Finally our boat arrives and it’s time to board, to our apprehension, not the reassuringly large and sturdy ferry boat standing in the port but in fact a tiny glass-sided dinghy that sat rocking uneasily in the breeze.
Thus began the single most mesmerising and memorable boat ride of our lives, through the mountain-bordered turquoise water of Koman Lake awash with hazy purple post-dawn light, a sight so primordially beautiful it could rival the fjords of Norway tenfold. Or maybe that was just the exhaustion talking.
Batteries, sacks of grain and bags of vegetables sit on the bough as it ploughs through the wind-whipped waves, carrying the villager’s month’s supplies as far as it can take them; they will carry their wares by hand the rest of the way, high up into the most furtive corners of these mountains back to their homes. We steal curious glances at their hardened yet friendly faces as they chat and laugh, unperturbed by our intrusion into their morning routine.
After a half an hour of childlike awe and furious snapping of photos our boat pulls up to an unremarkable piece of land at the edge of the lake and we disembark.
Our guide and his brother lead the way, picking their way through shrubs and across near-vertical gravelly mud with the kind of grace and professionalism that can only come from a lifetime of experience roaming in the mountains. We trail woefully behind, red in the face, the weight of our gear pulling us back down at every step.
After an hour of hiking that seems to cause the men little exertion we arrive at their family home. Beautiful in its simplicity, basic yet wonderfully wholesome, it has the kind of view rich tycoons in London would pay millions of pounds to acquire. Instead it sits humbly in this unknown quarter of the world, one of just thirty remaining households in one of the most remote corners of continental Europe that can be found this day and age. Beyond the threshold, snow-capped peaks stretch infinitely across the horizon, and the blue, blue lake waters seem alive with the lifeblood of the mountains. The only signs of civilisation are the occasional stone-built house or pylon; few houses here had the luxury of electricity, most sat abandoned.
Together we marvel at the resilience of these people, of the family of our guide who welcome us with fresh brewed coffee and sweet tea made of mountain herbs and sugar. The water from their kitchen tap is fed directly from a spring, as is the outhouse, and a single crackling fire warms the entire house, next to which sits the half-blind father of our guide and his brothers.
In traditional fashion, his sister had prepared a lavish meal for the entire family, every bit of which had been grown or cultivated from their land she told us proudly- everything apart from the cooking oil.
We tuck into fried dough cakes dipped in honey from their bees, home-cooked chips, chunks of goat’s cheese dipped in fig jam and salty pickled tomatoes, washed down with fresh goat’s milk and raki so strong we could’ve lit our breath on fire. The family express their wishes that more people would move back into the mountains and help to rebuild this long forgotten community, an area that once had a bakery in every village and bountiful jobs collecting medicinal mountain herbs.
To us Westernised folk who’d never had to struggle a day in their lives for the basic provisions we take for granted it seemed an idyllic lifestyle, the hard graft a fair trade-off for isolation and beauty. But we were wrong, so wrong, as our hosts described to us the hardships of working the land, of dragging stone up the mountainside to build their house, of a lack of medicinal facilities and the all-prevailing stories of communist times that every generation of Albanians speaks of with a horror and resoluteness never to return.
That afternoon, we would venture further, deeper into the mountains, to farther reaching corners of Europe than we ever knew existed. Our minds had been thoroughly blown by the sheer wild beauty and remoteness of the Albanian Alps, but we were still to discover just how remote a place could really be...
“Is this your wife? Very nice!”
These are the words of 86 year old Josef as he pats Ben complimentarily on the leg, tops up everyone’s already brimming glasses of raki and smiles warmly while his 84 year old brother stokes the fire. They are visibly pleased to have visitors. He and his brothers’ house sits hidden away in the Accursed Mountains in the far North of Albania, a 3 hour hike, half hour boat ride and 2 hour car ride from the nearest city- devout Catholics, unmarried, we imagine Lucy is perhaps the first woman he has seen in decades.
Our raki glasses are never allowed to be emptied as we huddle around the meagre fire, and the two brothers eagerly begin to tell us of the hard Communist times they have endured. Absent is the third brother, who at 110 spends his winters in the city of Shkodër in case he needs urgent medical care, but returns in the summer to work the land.
When we were told we’d be visiting a village where the youngest resident was 84, in no way could we have imagined the youthfulness twinkling in their eyes and animating their very beings. These were not retired pensioners, these were hardened mountain men, long forgotten by their government, forced to work their land day in day out lest they lay down and starve.
An array of animal parts, trotters, haunches and snouts, lie on a rack above our heads, two slaughtered pigs gently drying in the heat of the fire as we talk. This will feed the men all winter. They begin to recount their days as Communist soldiers, fiercely guarding the country’s borders, and slowly talk turns to life in the mountains. We are somewhat surprised to learn that the men are in fact deeply unhappy living in this beautiful yet harsh place, and would much rather live in a town or by a road.
We ask if we can film but we are told to wait until their nephew arrives with supplies. We learn that the men have been without electricity for one month, since Christmas Eve sitting in darkness, and their phone cables are down too.
The brothers of our guide, Arditt, are responsible for maintaining their family’s electricity, as the cables running across the mountains are often damaged by storms, but while Josef and his brother are more than capable of making the three hour hike to the boat or slaughtering a pig, trekking across the mountains to repair their electric cables is beyond both their capacities, and as such they rely on their nephew’s son to maintain them.
An hour later the nephew finally arrives, red in the face and sweating profusely. He immediately shuts down any attempt we make at interviewing the older gentlemen, and casually orders one of them to go and tend to the goats.
It is then the story begins to unravel, that the nephew’s son works for a department of the government responsible for taking care of the old folks in the mountains, and that he is neglecting his duties, leaving them for long periods without electricity and taking money for himself that was destined to build them a path down to the lake, which would have cut their walking time down from three hours to one. The nephew had come specifically to see us to shut down any attempts at an interview for fear his son may lose his job and his home. Such is the paranoia left over from the Communist regime that he feared once we took our footage back to the UK, the U.S. government would then see it, feed this information back to the Albanian government and his son would face retribution.
We managed to persuade the nephew to allow us to take one quick shot of his uncle before we left to make the three hour hike back.
Our failed interview had highlighted a people fearful of outsiders whose trust had been irreparably broken by Communist rule, and whose government, legal system and everyday lives were rife with corruption.
Fortunately the previous day we’d had a far more successful encounter with a 51 year old gentleman named Pjeter and his lovely wife. Pjeter was happy to be interviewed and recounted tales of the Communist era, of being forbidden to work his own land or keep his own animals, of the horrendous conditions he was forced to mine minerals in and what would happen to those who went against the Communist regime. He told us of the difficulties of mountain life, of dragging stones up the mountainside to build his house with, working the land with just a mule and his bare hands, of shovelling 3 metres of snow in the winter and of the hardships of being so far away from any hospital or doctor should something go wrong.
These sentiments were echoed by the father of our guide, an inspector in Communist times, now a victim of Diabetes, partially blind and devoid of one foot, a testament to the modern day healthcare the mountains’ residents are deprived of. As he sits in the corner by a crackling fire, he remembers a time when the mountain people were a thriving community, there were bakeries in every village and there was money to be made in gathering medicinal herbs to sell.
But one by one the houses surrounding the lake and the mountains have emptied, now hollow stone structures dotted across the landscape, and just 30 houses remain. Our guide Arditt is not alone in having a big family; traditionally parents will have many children, who will all help to work the land and bring supplies from the city when their folks are no longer able, to ensure the survival of the people in this wild and remote environment.
The residents of the Albanian Alps are also agreed on another topic, and that is the injustices they faced as a result of the hydroelectric plant that was opened nearby in the mid 1980’s. They were promised jobs, wealth and prosperity in return for allowing the exploitation of their lake. Instead, once it was built, the jobs were given to inhabitants of the nearby city, those who we witnessed making the two hour commute to the lake every day. They were the family and friends of the owners of the plant, associates with mutual interests, and exclusively those who shared the same political views. The residents of Koman Lake were deprived one of very few opportunities to climb the ladder out of poverty by the very people who had flaunted that flicker of hope in their faces.
After returning to their home to take a few final photos of our guide, his brothers and their land it’s time for us to say goodbye.We are sad to leave so soon, but we must make the arduous trek back down to the lake before sunset, and find ourselves on the boat ride back deep in thought, having never imagined before we set out just how remote a place could be.
This is an excerpt from an ongoing project documenting the lives of people living in some of the most remote regions of Europe.
This project is the collective work of Ben Fuery and Lucy Pinnell. For inquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.