December 29th 2022
Next to Shkodër, lying on the Albanian-Montenegro border is Skadar Lake, the largest lake in the Balkans. To visit it, I hired a cheap bicycle for the day and cycled the very short distance to Shirokë, the first village on the shore. There I met a gaggle of stray dogs who, seeing a stranger coming with a loud metal contraption, woofed and ran at me. Simply staying still, the barks ceased and the tails started to wag. One dog in particular had a killer smile and seemed the most interested, so got the most pets. Little did I know, this small act of affectionate would form a bond between us, or so that's how the dog viewed it, as she continued to follow me for the rest of the day, a whole 13km. When I sped up with the bike, she just sprinted. Happily though, I eventually returned her to her starting point after she began to pant and wheeze.
The large village on the path is Zogaj, a very small settlement. After this, the road ceases as the Montenegran border is less than 2km away. Seeing an uneven path ahead though, I decided to continue, as I had never crossed a border by hiking before. With the fears I was doing something naughty and arranging my excuses already, I crossed the border to find absolutely nothing. No signs, no people, only a sudden change in road. Can you tell which side is which?
From reading about Albanian modern history, I was fully aware of how significant the ease at which I crossed the border here was. During the terrible rule of the country by Soviet leader Enver Hoxha, people were not allowed to leave the country, and attempting to escape meant execution. This path, amongst others on the northeasten part of Albania, were one of the main routes that were used to flee into Montenegro. There are some records of successful escapes from the path I was on, but we will never know how many failed.
The atmosphere on the return journey became somber, not only because of the brutal importance of this border and the starting of rain, but because I became increasingly aware of how many strays there were along this shoreline. Every bin had a group of dirty cats, I found injured and thin dogs shivering that I knew wouldn't last the week, and people throwing stones at puppies and their mothers. I divvied up my lunch amongst the worse, but the scale of the problem overwhelmed me and I was left feeling there was very little I could do. There is at least one animal rescue group in Shkodër, Animals Need Me. I would encourage you to donate if you can, there is a paypal link here.