I wake up slightly earlier than the alarm clock that I put on 5:40, but there is already some light outside here in Kukes, Albania. A quick shower followed by a walk to the petrol station from yesterday to tell the people there that I am walking to the mountain top. It is always good to tell someone if you are doing something like this, not that it probably will help in case of an accident. I have even told them earlier which hotel I am staying in, well, explaining its location as I do not know the name of it. The old man looks worried and double checks that I have everything: water, warm clothes, good shoes and so on. Then I start walking.
It is about 1-1½ hours walk to get to the start of the mountain, and there is no distinct road or path so I walk partly on car road, partly on fields and finally inside a small village. On the way the sunrise is giving me a beautiful welcome to the mountain. There are people around but they look at me a bit strange and no-one of them speaks English. I ask them where the trail up the mountain starts and they point towards the mountain instead. Online I read something the previous night about a trail starting from behind a closed copper mine, but there is nothing like that around so I just start walking up the mountain on one of the shepherd trails from behind a private house.
The sun looking up from a lower mountain
The 2468 meter peak which I will try to mount, covered in clouds
Shortly after my start I find a non marked trail which I blindly follow, but after 1 hours walk the path still looks the same. At least the sun is on the other side of the mountain, giving me shadow instead of the intense heat that I had expected. Still it is very hot just walking upwards so I change clothes. “One hour done, maybe two more before the top, and then 3 more down plus one back to Kukes” I think, calculating how many sun hours I still have left of the day. About 13, so as long as there are no problems on the way and if the path is correct, I should have more than enough time. One hour later I see what looks like the top near me, but at the same time I know it’s to early and from the beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and villages I estimate that I am still on low altitude.
View on the shepherd’s path from behind the house
About 1 hour later I reach a small green flat space with a water spring and some very simple huts. I find an old super lady, maybe in her 80s but extracting an energy like a young girl, and ask her how long time she estimates it is to the peak of the mountain. She tells me that it is 2 more hours, pointing out the path for me and asking me why I want to go there (I think at least, we do not speak the same language). Ok time to calculate sun hours again, two more hours means 5 hours in total up, 5 hours down and one hour to Kukes. This gives me little marginal for errors but is still good news, despite the fact that I am pretty tired in the legs and have to walk 2 more hours upwards before I can even start to walk back.
I start walking in the direction where the lady pointed, but after a while I make a turn in the opposite direction as supposed because the path seems to go very long in the wrong direction. I walk along a small trail that after a while just disappears into thin air, well, into semi thick forest. I start walking through the forest, knowing it is not smart to walk without a trail to follow back but as I have a gorge on the left side I know I can find my way back again. I walk upwards through the forest for about an hour or more until the forest gets less dense and a beautiful field opens up in front of me.
On the field there is a big group of sheep walking around, with some of them drinking from a water spring. Now I can see what could be the top, but I know through experience that the peak is usually not as near as it looks, just hidden behind another hill. Suddenly I see two guys sitting down near the water spring. We meet middle way and greet each others. They tell me to refill my bottle which I do, although it is almost still full because the weather at this height is now more cold, making me drink less. We talk for a while, in different languages as usual, and the younger of them who is 15 years old joins my walk for a few minutes before turning to another group of sheep, just after inviting me for dinner or something like that after my peak ascent.
I continue to walk and after 2-3 more times of thinking that I have almost reached the peak, and about one more hour, I am standing on the actual peak of Gjallica, about 2200 meters higher than where I started walking (the valley below is on 250 meters elevation). Here, the wind is strong and new clouds are constantly created and pumping in from below. I change clothes and walk around for a while to explore the top, finding the last snow patch of the season, about 10 meters long. Keep in mind that this is on the 31st of July and that the heat below the mountain peak is intense. I linger around for about 10-15 minutes and then start to walk down again, now along a trail which I found a bit below where I was walking up.
When I return to the shepherds, which to one more shepherd now have joined, we sit down in this idyllic surrounding and talk, enjoying some snacks I have brought with me on my trek. The sun is now very strong and the weather is perfect. After about 30 minutes I feel that I should get going, not knowing which path I will take down. The shepherds recommends the non existing path through the forest from where I came, but I want to walk on an actual path this time and they tell me where there is supposed to be one, probably the same as the old lady recommended for me.
I start walking and even though the path disappears several times I find my way down again to the field with the lady’s house. This time she seems not to be at home, but on the other side of the field I see some cows and people. We start talking and the younger girl who speaks good English tells me that she and her family from the village below have just walked up here with their cows, a donkey and some food to live here for a month during the summer. Around once a week they (or was it only the grandfather?) walks down for more provision. We talk some more and then its really time for me to get going after hearing that the time is now 5:30 PM.
I hurry on my walk down and this time the path feels much longer than when I walked up. I am tempted to take some shortcuts I see but because I do not know where they end up I do not risk it this time. The sun is burning my skin and I do everything to try to hide from it, also putting on my final sun protection cream. Finally I get down some 2 hours later, still in strong sunlight and realizing that the time they told me must have been wrong.
I start walking to Kukes but a minibus picks me up and drives me to the city for free. When I arrive I jump out at the gas station a bit outside the town to tell the people about my success and for them not to worry anymore. Then I walk into town to find the first possible place to sit down for a coffee and some food. Looking at my clock I realize I actually had more time to walk down if I wanted, but I feel happy being back in town without it being so late. After I finish the food I buy a beer and goes back to the room, turning on the TV and forgetting all about the beer in my tiredness, but still managing to repack half of my bag for tomorrows hitchhiking before crashing into bed.