An abandoned airbase in Albania. Cycle touring may be one of the slowest ways to travel, but one of its main bonuses is the unusual and unexpected things you come across during your day. We often find ourselves in places or situations that just wouldn’t happen if you were on a bus or passing through while driving. Today was one of those days….
Our campsite in Barbullush was a slice of luxury compared to some of the wild camp spots we had been staying at previously. Dutch run, it had perfect luxurious green grass, good wifi, clean toilets with warm showers, a huge building with a book exchange, meeting rooms and a cooking area. On top of this it had a bloody swimming pool! Just imagine, two hot sweaty cyclists debating on whether we should stay at a campsite or carry on to the coast then finding out it had a swimming pool… Sputnik and Sea noodle were almost dropped on the floor as we raced to get our stinking cycling clothes off and our swimming stuff on. I would like to say that in the interest of hygiene we showered first but alas there was no one else around and we were desperate to jump in. A perfect way to end the day and a bonus for only 7 euros for both of us. It was only because of the swimming pool that we had decided to stay the next day there, we spent the morning adjusting our bikes and sorting out our gear before taking the short walk back to the pool where the Dutch owner told us it was closed for the day to be cleaned. Mmm… a small dilemma, we didn’t want to spend the day sat in the hot sun so were unsure what to do. A quick check of the map showed that just 35km away was a stretch of coast that a Swiss motorcyclist had told us was particularly nice…. It was half eleven so despite being hot we still had plenty of the day left. We packed up in the fastest time so far and set off for the coast.
Our route required us to follow a main highway, which we initially did for a short while. Although this would be unthinkable in most parts of the world, highways in Albania are a relatively new thing so are used by absolutely everyone… people walking, horse and karts, those strange Chinese ‘nothing but an engine and seat’ tractors, people waiting for minibuses and locals cycling, so it wasn’t unusual for us to be there. Not only are highways a new addition to the Albanian landscape, but driving itself is still in its infancy. Following the collapse of the enclosed communist system here there were fewer than 500 cars registered for the whole country, by the early 2000s this was closer to 500,000. As a result, when you look at a map of Albania it is surprisingly devoid of roads, the existing infrastructure isn’t suited to the huge expansion in vehicles so there is a major attempt at road building. Although it was acceptable for us to cycle along the highway, it wasn’t pleasurable and we quickly looked for an alternate route.
Seeing what looked like an old road running parallel 300m to our right we went to explore. We followed it for ten kilometers or so then realised after looking at our map that we had missed our turning left. Immediately to our right was a ridgeline of hills that ran in the direction we were heading. To the left was a river and on the other side of the river was the road we were supposed to be on, the map seemed to suggest that if we carried on for another 10km or so then we would meet with the road we needed – if the road we were on continued to exist. It wasn’t marked on the map, but small roads like this rarely are in Albania. We decided to continue, it was nice to be away from the traffic. Continuing along this road we started to come across large concrete tunnels built into the side of the hill with thick steel doors. Some had been converted into farm storage, or places to keep animals, others were just empty or sealed shut. We were finding one every 100 meters and some of them looked quite substantial, in addition there was a growing concentration of the small common one man mushroom bunkers that are found all over Albania.
Clearly there was some kind of former important military presence in the area which was making the cycle very interesting. We pressed on, one was open but heavily overgrown with brambles outside the front. I dug out my torch and tried to get inside, but the sharp vegetation and slightly frowning Sheena (it was hot and we were exposed to the strong sun with no shade) meant I got back on my bike to carry on cycling.
It looked like it had been regularly walked over so we pushed our bikes up and over it onto what looked like it must have been part of an old airfield. Fascinated we continued, large abandoned concrete buildings were built to one side with a huge structure built into the hill in front of us. Clearly it was some kind of aircraft hanger, large steel blast doors with a section that would fit an aircraft tail were set into the hill, bunkers on either side. We rested in the shade and tried to find a way in but were unsuccessful carrying on instead. In a field between someone’s house and an abandoned building were seven old Chinese artillery pieces sat overgrown with weeds and slowly rusting, quite amazing to see them in what seemed like a public area – almost in the garden of someone’s house.
A bit further on we found another large aircraft shaped entrance into the hill and the remains of what looked like a communist fighter base memorial, four MiG shaped models aimed at the sky with fading socialist symbols. We knew we had found some kind of old airport, but had no idea why there were only two hangers – maybe these were the only two left an the others had been situated out towards wherever the runway was but no longer existed.
Eventually, still dressing himself, a man came out with a gun and a frown. I had no idea what he was trying to say to us, but I guess the gist of it was we were somewhere we were not supposed to be and he wanted to move us on, pointing us in the direction we needed to go we found ourselves at an empty gatehouse with a locked gate blocking the path. Undoing the simple bolt lock we cycled through and realised we had accidently cycled onto a protected military area, although there really wasn’t much security and the guard didn’t seem too bothered about our presence. Snapping a quick photo of where we had came from we realised we were now on the runway with peoples houses either side… it had certainly been exciting but we had no idea what was in the large tunnels into the hill and what it was we had been cycling past. Determined to investigate when we found ourselves with internet, what we found amazed us!
What we had cycled through was an old Albanian base called Gjader Air Base. Built to fend of any threat coming from Yugoslavia in the north, it housed Albania’s most up to date and modern fighter aircraft – the Chinese Chengdu J-7, a copy of the Soviet MiG-21. Uniquely, and believed to have been constructed with assistance from the Chinese, the two entrances into the mountain we saw was a huge tunnel big enough to house fifty of these planes to keep them hidden and protected from being attacked. After landing, they could taxi over a bridge and straight into the side of the mountain. The base was used until the end of communism in Albania, and then again briefly by the US to fly drones over Bosnia in the early 90’s, but in 1997 it was overrun during the 1997 anti government uprisings. This resulted in damage to much of the airports infrastructure which was never repaired and it closed in 2000.
Amazingly the underground storage facility is still being used to house the fifty mothballed planes that Albania can no longer afford, justify or need. With such a small economy they have drastically reduced their armed forces and now their air force only use helicopters with the intention that air NATO will handle defense. Even during the 1980s the planes were becoming difficult and dangerous to use due to the extreme shortage of spare parts resulting from the deterioration of relations between Albania and China. Many of the planes had long been grounded or reportedly crashed during use. We have no idea why they are still keeping them, the area certainly did not look like a military base and I can’t imagine many people were actually there to protect them. With no ability or intentions to actually get them into the air again it seems like a huge waste to have them sat there, with money short and tourism growing it would present quite the opportunity for a museum. If I had known what was in there I would certainly have tried a bit harder to get in, I certainly would have paid to have a look around!
After all of that excitement the rest of the day was quite dull, we cycled to the section of coast recommended to us by the Swiss motorbike rider and it was awful, truly awful. The beach was covered in huge amounts of rubbish and the town was a mess of huge tower blocks either finished and empty or unfinished. All of the roads in the town had been ripped up in order for new roads, sewage and water systems to be put in place. The whole area was a huge building site and the beach was filthy, not a great place to be. We cycled along the coast for a few kilometers before deciding to camp in amongst a small group of trees on the beach, as Sheena said, if we just squinted, held our nose and looked out to sea, it was beautiful. There was rubbish all over the place and it didn’t smell great. Just as I was putting up the tent I heard Sheena shout, “don’t even fucking think about it” as I hear her running… I had no idea what was going on as I turned to see Sheena chasing a dog away from out food bag, the dog with our just bought loaf of bread in a bag, in its teeth. Fortunately the plastic bag broke and our round loaf rolled away as the dog ran for its life with an angry shouting Sheena in fast pursuit – Sheena’s lightning reflexes and way with animals had saved 30% of our dinner. Tent pitched we sat squinting, pinching our nose and looking out to see while watching the sunset and cooking our dinner. It was quite nice….
( The images from inside the bunker have been used with the permission of Chris Lofting who was lucky enough to have an organised tour inside!)
There are few campsites in Albania, the only one we stayed at was ‘Camping Albania’ and we highly recommend it! It was cheap and clean with excellent facilities (including a swimming pool!). It was 1km away from a small but busy village with lots of places to stock up on supplies and amazing Albanian coffee.