Warning: article contains disturbing images
Little UFO-shaped bunkers dot the roadside throughout the country of Albania; great cavernous Albanian bunkers are carved into the sides of mountains and web-like tunnels weave beneath the city streets. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, more than 170,000 were built. In a country about one eighth the size of the UK, you really can’t escape them.
When I reached Gjirokastër, I’d been in Albania for nearly a month. I’d seen bunkers turned into museums, art galleries, coffee shops and bars. I’d got drunk in Albanian bunkers. I’d used the cool dark of the bunkers to cure hangovers. I knew Albanian bunkers.
I’d left Gjirokastër for the short hike to the Ali Pasha Bridge, an Ottoman bridge crossing a small valley, now mostly used by shepherds. It was the height of summer and the valley that the bridge spanned was parched. At the bridge, I bumped into another hiker – a Finnish guy named Rasmus who was volunteering at the hostel I was staying in. The hostel’s owner had given him directions to some deep, unexplored bunkers about an hour’s hike into the mountains from where we stood. More bunkers.
The directions weren’t as helpful as we’d hoped. After three hours we’d almost had enough and were ready to head back to town. We’d climbed up near sheer valleys with only funnel-web-spider-covered shrubs to cling to. We’d been stuck in a dry river bed, convinced we could hear flash floods approaching. We wanted to leave. Then, we saw them. Two glorious black holes dug into the side of the mountain, looking at us like a pair of empty eye-sockets. We had no idea if these were the Albanian bunkers we were looking for or some of the other 173,370. We didn’t care.
We climbed down to them. There we two parallel tunnels, drilled into the mountain face, reinforced with concrete. In front of them was a flattened area of concrete with signs of an old fire and some empty beer bottles. We walked into the first one with only our phone lights to see by. The light from the gaping openings only seemed to make it a few feet before being beaten back by the blackness. We walked further in, shifting aside broken glass.
Ahead of us, we could make out the shape of a second doorway. We moved closer and could see something in it. It looked like someone had left a coat hanging there. It stank. We got closer and could see that whatever it was had fur. Matted grey hair. We thought maybe it was a goat. A shepherd had put an ill member of his herd out of its misery. Our phone lights reflected back at us from the creature’s dull eye. We saw its snout and its teeth where its cheek had decomposed. It was hanging by its neck from a chain attached to a hook in the centre of the doorway. It was a dog. We backed off. We tried to stay quiet until we got close to the daylight of the tunnel opening and then sprinted out.
We were both a little shaken but had no idea what to make of it. We headed in to the second tunnel. We edged in, more cautious this time, until our eyes adjusted and we could see. The tunnel had the same layout as its neighbor. Our eyes knew what to look for and sure enough, in the second doorway we saw the carcass of a dog hanging by a chain. It was fresher than the last one and had not yet begun to decompose. It could only have been there for a day or two.
“Look down”, said Rasmus, shining his light to the side of the tunnel. There were more carcasses. At least two. It was difficult to tell. They were so heavily decomposed it was impossible to know where one ended and the next began. There were pieces of green wire tied around their necks. We ran back out into daylight.
We thought it a good idea to hike back to town. On the walk back we threw out theories: kids messing about? The den of a budding serial killer? Warnings put up by people living in the bunker? They all sounded ridiculous but what else could explain what we’d seen?
Later that night, an American man came up to us at the hostel. He’d heard our story and said he had a friend who was a journalist back in the states. I didn’t understand what I’d seen, but I knew that Albania was the country I’d always felt safest hitchhiking in, always been made to feel welcome. We refused to tell him the directions, not wanting to be responsible for a clickbait article encouraging a Western audience, already primed— wrongly— to fear Albania.
Dan Melling is a fearless adventurer whose exploits can be followed in his blog.
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