Albania is a country where almost every bit of tillable land is cultivated, where newly planted almond and pistachio trees dot hillsides whose roads are lined with machine-gun emplacements at intervals of 500 meters.
When a Greek journalist who recently spent a month traveling through Albania inquired about the guns, he was told by an Albanian official:
''These guns have no wings nor feet, meaning they cannot be used for aggression. They are our last line of defense when the American and Soviet imperialists invade.''
The non-Slavic Albanians have always considered themselves a people apart in the predominantly Slavic corner of the southwest Balkans. Today Albania is as isolated as ever. It is a Stalinist fortress of 3 million on the Adriatic, sealed off to all but a few and ready to battle the whole world.
In a November 1982 speech in Tirana, Enver Hoxha, the country's leader since World War II, accused both superpowers of trying to ''grab the wealth'' of all the European countries and to ''squeeze the life out of them.''
With deepwater harbors at Vlone and Durres, Albania could be a strategic prize for either superpower, but especially for the Soviets, who are hard pressed for Mediterranean port facilities. But Albania shows no sign of moving toward either the United States or the Soviet Union. And it is not likely to while the septuagenarian Mr. Hoxha is around.
''Albania is a country preparing for guerrilla war,'' said an Albanian-speaking Greek diplomat who has been there. ''The 50,000-man Army has all the trappings of a guerrilla force, with no indications of rank on the uniforms. The first thing I saw upon arrival was a group of tough-looking girl soldiers training with Chinese rifles on the airport road into Tirana.'' (Women do nine days of reserve duty annually until the age of 50 in Albania.)
Soldiers of this guerrilla-style army ''sleep three to six hours daily and are beaten by their officers for the slightest infraction,'' according to Nocola Bleki, a young Albanian soldier. Mr. Bleki defected across the Greek border in late January by sneaking away from his border patrol unit at night.
''We were told to expect an invasion from Greece at any moment,'' Bleki said. (Likewise, soldiers guarding the Yugoslav frontier are told of the threat from the Serbs.)
Still, a common border has necessitated diplomatic links between Greece and Albania, making Greek diplomats, technicians, journalists, and businessmen some of the privileged few who are allowed access to the country.
Interviews with these Greeks - and talks with Albanians like the young soldier - reveal a society in pursuit of a single objective: physical survival based on absolute self-reliance. By those uncompromising standards, Hoxha's Albania has not done too badly.
In 35 years, Stalinism has transformed Albania. Regional differences between the Geg tribes of the north and the Tosks of the south have been eliminated, ending divisive clan loyalties. Not only have economic disparities between urban and rural areas been abolished, but also each town is practically a replica of every other, right down to the city plans and flowers in the parks.
A Greek hydroelectric engineer said after a recent visit: ''Their equipment in all spheres would strike the average Westerner as junk. But considering their limited needs, it is adequate to get the job done.''
Because little is imported, the food supply is abysmal. For peasants, breakfast is tea and bread. Lunch is an egg, thin soup, rice, and floured-cake. Dinner is the same. Shortages of meat, milk, and sugar are endemic.
But as a Greek who just returned from three years in Tirana said: ''Nobody starves, there aren't the long lines like in Romania, and prices have not changed for 20 years. Albanians have never been outside Albania. Their only comparison is with their own past.''
By those standards, Albanians today may have little to complain about, as World War II left those who survived on the brink of starvation.
Despite a dreary daily existence and even drearier party ideology, there are signs of a rich personal life among Albanians. Young lovers stroll through city gardens. Pop music is common. And at Tirana University, blue jeans are ubiquitous. A frequent topic of conversation is the desire to have an Italian or Yugoslav bicycle, which students see advertised on television transmissions from neighboring countries.
But the most interesting portent of discontent, according to those who have visited or lived in Albania, is the survival - and some would claim, growth - of religious belief.
Once a predominantly Muslim country with Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic minorities, Albania is now an officially declared ''godless'' state. All mosques and churches have been transformed into apartment blocks or community centers, or simply locked up. But visitors claim to have seen ''holiday processions with candles near old monasteries'' and have heard that many Albanians practice religion in the privacy of their own homes.
A series of rabidly antireligious articles recently in the party daily, Zeri i Popullit, indicates official Albanian concern over this phenomenon, Greek experts in Athens said.
Costas Magus, who defected here in January, claims he received electric shock treatment in an Albanian prison for refusing to deny the existence of God. According to Mr. Magus and several others who recently defected to Greece, prison sentences of up to 25 years were meted out to people who happened to be in areas where antigovernment pamphlets were supposedly strewn in late 1982.
A Greek Foreign Ministry expert on Albania said: ''Albanian communism has eliminated (economic) inequalities and fed the people. Now it has to do something else. That is its current challenge.''