Tuesday, 23 July 2013

like shooting fish in a barrel

The guys at the campsite advise us to go early to the boat dock at the damn, because the ferry sometimes leaves early.  So we set off in good time and climb the dirt track up to a tunnel that pops us out at the dockside.  It’s already busy with cars and people – locals and tourists.  There are lots of small boats, presumably for the locals who live along the way, and a bigger one that goes all the way to the next damn.  A man guides me inside to buy the tickets – 15 euros each.  How much???  I thought it was 5 euros each.  No, 10 each and 5 for the bikes.  I go and consult Gayle but we are kind of trapped – we would have a long journey on a mountainous road to get to the other end.  We pay the exorbitant price and get on board the boat with mostly tourists.  There is one local woman with her child.  Just before we depart a larger boat appears in the distance.  It docks and unloads.  This is the ferry.  We have been conned onto a private boat for tourists.  Suckers.  It’s written on our foreheads.  The guys at the campsite are obviously in on the scam.  It only works if we don’t know there are two boats leaving at around the same time.  There’s an Israeli couple who also camped last night in the same place.  Freddy says he feels like Woody Allen at the beginning of Stardust Memories, looking ruefully across at the people now boarding the ferry.  Ah well, live and learn.  The Albanians can be as disingenuous with tourists as anyone else.

The boat trip is lovely – even if the fare sticks in my craw.  The reservoir is narrow, and the mountainsides rise vertiginously, covered in thick growth.  Sometimes we seem to be heading for a huge wall of rock before turning at the last moment, twisting through the dramatic landscape.  Now and again a farmhouse is spotted, improbably positioned on the steep hillsides.  We chat a lot with Freddy and his wife Tammy.  At the far end we have a shortish ride to Bajram Curry, where we are staying with Warm Showers hosts, Jenny and Ian.

They’re volunteering with the Peace Corps, Jenny working in health promotion and Ian teaching English at the high school.  They’re an adventurous young couple who have been cycling in South America and have only just begun their two-year stint here. Already they have an insight on the way things work or don’t work in Albania.  The town is small and scruffy, with blocks of flats of various building quality.  Their flat is on the top floor of a block with no glazing in the windows on each landing.  The apartment is fine though – fully furnished with the last occupants’ family photos on the wall.  It might be the landlord, who lives next door, and has just moved family out for the duration.   We spend a couple of evenings with them and try and plot our summer journey.   

We have been struggling with the high temperatures and can’t bear the idea of doing what some cyclists do – setting off at 5am each day to arrive at their destination before midday.  Waking at 6am is the best we can do.  Perhaps we could volunteer for the month of August in Greece and stay in one place, off  the bikes?  We make enquiries via the HelpX website and then set off for Valbona, a village in the mountains above Bajram Curry.  We leave some excess baggage with Ian and Jenny and set off.  But why have we got excess baggage? you may ask.  And I confess that I know not why.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

in olden days

The hotel we have headed for was recommended to us by Marie & Misha, but when we find it I wonder if we could get a room for 20 euros here, as the young Germans had done.  It’s a lovely old stone house, set back from the road that has been turned into a restaurant with rooms.  There’s a courtyard around the back and a new annexe built along one side of this.  We are ushered round to the back and greeted by the owners, with two staff in smart ‘folk’ uniforms hanging back in reserve.   After pleasantries the owner offers us welcome glasses of ice-cold water.  One of his staff will show us to a room.  We are not used to the red carpet treatment – and I now know that we won’t be staying here.  I let Gayle go to see a room with one of the young staff – she is The Negotiator after all.  Shortly she returns to say we have a lovely room and we should take our bags up.  “It’s 20 euros?” I don’t believe her.  “Yes.  They asked for 50 but when I said that our friends recommended the place and paid only 20 the woman said okay.”  As it’s her birthday it seems like the ideal treat.

The town is unremarkable but not too ugly – lots of shops and cafes and a few folk out and about.  We stroll around in the afternoon heat and find some lunch before retreating to the cool of the hotel.  The Gheg & Tosk Tradita is the name.  I wonder if the couple running the place are called Gheg and Tosk – but the guidebook explains these are the northern and southern Albanian dialects. Ah.  In the cool of the evening we venture out for some fine dining.  The streets are now visibly alive.  In the centre hundreds of folk are out strolling around, the pavement tables of the cafes and bars are bustling, groups are sat around in the tiny park.  The call to prayer sounds from the central mosque.  The mellifluous sounds of the muezzin’s call are soothing.  No-one appears to pay any notice of it.  Like in Mexico, the evening passageio or volta, after the heat of the day, seems to be the social event.  Everyone looks smart and clean in fresh clothes.  Groups of young women are observed closely as they wander past the bars full of young guys juggling cigarettes, beer and mobile phones.  (Well, not literally juggling - that would have been something to see…) There are bicycles parked everywhere.   
We wander down the main pedestrianized street looking for a busy restaurant but it seems folk are only drinking.  For some reason we both start thinking of kebabs.  (This is a problem for me because I always imagine I’ll find a place making kebabs as good as the Rusholme Chippy in Manchester, where the chunks of skewered marinated lamb are cooked in the tandoori oven along with the fluffy nan breads.  I’ve never found a better kebab.) King Doner turns out to be closed but we find another cheapie not much further on.  I treat Gayle to a classy birthday meal of kebab and chips.

The town’s best tourist attraction is rather hard to find.  An archive of photographs from the country’s oldest photography studio is kept here, in an obscure building tucked off a street in the centre.  The guidebook gives directions and suggests asking locals.  Sure enough, we are directed through a passageway to a low office building behind the shops.  In an office corridor are hung about sixty black and white photos, mostly studio portraits, taken from about 1890 to the 1930s.  The Marubi studio archive must be huge, but this is all we can see.  The photos have some ethnographic interest - there are ordinary people in traditional costume, and political figures including King Zog and his wife, some landscapes and shots of old Shkoder and some journalistic shots of the rebellion against those intrusive Turkish furniture salesmen, the Ottomans.  The photos are wonderful but too few – the bulk of this treasure remains stupidly out of sight.  Perhaps Albanian tourism is still in its infancy, or is it that there’s not enough money to be made to warrant any effort to display the collection? ‘Tis a pity.

From Shkoder we are taking a route northwards – following a chain of reservoirs to Koman where we can then take a boat.  The ride takes us through a couple of villages and a small town. The houses look fairly new and tidy and there is the occasional abandoned building from the Communist era.  A minaret peeks out above the roofs.  The shops look more basic.  We are watched with amazement (or is it amusement?) by the folk stood around chatting or waiting for buses.  The route we want leaves the main road and skirts the lowest reservoir.  Pine trees offer some shade but eventually, as we climb, the trees become shorter and shorter and finally peter out.  It’s hot and dusty, the road has been paved once, but it’s starting to break up.  We stop at a roadside fountain and sit under a lone tree on a handily-placed stone seat.  Four nuns in a Land Rover stop for fresh water.  We mooch on slowly in the midday heat and finally come to more pine trees where there is shade for lunch.  Further on we descend to the water’s edge.  We can now see big mountains on the far side.  There’s a hamlet of farms on the slopes by the reservoir and boats at the shore.  

We find a ledge to camp on but it’s still early so we wait to pitch the tent.  At around six some kids arrive with their goats.  We talk a little in English and Spanish learnt from watching TV (them, not us).  Our Albanian currently amounts to 'hello' and 'thank you'.  If you want to know how difficult this language is then reflect on the Albanian for Albania: Shqiperia.The youngest giggles ceaselessly and we know we won’t camp here now.  As the sun dips behind the mountains we slog our way up an increasingly dreadful road to the village of Koman below the damn.  There’s a campsite here where we stop for the night.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

into the wild

While Gayle is checking out accomodation in Virpazar I get chatting to Ili who is waiting with his dad Merko in the shade for a Russian couple who are cruising the lake,  Merko is a driver and they have brought the Russians from the coast.  Ili starts asking about the loaded bikes - conversations often start like this.  He speaks English, learnt working on cruise ships in the States, and we chat a bit.  His family are Serbs who lived in Croatia before the war and moved here afterwards.  The census statistics for Montenegro show only 3% Serbians before the war and now about 30%.  It seems that tourism on the coast here is picking up this year as more Russians, who need a visa to visit EU countries, switch from Croatia.  Ili doesn't understand Russian but is learning - he has a girlfriend in St Petersburg and they speak English together, but when he visited her, her friends only spoke Russian.  His dad (Ili translates) thinks the cycle touring is a great idea - to spend so much time outdoors.  It's a significant factor for us, but one that few people mention.
a room with a view in Virpazar
We stay in a guesthouse where the daughter speaks English and the dad speaks a little German.  We are overwhelmed with the lowland heat and feel oppressed at the thought of our route this summer - will it be better in the mountains as we go south?? Should we just stop somewhere in August?  We have always considered winter a tough time to be on the bike, but can we cope with a Balkan summer?  In the village square we meet Chris and Steve again sitting outside one of the bars in the shade.  The men's final of Wimbledon is on and a few other English and a Scot appear to watch.  We root for Djokovic on the grounds that he has been known to smile.  In the evening we treat ourselves to pork chops cooked in beer with apples and served with mash, of course.  Ahhhhh.

After a couple of days relaxation out of the sun, we head along the southern shore of Lake Skadar towards the Albanian border.  We don't have a lot of information about the route except we know there are chestnut woods along the way which could be a shady place to camp.  

The road is small, steep in sections, and completely exposed, above and below.  In the heat haze we can see the mountains on the northern side.  There are small villages along the shore and I think the people here are Albanian - this territory was take in one of the peace agreeements after one of the wars - Balkan, First or Second?  Seems to be a recurring issue in these parts... Along the road are concrete cisterns where it looks like rainwater is collected so we draw some for drinking and cooking later and when we reach the woods we stop for the day.  As it's only midday we don't pitch the tent straight away and spend the afternoon reading on our sarong.  But first we have to clear the ground of two or three year's worth of spiky chestnut cases. Soon we realise the forest floor is moving.  Up above in the trees is a chorus of crickets that gradually reaches a crescendo before finally ebbing to a gentle background hum.  But down on the ground the buggers are everywhere and every few minutes one jumps and lands on us.  They can smell our food?  But do they eat white bread?

In the morning we continue to Ostros, a village with a couple of shops and a cafe.  Out on the cafe balcony is a young Swiss cycling couple having a morning coffee so we join them for a chat.  They're travelling lighter than us but not wild camping - they only have three weeks.  They too had ridden some of the same roads as us in Montenegro and marvelled at the scenery.  But they are also going further than us each day and trying to fit it all in to their holiday.  
Into The Wild - but I couldn't persuade Gayle to pose on the roof
The road from here climbs gradually to a ridge where from where we can look over into Albania.  It's Gayle's birthday today - a fact I have completely and shamefully forgotten (partly because she got her present in Dubrovnik) - but this year she gets to visit a new country on her birthday.  And Albania cannot be just another Balkan country.  For a start I think it might be the only country in the world that has honoured George W Bush by naming a road after him.  And the whole nation in communist times were huge fans of Norman Wisdom.  So apart from their indiscriminate taste in politicians and comedians what else can the country offer?

the obligatory border photo
To get to the border we traverse the mountainside on the other side in a very long zig-zag before hitting the main road from the Montenegrin coast heading to the border.  Along the way we stop to join a queue of locals at a standipe to get fresh water.  They come in their cars with plenty of 5 litre containers. Traffic to the border consists of plenty of shiny big cars from northern Europe and when we ride pass the queue at the border they look like Albanians returning for the Summer.  In fact we soon realise that many of the cars in Albania have foreign plates.  The ride to Shkodra is flat and easy and we pass the requisite number of concrete bunkers and donkeys and carts to hint at the joys to come.  

Shkodra sits at the southern end of the lake and is remarkable for the numbers of local cyclists - the like of which we haven't seen since we left Grenoble.  Everybody uses a bike it seems - well, everybody except those with a fascination for big shiny cars.  Car washes proliferate.  Who wants a dusty Merc?  We find the hotel recommended to us by Misha and Marie and stop once again before we melt in the midday heat.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

fifteen seconds

"Hey, look, the blog has been reviewed on the blogspot website."

"Go on, read it out"

" 'Instantly forgettable' "

the highs and lows

After some refreshing days here we leave Zabljak and whizz across the grassy plains and down into the Tara canyon. 
the Tara river

The road descends to a bridge which crosses and leads north to Belgrade, but we continue south eastwards along the gorge, past the rafting camps and the fabulously bright waters and gradually start to climb up again.  We stop for lunch and decide that we might as well camp - especially as Gayle spots a tap by the road.  In the morning we round the next corner and there's a campsite on a small ledge over the canyon.  Oh well, never mind.  We climb up around into a side valley before a nice descent out into a junction of valleys where the road splits.  We can turn left towards Kosovo or right and down to the coast again.  We hadn't made up our minds but eventually decide to stay in Montenegro and descend to the coast again.

spinach and cheese burek

We haven't gone far before we get to the entrance to another national park.  We know there's camping in the woods around a lake about 4km uphill, but at the entrance is a small campervan site with a barrier down.  It looks like it's never been used but there's shade and it looks like a nice spot for lunch and before we know it we're camping there for the evening.  The next day we ride towards the coast on the main road until we can finally get off it and take a more peaceful country road.  The main road heads over a climb and then straight downhill to Podgorica, but it's far too busy with trucks and buses and there are tunnels along the way. Hellish. The country road we're on leads us to Eden.

Sadly, although we can travel most parts of the world relatively easily, we are still restricted to border crossings.  There are tempting roads through the mountains into Albania that remain closed to tourists.  We are still following the Tara river but the valley we are in is now a wide green affair and the river is shallow and flat and winds it's way slowly through the hills.  We pass side valleys with stunning mountains peeking out in the distance.  A few locals shout 'Bravo' to us but the scenery is so pretty we don't really follow their sentiment until later on when the road climbs to a pass and we suddenly find ourselves descending quickly into a new valley.  We pass remote villages and ancient bucolic scenes of grass being mowed with scythes.  And then we climb once more. Looking back there is a row of huge monolithic peaks - the border with Albania.  We start a descent that continues the next day all the way into Podgorica.

The capital city holds no attraction for us except the possibility of a bike shop selling replacement parts we need.  When I Googled "bike shop Podgorica" I got one lead - but it turns out to be a disappointing shop - only a sales point for bikes - just spare brake pads for sale.  A nearby chemist's sign tells us it is 30 degrees and it's only just gone 10am.  We take a road out of the city heading southwards towards Lake Skadar.  We stop at a shopping mall to buy replacement earphones and then spot the bike shop Tempo over the road: joy oh joy it has the parts we need and for 10 euros labour they'll replace the crankset and cassette on my bike in the next two hours.  So if you happen to Google "bike shop Podgorica" (and this post comes up) you may like to know the staff were very pleasant and they have two stores: one opposite the Delta City Mall on Cetinsjski put and one near to the Mall of Montenegro at Bratstva i jedistva 57.
more new roofs

We imagine the road around to a village at the head of the lake is an easy stroll on flat ground so were dismayed to find ourselves sweating slowly up a hill on the main road to Cetinje.  This country is hilly.  Over the top we take a break in a cafe at a petrol station with wi-fi.  The staff tell us the turn-off we want is only 5 more kilometres.  They forget to mention the hill.  As soon as we leave the main road we feel better, and the road is at last going down towards the lake.  We camp in a disused field, hidden by metre-tall ferns.  Come morning and we have to get up quickly - it's already gone seven and the tent is like a hothouse.  The downhill road brings some relief but we soon realise there are still some mighty hills to climb once we cross the bridge at the bottom.  We are struck by our first clear view of Lake Skadar, with its dense carpet of water lilies, the limestone hills in the blue morning haze and the occasional comorant seeking shade under partly-submerged oak trees.  We are reminded of China.  The cycling through more isolated lush green karst valleys on an old road is hot and waterless but finally we emerge at a pass and descend quickly to Virpazar at the lakeside.  The riding has been reasonably tough sometimes but the views have been exhilarating.  We feel like a break and find a room where we can catch up on the usual chores and have a day or two out of the saddle.

Guilin anyone?

Thursday, 4 July 2013

a year on the road in words

Very simply: people.

We have seen some wonderful landscapes and marvellous art and architecture and cities and this is what we had hoped to find.  What we had not foreseen was the generous hospitality we have experienced along our route and how it has affected us.  It's been a wonderful opportunity for us to visit old friends and fellow travellers.  In addition we have made many new friends thanks to Couch Surfing, Warm Showers as well as what we call Spontaneous Acts of Kindness.  It's a striking thought that in our modern world where we are cautious, perhaps distrustful, of outsiders, there are still many people willing to open their doors to strangers.  

Of these people we know their names, but there have also been innumerate occasions when we have been greeted and helped by people whom we do not know: passersby asking about our journey, the farmer in Sicily inviting us to stay longer in his field, the other cyclists who have returned our greetings, the woman in Tunis who gave us her mobile phone to make a call, the man who bought us coffee and biscuits on a rainy day in Norway, the waves, horn toots and shouts of encouragement from passing motorists..........

All of this has helped us along our way.  We are also extremely grateful to the support and contact from family and friends.

We are often bemused when people comment on how courageous and adventurous we are, cycling around like this.  However, the world is not such a dangerous place as the news bulletins would have you feel and it is very rare that when you ask for help the request is refused.  For this we are very thankful and we look forward to the forthcoming year on the road.

Radovan cycled with us for a few kilometres.  When a man suggested we were crazy for heading into the mountains Radovan shook his head and said "Not crazy"

a year on the road in numbers

  • 6 nights on a ferry
  • 138 nights camping wild
  • 3 failed Thermarests (all replaced under guarantee)
  • 7 tent visitors (only once human - our favourite visitor being the football-sized hedgehog that somehow sneaked in under the flysheet)
  • 112 warm beers
  • occasional* tears of frustration
  • many* tears of joy
  • some* tears of sadness
  • 2 incidents of the curious dog in the night
  • 17 countries and Sicily
  • O nights around the campfire with Gayle playing a tune on her harmonica
  • 78 nights with family, old friends or new friends
  • 328 meals involving pasta
  • 9 visits to Decathlon
  • 10,623km pedalled
* these were not recorded and so are difficult to quantify

happy anniversary

Monday, 1 July 2013

get up offa that thing

We're aiming for the town of Zabljak which is the main town for access to Durmitor National Park. We spend all morning climbing slowly but surely along our narrow winding country road through karst valleys that each have a hamlet of farm houses.  The houses all have brand new roofs, but the outside pit toilet is still evident and we are extremely relieved to find a stand pipe at the side of the road in one village.  We haven't seen a single source of water for miles.  Can water ever have tasted so good? We haven't gone that far in distance but it seems remote and isolated in this neck of the woods.

At some point we meet cyclists coming the other way - Montenegrins from Niksic - and they tell us we have a couple more hours to reach their town.  We emerge at a reservoir and skirt the flood plain to Niksic and pick up some food.  The morning has been overcast but as midday approaches the sun emerges and we seek shade behind a supermarket for a long lunch.  The town is ugly and depressing the way that shabby old communist era towns can be - full of dirty old appartment blocks in the city centre and very little green or shady places.  It reminds me of Halifax.  It doesn't take long to escape the town and get back into the countryside and as the road climbs into the hills we are joined by a boy on a bike who doesn't speak much English but smiles a lot.  Radovan says he's fifteen and irritates me enormously as he whizzes up the steep road and then stops with brakes squealing to wait for us to catch him up.  We are thinking about stopping to camp when we emerge into a wide valley full of farms.  To the east a thunderstorm is brewing and looking to come our way.  Fortunately Radovan takes this as a cue to head home.  On another stretch of serpentina we spot a gap in the dense undergrowth of dwarf trees and bushes which leads to a nice open glade, totally hidden from the road - perfect.
after the storm
The next day we seem to climb interminally and keep emerging into higher valleys.  There are a few houses scattered around, most empty, possibly holiday houses for city folk.  The landscape is wonderful with big views left, right and centre.  Grassland that reminds us of Kyrgyzstan.  Mountains that remind us of Patagonia.  Who could have thought that such a small country, smaller than Wales, could be packed with such variety?  The road is very quiet with traffic so we listen to music to help us plod upwards.  James Brown's Funky People does the trick.  We reach a barren pass that leads into a dense forest of pine trees and the old road descends vertiginously until we suddenly join the main road again, still descending.  Further on we can see a deep gorge and it dawns on us that we are going down, right down, and down again, to cross that gorge, before having to climb up, right up and up again to get to Zabljak.  We meet Benni, a young German cyclist, near the bottom and stop to chat before going to find some lunch in a little shop: bread, tomatoes and cucumber and a huge tub of creamy feta cheese.  This is not Greek feta, but a Macedonian version that is richer and fatter and reminds us of the cheese in Iran.  Mmmm.
a blissfully quiet road
At this point we make a mistake - choosing to stay on the new main road which is 12km shorter than the old country road which climbs up dramatically in a different direction.  We persuade ourselves that the shorter route will compensate for being on the main road - but it's the main road to Serbia and the traffic never stops.  The gradient is also cruel as the road climbs straight up the valley, rather than in switchbacks.  Finally we get to the tunnel.  Benni warned us about it.  It's fairly long and uphill - cutting through the mountain into the next valley - but at least we are prepared.  Benni came the other way and started off in a well-lit tunnel only to find himself speeding into a black hole when the lights suddenly just ended.  When we emerge at the other end we know we are high up - the landscape looks more alpine, and it's not long before we reach Zabljak.  There's a campsite just inside the national park, fairly simple, but critically with very hot showers and a stunning view of the high mountains.  
We spend three nights here and get chatting to Stefan, from Germany and Chris and Steve who live in the Canaries.  It's been a long journey for the English couple but Stefan reached here in three day's driving.  Suddenly our journey seems quite long and slow although I was beginning to think we might have rushed here from Kotor by cycling just three days.  On reflection the scenery we passed through deserved more time.  We also meet Marie and Misha, two young Germans who are also cycling.  They have been cycling out in the 'Stans and India and also in the Balkans so it's good for us to talk with them and get some more first-hand information.  After experiencing a very long spell of hot weather it seems funny to be using the sleeping bags again - but one night we are told the temperature has dropped to around 4 degrees.  Needless to say, we sleep very well.

One day we get chatting to an English fella who lives on the coast and organises walking tours here.  He's worked here for 8 years and tells us how much it has improved.  Montenegro was hit by the sanctions imposed on Serbia and he talks about there being no rubbish collection, no cars etc.  But he tells us it remains a poor country - a doctor earning about 450 euros a month. As an afterthought he remarks that the corruption is not so bad - not too greedy - 10% is enough in these parts.  The towns remind us of the northern and southern towns in Chile - a bit ramshackle and scruffy.  Stefan, who grew up in East Germany, nods and explains: "Communism".