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".

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