Monday, 12 August 2013

high passes, low morale

a village on 'Kosovo's most scenic road'
The streets are fairly quiet when we roll out of Prizren at 7.30am - but there are a few people taking riverside walks and runs up the narrow little valley where we are heading.  The road (Kosovo's most scenic, according to our guidebook) climbs, gently at first and then, as we progress up the valley, it steepens.  We pass through village after village.  One still has burnt out buildings from the war.  The valley is green and forested and still cool but eventually as we rise up out of the shade the sun whallops us once again.  The air does seem cooler as we get higher, or at least we try to convince ourselves of this. It's all in the head.  A few hairpins and then we can see the pass we are heading to, an eleven hundred metre climb to start the day. Nice.  Just before we reach the top we meet Vincent and Flo, French cycle-tourers, on their way down.  We chat a while and exchange low-down on our respective routes before heading off again.  We always enjoy these little tete-a-tetes since we don't see so many cycle tourists around.  There's a Tour of Kosovo bike race in June - we have seen the posters, and at the top of the climb a big white 'FINISH' is painted before a white line across the road.  We reach our hands up in the air in mock triumph.

The route now drops down the other side and we rapidly descend almost
losing all the height we gained in the morning.  Long siesta in the shade and then we roll down to the valley at the bottom and immediately start climbing up the road to the next pass.  This one is shorter but feels harder after the morning effort.  We are looking for a wild camp spot for ages.  Just as we are about to recce one good possibility three young boys appear from nowhere, trying to sell us blackberries.  They are proffering small plastic bottles cut in half and filled to the brim.  How much?  One euro.  We decline.  We want to camp but not while these boys are hanging around.  Wearily we push on and after a long tired climb we find a clearing in the woods just as the light is fading.  Woodcutters have been at work here.  After a long day's ride we sleep, inevitably, like logs.

Tetovo's painted mosque
The good news, we discover next morning, is that we were almost at the pass.  Another 500 metres takes us to another Tour of Kosovo Finish line.  So it feels like we cycled two stages in one day yesterday.  No wonder we are tired.  At least this means we now have a 40 km freewheel across the border into Macedonia and down to the seething metropolis of Tetovo.  Well, it's hardly seething.  Just a healthy bustle.  We sort out cash and food before checking out the one sight - a painted mosque.  Gayle asks a man for directions which he gives us in Italian. Why Italian? Because he worked in Torino for forty years.  It's a reminder that many Yugoslavians left during the communist era - but significantly, they could leave.  We ask him if we can use our little Albanian here.  Albanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Turkish, he tells us.

Later on we test the theory - we suspect that Macedonians don't want to be addressed in Albanian, although the local Albanians seem delighted.  We are heading along the Albanian border to Lake Ohrid, so we know the road will pass through mainly Albanian villages.  We can't take the motorway up the valley and we can't find the old road through the farmland, so instead take the dusty and broken one which connects some of these villages.  In fact there's no gap between them.  People smile and wave and it's a good day.  When we stop for a break and a slice of burek each the cafe owner refuses to accept payment.  Just in time for lunch we get to the town of Gostivar where we can stock up.  As if to justify Vincent's warnings about the drivers here, the police have closed a road because of a traffic accident.  We decide to avoid the main road and start up another dusty side road looking for a lunch spot.  Aha, a bench. We have a roast chicken to devour. We have salad to chop and dress.  We have a cold bottle of pop.  And then raindrops begin.  We look at each other in dumb apprehension. Rain? We cheekily ask the cafe owner next door if we can sit under cover at one of the tables.  Just in time.  The thunder bellows and the clouds burst.  Rain!  The street floods.  We smile happily at the smell of wet earth, and in a sudden fit of monsoon fever strip off all our lycra and go streaking down the street.  No, of course we didn't.  We still had a roast chicken to devour. 

 A young man hears us speaking English and comes over.  Halim is back in his home village for two weeks holiday.  He now lives in Italy where his wife has a job.  He is still learning Italian.  His English is accentless.  He studied German and English at university and found work in a bank here. But he is very disillusioned about the employment prospects for young educated Albanians here.  They feel that there is not much opportunity for them in Macedonia.  Shortly after independence a civil war broke out over the Albanian's frustrations as a minority here, aided by a dodgy Albanian militia.  This resulted in some concessions and local quotas for government jobs.  You can see this problem hasn't gone away.  But Halim, and many other young Albanians born here, have. He doesn't see any future here and has only returned to visit family.  He points up and down the street.  "This is all my family.  Everyone who lives on this street." Evidently a tight-knit community.

Following Halim's advice, we return to the main road, after the rain has stopped.  The gradient is easier for cycling, he tells us.  It is, but the road is busy.  We finally reach our turn-off where the road continues to climb through forest into the Mavrovo National Park.  Feeling knackered we find a flat camping pitch on a track leading into the woods.  It's not driveable and it's above the road so we know we shouldn't be disturbed.  Our 6am starts mean we are happy to go to bed as soon as we've eaten.

the best way to spend the hours of one till four

Our route continues uphill for a while the next morning, and it's touch and go whether we might lose the will to live.  We have a profile of this route but we forget how mentally frustrating it is when your legs just don't feel like obliging.  Shouldn't it get easier?  I can see Gayle chewing it over.  I try and give her a boost.  "Nearly there" I chirrup.  "Nearly where?" she snarls back. We reach the Mavrovo lake at the top of the climb and in the nick of time. A little tourist village appears where we stop for a drink and a good old natter about the joys and sorrows of cycling.   Within minutes we are feeling optimistic and self-satisfied with our pedalling since we left Prizren.  The mountain air is lovely, the sun is not too fiery and joy of joys, the road is descending for 50 (Five Oh) fat kilometres.  In fact we descend more than we can imagine it's possible to, down a winding narrow gorge following the river as it twists through the big mountains all around.  Any much further and we'll be at sea-level.  Around midday we spot an empty field and a big tree offering us plenty of shade to see out the afternoon.  Then, once the sun starts edging towards the mountain horizon in the west, we roll onwards for a few more kilometres looking for a quiet camp spot and some water.  Refreshed and replenished from a roadside fountain, Gayle then bushwhacks through some bushes and trees to a tiny clearing for our night's rest.  A good day, we reflect, and much needed for our doubting minds. 
an Albanian village in the Macedonian mountains


  1. Obviously you kept going - do these moments of self doubt still happen? (love the snoozing in the sun pic -and the VIEW!)

  2. Occasionally - but they are only moments of frustration, rather than self-doubt, usually when we are tired. We know we'll get there, but why doesn't it get easier. We met an older Swiss woman in Norway who told us that if you're going slowly up a climb it just means you have more time to look around and enjoy the view.....

  3. I've just realised - re-reading this - that I had my first slice of Burek for breakfast back in Skridan. And I've already grasped the siesta thing, except I've been snoozing from ELEVEN till 4!

    1. Mmmmm, burek. That'd be nice right now. Yeah, siestas're the way to go.
      Enjoy the Balkans!