Trip Archives: In the Canyons of the Balkans

Roughly 5 weeks of cycling through the Balkans with my brother in the spring of 2013, starting in Thessaloniki, Greece, and ending in Belgrade, Serbia.

Peshkopi – near Qafë Drajë

We finally left Peshkopi at around 11am, after some shopping for food.
Communication is getting more and more difficult. My bits of Russian are useless, and so are Hungarian, French and German. Some people, like last night’s receptionist, speak English to some degree, but mostly it doesn’t go any further than ‘How are you?’ and ‘Where are you from?’.

We left the main road that connects Peshkopi with Kukës and cycled down into the Black Drim valley. The pavement soon ended and the road became a rough gravel track. Our total average speed didn’t exceed 10km/h.

Many houses of the few settlements along this road were abandoned and crumbling. We didn’t see a single shop of any kind.

On the last descent my rear tyre almost exploded. It had worn out near the rim, probably due to one too many stones rubbing along.

Of course I didn’t have any spares… András to the rescue. He’d brought a spare inner tube that we put into the wheel. We also swapped front and rear tyres and taped the problematic spot. Frankenwheel was born.

We then crossed the Black Drin, or Drini i zi, as it is called in Albanian. There is barely any flat land in the valley, so we started inquiring at the scattered houses about the possibility to pitch our tents in their – hopefully flatish – gardens. Quite a difficult endeavour, as it was impossible to find a common language. Fortunately, some gestures are universal, or at least widely understood.

We are staying in a 3-generation household of 8 people. We received a fine dinner and are sleeping in their lounge.

Temperatures peaked at 42°C (in the sun).
Cycled: 49km

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Near Qafë Drajë – Kukës

Yesterday the head of the family asked at what time we wanted to leave today. I had no clue what was appropriate and just guesstimated 9am.

This morning the family started to move with first light – around 5am. We got up at 7, had a coffee and milk directly from the cow, and were on the road by 7:40am.

We kept cycling along the Black Drim’s valley. More or less. Twice we had to climb out to circumnavigate a narrow gorge. That was a couple hundred meters in elevation both times, and quite exhausting.

We’re in the town of Kukës now. The original Kukës was submerged in the 1970s when the Liqeni i Fierzë reservoir lake was created. It’s not pretty and there is lots of construction work going on. People are nice, though.

We were totally exhausted after arrival and downed 3 liters of some dangerously coloured fizzy drinks pretty much immediately. Average speed and temperatures were mostly identical to yesterday’s – around 10km/h and 42°C (in the sun), respectively.

I bought an emergency replacement for Frankenwheel – some cheap Chinese rubber tyre that won’t last long but would hopefully bring me to the nearest city if need be.

It is now 10pm and still 26°C.

Cycled: 41km

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Kukës – Gjakovë

For breakfast we had a coffee in the bar of a guy who had worked in Germany for 6 years and spoke German quite well. Amongst other things he told us that living costs had increased a lot in Albania over the last years. The average monthly income is approx. 200 Euro. Fuel, for example, costs about 1,50 Euro per litre – almost as much as in Germany. He also told us that there was no boat or ferry service on the Liqeni i Fierzë anymore – maybe 10 years ago there was one.

We left Kukës quite late, almost at noon. Not far from the city we had a short break at the road side. A guy stopped to ask if we needed any help. Turned out he was German and worked for a German NGO called Nehemia in Krumë, a town some 25km down the road. We looked for the office there but it was closed for the day already.

Our planned destination for tomorrow was Bajram Curri, approx. 100km from Kukës. Tonight we wanted to camp somewhere in between. The other option we had discussed was to go to Kosovo. To make a long story short, at the respective junction we flipped a coin. I kind of didn’t like the result (heads – ‘go to Bajram Curri’) and András was ok with overriding it, so we’re now in the city of Gjakovë in Kosovo.
We both opted in to have Kosovar entry stamps put in our passports. This might pose a problem later when we (try to) enter Serbia. As you may or may not know, Serbia considers Kosovo part of its territory, whereas Kosovo has declared indepenence in 2008 and is de facto self-governed, excluding some provinces in the north of Kosovo which are administered by Serbia. Now, Serbia might or might not accept passports with Kosovar stamps. The situation is somewhat unclear to us and the Kosovar border guards could only tell us that for them, Albanians and Kosovars alike, entering Serbia is at least problematic.

Kosovo seems as friendly as Albania. Personally and totally subjectively, I like it a tad better so far.

Cycled: 62km

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Gjakovë – Pejë

Quite a shitty day, both physically and emotionally. Nothing of interest to report other than that we cycled just 43km to the north on comparatively easy terrain and are staying in the city of Pejë.

Pejë is a lively and sympathetic city, as far as I can tell. Had a well-done hair and beard-do for 2,50 Euro.

Cycled: 43km

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Pejë – Rožaje

Today’s breakfast was included in the hotel’s fee. A coffee and a chocolate croissant.

We left Pejë to the north-east, heading to Montenegro. For the first 10km the road was almost flat. Then the climbing started, and 12km later we reached the Kosovar border check-point, then had to climb for another 10km to the pass at approx. 1796m (according to my GPS).
Soon after the check-point it started to rain (the first rain on the entire trip!) and at the pass it was freezing cold (well, around 8°C, but in a strong wind and in wet clothes that feels icy). We changed to dry and water-proof clothing inside an abandoned hut next to the road, and started rolling down on the northwestern side of the mountains – first to the Montenegrin border check-point (where the rain stopped while we had our passports stamped), and then 20km non-stop to the town of Rožaje.

Frankenwheel had lost air pressure again last night but was fairly stable over the day once pumped up. On the downhill section I tried not to exceed 40kph, though. With a proper tyre that ride would have been a hell of a lot of fun!

We were still freezing when we reached the town and decided to stay in a hotel for the night.

Cycled: 56km

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As usual we got up late. And decided to stay another night.

In the afternoon we cycled a couple kilometers through the forest to the source of the river Ibar, which is quite a massive one (the source). András estimated the outflow to 5 cubic meter per second.

From the looks, the valleys here could also be located somewhere in the Alps, in Tirol or Bavaria. Just the odd mosque challenges that thought. :)

We also did some bike maintenance and I put the Chinese rubber tyre on the front wheel.

Cycled: ~25km

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Rožaje – Mojkovac + 8km

Our next destination was the valley of the river Tara. We were quite lucky with winds and roads and reaching Mojkovac felt easy, even though we had some long climbs to do, too.

We finally found a nice spot for pitching our tents next to a couple of streams on the slopes of the Tara valley, a few kilometers from the town of Mojkovac.

Cycled: 91km

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Mojkovac + 8km – Djurdjevića Tara

Today was one of the shortest days, in terms of cycled kilometers. But the landscape we cycled through was easily one of the most beautiful of the trip. We rode through the Tara Canyon, which is just grand. The water of the Tara river is crystal clear. At one point the road climbs quite high above the river and we had a great view at the blue-shining river.

In the evening it started to rain heavily but we reached an official camp site (the first one on this trip) and pitched our tents just in time.

Cycled: 43km

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Djurdjevića Tara – Somewhere along R114

We continued our ride in a northish direction to the town of Pljevlja, where we had lunch and discussed our options. Either northwest to Bosnia and Herzegovina, or north to Serbia. We modified all our previous plans and got tricked into riding to the north by the routing engine.

So at 4pm we left Pljevlja and climbed out of the valley towards the Serbian border. To our surprise there were no road signs pointing at Serbia and traffic was very low. The Montenegrin check-point consisted only of a small hut manned by 2 or 3 border guards, who happily gave us our exit stamps, and a gate. To our confusion there was no Serbian check-point.

From the border the road went down-hill quite nicely, and we could see an impressive-looking canyon ahead. It became obvious that we would cycle through there. But it was quite late already and we pitched our tents above the entrance to the canyon, not far from the road at a quiet spot.

The road we’re on goes more or less straight from the Montenegrin border to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The distance between the borders is just some 30km and there are no main roads (maybe there are some tracks) that connect this part of Serbia with the ‘mainland’. The area is beautiful and seriously invites for some hiking.

Cycled: 67km

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Somewhere along R114 – Mokra Gora

There was more rain last night but the morning promised a sunny day.

We continued on the road to Bosnia and Herzegovina, mostly down-hill. At some random junction we stopped to check the GPS and were quite surprised to see that we were already in Bosnia and Herzegovina! No border signs, no check-points, no nothing. We were in a village and I asked an older guy what this was, Bosnia, or Serbia, or what??

He said ‘Bosnia’. ‘Until the bridge down there, then there is Serbia again.’ We were completely confused. It turned out Goran, that was his name, had worked in Austria for 37 years and speaks German (with quite a bit of an Austrian accent that was hard to understand sometimes), voastehst mi? We asked if we could refill our water bottles and were invited to sit there with him and his son. We then were ‘forced’ to: 3 glasses of rakija (a strong home-made spirit, I gave up after 2 glasses), a beer, a couple of boiled eggs. We received one litre of rakija, a bar of chocolate, and a couple more boiled eggs for the road. In between his nephew came over (with more eggs) for a rakija, we asked all kinds of questions about the war and the borders, and he told us things about his time in Austria.

So we were in Bosnia, but a Serbian enclave was just down the road that is not on any of our maps. His son was a Serbian border guard and he received his pension in Serbian Dinars. Total verrückt, voastehst mi? His son (and also his nephew) had fought in the war for 3 years.

Eventually we said Good Bye and cycled on – slightly tipsy – but soon had to stop at a Serbian border check-point. Ah, we were entering the enclave! Nope, we were leaving it, we learned. A few kilometers further – a Bosnian check-point. Now we were in Bosnia proper, finally. Oh, and the Serbian flag was hanging from quite a few flag poles in Bosnia. Total verrückt do, voastehst mi?

Another climb, another down-hill section, another grand canyon. The Balkans are really, really beautiful…

We left Bosnia and Herzegovina in the late afternoon for Serbia – again. This time it was expected, though. We are in Mokra Gora, a couple of kilometers from the border.

Cycled: 64km

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Mokra Gora – Srebrenica

When I paid our landlady this morning I felt a bit cheated. Apparently she had quoted the night’s fee for one person yesterday. The cheap room became somewhat pricier…

The morning weather looked fine, but when we left Mokra Gora it was drizzeling.

Our plan was to reach Srebrenica today. For that we had 3 major climbs to manage. We started with the first one right outside Mokra Gora, then descended a little to Kremna, climbed again to almost 1000m altitude, and descended to Bajina Bašta at around 300m in the Drina valley. We crossed the Drina and entered Bosnia and Herzegovina again. From there the last climb was back up to 900m, which took us 2 hours. The weather had improved again but at the top it was chilly, around 13°C.

The descend to Srebrenica, especially the last kilometers, was fascinatingly beautiful. The road goes along a mountain ridge with steep green slopes on either side. Despite the difficult conditions, people cultivate parts of the slopes and have built houses next to the road.

We had climbed more than 1600m in total today and were quite tired, so we checked into the first pension we came across after our arrival in Srebrenica

Cycled: 79km

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Srebrenica – Zvornik + 10km

Srebrenica has many sad stories to tell.

The saddest, of course, is the 1995 massacre in which more than 8000 Bosniak boys and men were killed methodically within just a few days by members of the Republika Srpska’s army in an attempt of ethnic cleansing of the area. We visited the Srebrenica-Potoćari memorial and burial site upon leaving the town. The long list of names of all those killed is carved in stone there. Not all the graves are filled. The process of finding mass graves and identifying the remains is still ongoing. Very few of the persons responsible have been brought to court.

Before leaving the town we had quite a long and interesting chat with … hm, I’ll just call him ‘a random guy’. He didn’t say it explicitely, but from a few comments of his it seems clear that he and his family are Bosniaks (that is, Bosnian muslims) originating from Srebrenica. He told us about the de-mining process (it is a slow and dangerous task, carried out by Bosnians, by the way), about corruption and the billion dollars that were sunk in Srebrenicas rebuilding, and about the region’s touristic potential. Lots of interesting projects, by the way. Let me know if you’re interested in an unpaid summer job. :)

He also told us of the Guber, a stream that is very rich in different minerals and which has its sources (up to 40) in the mountains a few hundred meters above the town. Each of the sources contains different amounts of several minerals, and according to local knowledge can be used to heal or help with certain diseases. We immediately decided to pay a visit to those sources.
He went on to tell us about a project by some foreign rich dude. That guy wanted to build a spa in which the Guber’s waters would be used to treat people suffering from e.g. multiple sclerosis. He went through all kinds of hoops to obtain all the necessary bureaucratic permits and started building. Half-way through the permits were revoked, probably to extort some more money. A nice example of a corrupt government.

So we cycled up into the mountains to have a look at the Guber and another sad story unfolded in front of our eyes.
We found the less than semi-finished spa high up in the hills, fenced off, built across the Guber which now flows in concrete tunnels underneath the compound. Two unkindly placed plastic pipes spat water from two of the Guber’s sources. We climbed around the fences to have a closer look inside. The uglyness of the whole thing was hard to believe. The formerly beautiful valley had been extended to make room for three large buildings and a pyramid-shaped fourth one in the center. Age-old staircases to one of the springs had just been cut off and the paths were ‘dangling’ with no way to reach the spring anymore.
There were signs everywhere that made it clear that construction had been stopped from official side and any work was forbidden.

What an unbelievably horrible example of capitalism and greed, and above all, totally gone wrong. A lovely place that was free for everyone to enjoy and use has been destroyed and was going to be turned into an exclusive spa for a few with money. The corruption within the Republika Srpska’s government then made it unusable for everyone.

We left in a sad, angry and disappointed mood.

The remaining cycling for the day went by quickly. We followed the Drina river to the north on the Bosnian side of the river, leaving the mountains behind. The countryside is getting flatter.

We expected rain for the night. We found a sandy, mosquito-infested, somewhat ugly place directly at the river for the night, had a quick bath and a quick dinner, and disappeared inside our tents just as the thunderstorm started.

Cycled: 74km

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Zvornik + 10km – Brčko

In the morning we were visited by an old guy in rubber boots. He was very friendly and bubbled away in Bosnian/Serbian/whatever. Unfortunately, we didn’t understand a single word. He stayed with us until we left, sometimes watching our every move, sometimes not caring at all.

We continued to cycle along the Drina, on mostly flat roads, through village after village (often a village would begin just a few meters after the previous one ended). We had a bit of a head wind, though, which became worse when we followed the river to the west.

The weather was nice and around noon we stopped to unpack, dry, and clean all our stuff in the sun.

About an hour or two from Brčko, when we were already fighting the head wind, the sky darkened. We found a hotel in town just in time before the thunderstorm hit.

Cycled: 91km

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Brčko – Ilok

It rained heavily all night. The forecast had predicted that it would stop raining sometime in the morning so we waited, but at 11am it was still pouring. We spent our last Bosnian money on burek for breakfast and crossed the river Sava, which forms the border with Croatia here, to the village of Gunja.

The Sava, by the way, flows into the Danube in Belgrade. Two years ago I was standing above the confluence of both rivers, at Kalemegdan (Belgrade Fortress) with friends who I’m going to visit in a few days, at the end of this trip.

Back to Gunja. We checked bus and train schedules but there was nothing that would save us from the weather. So we cycled on.

A few kilometers later, in Drenovci, we split up. András is heading northish, directly to Hungary. I’m going northeastish today, and to Belgrade (southeastish) eventually. It was 2pm by now.

The rain stopped soon. I cycled along the Croatian/Serbian border, on dirt and gravel roads, through a massive and swampy forest at first, and through farmland later. Everything was muddy, and we, my bike as well as myself, received our fair shares of dirt, too. I like. :)

Occasionally the areas left and right of the road were marked with warning signs. There are still landmines there.

The villages had beautiful churches (and houses). There are no mosques here. Closer to Ilok the condition of the churches became worse. They are (most likely) not in use anymore.

I reached Ilok, the easternmost town of Croatia, at the Danube. I’m the only guest in Hostel Cinema, located in a grand, old(-looking) house. Probably downtown. I’m not really sure about Ilok’s geography.

Officially the hostel will reopen for the ‘season’ next week. Though the guy who runs the place said that there is never really much going on in Ilok.

Cycled: 100km

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Ilok – Novi Sad

I slept in this morning and left around noon. Crossed the Danube to Serbia and started looking for something, anything, that could have transported me on the river, just for the fun of it. The port of Bačka Palanka, the first town on the Serbian side, was fenced off and closed. Later there were lots of small boats ashore, but none on the water. I followed the EuroVelo 6, a cycling route that crosses Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, to Novi Sad. The weather was chilly and it kept drizzeling. Two years ago I followed the EV6 from Pančevo for awhile.

In Novi Sad’s port I started looking for a ship again. The only one there was a Ukrainian vessel that didn’t want to take me. :( Traffic is almost nil on the Danube. I’m a bit confused.

Novi Sad is Serbia’s second largest city. It has lots of bars and restaurants, a large and crowded pedestrian zone, and lovely narrow alleys. I quite like it.

Cycled: 57km

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