Sitting here at my computer, safely within the comforting bubble of middle-class existence, it’s easy to start getting all preachy and idealistic about where I’ve been. I’ll try not to. I tried to keep a daily log of my 450-mile (or thereabouts), two-week journey through Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania, but began to find that style of writing so thoroughly exasperating that I’ve decided on a new approach. Instead of a day-by-day log, I’ll try to summarise some of the more interesting parts of my trip in a couple of ‘episodes’, interspersed with pictures, in four parts. Here goes.
Something something something crappy window metaphor. Prizren, Kosovo.
(Note: As much as I like its form, I will use Latin transliterations of Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian for ease of reading. However, subject to strong petitioning I can always add the Cyrillic if desired.)
Good way to set the tone, I reckon. Near Dolno Ujno, Bulgaria.
I had camped by a water processing facility upstream of Dolno Ujno, a small village in southwestern Bulgaria, only a couple of miles from the Serbian border, lazing the evening away writing in my notebook, and taking my first opportunity to wash in the river. I waited until dark to set my tent up, for although I’d been told by the border police I’d met a few hours previously whether it was ok to camp in the area, I didn’t want to get myself into more trouble than was necessary by setting up camp so close to the road, which wound its way through the steep, wooded hills. Leaning against a small embankment, it was only the sound of rushing water and the sounds of insects and birds which broke the silence, with the occasional passing car (only once every half-hour or so) disturbing the placidity of the clearing in which I was camped.
Near Dolno Ujno, Bulgaria.
Awaking the next morning I quickly buzzed into action, driven by the challenge of the day ahead and the slight nip of the cold morning air. Tent packed, bottles full and maps ready, I set off for Serbia, the road rising ever so slightly as I followed the river towards its source. When I reached the border, I had been expecting a lengthy process of examination, documentation and miscommunication (I spoke no more Serbian than da (yes), ne (no), dobor dan (hello), and hvala vam (thank you)). However, a two-minute wait was all that obstructed me on both the Bulgarian and Serbian side of the border. Surprised at the half-hearted, half-imprinted stamp which confirmed my entry into Serbia, I quickly tried to refocus my mind – it was only 8:00 AM, but I had a lot of miles to cover.
I had planned to follow a minor back-road up a long valley until I reached a point where only Google Maps could confirm the presence of a tiny, winding mountain track leading over the mountains into the next valley. Yet as I began to employ my direction confirmation tactic of pointing in the direction of travel and asking the name of the next village I expected to be on my route, two ills befell me (though ostensibly only one). The first was the fact that the road I was planning to follow was neither on my offline map on my phone, nor on the paper maps I had brought with me. The second was that I began to receive conflicting advice from the people I stopped to indicate the way. Both of these were, of course, compounded by my lack of Serbian language skills: a solid foundation for confusion and failure. The phrase bela voda was bandied around in several of the villages I passed through, and in the small village of Bistar one young woman’s seeming translation into English of “big mountain” had me convinced that it wouldn’t be too long before I was over the mountains and heading out of Serbia. From their charades, it seemed that by following their advice, I would avoid foresters operating in the area. Illegal forestry is big business in southern Serbia, and with an average of 69 guns for every 100 people in Serbia I’d already seen enough trees haphazardly cut to know that I didn’t want to run into any extra-legal situations. I followed their instructions, heading further up the valley before my planned ascent over the mountain.
It wasn’t long before I came undone. Completely off any map I had with me, I was lost, and it was all I could to simply keep following the stony, steep track as it meandered uphill away from the river far below. I began to rely on hand-scribbled diagrams given at first by a miner, then by an old man gathering wild rosehips on the side of the mountain. The latter spoke some German, and with the all the broken Deutsch I could muster (having stopped learning it in secondary school ten years ago), I tried to explain where I was aiming for, using the next place name I could see on the map: Radovnica. The man looked at me and turned, pointing directly up the mountain. “Füss. Auto. Füss. Auto.” He seemed to indicate that if I pushed my bike up this mountain, I’d find some sort of road, which I would then have to leave on foot, before finding the road to Radovnica. I was perplexed. I’d seen a few small cars and even a truck lurching their way up the tiny tracks (for the pavement had run out after about three miles from the Serbian border post), but if I had to go on foot, what would the terrain be like?
Damn it. Near Karamanica, Serbia.
The ‘footpath’ had started as a set of two vague lines, wove through the grass and rosehips at a gradient I was barely able to heave my bike (and its sixteen kilos of luggage) up, slowly becoming a sheep-track of thorns and waist-high grass which ripped and scratched at my shins as I toiled slowly upwards. When, after nearly half an hour, I did finally reach the road (again, another gravel track) its direction didn’t seem to correspond with the ‘map’ the old man had drawn me. On top of this ‘big mountain’, I sat for a moment, looking out over the mountains which ran along the Serbian border with Bulgaria to the southeast, and then with Macedonia to the southwest. The sun beat down, but the strong breeze made the heat bearable despite the flies sticking to the sweat which dripped from my every pore. I decided to try and head towards where I thought the original route I had planned was. Winding along a ridge between the tops of the mountains, I yo-yoed between a crawling pace of only a few miles an hour on the climbs and doing everything in my power to not hurtle over the handlebars on the bone-shaking descents, my front brakes screaming. Eventually I came to a junction which I initially passed, but decided to follow in the hope that, simply by going west (according to my watch’s electronic compass), I would find the road to Radovnica. My road, however, began to descend sharply into a muddy track too steep and hairpinned for me to even countenance riding. I stopped, panting. Then I heard the whine of chainsaws, which had been growing louder over the screech of my brakes. Exhausted and afraid, I put my head on my handlebars, thought of home, and began to weep.
I have never been truly lost before. Then sensation of not knowing where you are nor where you are going, in a country you don’t know speaking a language you don’t understand, was more than I could bear. I hadn’t had the face to admit I was wrong, to turn around and go back to Bulgaria, and now I was paying dearly for it. Beginning to run low on water, I was becoming more and more desperate for a way out, closing my eyes and wanting to disappear, to be transported instantaneously into the arms of my girlfriend and my family. But to falter and stop would surely be worse than to continue in uncertainty, would it not? I steadied my thinking, taking long, deep breaths, and pressed on.
The track became more established, and as the sounds of the chainsaws faded behind me I felt a little safer, and continued to follow the contours of the valley through dense deciduous forest, leaves flying and beech nuts cracking under my tyres. Suddenly, I spied houses through the trees on the hill above me. Thrilled, my pace increased. But another junction left me confused, and after minutes of waiting I tried my phone in the non-existent hope that somehow I might have access to roaming data. To my surprise, a blue dot emerged on my map, the first time the GPS had successfully worked since I owned the phone. Yet I was nowhere near where I thought I was, and nowhere near any of the names on my offline map. I began to plot points at every junction I turned at, hoping upon hope that the ache in my legs would end if I could just get to Radovnica. Wending my way uphill, I finally reached some houses: not the ones I’d seen earlier, but nonetheless inhabited. Dobor dan, I cried out, hoping for a response as I walked up to one with an open door. The tethered dogs’ sudden barking startled me, and I was relieved to see a little old woman with a wrinkled face emerge. She began asking question after question that I couldn’t respond to (or so I inferred from her expectant stare). As she yelled for her husband I slumped onto a rock in the garden and wept, hardly able to stop as the couple re-emerged. I had given up hope of reaching Macedonia before the day’s end, and all I wanted was an end to this torturous sense of unknowing. I decided to focus on one word: Radovnica, the start of the road (at least on my maps) on the other side of the mountains. The old man’s eyebrows furrowed, and then almost instantaneously he pointed upwards again, to the top of yet another peak. It was all I could do to thank him for the water he kindly offered me from his spring, and that made me realise that voda didn’t mean ‘mountain’ but ‘water’: Bela Voda was the name of a village somewhere upon the mountain, and I had been misinterpreting the woman of Bistar all along. I dried my tears and with a hvala was off, making it only a few hundred yards before stopping at another house to double-check.
At last, my fortunes began to turn. One of the three men who greeted me at the second house (after silencing their own barking dogs) drew me another map which looked surprisingly like my remembrance of the Google Map I’d tried to copy weeks ago onto my phone. I felt rude for refusing their offer of coffee, but was spurred onwards with renewed vigour. This vigour, however, did not translate into physical energy, as my legs gave out and I was forced to push to the top of the mountain on foot for the last mile and a half (I’m estimating here, as my cycle computer gave up on me after having my having pedalled so slowly for it to not recognise it was even moving).
Unintentional but gorgeous. The road to Radovnica, Serbia.
Finally cresting the mountain, the road curved suddenly and my hope that I had accidentally stumbled across my original route grew momentously. Buoyed by hope, I stopped to survey the surroundings. I stood on a ridge between two valleys, grasses waving lazily in the breeze, the afternoon sun obscured slightly by clouds. Somewhere, the bells of cows tinkled on the hillside. Despite not being completely certain where I was, I could not but let the peace of this comparative isolation sink in, washing away the stress of the life I’d left in the UK only two days before. Were it not for my strictly-timed plan (and diminishing water supply), I could have sat for a good few hours to watch the sun go down over the mountains. But I had to move onward, and besides, this was the first downhill after miles of grunting, swearing, sweating and crying. Careful not to get too carried away, I let the brakes out a bit and surged forward, before finally reaching the junction I’d been waiting for: the first signpost I’d seen in over seven hours, which read “Ravodnica – 13km”. I could have cried for joy, but didn’t because I’d already exceeded my daily quota of tears many times over and had little water to spare, though I was in luck, for a newly-plumbed pipe trickled water into a stone trough from a nearby spring. I sat, panting, and drank deep of the cool, refreshing water.
The imbalance in the elaborate selfie : landscape/actually interesting ratio will be addressed, I promise. Near Radovnica, Serbia.
But the day was wearing on, and so must I: bottles full, I set off downhill. The backs of my thumbs were rubbed raw on the gear shifters from the death-grip I held on the handlebars, and my knees blacked with the plastic rubbed from my water bottles, but the remaining miles to Radovnica, winding and gravelly as they were, shot by. Before I knew it, the tarmac began, and though patchwork at first, it quickly became one of the smoothest pieces of road I’ve ever ridden. Reaching Trgovište, the only town in Serbia I would visit with an ATM, I quickly stocked up on supplies and hurried onwards, anxious to make up for the time I’d spent in the mountains. I might have said it was ‘lost’ time, but in retrospect, perhaps it was not. I’d seen the other side to my ambitious, ignorant way of travelling, and having escaped the encounter relatively unscathed, I could appreciate not only the ridiculous harshness of the challenge I’d set myself, but also the beauty of the land and the kindly, well-intentioned nature of the people I’d met. Were it not for them, things would have gone a lot worse. But even a bad experience is good experience.