The rocks of ages: the Ottoman stone bridge and the 17th-centry Sinan Pasha Mosque, Prizren, Kosovo.
Crossing the border from Bulgaria to Serbia, pedalling through the early morning chill of the no-man’s land between the two border posts, I felt a palpable sense of stepping out of the protection and regulation of the EU. As someone who works regularly with country risk reports and reads regularly the seemingly multitudinous threats to life, limb and reputation associated with travel to countries beyond the Union, I was expecting a more downtrodden, dilapidated state of affairs than on the other side of the border in Bulgaria, where it seemed that EU membership had changed little the slow-paced, old life slowly being sidelined or erased by the new.
Crumbling facades and long-silenced guns. Dragovishtica, Bulgaria.
Yet these signs did not come: life simply continued, indifferent to the arbitrary line concocted between the two countries. This same expectation arose briefly and fell with every country I entered following this, particularly Kosovo. Not many people in the UK I can think of can recall the name Kosovo without undertones of civil war, genocide, political deadlock and corruption. Yet entering the country, I felt no real change in the atmosphere except that of my own anticipation. “Wait a minute,” I thought to myself, “this looks like a functioning state to me.” Indeed, much has happened in the eight years since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. The road from Ferizaj to Prizren ran smoother than any road I’d cycled on previously, and after an hour of climb the vista I was greeted with was not one that screamed crime, misery and poverty, but of order, enterprise and progress.
I had certainly been taken aback by the gap between my expectations and the reality that confronted me. But something else was there. Whizzing past the tractors slowly chugging their way to market, the crowds of children leaving school, the myriad petrol stations proudly flying the Albanian flag, I slowly became aware that life here had a dimension which did correspond to my reading. As a traveller (or rather, a tourist, depending on where you lie on the hipster-cynic spectrum you lie) once cannot but slice a line of sight and experience through the crowded, narrow streets, the fields of dewy sunflowers, and take it as the sum reality of that country. But of course that will never be the case, and signs here and there showed that Kosovo and its neighbours perhaps did not enjoy the prosperous, harmonious life I was convincing myself I was seeing. I first noticed it as I passed the town of Nikushtak, just northeast of Skopje. As the land began to fall away in its descent into Macedonia’s capital, turning a corner I was greeted by a wasteland of rubbish. Damp piles of slimy cardboard, old shoes, plastic wrappers, glass bottles and food waste slouched under the clouds, their edges fluttering in the breeze. At first I didn’t notice, but as I stopped to take a photo their slow, forlorn movements caught my eye. Dogs. Tens of them, limping and scrambling over the mounds of refuse, sniffing and picking for scraps to eat, their sandy mongrel coats rendering them nearly indistinguishable from the filth they wandered through, half-obscured by the smoke from smouldering stacks of burning waste which filled the air with an acrid, rotten odour. From then on, I began to notice more and more the sad presence of these dishevelled animals. I had expected – as in the USA – any dogs I saw to come tearing after me, barking manically. But most in the Balkans that I encountered, ownerless, purposeless and lost without property to guard, lowered their gaze as I passed, trotting in small packs down the streets of towns and scurrying into the undergrowth, or lying inert as if dead in the gutters and shadows under the midday sun. Some had tags through their ears to indicate that they had been vaccinated against rabies and registered with local authorities, but most did not.
Dogs were just one of the many signs that state power and organisation was far below those of western European counterparts in building and protecting a cohesive, functioning society. Some were far more literal. In Kosovo, I saw bilingual road signs with the Serbian place names erased, scratched off or painted over in an attempt to drive another wedge between the Albanian and Serbian influences on quotidian life. Indeed, the countries I cycled through are, by many standards, not properly-functioning states. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2015, Macedonia rates the highest at 66th of 167 countries, whilst Kosovo ranks at 103rd, the third lowest-scoring country in Europe (fourth if you count Russia). In terms of media freedom, Macedonia ranks 118th out of 180 countries, and the other Balkan countries do not follow far behind. From what I could see, these countries are in possession of landscapes of huge architectural and natural beauty, but the encroachments of corruption, cronyism and mismanagement are all too present in their failure to provide critical services, with people and animals alike, willing and unwilling, falling like sand through the fingers of the state mandate.
Dogs scavenging for scraps amongst a local refuse heap near Nikushtak, Macedonia.
From my (albeit very) limited viewpoint, it seems that Albania is a country not yet done confronting its own past, and consequently can’t confront its present, and the murky depths of politics surrounding its leaders both past and present. Take current Prime Minister Edi Rama, whose father rose to fame under the regime and even signed the death sentence of dissident anti-communist poet Havzi Nela in 1988. Samira described how he could either be seen as a true socialist and new patriot, or simply another cocaine-addicted son of a regime which in its death throes still claws at the fabric of society.
Ura e Mesit, an 18th-century Ottoman bridge near Shkodër, Albania.
Yet to issue a round condemnation of these countries would not only be overly simplistic, it would be incredibly insulting. I tasted foods so delicious and filling I thought I could never come home again. I experienced besa (honour) and mikpritje (hospitality), two of the pillars of the Albanian national character which I truly believe will play a key part in the development of not only Albania but all its western Balkan neighbours. I saw the history of strong, proud peoples, and though ‘politics’ as such might not always be the first subject of conversation on the table, I sensed that as long as there is a perceived sense of injustice and a need for development, people here will, as they have been doing for the past sixty years, let their voices be heard, to shape their own future, and refuse to slip away into submission and silence like dogs in the night.
Right. Enough. Time to wrap up in a nice, irritating way that can give a sense of conclusion whilst actually just cutting things off in medias res. I think it’s fair to say I’ve learned several key lessons from this experience:
The risk reports aren’t reality – Of course there are reasonable levels of risk that one might expect to encounter, and to act on them as gospel would be to alienate yourself from (by and large) very kind, ordinary, well-intending people.
Train, train, train – Had I been better physically prepared for this trip, I might have achieved my original goal, and seen a lot more to boot.
BE HERE NOW – Failure is nothing but a mindset if the parameters are set in your head: to be flexible and to engage more with the present will render travel – particularly bicycle travel – more enjoyable.
But aside from all this moralising, semi-spiritual flatulence, I can highly recommend coming to this corner of the globe, which a few years ago I had next to no idea existed, and particularly seeing it by bicycle. The hills are hard, but the scenery is engaging (if not always classically aesthetically pleasing), the culture and history fascinating, and the people, well, just human beings like you and I. Fuelled by the need to keep moving, I will keep riding for now, but I am curious to see where this part of the world is going.