Kosovo and Albania the perfect place for a holiday
Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
26Trip End Nov 20, 2010
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After a good long rest in Nis I had been able to plan the rest of my trip to Istanbul, looked at ways I might get home without using a plane and felt energised and ready to hit the road again. As I pedalled out through town I noticed it was a tad smoky, then I saw a fire engine, then another and as the buildings thinned I noticed a large grey plume coming from the fields on the edge of town. Farmers here tend to burn of their land (in fact people tend to burn anything and everything). The problem today was a very strong wind (the worst I had experienced yet) so one of these fires had got out of hand and was ranging towards the town. The wind was really annoying, it was gusty and hitting me from the side, in my opinion this is worst than a headwind and really dangerous. When the wind blows from the side you have to lean into it to avoid being pushed off the road, however when a gust stops all of a sudden you are left still leaning into the middle of the road and proceed to veer out in front of the cars overtaking you
I nearly got stuck in Kosovo
Entering Kosovo is interesting. Obviously most people have heard about this little country due to the recent war that took place. The aftermath of the war has left it in a position where although it is recognised as a country by most others in the world, Serbia still doesn't recognise it as an official country. The problem with this is that as the Serbians don't offer entry or exit stamps on the border because as far as they are concerned you are not entering a new country. This means that you can't realistically enter Serbia from Kosovo (which was one of the reasons I took the long route through Serbia) because you won't have any stamp to prove your allowed to be in the country when you go to leave. there have been cases of the border guards not letting people leave unless they go back through Kosovo (although I think it’s probably not such a problem now). This conundrum works both ways round so the problem which I will experience should I ever wish to go back to Serbia is that I don't have an exit stamp due to leaving into Kosovo. So technically I never left Serbia, this doesn’t matter at the moment but they find it a tad strange when you try to go back into the country that you should, according to their records already be in anyway. The border was a bit more tense than most and had its fair share of machine gun wilding troops giving you the once over. I’m pretty sure there were Serbian police there, not checking passports but just checking you over before you leave
Once into the country you wouldn't know that there had been any problems if it wasn't for the large amount of military vehicles mostly with KFOR written on them, this stands for Kosovo Force. KFOR guard the country, they are often seen guarding important public buildings and religious buildings to ensure they aren't vandalised. When your near the one of the large KFOR bases (which seems to be most of the time you are in Kosovo) pretty much every other vehicle is a military one, lorries, jeeps, ambulances (unfortunately none of the interesting ones like tanks though). There are also a number of peace keeping forces from other countries so every now and then a jeep with go past with a Turkish or Croatian flag flying. I was quite excited when I saw one of the stereotypical white jeeps with UN written in big letters on the side, something i had only ever seen on TV before. The one thing that is common amongst the soldiers is that they all seem to appreciate the effort required by crazy people on bikes and often give a thumbs up accompanied by a look of admiration. Pristina isn't the most interesting of places that’s for sure, but it’s very lively with cars and people everywhere
I gave up on fixing my bike for the time being and decided instead to send some stuff home. This is something I have done on a number of occasions in a number of countries and I saw no reason why it shouldn't work from Kosovo. I found the post office and was not surprised to find very very little English was spoken by the ladies that worked there. I managed (somehow) to explain what I wanted and was pretty confident they understood
The rest of my time in Kosovo was pretty drama free, my one day off in Pristina to explore was rained off and after a couple of hours getting completely soaked I gave up on trying to see any of the sights (although I don't know if there are any) apart from an amazing looking public library. I couldn't photograph it due to the rain but looked like a space station had accidently been built instead of a library, it was quite impressive. I did have one close call just before leaving Kosovo. I was staying in a motel near the Albanian border. I had made the mistake of assuming that there would be some motels on the far side of town and soon realised that there was nothing apart from fields, which meant that I ended up doing a bit of very dodgy night time riding
Albania - Mercedes, donkeys, dodgy roads and concrete mushrooms
I was excited about entering Albania. When telling people I was going to Albania, some people including my dad, met it with the reply, "oh I wouldn't go there if I were you, dodgy people those Albanians". I hoped however after talking to other people that had been there it would be a bit more challenging and unusual as this would make it more interesting. Even at the border crossing it was already interesting. There were queues of cars waiting but I soon got waved at by another driver who spoke English and said "don't bother waiting, go to the front" waving me down towards the front of the queue. As I neared the front I discovered part of the reason there was such a long queue. It would appear that a lorry coming out of Albania had stopped or broken down so a bus and a few cars had decided to go round it blocking all the cars trying to get into Albania from the other direction. Other cars had followed the bus and a bemused police man was stuck in the middle blowing a whistle and waving like crazy trying to bring some order to the proceedings so people could once again enter and exit the country. To avoid this I stepped up onto a pavement which had a bikes and pedestrians sign
The concrete mushrooms are in fact tank proof bunkers which were designed on the request of the countries crazy communist leader who decided that they should be placed all over the country in case of attack. There are literally thousands of them littered all over the country, like 700000 of them. When they were first designed the head engineer was asked if they were tank proof to which he replied "yes of course" this was probably the wrong thing to say to a crazy communist leader who then insisted that the poor engineer should go inside one whilst it was being bombarded by a tank to prove their ability (luckily his claims were true and he was ok)
By far the most common type of car in Albania are big old Mercedes Benz saloons, often caked in mud and with blacked out windows. This makes it looks like half the country is in the mafia (some probably are). Another common sight (and I mean very common maybe 1 in 5 cars) are British 4x4's, apparently some of them come from tourists who drive to Albania in them, then sell them and fly home, most however are probably stolen or unsafe for UK roads so get shipped over to Albania where no one seems to care about these things. In the particular mountain region I was in it was very common for people to go and work in the UK and bring back a jeep. This means that quite often you will get the usual "hello" and wave followed by "how are ya mate, enjoying Albania?" in a mild cockney accent which can be quite disconcerting.
I have been wondering to myself why people think Albania is such a dodgy country. On the whole the people are very friendly, most people honk and wave, and every few minutes there will be someone shouting (often from a far off hillside) "HELLO!!!!" in a very enthusiastic manner
You meet all sorts of people in Albania
Lots of people stop you to try out their English. My favourite conversation was with a guy working on a road (a very bad road, but I'll get to that in a bit). He said "hello" and asked where I was from. Most people who speak good English have lived in the UK for a bit although no one yet has known where Hereford is
I mentioned previously seeing lots of British 4x4's, well there is a good reason for this, the roads are pretty horrific. The superdooper duel carriage way from the border was misleading. The next road would take me across the mountains all the way to the Macedonian border. It started off paved and pretty nice and I began to wonder why so many people warned me about the Albanian roads
There's only one way to travel in Albania (and its not by bike)
Due to the 'interesting' road conditions and the fact that many of the houses are balanced precariously high in the mountains by far the most popular mode of transport is the Albanian (much to my delight as they were fascinating to watch) is the donkey (and sometimes mules and ponies). No matter where you look there will usually be a little old man guiding his donkey along a tiny meandering path. The variety and amount of things that they can carry is at times astounding (take a look at my pictures for some examples). The donkeys are so used to most of the routes they tread that they virtually walk themselves stopping to check for cars and waiting occasionally for their 'minder’ to catch up. Most donkeys come fitted with baskets which can be used for carrying groceries, building rubble, fire wood, kids (who sit with one foot in each basket) and just about anything else imaginable. To carry hay the donkey is adapted to become a kind of giant moving hay stack. Sheaths of corn are also carried in a similar way but they are strapped to the sides then piled up crating a very tall thin load (often at least a couple of times the height of the donkey)
The road continued to amazing and bemuse. There were supposedly two roads heading this way however I’m 90% sure that one of them didn’t exist at all. The route I ended up taking seemed to be an amalgamation of the two and I had no idea where I was at times. I ended up just asking people periodically where the road headed to check I was still going the right way. The surface changed continuously. There was another section after the village that was brand new tarmac but this didn't last long and soon there were varying sections of mud, pot holes, some sections where rivers had diverted either down or across the road, the water was a good few inches deep in places. There were a few sections where heavy rain had caused half the road to fall down the mountain side. Some of these were marked with a few small rocks placed next to the edge to presumably 'prevent?' drivers disappearing over the side at night (the drop was a good few hundred feet and almost sheer, i don't think the stones would be much help to be honest). Obviously the road was shared with many battered Mercedes, some pretty huge old lorries laden with sheep etc and many a donkey. There were also some sections of road which were in the process of being prepared for paving although these preparations seems to take place so slowly that by the time they had finish a section the weather and traffic had worn away the start so they have to go back and repair the repairs meaning they never actually got round to paving it
Another thing about Albania which was not so good (in my honest opinion) was that it was seemingly impossible to get tomato sauce that was edible. The pasta itself was shockingly bad and would turn to a starchy soup virtually instantaneously but this was often the case in poorer countries where they only sell the cheapest brands. What was really odd is the universal ability to make any form of tomato sauce so salty that it was virtually impossible to eat. I also discovered the same thing with local olives which seem to be bathed in the most salty water imaginable, granted I’m sure it was doing its job and I’m pretty certain that there is no way they would ever go off, at least not for a good 10 years or so. The pasta sauce was so bad that even though I had been battling the bumpy battered road all day and was starving, I had to admit defeat throw a whole pan of pasta and sauce away, cook the other half of the pasta and eat it bare. So let this be a word of warning to any cycle tourer's who hope to eat pasta whilst cycling in Albania, think again!