Bombing through Bosnia (Pun intended)

Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
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Trip End Nov 20, 2010


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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Creepy Croatian Mountains
Coming over the Croatian mountains on the way to Bosnia was a very strange experience. I maybe saw 5 people the whole afternoon. Many of the houses along the way had obviously been deserted during the war and no one had bothered coming back leaving eerie ghost villages. I was getting a bit worried as it would be pretty depressing if the whole of Bosnia was like this, finding accommodation would be a nightmare. That evening i rolled into a very strange little town right on the bank of the river that forms the border between Croatia and Bosnia. The town came complete with dilapidated tower blocks many of which were deserted, awful streets with massive holes etc and inhabitants who gave me some very strange looks indeed. I realised i had no chance of finding a hotel or motel so frantically rode around and managed to find a field over an embankment next to the main road (not the best of campsites I'll admit). After all the strange and deserted villages in Croatia I was a bit surprised the next morning when I woke up and crossed over the river into Bosnia i Herzegovina (BiH) to find a busy little metropolis, it was much more charming than the strange ghost town on the other side. It was a bit dirty but full of people and buzzing with activity. The border crossing was very easy, the guy asked how far I had come and when I showed him my cycle computer he read it twice then shook his head, smiled out of astonishment then waved me away. Unfortunately however he wasn't impressed enough to let me take a photo of the sign which said welcome to BiH. BiH is an interesting little country mostly due to the tensions that have divided it up into its current state. For those that don't know BiH is now split into two parts Bosnia in the north and Herzegovina in the south, simple right, well no because politically it is split up as well into the Republika Srpska (RS) which is Serbian and the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina (the federation) which is muslim and croat. This split is however not a simple divide (that would be too easy), central and western BiH forms most of the federation with the rest being the RS. There are some differences between the two parts with the main one being the use of the cyrillic alphabet in the RS which makes for interesting navigation. There lots of other minor differences, the one i noticed (because it is very important) was of course beer as there was lots of Serbian beer available in the RS.

Bosnia is Bustling
The first thing that struck me about the town, apart from the chaotic little streets bustling with people selling stuff and going about their daily business, was the smell of wood smoke. Its a smell that i love, in these parts wood is still used as the main source of heat even in the towns giving the streets a unique odour. Another change that is obvious straight away is the rocket like towers poking out of the houses, these towers belong to mosques and as well as showing where mosques are they also hold the speakers which are used a few times a day to bellow (and i mean bellow, sometimes you can here them from literally miles away) the call to prayer out across the town. Its and strange and slightly eerie sound which takes a bit of getting used to (it is kind of like a cross between singing and talking although as i have no idea what they are saying it all sounds a bit similar to me). It makes for a much more foreign experience riding along listing to the crazy wailing from the mosques and is a refreshing change from the usual boring churches. I rode round for a bit watching the world go by, stocked up on money and food and headed off already exited to be in a more interesting and intriguing country. One thing which strikes you as an outsider riding through Bosnia is the houses still riddled with bullet holes, it's pretty strange to be riding through a country which you have only ever seen on the news filmed by war correspondents in a shower of bullets and shells. My first night was spent in Banja Luka, the hostel i stayed in was run by a really nice young guy who was very chatty and as well as filling me in on the Bosnian people and politics, left me with a long list of local food to try. One thing that is great in Bosnia (in my very hungry cycle touring opinion) is the number of bakeries (literally every 100m in town there will be one) as well as filling meaty stuff like burek (kind of like a flat meat pie) they also have a massive array of sweet pastries which are normally huge and often filled with cherry jam or chocolate (I think I have eaten rather too many baked products since I have been here). I also discovered Nektar a superbly named beer they have in the RS.

Is There Anywhere Flat in Bosnia
My second day was a hilly one, a very hilly one. It was 105km long, I started at 200m climbed to 900m dropped down to 450m the climbed up to 1200m and finally dropped down to 500m (i couldn't be bothered to change it into feet for the oldies so you will just have to believe me that its a lot of climbing!). It was a cold misty damp day, and gave passing abandoned bullet riddled homes a really eerie feeling. I also saw my first sign warning of mines. There are still millions of landmines scattered in some parts of Bosnia so not surprisingly i was not that keen on wild camping (it was also pretty cold and miserable). The scenery was really good, large forested mountains with rivers flowing between them, it made for interesting riding. I also enjoyed passing through the small mountain settlements and watching the kids astonished faces as I rode passed with all my gear (I don't think many cycle tourers had passed this way before). Usually i got some shouting and waving and the occasional kid running after me shouting "hello, hello". One cool sight coming through the mountains was roadside restaurants cooking chickens using water power. Basically they have a row of spits over a big bed of coals then they find a nearby spring direct it past their restaurant, put a big wooden water wheel in it and via some engineering jiggery pokery use it to turn the chickens, a pretty cool solution to keep the motorists plied roast chickens (its a bit different from the usual McDonald's and Burger King). It looked pretty good however i wasn't quite convinced they would be cooked at 11 in the morning and as hungry as i was they were big chickens and it appeared you had to get a whole one, so i decided to pass.  Something Bosnia's drivers do which appears to be an unofficial road rule (i think they should introduce this in the UK personally) is honk to let you know when they are going to overtake, its really useful especially as lorry drivers do it pretty much without exception giving you plenty of warning so you can brace yourself. Of course at first i didn't realise all this and thought everyone hated cyclists and were honking out of anger. Some people would also put a little wave in or just give me the usual are you mad and why do you have all that crap attached to your bike stare.

Whist staying in a really good motel in Travnik i was introduced (quite dangerously, due to it forming a larger part of my diet from there on) to one of the foods i was recommended.
I had asked the guy at reception if there was a take away nearby. He was a nice guy and when i said i wanted something quick he said "have you tried Ćevapi?" i replied "No", he then told me there was a really good place that does it nearby but it was so good he would only tell me if i got him one as well. As soon as he said that i knew i was onto a winner. Luckily he had the foresight to phone up on our behalf and make the order sending me off to pick them up. The girls that worked there found it very funny and couldn't understand why a Bosnian guy had sent a hairy English guy to pick them up, they just kept laughing and taking about me in Bosnian (i could tell as English is a word that is easy to pick out whatever the language). Ćevapi is really popular fast food in the Baltics although originally from Turkey, it is basically a big round fried flat bread, filled with 10 small sausages of spicy meat, like mini shish kebabs and onions.  Luckily he was right and it was just want i needed after my hilly ride.

Taking Sniper Alley Into Sarajevo
Riding into Sarajevo was interesting, for a start I somehow ended up on the motorway (the road just suddenly turned into a motorway with next to no warning and no way of getting off). It was very busy and lorries were honking at me (out of anger), so I pulled over up against the barrier and assessed the situation (after some moderate to strong cursing). I couldn't turn back, I couldn't cross as I was on a bend under an overpass, if I continued I wouldn't be able to get off for 10km the only other option involved lifting a fully laden touring bike over a motorway barrier then pushing it across 5, yes 5 railway lines to a small miscellaneous road on the other side which i thought went the right way but might have ended up back on the motorway. Of course the safest option was the last one which typically involved the most effort. Luckily trains in Eastern Europe are slow, very slow. We complain about the trains at home but at least they are usually as fast or faster than driving. I have seen a number of trains and I'm pretty sure if a train was coming i would have been able to see it and still have enough time to make a cup of tea, bake a cake to go with it and then sit down with the paper whilst enjoying it and still be able to get out the way. For this reason I wasn't too worried about crossing so many train tracks. The road happened to go the right way and I was soon pedalling down sniper alley. For anyone that doesn't know this is the large 6 lane road lined with tower blocks that was shown all the time during the TV coverage of the war. It got it's name because Serbian snipers would use the hills around to pick of civilians as they tried to cross the street. I also passed the infamous Holiday Inn which was home to all the journalists reporting on the war. It was pretty strange and even though I was young when the war was on I still recognised the images I had seen on TV. Now however it is a different story, busy with traffic and buzzing with trams ferrying people around town. The old town in Sarajevo is compact but nice it has a very Turkish feel with lots of small shops selling copperware as well as many other things which would look more at home in Istanbul. Sarajevo is an interesting city and it feels different from any other, partly because it is surrounded on three sides by mountains. The houses are dotted all the way up the steep slopes out of town so you always get a distant view even in the middle, its easy to see how it could be surrounded as happened during the war. One day I walked up the hill at the end of the town to look at the view. On the way I passed one of the many graveyards which dot the hillsides, they are very distinctive with rows of white marble pillars. The view was great although it would have been much better if the hills didn't disappear into wet mist and clouds (it was just like being at home).

You Meet Some Interesting Types in Hostels
I met lots of interesting (and unusual) people in the hostel. There was a nice American woman who was travelling with her two teenage sons. I thought that was a little strange, I continued chatting away and was a little surprised when I asked how long they had been travelling for and she replied "two years!" she had sold her house and they had basically been all over the world. When they started her sons were 15 and 16, as she home schooled them they could continue with their exams whilst travelling. It was pretty amazing thing to do (note to mum and dad, why did you not do this with me?) but I couldn't help wondering if it would be a bit weird as a teenager always having your mum around, I for one would prefer to do my own thing. There were also some other cyclists which was great to see. They were a couple of lads from the UK who had set off 5 weeks previously and were also heading to Istanbul although taking a much more direct route. Once again I was surprised when I asked them how long they were going for and they replied "well we have enough money for a year or two!" Now that's what I call a cycling trip. You get all sorts in hostels and I met a very good example in Sarajevo. There were a number of us who had been sitting round chatting including one guy who was pretty huge. He was way over 6 foot with massive arms and blatantly in the military or i suppose he could have been a wrestler. It turned out he was indeed in the US army and just using his leave to go travelling. I hadn't really talked to him much as he had gone out with some of the others for a meal. When they came back I was busy devouring the stakes I had just cooked (I was missing red meat). We sat around chatting and one of the girls started talking to him about his balloons. I was a little confused and wondered if it was some kind of strange innuendo. But it turned out he did balloon modelling which we all found quite amusing as he did not look like the type of person who would do this (although I'm not sure that there is a balloon modeller stereotype). Anyways after more questioning he said "ok I'll show you, let me just go and get my balloons" he arrived back with a sleeping bag stuff sack full of different coloured balloons and his trusty pump. We found it very funny and were waiting for poodles etc to be produced. He said "I'll make you something whilst you talk, it takes a while". There were four of us sitting round the table and we were all transfixed, this was balloon modelling like none of us had ever seen before. Forget the usual poodles etc he was using different coloured balloons and joining different parts together "I'll make you Martin the Martian" he said. It took about 30 minutes and used at least 15 balloons, he was such an interesting guy we questioned him as he went. The finished martian has to be seen to be believed (don't worry there is a photo), we were all amazed as to what can be done with balloons in the right hands. It's often the best part of travelling, the crazy people you meet along the way.

A Not So Close Shave
One interesting experience in Sarajevo came courtesy of my every increasing shaggy appearance due to months on the road. I decided that something needed to be done about it so as well as tiding up my facial fuzz i decided to risk getting a haircut. Of course the hair dresser didn't speak a word of English however luckily i had come prepared and had a picture of me with shorter hair which i hoped she might be able to copy. I flashed the photo at her and she was off. I had just picked the nearest hairdresser to the hostel which appeared to be more of a salon so i soon found myself having my hair washed and brushed (something quite alien to a bloke, especially one who has been mostly living in a tent for the last few months). Luckily Bosnian hairdressers are much more cautious than the ones back home and i managed to end up with out having my head shaved (something i was quite worried about due to the other guys i had seen leaving when i entered) and what what was left didn't look too bad either. Now being both rested and moderately presentable i felt i was ready to hit the road once more and head towards to coast. My enthusiasm had been boosted by the weather reports which were mentioning temperatures of 20 degrees which sounded very much like my cup of tea!

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