Kosovo and Albania the perfect place for a holiday

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


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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A windy way out of Serbia
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. Anyone who has cycled past a gateway in a hedgerow on a windy day will know what I mean. The panniers don't help either acting like little sails catching every gust of wind with vigour, I had to take it really slow and on a few occasions I was being pushed a few feet out in to the road, it was really draining and not the start I was hoping for.

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. The Kosovan troops were a friendly bunch and couldn’t believe how far I had ridden but I do find it hard to joke around when the person you are joking with has an AK47 in his hand and looks about 18.

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. It doesn't sit so well in my memory but mostly because the guesthouse I was staying in was up a 1 in 5 hill which was only partly surfaced and as I arrived in torrential rain had torrents of very muddy icy cold water streaming down it (pretty much the most horrible thing to ride in the dark in busy traffic that is stopping every two seconds). For a couple of days my pedalling had been accompanied by rather unhealthy sounds coming from my bike chain so I decided a new one was in order. It was great fun bombing round the back streets amongst all the traffic trying to find a 'bike shop' I say bike shop as when I eventually found it, it was nothing more than a very grubby garage where a young guy repaired bikes and mopeds. I got the chain (despite a lack of English) but unfortunately realised on fitting it that my rear sprocket was so worn it wouldn't make any difference. This was not what I wanted to discover as it was the only part on my whole bike which required a very special (and expensive) German tool to remove.

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. However I did get a slight shock when it came to paying. I had assumed (stupidly) that it would cost about 10-15 quid (the same price it had cost in every other country I had posted stuff from). However she wrote the price down for me, a whopping 23 Euro!! It isn't very easy to challenge a price when the person you are challenging doesn't speak a word of English. I got a few people involved including some of the other customers but soon realised I was getting nowhere and decided to give in and hope that by some miracle it actually might arrive home at some point in the near future. So a word of warning don’t post anything from Kosovo, it was even more expensive that posting stuff from Norway.

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. I managed to find a motel eventually and decided I wanted some proper food so would attempt to cook pasta in my room (something I was getting quite good at). I wanted some fried veg to spice it up (although note that onion is not a good bet unless you have some very very stinky shower gel to remove the smell afterwards) so I decided to close the bathroom door to ensure that my loud frying noises didn't alert any suspicion amongst the staff. This of course was a school boy error and as I pulled it shut I watched the handle come off in my hand. "O Dear" was not the first thing that came into my head but that cannot be repeated on here. Like most people I am not claustrophobic, that is until I am trapped in a small space with no way of escaping (funny that). It was one of those situations where all I could do was laugh, I was contemplating how exactly I could alert someones attention to get out, and then how to explain the cooking stove, gas, knife etc sitting on the bathroom floor besides me. I decided I would have to put my pasta and cooker in the small rubbish bin in the corner and hope they wouldn't smell anything. I messed around for a while whilst simultaneously trying to keep an eye on my pasta which was still happily boiling away. Typically my Leatherman was on the other side of the door so all I had to work with was a pan handle and a cooking spatula and a blunt knife. Luckily after about 10 minutes of mild panicking and strong to severe swearing I managed to get the door handle half on which gave enough purchase to open the door. It made me remember you never know what situation you will find yourself in next when cycle touring so always be prepared.

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. I was happily walking along when I released to my right there was the small matter of a straight 40 foot drop, of course there was no hand rail or warning sign, it was pretty scary stuff. I was very lucky I noticed when I did as I could have easily become unbalanced with my heavy loaded bike and fallen off the edge which probably would have been the end of me. The advantage to all the traffic based chaos was that I was temporarily the only person who could enter the country which of course I was able to do with great speed and soon I had a huge brand new duel carriageway all to myself. The first thing you notice about Albania is how amazing the scenery is, huge hills and snow capped mountains, not at all how I imagined it. The second thing you notice is the concrete mushrooms sprouting up from seemingly haphazard locations all over the country.

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). The problem now is that because they were designed to be tank proof there is no easy way to get rid of them so it’s common to see them plonked by the side of new roads or building sites where the workers have dug them up and dragged them out the way

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. The kids are all very curious (and this is probably one of the things which makes unprepared people feel uneasy), they often stand in the middle of the road and try and flag you down to chat or shout "HELLO" as you go past. If you do stop and chat often you accumulate a swarm of kids, some of whom will run after you as you leave. In the cities they are a bit less friendly and will sometimes ask for money or cigarettes which if you are not used to it might be a bit unnerving. Of course not everyone is super friendly and some do give you funny looks but all of this behaviour is probably due to the fact Albania has been closed for so long the people are simply not used to seeing tourists. Another funny thing is people shouting "HELLO" quickly followed by "F OFF" as you ride through town. The first couple of times this happened I was a bit worried and wondered if my dad was right. However after a couple more times I began to realise it was youths of a certain age who obviously didn't get taught much English at school but have picked up some words from movies and obviously the 'F word' seems to be the most memorable, it became quite funny in the end as it happened so often. It is quite common for people, on discovering you are English to spout out every English word they know in quick succession, which is very amusing to whiteness. Sometimes the words are pretty strange, common sayings for shop keepers are "cheaper than Tesco" and "Asda Price" accompanied by a slap of the back pocket which makes me smile.

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 told him I lived near the Welsh border, "do you speak Welsh" he replied. I obviously said "no" but told him some friends of mine do (my old flat mate spoke Welsh as his first language). "I speak some Welsh" he replied to my amazement, he then proceeded to spout out some of the common sayings, Bore da, Iechid da, etc. It was already becoming a pretty strange conversation. He then asked if I was on my own, I told him I was, and jokingly said "yeah I'm pretty crazy, I know" as most people can't believe I'm travelling alone. His reply however was "your not as crazy as me!" I glossed over this as I really hoped that I wasn't talking to a self confessed crazy Albanian in the middle of nowhere surrounded by all his mates. He then repeated it, so I had to acknowledge him "oh, ok" I said. "Guess what my job is" he replied, I was assuming he meant another job besides working on the roads which he was obviously in the middle of doing and didn't seem in the slightest bit 'Crazy' to me. I was dreading what he might say, mafia henchman, bank robber, contract killer.... There was a long list going through my brain. "I'm a reptile and snake handler" he said with a big proud grin on his face. "I work on the Greek Island Zakynthos " he continued. I was very relieved and asked him some snake based questions, after a while the other three guys one of which was his brother had finished having a smoke and decided they ought to get back to work (although I didn't seem to notice much difference between them working and them on break).

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. Once i got to the first village it suddenly turned into a rutted track with stupidly steep ups and downs and was being continuously plied by minibuses crammed with people, boxes and furniture and well anything and everything. Most minibuses were barely making it up the hills. The drivers were all pretty nice honking and waving and sticking their heads out the window shouting "hello, how are you?" (the only English words they knew). After a while I was getting peckish so I decided to stop at a small shop, there was one minibus parked outside, which some guys were trying to load with very heavy looking sacks. The passengers were all staring at my bike outside so I told them I was English and how far I had been etc etc When I got back on the road I soon caught up with this minibus (it was pretty crammed full, due to all the stuff they had been piling in at the shop). As it was a downhill stretch of road they were crawling along so I decided to overtake, I was having too much fun bombing down the hill weaving in and out of potholes (not very sensible on a touring bike I know but my inner mountain biker was coming out). A while later I could hear strange Albanian pop music being blasted from somewhere, I was just trying to figure out where it was coming from when it was interrupted by the crunch of a CB radio and a shout of "faster faster faster c'mon" (in Albanian) and then the music continued. I looked round and it was the same van, as well as the flame stickers stuck to the sides and fake chrome trim the owner had obviously taken the time to mount a megaphone on top of his van. A bit more megaphone banter and humorous arm waving followed, it was very funny and made me laugh, all the guys in his minibus were all laughing as well and then with a big smile and a wave they blasted past and continued along the rollercoaster of a road.

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 donkeys don't seem to care in the slightest and plod on regardless of what is attached to their backs.

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.  Despite the very slow going it was really interesting and the scenery was amazing for the whole 2 days. There were snow covered mountains and lush mountain valleys as well as barren dusty hill sides, forests etc. The most enjoyable part however was all people and animals I saw along the way just going about their daily business, it’s by far the best part about dodgy roads which allow you to get off the beaten track away from the masses and have a true experience of a country.

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!
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