The journey into Kosovo

Well yesterday was an interesting day, Kathi says the toughest mentally yet. We woke up in a hotel in Surdulica, Serbia in pouring rain already 45km behind schedule due to losing 20km a day for the previous 2 days. Normally this would not bother me but we didn’t really want to wildcamp in Kosovo as there is a small risk of landmines so we had to make it to Gnjilane or stay in Serbia, staying in Serbia meant there would be no time to visit Prishtine.

Anyway, we set off at 10 but were forced to take frequent stops for downpours and by 2pm had only managed 45km and it was still raining. The day looked bleak, we thought we had no chance of making it.

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Vranje was supposed to be our final stop last night.

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A quick break in the clouds and we set off, immediately taking the wrong road. Moral was low. Eventually we found the road but it turned into autobahn but rather than admit defeat we cycled past the road crew and onto the freshly paved autobahn which was only waiting for it’s grippy top layer. It was as smooth as glass and just for us, bliss! This continued almost to our destination, Bujanovac where for a short time we were on a horrible busy 2 lane road, the clouds really opened up and Kathi shed a tear or two. We knew we were close and pushed onto arrive at Bujanovac in torrential rain. 17km in 55 minutes!! Our best yet and from thinking we wouldn’t make it we now even had time for coffee and some food.

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Bujanovac, waiting out the rain in the last stop in Serbia before Kosovo.

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The gorge into Kosovo was pretty, we passed a couple of mosques and already kids were trying to stop us in the street, I was a bit apprehensive about where we we’re going. The border staff we’re friendly and that calmed us both down, I suppose the borders are highly regulated here.

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Afternoon prayer call at the mosque, strange hearing that in Europe.

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At last a rainbow.

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Finally the sun came out and we were in the beautiful Kosovan countryside.

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We arrived in central Gnjilane with lots of attention from passers by but everyone just wants to help. The average age of the population here is 26, the youngest in the world which is strange at first but the town just has loads of young inhabitants. We cycled inside the town for literally 20 seconds before a German-speaking guy on a bike rode up next to us and asked us whether we needed help finding a hotel, and then even took us there. I fixed my chain, which had a broken link, outside the hotel while Kathi went in to book us into a room and came back outside to tell me the room with a double bed, breakfast included, cost 40€ a night and we we’re allowed to keep the bikes inside. While she carried all our stuff upstairs, I was showed to a locked spare room where I was able to lock our bikes. It was perfect.

We then got a shower and went for a stroll, quickly figuring out that wd had taken the “young people coffee culture” not literally enough – there were loads of bars with young people, but nobody was drinking alcohol. Everybody had either coffee or coke. The upsides of a Moslem country I suppose.

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More of Gniljane.

We had dinner at the restaurant. Kathi ordered chicken with spinach (which turned out to be chicken bits on spinach pesto on top of rice with a side of chips. Not chicken and spinach.) and I ordered the local specialty which turned out to be mushroom sauce in a bowl of bread with a side of chips.
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Sofia to Surdulica

We spent the our last night at Hostel Mostel and got the amazing breakfast of fresh warm waffles, yoghurt, cereal, fruit, vegetables, toast, jam, coffee, tea, cheese, sausage, fruit juice and milk. When we sat down, we started having a conversation with a young Japanese guy who had just bought a bike and wanted to go cycle touring through Eastern Europe and asked for some advice on where to go and what to avoid. We were happy to help him and half-way through our conversation an American girl joined in who had been cycle-touring with her ex-boyfriend for more than 1000 km before they broke up. She was lovely and the conversation about cycling just rolled on, we ended up comparing bikes and gear. She wears her flip-flops riding an old mountain bike, and she put her gear together on the go in Croatia. I felt really privileged for having a new 20-gear MTB and clips – they are key for going uphill.
We set off after Mike fixed some things on her bike and it had come to be about half past 1 pm. We had planned to go ~80km that day. Safe to say that would be hard to accomplish.

We went to a lidl on the outskirts of Sofia to get some food and chocolates, and then followed the country road towards breznik. There was a fair bit of climbing involved in getting to Breznik which we really hadn’t been on the maps, which set us back in time quite a bit but by onetime we got to the top of the hill before Breznik, the downhill was just lovely to cycle through landscape-wise. We managed to get to Breznik around 4 pm and had lunch at a cafe with two really shy stray dogs that we fed when the waitress wasn’t looking. Think I may have mentioned before that I would be hopeless if I lived in a place that had many stray dogs as I would take them all in. All of them.

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Roadsign Breznik

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Me cycling uphill toward Breznik

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The top of the hill to Breznik

We wildcamped that night, well away from the view of cars passing and went to bed without eating, we were too tired after having gone up and down all day for 60 km. We were both really cold that night and despite our tiredness neither one of us slept particularly well.

The next morning we packed everything away, had a quick breakfast and set off around 9 am towards the Serbian border. We hadn’t gone our planned 80km the day before so we were planning on catching up to that the next day, even though we already had another 80km day planned. Not only that – we knew that this day we had planned on going up a 1365m mountainpass. Our elevation that morning was at about 500m. So we had to climb 850m and go 100km in distance.

We got to the border after cycling about 25km. The road was incredible, there were hills all around us and fields of rape (the yellow plant that they make rapeseed oil from.). The bottom of the hill was also where Bulgaria and Serbia bordered and as we went through border control we were asked to pull over and empty our bags. Now, considering that since we left Hungary all our border crossings were non-schengen and there had already been five of them, I have to say that the border control is really a little bit lenient when it comes to cyclists. Maybe in general. I’m not saying we would, but smuggling anything across a border on a bike seems like the way to do it.

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Road to the border with Serbia where we got searched

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Bulletholes in a building just before the Serbian border

We cycled on to Tran in Serbia where we thought we might stop but as soon as we did a few 20-or-so-year-old’s started walking towards Mike immediately so we decided to leg it quickly. The town seemed heavily policed but it was in a remote inaccessible valley that just recently has a new road thanks to EU money. Then we started our ascent.

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Roadsign for Tran

We were at 770m when the hill properly started. We took breaks at 1000m, 1100m, 1225m, 1300m and finally reached the top at 1368m. It was tiring. And let me revoke my earlier statement about music. I now used it as a motivational tool and it is fantastic.

We reached the top at about 3.30pm and when we finally saw the lake we had worked so hard to get to, I got so overwhelmed by its magnificence that it made me cry a little. Also I was just really relieved that it would all be downhill from then on. This day was our physically most challenging day so far and that was not only due to the massive climb.

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Lake vlasina at the top of a 1368m hill

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check out the elevation on that B!

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Coming down the hill just before it started throwing down rain

We had a lunch of crisps, chocolate and pasta that we wolfed down, then washed everything in the stream nearby and set off on our descent. The clouds had started to form into a big black menacing mess and, lucky as we are, it started to really throw it down as we were just gathering speed. I was wearing my stupid red emergency poncho that flew around my ears so much in the headwind it almost deafened me, no need to say I could hear absolutely nothing mike said to me. We rolled downhill in this cloudburst for about an hour, going 20km far until we got to a town called Surdulica. Picture us: me, wearing the hell out of flowered cycling shorts combined elegantly with a goretex green jacket, size large, and perfecting the style with an XL 2€ red poncho, a cycle helmet and a pair of dark-shaded primark sunnies. Drenched. Like a drowned rat. I have hardly ever looked better, even when I tried. On a good hair day. And mike, equally elegant with an orange-glassed pair of sports sunglasses, a goretex rainjacket, a helmet and sad-because-wet curls. We were a pair for any Serbian street style blog. And just like that we walked into a hotel, after 60km, 850m of ascent, and falling asleep standing up at 6pm.

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The view from our hotel room