Kosovo and the rules on cheating part two

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After checking out late of the poshest most expensive hotel in Gnjilane (40€) we thought we had an easy 50km to Pristine. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The 400m climb out if town was easy and we thought we would roll down the rest of the way but were instead confronted by a headwind so strong we had to peddle hard while going downhill. Then the were the drivers. With about average age of 26 you would expect Kosovan drivers to be bad, but not this bad! Finally getting to Pristine we were left feeling lucky to have made it and made a promise to get the bus to Skopje instead.
Second rule of cheating: cheating death = not cheating.

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Road signs for tanks.

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Central Pristine was a bit chaotic but otherwise nice. People seemed friendly and relaxed but most of the buildings are new. Everything from the smallest store upwards has a security guard but you wonder why, it’s very safe.  A relic of the war perhaps.
The picture above is one of Pristine’s most famous monuments, the Newborn sculpture. Each year it’s repainted with a different design, this year it’s flags if countries that recognise Kosovo.

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Early evening we bumped into Andreas, who’s cycled 100,000km around Europe and agreed to meet later in the only Irish bar in town to swap stories. He has a FB page and website called cycleguide, check it out, especially if you can read German.
Later on in the night we met some freelance soldiers and went to a couple of bars with them, a few were decent but others quite twisted. It’s a strange world they live in. I just hope the Kosovo situation clears up quickly so they can move on.
On our way home we found a club packed full of Kosovans drinking and dancing, the music was great, it was good to see how much fun Pristine can be.

I chatted to several people about the situation with Kosovo and Serbia and to me it seems crazy that people fight over territory. I’m lucky enough to be from the UK, live in Austria and work in Italy for a Swedish company and I don’t want or need a country, Europe is my home. It seems inevitable that when these countries join the EU and people can move freely then fear will disappear and tensions will cease. All of these countries will join the EU within the next 10 to 15 years and for me it can’t happen soon enough. There are still disputed regions with Serbian majority in the north of Kosovo, I hope these can be given to Serbia, who cares about history, it’s what the population of those regions wants.

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The bus into Macedonia was interesting with snow covered mountains and a not so friendly border guard. Kathi had a nice sleep as usual.

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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

96km, 3 countries and a sunburn later….

This morning we woke up around 7.30 and set off at 9. We are definitely getting better at packing our things away. We cycled back down the sandy banking we had camped on and continued down the road towards vidin, a town in Serbia on the other side of the Danube that we were on. We decided to take the road that goes across an island back into Serbia instead of trying the get a ferry from Calafat, the town on the opposite side of the Danube from Vidin. Upon exiting Romania, the border police took our passports while a customs guy stayed and talked to us. He said it might take a little while because they didn’t see many Austrian citizens coming from Romania so they werent sure about the procedure of checking my passport. He joked I might be the first Austrian even in their country.

We had cycled about 40 km by the time we got into town where we decided to have lunch, check train times to go from Vidin to Sofia and check the remaining distance to the Bulgarian border and to Vidin.

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Cafe culture in Negotin

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Negotin main square

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Wild tortoise number 2

The cycle path sign near the border said it was another 18 or so km to the border but the ever so friendly Serbian locals told us if we stayed on the main road it was more like ten. the headwind was strong but luckily a farm so truck was going our way and the farmers thought it was amusing to carry us along in their slipstream. The lady at the Bulgarian border told us Vidin was only another 30 km away – by that time we had already done about 60 but it was only half past 2 pm and the train from Vidin went at 6 pm so we had plenty of time. Or so we thought.

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Wild pig on the an island between Romania and Serbia

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Through Serbia the cycle path has been incredibly well sign posted but our favourite bit is that each sign has a quote at the bottom, some are wise and some even funny but it’s a pleasure to stop and read each one. Mike’s favourite is ‘do not worry if you run out of money in Serbia, everybody does!’

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Bulgarian border

On a cycle trip like this one you do surprise yourself at how far you can go but you also find out a lot about your personal limits. My breaking point was at 80km, where I had to stop because I couldn’t go any further, I was crying and annoyed at myself for doing so and thought I would never ever be able to make another 20 km in an hour and a half. 80 km does not seem that far, at least not to experienced cyclists, but bear in mind that it was our fourth day of cycling all day in a row without a day’s rest, and that I was not just carrying my own weight plus the bike’s but more like 85kg.
Anyhow, after a little break, some water and some sugar, Mike and I continued on and Mike offered to sing me a song, so I asked him to sing “the one with the dog” (the title song to the UK kid’s tv show “The Littlest Hobo”). Three times. If that wouldn’t cheer you up, I don’t know what will.

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Onwards to Sofia

We made it to Vidin at 20 minutes to 6, according to our GPS, just in time to comfortably catch the train to Sofia. The clock in the train station was displaying 20 minutes to 7 which was clearly wrong, we had done everything to get there on time for the last train of the day. Except that we did not know that Bulgaria runs an hour ahead of Serbia. We hadn’t considered the time difference.

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A very tired looking kathi

We found a hotel online we wanted to stay at that night and tried to find it three times, adding an extra 8 km to our trip.
So there you have it. We cycled 108 km in one day. After cycling 75km, then 50km, then 85km for three consecutive days, respectively. You may think getting the trains cheating. You do it, then we’ll talk. 🙂

Through the Djerdap

Not sure quite where to start with this one, the last days have been so amazing. After leaving Golubac we cycled through the fortress guarding the entrance to western Europe through the Carpathian mountains and on into the national park. The gorge carved out by the Donau is the biggest in Europe (not the highest, that’s in Montenegro) and in the narrowest points the river reaches 80m deep. I guess I expected the Donau to be much more powerful and just get bigger and bigger but it seems so much water is lost in the great plains of Hungary that the river seems smaller than in Vienna.

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That night we were struggling to find an accessible place to put the tent (being in a gorge) so Kathi opted to ask a local couple we cycled past if we could camp on their land. What a stroke of luck that was! I’m not sure we have could have met more hospitable strangers. They were a Serbian couple and their friend who lived across the road in a big house, who was there to do some fishing – they spoke a small amount of German. They fed us rakija, cake, biscuits, coffee and fruit juice plus talked us through the family photos and told us about the area. In the morning we were offered a shower, given more of the strongest Turkish coffee I have ever seen which would’ve sent me crazy if they hadn’t given us even more rakija to wash it down with.

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We were off by 9:30am and had a really slow morning taking pictures and cycling some big climbs. I realised the next time someone ask me how far we cycle in a day my answer will be ‘as little as possible’ for if the road is not boring then why even try to gain distance.

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Later on, exiting the gorge it seems the main thing protecting the gorge from the Ottomans was just a scary face carved into the rock wall. No wonder they made it to Vienna. 😉 Shortly after we had a long downhill (65kmph on a 65kg bike with a trailer is a scary thing to do) and exited into Romania. We can’t wait to get back into Serbia already.

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We stopped in a typical Romanian town with no discernable town center, had lunch and moved on.

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The evening wild camping was amazing. We heard wolves not so far away (no problem for pepper spray) and even saw a wild tortoise which also didn’t like the pepper spray… 😉

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Mike got a tick on his back but luckily Kathi’s mother is a doctor and we had a tick removal tool so just screwed it out and disinfected it, not even a mark left today hopefully there is no infection. Cycle touring, and especially wild camping makes your relationship with all animals much more profound. Ear plugs are a necessity due to all birds, cuckoo’s and cockerals especially and the grasshoppers can be almost deafening too. You always have to be aware of mosquitos and dubious of wild dogs.

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We cycled 85k yesterday and today will aim for 100 to get us into Bulgaria before 12pm.

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Wildcamping to Golubac

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Two days ago we woke up in our tents at 7.30 am, packed everything including the tent, had breakfast and got ready for the ride. We left at 9.30, so a two hour estimate between waking up and leaving is a good one for now, hopefully we will get used to putting everything away and improve our time to an hour and a half or even only an hour.

The ride from wildcamping on the other side of the river from smederevo to where we stayed that night was 75 km long. The road went right next to the Danube most of the way, we are following the European cycle track system, and some of it was easy riding but most of it was unpaved and therefore bumpy, sandy, gravelly and therefore mainly extremely exhausting.

The Serbians are exceptionally friendly, especially as they are most likely to offer help with directions. The fact that they speak neither English nor German, and we don’t speak Serbian or any or the S/C/B languages does not matter in the slightest – we still chatter away as if we all spoke the same language. It is surprising how much speaking your hands do for you.

We spent the night in a small town called The White Church, or Bela Crkva, in a small hotel right at the entry to the town that was recommended to us by yet another helpful Serbian who had spent twenty years in Vienna and therefore spoke fluent German. Mike was paranoid about leaving the bikes locked up outside until he decided to carry everything – two bikes and a trailer- upstairs, and leave them on the balcony.

Today we set off after a massive breakfast of omelette and bread and an amazing lunch of fried local river fish cooked by a very friendly old Serbian man who used 50/50 german and english. We reached the small city of golubac at 5 pm.

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Today’s ride was unbelievable. We got the ferry at 1 pm from stara palanka across the Danube to ram and then went on the cycle track towards veliko gradiste. The road between there and zatonje is just incredible. I have never felt so much like I deserved a view – swallows were cruising around us while sheep were grazing on one side of the road with the Danube on the other side. As we progressed there were little islands that seemed like moors but without mosquitos and as we rode past, white birds would rise elegantly from the water and sail above our heads. Poppy flowers were strayed across fields of white and blue flowers, the kind of wild flowers you would expect in the hands of a gentleman in a tuxedo ringing your doorbell to pick you up for a date. I have said that I felt like I had entered another world before – I never felt it the way I did today. Maybe because, as I said, I had earned this view, maybe because this stretch of land was actually that special, but I was tempted to go back and do it again.

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The cycle track today was paved entirely, inclines were mostly only slight inclines with very rewarding declines on the other side. I realised that if I turned my feet so my toes pointed to the floor while going slightly downhill and pedalling as hard as I could, I could make myself feel like I was actually running at 40 km/h, it was really fun.

Tonight will be an early night in the best hotel we have stayed at so far with a balcony on a promenade overlooking the Donau and the mountains in Romania, at a cost of only 25 euros. The hotel was pointed out by yet another extremely friendly German-speaking Serbian pub owner, who not only recommended this place but also called to reserve a room for us ask if they had internet and arrange for us to lock our bikes in an own bike-room, and then took us there personally! I could not be happier. Mike says the trade-off for staying here is that we will be camping the next three nights. Fine by me, this hotel is definitely worth it.