Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

31 Aug 2012

What’s Will been up to in the last 2 weeks?!

Posted by Will

I couldn’t think of a good way to structure this post because so many varied things have happened in the last 2 weeks. As you may have noticed, I couldn’t think of a good title either. So this post is going to be a disconnected series of roughly chronological events and experiences. I’m hoping though that these stories have in common (apart from me and my bicycle – the usual suspects) the entertainment value to keep you from dozing off in front of your computer. If you’re more into pictures than words, there are lots of new photos to look at under the gallery section of the website.

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Serbian hospitality

I cycled 160km out of Belgrade and was pretty exhausted as I approached the Bosnian border. I knew I’d have to camp on the Serbian side due to the danger of landmines further on. So thanks be to the cycling deities that a charming Serbian man in his early-sixties took it upon himself to make sure I had somewhere to stay. After meeting him on the side of the road he literally marched me down a drive-way and pointed to the house. I wasn’t sure if it was his house so I indicated I’d camp on the lawn instead. After a bit of confusion he accepted this comprise and then invited me inside (it turned out it was his house) to meet his wife, son, his son’s wife, and their two children. They were making apple, orange and pear juice and soon were handing me mug after mug of cool, sweet fruit juice that makes the perfect respite after hours of hot cycling. After a meal of roasted peppers stuffed with mince-meat we graduated onto some rather heavier fruit juice by the name of Rakija – a 55% proof firewater made from plums. As the guest, I was assured it was absolutely necessary for my glass to be constantly full and that it would be an inconceivable rudeness for anyone to take a sip without me doing the same. It was a very good quality alcohol: home-made, 5 years old and tasted a lot like whisky (although my palate is extremely unsophisticated and so connoisseurs probably wouldn’t be impressed by this verdict).

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Unfortunately the quality didn’t halt the inevitable effects in the morning when I emerged groggy from the tent and forced myself to smile cheerfully at the breakfast spread laid out in front of me. It was a magnificent breakfast though and I was encouraged to eat my way through everything from the Srpski Salata, to the fish caught yesterday in the river, to the peppers left-over from last night. As we said our goodbyes I was given a wonderful souvenir in the form of a wooden-husk-type-thing which was signed and dated by the family and which can be wrapped around my handlebars as a good-luck memento. Katerina, their 10 year old daughter, came out onto the road and waved me off into Bosnia.

Avoiding the landmines in Bosnia

Landmines are a real issue in Bosnia and almost all the people I’ve talked to who know about the subject told me I should be very careful. There are stories of mines being found (sometimes in the most gruesome way) only a few feet from the roadside. Every time I needed a pee I would tip-toe my way over to the bushes in a ludicrously cautious way as though there were more mines than safe ground. I’d decided before I entered the country that I wouldn’t wild camp and this meant finding someone to stay with each night. This proved to be no problem at all as it seems that all Bosnians (with the exception of one short-tempered van driver) are very friendly. On my first night in Bosnia I stayed on the sofa of a family who spoke no English whatsoever after simply mentioning the word ‘shator’ (‘tent’ in Serbian) to a woman watering her tomatoes. They gave me supper and breakfast and let me wash despite low water levels in the area. On my second night of wild camping in Bosnia I stayed on the lawn of another kind Bosnian family and the children in the village fetched me tomatoes, fresh water and ice. Little acts of kindness flow in abundance in this part of the world and have made me think about how I’d measure up these people in that respect. Probably not well at all.

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Sarajevo days

Sarajevo is a really cool city and there I had the pleasure of meeting up with Aga, one of the great friends I’d made while working at the hostel in Zakopane. For a week we explored the city together: always coffee in the morning, usually at least two burek (a pasty-like pastry pie that I could eat an unhealthy amount of) a day, retreating out of the sun in the afternoon, sunset on the hills overlooking the city, and late-night walks in the perfect evening temperatures. Sarajevo sits in a valley with huge mountains all around which means it’s easy to get a spectacular view of the city by walking only a little out of the centre. Another cool thing is the overt presence of Christanity and Islam and how they co-exist happily together. The Muslim call-to-prayer rings out over the mountains which at times gave the place a very different atmosphere to anywhere else I’ve visited on this trip. The old town is extremely busy, both in the daytime and at night, and the huge swathes of tourists are my only complaint about Sarajevo.

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One day we went walking up to Skakavac waterfall just outside the city which at 98m high is pretty impressive. Arguably, the walk there is even better with views of mountains and valleys all the way. The icing on the cake was finding a small, hippie bar near the top of the mountain which sold cheap beer to drink in the shade. Perfect. Perhaps a little bit of a wobbly walk back down the mountain though. At the end of our stay, it was sad to say goodbye to Aga but there was definitely a sense of optimism surrounding our departure as we both recognised we’d had a great time.

Cycling up, down and amongst some big-ass mountains

Bosnia is an extremely beautiful country where all the roads follow dramatic valleys which make for great cycling. I climbed up from 100m to 1200m before Sarajevo and from 400m up to 1200m after Sarajevo which were steep but secretly quite enjoyable. The mountains have got me to the stage where hills don’t feel physically painful anymore. Instead, my legs just won’t revolve so quickly when they’re tired.

If the mountains in Bosnia are big then the mountains in Montenegro are enormous. And in my opinion even more majestic. The Tara River Canyon offered one of the most amazing views I have ever seen and cycling along its traffic-free road was fantastic. The river water is bright blue and the river bed is easily visible even at the deepest points. Many parts of the river are very isolated too which meant I could wheel my bike down there and sunbathe without anyone else there to trip over me. Although I had many opportunities I didn’t swim because the water was freezing (I’ve been called a scaredy-cat by people here in the hostel but they didn’t dip their feet in!). The other major highlight of Montenegro was cycling up over Durmitor National Park. The tiny road goes over a pass 1907m high which is by far the highest I’ve ever cycled. Up there it is very dry and the rocky, yellow landscape couldn’t have been more different from the lush greenery in the valleys. Durmitor also had the wonderful quality of feeling like the middle of nowhere. I saw far more cows than people on the road (weaving in and out of bulls on the road is quite a disconcerting experience) and would have been confident of lying down spread-eagle in the middle of the road for 10 minutes without being run over. In short, I found Montenegro to be a mountain paradise that outdoor-enthuasiasts should waste no time in visiting. It really is spectacular.

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Chaos in Albania

After being in Albania for about an hour, the tranquility of Montenegro seemed a distant memory. So far, the country has been a real challenge for a number of reasons, although that’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed it. Reason number one: the roads are in an appauling condition and by far the worst I’ve experienced so far. Stretches of gravel are common, even on main roads, potholes (or just holes) are never far away and the signposting is almost non-existent. Secondary roads are almost always gravel and sometimes even 4×4 tracks. At one point a road marked on my map disappeared completely and only after walking my bike across a field did I manage to find the road again!

Reason number two: traffic is very heavy. Almost everyone uses only a few roads due to the poor road quality and so the traffic is almost non-stop which is very wearing.

Reason number three: there don’t seem to be (m)any rules of the road. Often the road has no markings to indicate the right of way and roundabouts and junctions become a free-for-all which usually spiral into a game of ‘chicken’. Who is going to stop first and ‘give way’ to the other person? Of course, bicycles never have right of way. If I’m being very generous the system kind of works because everyone makes sure they don’t hit anyone else. If I’m not being generous, it’s dangerous for everyone and the road-accidents statistics for Albania bear that out.

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Having said all that, people on the sides of the road wave more than in any other country I’ve visited so that sometimes I have my left hand more often in the waving position than on the handlebars. I’ve also been high-fiving a lot of people as I go along which is fun. Albania feels like the least European country yet and displays more charactaristics in common with what I imagine Asia will be like.

Now, I’m heading east. The time has come to make a push out of Europe and into Asia. I’ll be heading to Lake Ohrid, through Macedonia, across the north-east of Greece and into Turkey overland. That’s about 800km. As always, thank you for your comments, emails, Facebook-likes and encouragement. Thank you also to the kind people on the road who I have mentioned in this post, and the ones I haven’t mentioned. You are all helping to keep me going!

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3 Comments already on “What’s Will been up to in the last 2 weeks?!”
  1. 2:39 pmpermalink
    31 Aug 2012

    Mumsey

    Once again a brilliant blog to bring us up to date and wonderful photos. The list of countries visited is very impressive as are the stats! Keep going xxxxx

  2. 2:48 pmpermalink
    31 Aug 2012

    Birgit

    Will, I love your blog! Read your last post today on my first day back home and now I already want to plan the next trip on my bike! You are a great inspiration! I wish you all the best for your next adventures!

  3. 3:06 pmpermalink
    31 Aug 2012

    Fran

    Fascinating stuff, as always, Will. Thank you, too, for your email which I’ll respond to soon. What amazing places, but perhaps above all, hospitality. It’s incredible how you cope when there is no overlap in language. What a wonderful welcome you seem to receive most of the time: super people but a credit to you and your outgoing nature as well.
    Love F xx