Cycling in Ex-Yugoslavia by Alex Kahn

I met Alex last Summer when we both tried to land on Liberland! We were on the same boat and caught in a crazy chase led by the Croatian police. Those who read the post will remember! I met again with Alex in London, where he is working as a waiter to make money for his future travels. He told me about his latest journeys in Ex-Yugoslovia and in Ukraine. I was fascinated. He wanted to write his travel diaries. I encouraged him so here we go with a first chapter about Kosovo and Macedonia… Next one will be about Ukraine, where he hitchiked to.

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Alex on the Danube, chased by the Croatian police, August 2016

Time of events: 01/08/2015-30/08/2015

After working in a Mediterranean restaurant as a waiter on the beaches of Castelldefels/Barcelona for a period of three months, I couldn’t resist the travel bug anymore (I had originally planned to work for six months) and I just desperately wanted to abandon that stress ridden and knife throwing chef, so I decided to quit my job in August 2015.

I always find it a mystery and a bit of a tragedy that I have to work and do something that I don’t like in order to get the funding to get to do the things that I feel passionate about. I guess I should at least be happy that I’ve found my passion as there are many people who haven’t even found that out yet, and my passion (and maybe a bit of an obsession) is to travel and explore whatever curiosities I may have. And for months my curiosity has been the Ukraine. It was still wartime in the Ukraine, though not as intense as it used to be.

I was fascinated by what was happening there because both the Russian and western media seemed to be projecting very contradicting propaganda and I had many questions of my own:

Is Ukraine really Fascist?

Who are the Azov battalion?

Are there really active Russian soldiers in the Donbass?

What is life like now in the Donbass for the people in both the Ukrainian controlled territories and the separatists side and even in the annexed territory of Crimea?

Who were the people that protested in the Euromaidan protests in Kiev and what did they hope to achieve and how did they feel about the consequences of that revolution?

Experience has taught me that if I travel in a way that exposes me to as much as possible to my immediate environment, then I have a great opportunity to meet with locals in that country and to feel the atmosphere of that environment as objectively as possible. I have previously travelled through Europe for six months on my bicycle and hitchhiked across Israel, Palestine, North and South Cyprus and Iraqi Kurdistan. And so I decided that I was going to travel by bicycle to Ukraine.

My first stop was in Slovenia, where I left the last bicycle and equipment with which I traversed 15 European countries over a period of six months in 2013. But before that I attended my grandfather’s 80th birthday. The party was great and emotional, and for once the whole family was together. I told everyone of my plans including my uncle who is a truck driver and a very uptight and strong Slovenian man. He started off by asking my mum(who was also present): “Don’t you mind that your son gets shot in the head?” I smiled and my mum was silent and she looked down. My mum had always supported me in everything as long as I paid for it. She believed that me earning my freedom and my passion is what gives her no right to stop whatever I choose to do with it. He then said: “well first of all it’ll take about a month and its September now and in Moldova and Ukraine it gets incredibly cold in October/November, you have picked a very inconvenient time to do your trip.”

I pondered over what he said, and I simply hate travelling in the cold and I planned for a three month trip. So after many more opinions I decided to forget about Ukraine altogether and opened up google maps and drew up a new plan, going through my second most interesting countries that I wanted to travel through, the ultimate destinations being Kosovo and Macedonia. I decided that I’d go through the so called “new state of Europe” that I had read about on a shared page on Facebook called “Liberland” that was sandwiched between Serbia and Croatia.

And so on the 10/09/2015 I got my bike, my clothes, cooking and camping equipment, and cycled off towards Liberland, then Kosovo and Macedonia.

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15/08/2015

Location: the road to/near Rasko/Serbia near Kosovo border.

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I woke up in my tent that I had set up in an abandoned building complex next to the road the night before in order to hide from the police that where roaming around in the area the night before to avoid any hassle of me having to explain that I was travelling by bike to Kosovo and that I was wild camping. I put up a few wet clothes in the morning sun to let them dry while I recorded a small video and packed up the tent and carried the bike over the tire pinching plants that surrounded the complex.

I was now ascending the Balkans to get to the North Kosovar border. The border was in a valley and it was really beautiful with autumn coloured mountains.

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The closer to the border I got the more Serbian flags were floating with a few anti European graffiti. I could hear a few helicopters flying around. The constant sight of military helicopters (probably for training purposes) became a normal sight in Kosovo for me. I crossed the border and the number of Serbian flags tripled all the way to Kosovska Mitrovica.

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Everything North of Kosovska Mitrovica is a Serb majority area and is controlled by the Serb army and Serb police. There are no Albanian mosques to be found, only Serb Orthodox churches in north Kosovo.

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I have been very interested in exploring the Kosovska Mitrovica bridge as it is what separates Serb majority in North Kosovo and the Albanian majority in South Kosovo. I met some people in Belgrade before that expressed that they believed that North Kosovo was simply a borderless zone between Kosovo and Serbia where drug traffickers and weapons smugglers could freely exploit Kosovar resources. I was unable to confirm any of this, I was too fascinated by the posters and graffiti all around Kosovska Mitrovica. There appears to be a strong Pro-Serb sentiment and surprisingly it was accompanied by a big pro-soviet and anti-American sentiment. They usually went hand in hand.

Posters glorifying Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the central square of Kosovska Mitrovica. In the picture in the middle it appears to be him walking away from the White House on fire!

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Posters glorifying Russian President Vladimir Putin in the central Square of Kosovska Mitrovica. Putin appears to be walking away from the White House on fire!

 

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“Kosovo is Serbia – Crimea is Russia”

 

16/08/2015

It was on to the bridge. The central pedestrian bridge that separates the two ethnic groups. Cars rarely are allowed to pass and I wasn’t sure who has administrative control over the bridge but whoever it was clearly wasn’t keeping it in good shape. The concrete in many parts was completely destroyed and the bridge was also guarded by an Italian military unit. Probably a NATO patrol even though it didn’t have a NATO insignia or flag.

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During the day, pedestrians from both sides cross the bridge, mostly to sightsee in the EU and USAID created Albanian malls for the Serbs.

On the Albanian majority side of the bridge, it’s a complete change in ethnicity/religion and currency. Orthodox churches are replaced with Albanian mosques, Serbian with Albanian, the Serb dinar is replaced with the Euro and the Serb flags are replaced with double the amount of Albanian ones everywhere! An interesting sight, indeed.

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As I began cycling out of Kosovska Mitrovica on the main road to Pristina I realised that the amount of unmarked cars was staggering (about a third of all the cars that I saw in my two days in Kosovo). My mind started to imagine all sorts of things like: “Are they mercenaries?” or “Former KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army)?”. What fuelled my imagination even more was the empty bullet casings on the road that I kept cycling on.

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And about a tenth of every vehicle I saw was a NATO military or convoy vehicle. And with flags from countries all around the world: American, Swedish, British, German, Italian, French. Heck, there was even a Ukrainian one (though Ukraine isn’t a NATO member). Accompanied by the occasional NATO member country flags on the sides of the road.

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As I cycled on, I passed by a settlement that had big letters of the UNHCR on them. I stopped in confusion, not because I didn’t know that the UNHCR was here (hey, they are not that incompetent) but because I didn’t know the purpose of that particular settlement.

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Almost all Serbs have either been evacuated or have left to Serbia during the war, the rest were killed or were not allowed to stay in Kosovo except for a very few families that are protected by the UNHCR. Could this be one of those small camps protecting the last few Serbs in Albanian Kosovo? Nahh doubt it, the settlement looks way too big, it’s probably a distribution warehouse or something. I had a strong tail wind behind me and hoping to get the most of it, I cycled on without knocking on the front door to ask.

The road from Kosovska Mitrovica to the Macedonian border was ridden with glass, crappy concrete, sharp scraps of metal car pieces and a few bullet casings. Miraculously, I didn’t get a flat tire. And with a strong tail wind I managed to get all across the country in two days. I crossed the border with Macedonia after a short but tough uphill climb.

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I said my good byes to Kosovo on a hill on the Macedonian side during the night. I set up camp and ate dinner (some bread with a mars bar and my grandmother’s dehydrated walnuts) to the view of the Kosovar border and the sound of military helicopters.

17/08/2015

The next day, I packed up early and began the lovely downhill ride to Skopje, It took about two hours and I was in Skopje by 11 am. I stopped briefly to eat some meat and potato burek and continued on towards Tetovo.

Pretty much the minute I left Skopje, I started seeing the familiar site of Albanian mosques and flags. A huge majority of people don’t even speak Macedonian in western Macedonia as the Albanian population is huge. A part of me was disappointed because I was kind of looking forward to experiencing some Macedonian culture but, what the heck, Onwards men!!

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The Macedonian country side roads were calm and quiet which allowed for very peaceful cycling and contemplation for the Macedonian Balkans.

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I camped out that night after climbing up a mountain pass near the town of Gostivar.

18/08/2015

I woke up in the woods in my tent somewhere in the mountain pass on the road leaving Gostivar towards Ohrid. The moment I got up and out of the tent I felt an agonising ache and numbness in my legs and my stomach. I thought “what the hell is this?” Malnutrition? I drank the river water the night before (as I always do), so maybe it was that but I think it was more likely to be the burek that I ate back in Skopje. I packed up the tent and continued the ascent. I didn’t feel like drinking water or eating and I had diarrhea so I just cycled on up into the mountains for an agonising five hours.

Around midday I arrived at Debar, I small Albanian town near a beautiful dam. I felt that maybe I should just call it a day, but Ohrid was so close, I prefered to spend money on accommodation there, so on I went. I couldn’t bare to lift my head to look at how much there was left to pedal to get to the next curve up the mountain, so I just stared at my tire rolling along, I relaxed my arms and lowered my upper eye lids to give my mind the illusion that every part of my body effort was being concentrated solely on my legs. It works for me to do the placebo stuff. Every pedal was horrible and my stomach and my legs were aching, I started replaying the motivational clips of Rocky Balboa and Al Pacino from Youtube in my head, going

“It’s not about how hard you’re hit! It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward……”.

After a few hours I lifted my head a little bit and suddenly got a rush of power as I saw another touring cyclist ahead of me going my way. I was so happy, I rushed over to him, he noticed me as I approached behind him. We stopped to introduce each other. His name was Rudolf, 46 years old, got time off his job and has cycled from Austria and was also on his way to Ohrid. We decided to travel together. Suddenly thanks to Rudolf’s company I found the strength to keep going and after four more hours of climbing, low and behold the Ohrid lake came into our views. Rudolf and I separated as he wanted to explore the city while I simply wanted to camp out and recuperate on the shore of the lake. I was very grateful to Rudolf for joining me and making the last few hours actually quite joyful.

I set up camp on the shore of the lake but not before collapsing on the ground for a good hour just immobile from physical pain. I had not eaten all day and still crossed the highest peaks of my whole bicycle touring career, what a day!

I spent the next few days swimming in the lake, tuning up the bike and contemplating events over some rice with tomato sauce made fresh with my cooking stove. I thought to myself: “I’ve done it!, I’ve accomplished my objective of cycling through Kosovo and arriving to Macedonia”. 

This was what I wanted to achieve when I left my job in the restaurant in Barcelona.

Then I thought while looking at my prize that was the Ohrid lake….”what now?”

I ask the question “what is the next number one thing that I want to do? 

And to my surprise that put a smirk on my face I thought: “Ukraine”.

“But winter is approaching and im too far now with my bike, my only option is to leave my bike. So, I’ll leave it back in Slovenia. I’ll head West to Albania and take the ferry to Italy where I’ll take trains back to Slovenia and there I can pick up my backpack and hitchhike to Ukraine!”.

20/08/2015

I said my goodbyes and my thank yous to the Ohrid lake that had given me inspiration and the insight of where I wanted to go next and started cycling up another hill towards the Albanian border. But after about an hour of cycling I stopped as my legs again where aching. I guess I still hadn’t completely recovered but I think that that was also malnutrition. I hadn’t really been eating a balanced diet at all ever since I left Slovenia three weeks ago. My diet was basically bread, bread and more bread with either yogurt or ketchup. But hey, Ukraine was waiting, so onwards men!

I crossed the Albanian border and immediately felt happy. I had cycled across Albania from North to South back in 2013 during my six months trip and seeing it again and being reminded of why I loved it was invigorating! Bad roads, bad infrastructure, unused railways, abandoned factories and lots and lots of bunkers. Even at the border!

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I began my descent from the Balkans into Albania and bumped into two young Austrian guys about my age who came bicycle touring from Istanbul! Their names were Vincent and Christian.

“Hello! Where are you coming from?” I said.

“From Austria to Istanbul and now we are going back to Vienna via Tirane”.

“Awesome! Good route! I’m not going as far as Tirane but may I join you until Durres?

They said “sure!”

And so it was, the three musketeers in Albania. Vincent and Christian where having holidays from their university and decided to go bicycle touring. What an awesome bunch!

We travelled together following the old railway down the valley towards Elbasan. The scenery was gorgeous and it was a bright sunny day. I really enjoyed their company, because for three years I’ve been travelling mostly on my own, it’s always a joy for me to have companions on the trip. We cycled from noon all the way till dusk until we arrived at the crossroads where we would split, but not before stopping several times for Christian to collect some Albanian beer caps. We said our goodbyes and good lucks, Christian and Vincent headed North towards Tirane while I headed West to the port town of Durres where I intended to take a ferry to Italy. I camped in an abandoned building on the side of the road. Among the many other abandoned factories that closed after the communist regime.

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21/08/2015

I got up only to find that one of my tires was punctured. Arghhh, it sucks to wake up in the morning and the first thing that you have to do is fix the bike. But hey, it’s all part of the fun.

I reached Durres at noon and was told at the ferry terminal that the ship leaves tomorrow night!!! So I basically had two full days in this crappy city to kill. I spent most of the first day lingering on the beach and sending some messages at the local internet café and I slept in a park a few kilometres outside of the city.

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22/08/2015

I once again spent the day at the beach and taking long snoozes as I was kept up at night by barking dogs that were lingering around the park. At dusk I boarded the ferry and said my goodbyes to Albania. Oh my lovely Albania! You are probably my favourite European country to cycle through. I slept soundly on the ferry ride to Bari/Italy on the floor below deck.

23/08/2015

We arrived to Bari at noon and I cycled straight to the train station. I wanted to get back to Slovenia as soon as possible. I was told that there are no fast trains to Venice and that the only thing that I could do was to just keep jumping on regional trains. That was about ten consecutive trains.

Three out of ten train rides down. I actually enjoyed looking out the window and travelling at the speed of a train after travelling for three weeks at the speed of a bicycle. On the train from Termoli to Pescara a young man about my age (20) sat in front of me. He had brown skin and fuzzy black hair and his jaw was a bit larger than what I was used to seeing. He had a full rucksack and winter clothes, immediately as I saw him I practically jumped out of my seat without thinking saying “You are from Eritrea”. The young man was hesitant and I felt sorry that I scared him.

I thought I’d start again: “Where are you from?” I asked

“Eritrea”

From Asmara?

“Yes”.

A black young man sitting next to us looked at us, I realised that they were travelling together, so I asked the black man, “Where are you from?”

“Darfur.”

“Wow, did you cross the sea from Libya?” 

“Yes.”

“Wow, that must have been so hard! How was it in Libya?”

“The people of Libya are not good. They are bad people.”

I then realised that there was another group of people sitting behind me that were also travelling with the couple. It was astonishing, there were five people from Somalia, two from Sudan, two from Pakistan,the Darfurian and the Eritrean boy. Three were women. They had explained that they all crossed the Mediterranean sea on the same ship and luckily they were rescued by the Italian police at sea. They explained that they were now heading to Milan because that was where they wanted to get “processed.” They said that they had to cross the borders through the Sudanese and Libyan deserts using smugglers, dodging tuaregs, bandits, local militia and even the Islamic state in Libya. I wanted to ask them so many more questions about their journey but the only person that could speak a bit of English was the man from Darfur who at some point was reluctant to speak and translate anymore. One Somali girl asked if she could use my phone to call her brother. I refused. I had a Spanish phone I carried only to use when I had wifi or to make expensive international calls in extreme emergencies. I believed that the girl would make an international call with a Spanish number in Italy and that she would probably be on the phone for hours as there was nothing else to do that night. It would have cost me a fortune!

The interesting thing was that the African travellers were paying for the trains. I had heard about this before, that many migrants pay thousands of Euros to get to Europe, even when I was travelling through Iraqi Kurdistan people would tell me of their plan to travel to the UK using a minimum of two thousand Euros.

It’s quite a dilemma, two thousand Euros is a lot of many in places like Iraqi Kurdistan and Africa. Is it worth all the danger and the hardship? I am all in favour of a human being’s right to thrive but I know many people that I had met in Senegal that have returned home empty handed after years of hardship only to tell their friends and family that Europe is not the promised land. It is true that you can earn more money here but the cost of living is pretty high also. And is it worth sacrificing that culture of warm and togetherness of your neighbours (as I found to be the case of many people in Iraqi Kurdistan).

Maybe it is, I wouldn’t know. I am a spoilt European after all.

24/08/2015

I got off the train and said farewell and good luck to the Africans and landed in Venice and began cycling the last 300 kilometres back to my home town of Gotovlje where I would leave my bike and hitchhike to Ukraine!

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