Saturday, 24 April 2010

Placeholder from Istanbul

Hello, hello, merhaba.
I am still here and still alive and well, simply just slack on sitting down to write-up my experiences (which have been varied and interesting, if not all sunshine and biscuits). My apologies to those who have been checking in frequently to be greeted by the same boring history, I know how frustrating it can be.

I will get a proper update done within a couple of days but for now I can report that I´ve been here since Tuesday, have done lots of walking, popped over to Asia for the day, upped my beer consuption to Benelux-levels and spent last night (Friday 23rd) out till 4am swapping experiences with 6 other cyclists who have all converged separately on this passageway between continents - bored of my own company after 10 weeks, hopefully the future holds some alternatives to the inane loop of drivel that´s been present inside my brain.

Watch this space...

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Macedonia Macedonia, Macedonia Greece

I definitely found a temporary home here in Ohrid, Macedonia. After turning up on Monday I didn't leave until Saturday, the second longest time I've spent in one place after Geneva, partly because the town and lake were so nice and relaxed after the bustle of Tirane but mainly because the hostel was so chilled out and welcoming (and the breakfast was suitably large, my main requirement). I've got to say thanks to Gjoko who runs the place for his hospitality and welcomingness (must be a word). The same goes to Claas and Lira in the hostel in Tirane and the girls in Kotor too - along with the people staying there they played a big part in the trip for me.

And speaking of the people I met, I've finally parted ways with my traveling companions after almost 2 weeks together, but only temporarily as I spent a few hours today with Megan and Becca from Portland, OR, who I also met in Kotor. A few of us will hopefully be crossing paths again in Istanbul within the next couple of weeks.
And even the days in between have seen some company (quickly becoming my highest valued commodity, after chocolate and bananas). Whilst waiting for the owner to arrive at the guesthouse in Bitola, my last stop in Macedonia before Greece, I was shown some great hospitality by the guys from Video Club Dju opposite. Rather than see me wait on the steps I was fetched a chair and given coffee whilst I waited, and invited to hang out with them rather than spend my Saturday night alone - after a couple of beers, the obligatory rakija, some football (El Classico) and the best burger I've had I got to bed at about 1am. Thanks guys for leaving me with a great impression of Macedonia.

The scenery approaching the border with Greece was pretty similar to back home with rolling hills and rapeseed fields, quite a relief to be on some flat ground for a while.

Despite having no trouble at all in the Balkans there was a distinct feeling of breathing easy once I crossed the border to be in the familiarity of Greece, but it was shortlived as I was chased by more dogs in one day than in the past 8 weeks. I know the government have bigger things on their mind at the moment but having wild dogs roaming about the place ready to maul any passing cyclist is not very EU. There have been wild dogs further north but they were all too tired and malnourished to give chase. In retrospect it makes for a funny story but in the moment it's pretty terrifying, whether they're big or small (and most are big!). I've no idea of the best tactic so currently I'm employing the Mark Cavendish-esque sprint-for-your-life technique. It's tiring but I'm rabies free.

Waterfall in Edessa, Greece

After a night in Edessa, a cool little town perched right on the edge of a hill about 300m above the valley floor with a bunch of small, calm rivers running through culminating in this quite spectacular waterfall, I was on the flat, straight motorway (literally at one point but no one told off) to the sea.
Sitting happily in a wasteground at the side of a dual carriageway for lunch, eating my peanut butter baguette and reading my book, a couple of guys pulled up in a truck and gave me a whole load of sweet, filled pancakes - we shared no common language but I think my thanks was evident on my face. I've read about such gestures but this was my first time on the receiving end of it, after the offer of help or a bed from a guy in Switzerland. Moral boosted 100% the rest of the day flew by.

I'm going to cut it short as I have a gambling chain-smoker to my left and my right and somehow the breeze is blowing in both directions to unite their smoke in my unaccustomed post-smoking ban nostrils. I'm so glad we live in a country that now finds smoking in enclosed public spaces unacceptable. On the bright side my clothes now smell of smoke rather than me.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Montenegro to Albania to Macedonia

Greetings from Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.
I've been a bit slack with the quality and quantity of updates over the past few weeks but I'm in a hostel with a nice relaxed atmosphere and fast, free, unhurried internet access so now is the time to catch up.

View from Kotor Hostel

In the last post I'd said goodbye to my companions in Dubrovnik and after setting off again on my own had met some new people in Kotor - many new people over the few days I was there - and have been traveling with a couple of them, Zsolt and Werner (see the cheesy album cover-esque photo below) since. Now they have been on buses and in taxis whilst I've obviously been cycling but we've still managed to arrive at the same places within hours or a day of each other, me usually a tad tireder, smellier and hungrier but there nonetheless. It has transformed the experience for me and the 'traveling' has become more significant for me than the 'cycle touring'.

From Kotor we met at Hotel Kaduku in Shkoder, Albania. I'd been quite apprehensive about Albania the closer I got despite not thinking twice about including it in my route. I was curious to see the homeland of the people who one day showed up in my class at school and tried to fit in with a bunch of kids who had no idea of what or where they'd come from. Albania is clearly an 'up-and-coming' country but clearly also the slowest of the Balkan nations I've seen to develop, maybe because it lacks the caché of Bosnia, Serbia or Kosovo - most of us know Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Pristina and there are many people visiting the places behind the names from the news in the '90s, but few include Albania and some are expressly warned off it.
Luckily I met my first fellow cycle tourist, Ben who was riding to London from Damascus, just 45 minutes away from crossing the border and was entirely reassured about my safety, though still concerned about the roads and the effect they would have on my patched-up bike.

Montenegro, near the Albanian border

Almost as soon as I was in the country I felt like I'd been transported a few thousand miles further east. The terrain was similar and very picturesque - flat, green plains with mountains in the distance - but the people were suddenly different. The average skin colour was darker, the signs of poverty greater, the friendliness more apparent. I saw my first donkeys, horse-and-cart, first mosques, first slum village, first real lack of infrastructure in the rickety wooden bridge that was the main lead into the country's first town. The first child to grab at me and the first free-for-all bit of city cycling. Suddenly crossing into Croatia a few weeks back seemed like nothing and this was the real departure from 'The West'. The 3 words that I learn in each country were far more difficult to memorise here - tungjajeta (hello), faleminderit (thank you) and mirupafshim (goodbye) all signaled to a pretty unique country without an obvious link to anywhere else. This was what it was all about, the ordinary things becoming the subject of interest themselves.

I had about 60 miles due south to ride to get to Tirane. Navigation wasn't an issue as there was only really the one road, but with warnings from a bus traveler, a fellow cyclist and a native on the state of the roads and the quality of the drivers I was not looking forward to the day ahead. 40 miles down in 25 degree heat I was wondering what all the fuss was about. I'd been overtaken by at least 2,500 Mercedes by this point and not felt any more in danger than I do riding in the UK, and the roads had been pretty comparable to back home as well following the harsh winter's effects on the potholes. Ten minutes later I discovered what they were talking about. The driving standards remained far better than I'd expected but the road disappeared, then reappeared, the disappeared again for the next 20 miles into the city. They were clearly building/rebuilding the road and alternating traffic from left to right carriageway as might happen at home, but with traffic traveling in both directions on both carriageways and big patches of dirt track in between it was pretty chaotic. I loved it! The bike made it through and even with the lack of tarmac I'd had my quickest day to date, covering the 60 miles in about 4 hours.

The main highway into the capital city

I spent a day in Tirane on my own before the other guys arrived having had some interesting experiences in the countryside. I was supposed to be the one with crazy stories to tell but my mode of transport left me with very little to report!
I enjoyed the vibe of the city; it definitely felt more Delhi than Geneva, in a good way. I had coffee in the Sky Tower overlooking the city which itself rests at the end of a long, flat plain from the north, surrounded by mountains on every other side. A policy from the mayor to give paint to residents to brighten up their buildings makes a nice difference from the drab greyness it probably once was. I made the most of the cheapness with a load of food for about a pound and strolled out to the lake and around the park - with joggers, families, kids playing football, couples out for a stroll, it was easy to forget where I was.

The hostel here was a small slice of relaxation, car horns aside, under lemon trees in the sun. The following day we took, quite bizarrely, an Austrian cable car up to Dajti mountain with views across the city and out to the sea. That night we headed to the cool part of town for a couple of drinks but failed to make it past the doormen - apparently we didn't make the grade for Albanian nightlife.

After 3 nights we left for Macedonia. Zsolt and Werner had an early start but a nice, scenic bus ride to look forward, getting to Lake Ohrid before lunch. I was due to take 2 days for the trip because of the distance and the mountains, stopping halfway if I could find a hotel or finding somewhere to camp. Obviously it was now raining. I would have loved to have been getting on the bus instead of my bike.

Always sweaty and dirty, increasingly hairy

Passing through Librazhd, the town at about halfway, I didn't get a very welcoming vibe and resolved to carry on to Ohrid. 90 miles, 7 hours 40 minutes, 2,300 metres of climbing later I reached the Sunny Lake Hostel (obviously at the top of a big hill in the old town) and met Gjoko, the very cool and very friendly owner, as most of them seem to be.
I floated along on the high of having made a 2 day, seemingly not possible journey in one day and the thought of waking up on my birthday in a warm, comfy hostel with friendly people rather than in a wet tent on my own.

Looking back into Albania from the road up to the Macedonian border, crepuscular rays adding to the joy

Rainbow over a bunker, quite an epiphanous moment

It's been great having people to explore with

The flow of the trip has definitely changed and I think I've had more days off the bike than on in the past 2 weeks. The 16 days non-stop from Geneva to Split seem like a different trip and I can't see it being repeated, but it's difficult to know where to explore and where to pass through. I feel like I want to see everything, but equally I don't feel compelled to do the usual touristy things everywhere as they can often be so similar, and I generally appreciate a nice sit down and a cup of tea (being British) more than those who've just gotten off a bus.
We visited the hill fortress (done before but always a good view) and the old amphitheatre, ate out with another guy who'd arrived at the hostel and then watched Arsenal get beaten by Barcelona with some very traditional, homemade but not yet tolerable rakia. A memorable, chilled out birthday.

A monastic peacock

We followed Lonely Planet's advice and paid a visit to Sveti Naum monastery the following day - only 5 Euros for a 60 km taxi journey through the stunning scenery of Galicica National park; snow topped mountains, lush forest, glassy lake... The monastery itself had been swallowed up by a hotel built around it but luckily the views back to Ohrid and the strutting peacocks made it worth the visit themselves.

Today (Thursday 8th) has so far been spent very lazily. I need to find a map of western Greece as my relaxed mantra in the Genevan map shop of 'oh, there's a bit of a gap between these two, I'm sure it will be fine' now seems a bit short-sighted. After a final afternoon strolling around the lake and sitting on the beach I will be off tomorrow morning to Bitola, my last Macedonian town, and entering Greece on Saturday. All being well I'll be in Thessaloniki for Sunday (11th) night and from there it's only another 400 miles or so to Istanbul!