MACEDONIA – SERBIA – KOSOVO – MACEDONIA, 12th June 2017
The streets of Skopje were empty. Even the ginger cat that before wouldn’t leave us alone outside of the hostel was nowhere to be seen now. I clipped on my pannier. Just one of them. Camera, check. Passport, check. Cookies, check. I was ready. I slung my leg over the frame and reset my cycle computer to zero. The time flashed up. It was 5:00 a.m. My day had begun.
It was fun to ride on the empty streets of the city. Awake before the rest of the world, sneaking more out of my day. I followed a small road that climbed up out of the city eastwards, towards the pink sky. I passed stray dogs digging in trash that barked half-heartedly at me. I think they thought about giving chase, but gave up when they saw my speed. I had taken a leaf out of Jacob’s book today. I was travelling light and I was putting the pedal to the metal (or rather the pedals to the rapid circles round and round). As the sun appeared on the horizon the road grew busier, but only with traffic going into the city. Macedonian commuters. My lane was empty. I was the only one going the other way.
My plan for the day was to ride a big loop – northeast to the border, northwest across a corner of Serbia, further west through Kosovo, then south again back to Macedonia and our Skopje hostel. It was country bagging at its finest, an idea born out of my insistence to visit every country in the Balkans, and Dea’s insistence that she didn’t want to just go to a country for the sake of just going to a country. A compromise had been reached – she would take a rest day in Skopje, and I would cycle 160 kilometres in one day, alone.
For much of the Balkans Dea and I had been only riding 60 kilometre days, and even though we’d been trying hard to improve on that, we were still struggling to make 80 kilometres per day. I wondered how it was I was going to be able to ride double that, hence my early start, and a determination to ride faster than normal. I was also taking fewer breaks, keeping food in my basket and eating on the go, and it worked – I completed the 45 kilometres to the Serbian border before I’d normally complete waking up. Crossing the border was easy enough, even though the man on customs looked a bit confused by my lack of belongings. I shrugged my shoulders, as if to say ‘what more does a man need than cookies?’ and I was waved through into country number 60.
Throughout much of our travels in the Balkans it seemed like the Serbs were painted as the bad guys, and so I would have liked to give them a chance to answer back, and show me what Serbia and being Serb is really all about. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to give them that chance, as I was only cycling 25 kilometres in their country, and it was through the only area of their country almost entirely populated by Albanians. I rode on an empty highway for a while, then up through a busy town of mosques and Muslims, reminiscent of Albania, and the Albanian parts of Macedonia, that gave me no real impression of Serbia whatsoever. As I left the town and headed for the mountain pass into Kosovo I felt a bit silly to think I could claim Serbia on my list of countries visited. It was the first time I’d made such a brief visit into a nation – shameful, unadulterated, unforgivable country-bagging – without getting to know it at all. Sure, I’d only gone to Vietnam for the sake of going, but I gave it three days. Serbia was only getting a couple of hours. And true, Liechtenstein only got a couple of hours, but I went there twice, and I saw most of it.
But at least I would not pass through Serbia without one memorable experience to take with me. It happened as I started on up the pass and two boys aged around 8-10 said hello. One was on a bicycle and, as so often happens in such situations, he and I soon found ourselves in a race. Ordinarily when I have all of my bags it is difficult for me to win such contests, but today of course I was going as fast as I possibly could, and on an unloaded bike. So it was especially embarrassing when the kid pulled ahead of me. To complete the humiliation I noticed the boy’s rusty old bike had a flat tyre too. I told him to stop, and I put some air in it for him. “If you’re going to beat me, you could at least do it on a working bike,” I told him.
The other boy was a little younger, and he had a big stick in his hand. It took me a little while to realise this was because he was supposed to be in charge of the five cows that were roaming about in the road, getting in the way of the army trucks that were occasionally driving down from the sensitive border. He did seem to have a certain measure of control though, and the cows were going up the road too, and here was a wonderful sort of way to cycle a pass, with a couple of smiling Albanian boys and a smattering of cows. Yes, Serbia was alright with me.
The younger boy headed off into a field with his cows, but the other continued to ride with me, pointing out things and saying words I didn’t understand like he was my tour guide. I wondered for a while if he might go all the way to the top and into Kosovo with me, but after a while he decided he’d had enough and turned back down the hill, leaving me to it. The rest of the pass was quite nice too. Lots of green forest, not much traffic on the road, and the intriguing promise of Kosovo awaiting at the top.
The thing about Kosovo, of course, is that it is a country, but it is also not a country. This left me considering whether or not I should include it in my country count, and I realised that whether or not I included it in my country count would be making something of a political statement, and that made my head hurt. In the end I decided I should not admit it, for I said at the start that only full UN members counted, and, even though Kosovo has some partial UN membership, it is not a full member, and regardless of my own political views on Kosovo’s battle for independence, I should not count it. But it did look a lot like a country when I arrived to find that it had a proper border, and even though Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo’s independence and says that Kosovo is Serbia, there was still a Serbian man to stamp me out of Serbia, and a Kosovan man to stamp me into Kosovo. There was also a Kosovan woman on customs, who asked me if I had anything to declare. “Just cookies,” I said, and she smiled, and said, “Welcome to Kosovo.”
I was really happy about being in Kosovo, and especially so when I rounded a corner and had a great view down over the land far below me. It was a peaceful spot, up on a forested hill, and down below I could see this flatter landscape of fields and villages, and little roads linking the villages, and it all looked thoroughly pleasant down there. And I thought to myself, ‘that looks thoroughly pleasant,’ and I whizzed on down the hill towards it. And then I got down into the valley and I took some small roads, the roads that linked the villages, and do you know what? It was thoroughly pleasant. The roads were paved but had basically no traffic on them, and they were lined with wild flowers, red poppies and purple something-or-others. There were golden fields and green hills and little houses and it just felt like this really nice place. It was just a really, really nice place to ride a bike. Before I went to Kosovo I never knew the first thing about it. It was a dark place in my mind, a place of war and anger and darkness. And now here I was riding my bike in it and it was like this little piece of paradise, this really nice place cut straight from the pages of a children’s picture book. I loved it.
Kosovo is also populated primarily by ethnic Albanians, essentially the reason for its determination to seek independence from Serbia. I passed through some of the villages and saw mosques, and one children’s playground that had flags all around it that perhaps explained the country’s allegiances. Two of the flags were the Kosovan national flag, and there was also one EU flag and one USA flag (because they support Kosovo’s claim of independence), and the other twenty flags? All the red and black double-headed eagle of Albania.
I had to join a busier road and that made me like Kosovo a bit less, and then I went on another road that was kind of under construction, and there were road workers and big dumper trucks everywhere. This would have made me like Kosovo a lot less, except for the fact that I spoke to some Kosovans here, almost all of them construction workers, and they were all really nice, which made me like Kosovo more. It seemed like a good country, a pleasant land filled with pleasant people, that I’d enjoyed seeing. It was somewhere I wished I could add to my country count.
But I could not stay in Kosovo forever and soon crossed back into Macedonia. Time was getting along, and I still had a long ride back to Skopje. I did this on a main road that was in the mountains and might have been quite nice were it not for the fact that I could easily have been run over by a truck at any moment. It got busier and busier as it neared the city and it was with great relief that I spotted a bicycle path down by the river. I was up on a motorway at the time, and to get down to the river I basically had to scramble down a mountainside, but that was alright because I’d eaten all my cookies, so my bike weighed nothing at all and I could throw it over my shoulder.
The cycle path into Skopje was a perfect end to a great day. I rode along with the other cyclists, with the joggers and the roller bladers and the walkers, enjoying the anonymity I’d benefited from all day. Without all the panniers to mark me out as a weirdo from far away, I was just another guy on a bike, and I kind of liked that anonymity. And I was coming into the city to find all the crazy statues that Dea had been looking at earlier in the day and I thought Skopje was one hell of a cool city. I sat in a big square and looked up at the massive Warrior on a Horse statue. It was about the biggest statue I’d ever seen, and I stared at it, lit up now by the last of the day’s sunlight. It felt like a long time since I’d watched the sun rise over the hills to the east of the city that morning. I’d seen a lot. I’d cycled a lot. 163 kilometres. More than one hundred miles. And I’d added one country to my country count. As a full UN member Serbia would be the name on the list, but, just between you and me, it was Kosovo that I had seen.
Distance cycled: 163 kilometres (70 in Macedonia, 25 in Serbia, 68 in Kosovo)