Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why we didn't go to Serbia... but love Kosovo!

Someone once said 'isn't it amazing how a beautiful morning can turn into a crappy afternoon?' It would have just about summed up our day for sure. The problem wasn't the country or landscape we were in though. It was the day we would have gone to Serbia... would have, if they hadn't refused us entry! It was to be another reminder of how volatile the situation in the Balkan still is today. But we were lucky... as the day after it literally exploded... 

The day had started beautifully in Kosovo, a place we liked yesterday even though we arrived very tired. We packed up our camp and slithered through the mud towards the gravel road we had turned into yesterday looking for a place to camp. We slowly headed for the Serbian border. The plan for the day had been Kosovo - Serbia. Kosovo's friendly feel continued today. So much so that we took a narrow gravel road into the mountains to see more of rural Kosovo. We enjoyed every minute of it, beautiful views and villages that seemed out of the middle ages. It was a great ride, right up to the point where we entered the part of Kosovo which wants to be part of Serbia... Serbian flags were everywhere and the friendly Kosovo faces made way for unhappy ones. It was unfortunately a sign of things to come...

We made good use of the Avon
Distanzias! It was slightly muddy

in places...
Suddenly we found ourselves in an area controlled by the US military, and as it turned out for good reason. They are there to enforce the UN Security Council resolution, and apparently need heavy equipment to do so. We continued towards Priština, the road gradually became busier to the point where it really became a struggle to get through. Alive that is. Driving standards are poor, very poor. I was totally surprised to find a driving school here as I couldn't see any evidence of driver training. Then again the driving instructor found it apparently ok to block half the road to do a u-turn over a double continuous line.

Luckily we could steer away from the main road, towards the Serbian border. The Kosovo border formalities were simple and efficient but the Serbians were hard to comprehend. We gave our passports and bike documents, as we had done many times before, but the border guard kept asking about an ID card. ID card? A passport is one step up from an ID card, so what would he need the ID card for? In the end a US military helped out with translation... a translation of something so incredibly rude that we couldn't believe what we heard... Serbia doesn't recognise Kosovo and feels Kosovo belongs to Serbia. As we were told the Kosovar people are mostly of Albanian descent we couldn't quite understand this but it's not on us to judge. Anyway, because we were in Kosovo, they would not let us in Serbia... The reason given was that we needed an entry stamp in our passport and entry stamps can only be given at a border. Serbia doesn't recognise the border with Kosovo and thus won't place the entry stamp...! Had we had an ID card instead of a passport then they could have let us in as they can't place a stamp on an ID card... Now the guy that told us all this was in fact a Serbian border guard... if this isn't a recognised border then why was he working there and why was he wearing a Serbian border guard uniform? As you can see in the video the border guard was quite friendly, they all were. I think they felt a little shitty about what they had to tell us themselves and tried to help us by asking for an ID card. They told us to ride back to Priština, continue south, ride into Macedonia and then ride from Macedonia into Serbia... A trip that would take about 4-5 hours.

We understood there wasn't much the border guards could do and don't blame them for anything. Even if they would have let us in then we wouldn't have been able to leave Serbia as we didn't have the right entry stamp in our passports. It was in the end just politics. To the Serbian politicians I'd like to ask that given we weren't at a recognised border and according to them already in Serbia... how can you refuse us entry? There was according to Serbia after all no entry. Border dispute or not, it has nothing to do with us. We are neither Serbian nor Kosovar and have nothing to do with their squabbles. We went back to the Kosovo side, where we found the Kosovo border guard hadn't even stamped us out of the country as he knew the Serbians wouldn't let us in and we would thus be back. Like I wrote earlier the situation is still quite volatile :-) 

I think most of us can remember the very bloody war raging through the Balkans. The images we saw on tv were indescribable. It's well past my expertise to comment on who did what and who was to blame or not. There is an extensive report on Wikipedia about this, if you are interested, and I'm sure there are many more views to be found on the net too. This however is a travel blog and we thus write about what we find from a travelling point of view.

The only comment we'd like to make on our encounter today with Serbian politics is that it showed us once again that politicians are at best childish. Not allowing a visitor in your country because you feel he is at the wrong place, while that visitor has nothing to do with your conflict and can't be blamed for the border being in the wrong place, is neither here not there. Then telling him or her to drive around for 4-5 hrs through another country is from a public relations point of view not a very good signal either. We did ride to Macedonia, but as we were heading for Bucharest, we decided to continue through Bulgaria instead of Serbia as we'd had enough of politics.

Anyway, we went back to Kosovo and as were now going to Macedonia, we found ourselves riding through Priština after all. Priština is not overly big but riding through it is not for the faint hearted. The traffic is chaos, there are no rules and people do everything you wouldn't expect them to do. Like stopping in the middle of a 3-lane roundabout to let passengers out... or stopping in the left hand lane to let passengers walk to that shop across the road through dense traffic. Of course nobody uses their mirrors, even if they are still on the car... It's not only the drivers which makes this place 'interesting' people just walk across the road without looking left or right too. All this might have been possible 100 years ago, when horse and carts were used, but now traffic consists of BMW and Mercedes saloons speeding through traffic in aggressive fashion. Yet there are also still the horse and carts in between this madhouse, resulting in speed differences of near enough 100 km/hr. We lost count of the times we had to slam on the brakes thinking SHIIIIIT! 

Out of Priština, heading south, the madness continued. Dangerous overtaking in places where there was no room at all was unfortunately the norm. The car wrecks we saw by the side of the road were incredible. Head-on collisions with no doubt deadly results. As everything that drives here is old and most of them are diesels, the smoke was nauseating. Trucks and vans crawl on the road while the saloons want to overtake them doing three times the speed on roads that were designed for less than half that. Add to that a state of repair that has the wheels struggling to stay in contact and surfaces covered in diesel spills and things become somewhat lively.

Once you take the smaller roads, this is what you'll find :-)

Once we had crossed the border into Macedonia, things calmed down a bit. Unfortunately the afternoon had more in store for us... We couldn't find a campground anywhere in Macedonia and thus ended up in Bulgaria, were we couldn't find a campground either. The GPS came up with a blank, apart from one in Sofia. We tried to find a free spot but couldn't find anything. To make matters worse, it was late Friday afternoon when we arrived in Sofia. Imagine tiredness, rush hour, bad roads and you'll get the picture.

We just about staggered onto the campground which turned out to be the worst dump yet. There was no alternative, it was almost dark and we thus took it. Later we regretted it... when we found the toilets were in one of the cabins. The Russian guy who operated the campground, if you can call it that, opened the door and we just about choked in the smell that came out of it... Maybe the last occupant was still in there somewhere, decomposing... The campground itself hadn't been mowed since the iron curtain had come down and turned out to be more blackberries than grass. This part of the trip, through the Balkans, has been full of ups and downs. Today was a down. In a way though we have been very very lucky. The day after we rode through Kumanovo in Macedonia there was police raid on an ethic Albanian terrorist group, which resulted in heavy gunfights! The town was then completely locked down by police as the situation was deemed too explosive.

You will notice we haven't written much about Bulgaria. That's because we come back here for a proper visit after Romania. One thing I can give away though: the next campground in Bulgaria is much better than the first one we had and we will publish a list of campgrounds we visited on the Balkan in the future.