Fleeing the Balkans Cold Snap

By the end of pub crawl season, I found myself ready to push on. With my head in a clearer place, and my feet getting itchy (probably my newest shoes to fall apart), the time had come to get out of Croatia…

The arrival of Tasha and myself in Montenegro saw the start of a continual battle between us and the weather. A cold front kicked in the day we arrived in Tivat. While still hot in the day, the nights were fresh as hell. We pulled into Hostel Anton in Tivat, to catch up with Ben, a mate I made in Belgrade back in March or so. After spending two days there doing practice hikes (the first being a 4 hour lost bushbash through thornbushes with insufficient water; the second being a 20km trek over 5 hours to Kotor), we got on the road to Durmitor National Park. Having been told by Ben about the amazing hiking and views at Durmitor just 2 weeks earlier, we had planned to stay for a week to 10 days, hiking and camping inside the park as much as possible, as a good detox from the summer’s work.

Zabljak, the largest town on the National Park border (A whopping 4000 people), was not warm when we arrived. After finding rooms for 6Eur each, we were warned by numerous tourist information people to NOT camp outside, or hike higher than the lake, as rain and snow were expected. Sure enough, during the next day’s hike, rain started. The next day = snow. Having come from beautiful summer weather 5 days earlier, sub-zero was a shock. The decision was made that if we woke to snow the next morning, we would make a run for warmer weather.

There was snow falling when I woke up. We left. 3 nights in Zabljak, and one 15km hike. Boarded a bus to Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, where absolutely nothing was happening, and it was still cold. Waited 5 hours, and boarded an overnight to Pristina, Kosovo. Arrived at 5am. Absolutely freezing. At 8am, Tash and I were invited to coffee by Arton, a Kosovo native who’s family fled to Germany during the fighting, and who returned in 1999, since working as a recycled paper truck driver. Due to my poor choice of words, he decided to order vodkas to chase the coffees. I’ll just say this: I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep, the cold, or maybe just the vodka, but it was delicious. As in, I worryingly could see myself getting used to morning vodkas.

Left the bus station in search of the only reasonably priced guesthouse. Googlemaps failed us, and took us in the wrong direction. It took 12kilometres, 2 internet cafes, 2 people asked for directions, and 3.5 hours to find the guesthouse.

As for Pristina as a city… it’s nowhere near as rundown as I expected from the capital of the second poorest country in Europe (Behind Moldova). I assume the high UN presence and foreign diplomats bring in a fair bit of revenue. The sights maybe took 2 hours to see, but the people were friendly enough to make up for it. Although they did stare at me a lot. And assume I was Swedish. And most importantly, I found a 1Eur kebab.

Initially planning to head to Prizren the next day, in southern Kosovo, plans were changed last minute to head instead to Skopje, Macedonia. Numerous people had said not to bother with this city. But I’ll say now, those people are idiots. The bus ride in, I seemed to make friends with 3 local boys, on account of my blonde hair, blue eyes, and different looking passport. The eldest actually told me to tear up my passport and stay in Skopje forever, he loved it that much. After couchsurfing fell through in Zabljak and Pristina, Tash and I didn’t waste our time and headed straight for Shanti Hostel. To anyone going to Skopje, you HAVE to stay here. The staff were cool, they have a weird but awesome dog, and the guests I met were sweet. Instead of staying one night, we changed our mind each morning and ended up staying 4. Time was spent walking/skateboarding around the city, exploring antique shops, drinking at the hostel, or down at the river, playing magnetic darts with Jon the Californian photojournalist, and doing late night skateboard/beer runs to the bus station.
Saturday morning Tash and I finally dragged ourselves from Skopje, alongside Tony, another Aussie we met up with at the hostel. After a surprisingly expensive bus, and a surprisingly cheap apartment, we found ourselves in Ohrid, a town with apparently some good hiking, near the Albanian border. Also, we drove past more snow, and it was cold. I was planning to go hiking and camping again. Seriously weather? As a result, Ohrid became a bail for me, and I decided to take the easiest path to Turkey, where surely it would be warmer… I mean, hopefully..

So I rolled out of the mattress I was sleeping on for 5Eur a night, packed my super heavy kit, and started my walk. After bailing on hitch hiking due to pure laziness, this was to be my return to the game. No excuses. After about 20 minutes waiting, I was picked up by an old Macedonian man working for the Post Service, who told me all about his experiences during the fall of Yugoslavia, and also in the conflict in Macedonia against Albanian insurgents. He had seen some serious shit by the sound of it. Since he wasn’t driving the whole way to Skopje, he made a call to another Postie, and I swapped vans and got a ride to the centre. Postie number 2 spoke no English, and no German, then made it clear he wasn’t keen to talk, just to drive. Ah well.

Either way, it gets nice to return to a familiar city, and Skopje was no exception. I arrived, checked back in to Shanti Hostel, where Jon had been waiting. Grabbed the skateboards and went in to town with all intentions of hamburgers. On the way we met a couple of local shredders, and sessioned a local spot by the river for 3 hours before burgers crossed our minds. Admittedly, my session was far below theirs, considering they had been riding 10 years compared to my not oven 10 months…

The following day saw a difficult arrival at the hitch point, followed by two very easy, and fast rides into central Sofia, Bulgaria. Nothing special to report, apart from free coffee, and accidentally thumbing a Bulgarian Border Policeman.. Sofia was my grand return to Couchsurfing. I grandly had to wait outside my hosts apartment for an hour at 8pm. Unsurprisingly, it was cold. Surprisingly, a cute Bulgarian girl working at the Starbucks I was waiting outside brought me a free tea.

As it’s getting late, and this story is getting long, this seems a good point to end for now. On another note, I scored myself a Minolta SRT-101 film camera, so expect photos from time to time.


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