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22nd September 2012

Bosnia, Borat and Montenegro!

It’s ironic that when I went to bed on Wednesday night, I believed that the most significant threat to my personal safety was from chef’s excessive exuberance with the onions in that night’s supper. In fact at about 3am I was woken up by incredibly heavy rain lashing down on the tent coupled with strong winds and shortly afterwards a very dramatic period of thunder and lightening. Terrified as ever in a thunderstorm, donkey dived straight into my sleeping bag and wailed “we’re all going to die!”, so had to be cuddled very tightly to calm him down. Counting the gaps between the flashes and bangs, the storm seemed to be moving away at times and closer at others. Holding donkey in a vice-like grip, I contemplated if its possible to be in a worse place than a tent in a thunderstorm and our likelihood of getting struck - grim times! After 45 minutes or so, the storm subsided and both donkey and I fell back into an exhausted sleep, he a little thinner in the middle than he had been previously as a result of the tight embrace.

In the morning, despite the strong winds, I decided it was probably ok to get on the road and head for Mostar, Bosnia. The border crossing was trouble free and before long, we were on Bosnian soil. Fantastic! The journey to Mostar from the border was only due to take about an hour so should have been easy. Shortly after I set off though, the winds really started to pick up and the chill was too much for me - I stopped, leant Suzi on her side stand and went to put on my fleece. Alas at that very moment an enormous gust of wind hit us and Suzi went down with a loud bang.

I stood for a moment and assessed the scene. No damage done as far as I could see, but it was going to be a pain to lift her up again. Fortunately at that moment two men drove past in a white van, slowed down and signaled if I wanted any help. I nodded vigorously with a donkey-style smile. Within seconds Suzi was the right way up again and with a nod and lots of waves, the kind men were on their way. Alas the fall had done some damage to the bike - the hand guard had bent into the throttle grip, restricting it from rolling back to the closed position when released, but as a bodge I fixed this by getting out my Leatherman and cutting the foam grips back until they could roll smoothly again - perfect.

After a pretty scary ride down to Mostar given the ever growing crosswinds with suzi and I getting thrown about in all directions, I went in search of a guesthouse for the night. After a dicey pootle down some back streets in the unforgiving Mostar traffic, I picked “Villa mike” quite randomly. It turned out that Mike was Bosnia’s answer to Borat. Answering the gate wearing only a wife-beater, track suit bottoms and a bucket-load of aftershave, Mike couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw me in my biking kit (possibly owing to the large bender he’d clearly been on all afternoon). “where you come from looking like this? From Space? Ha ha ha! You ride motorcycle? From England? My god! Ha ha I am crazy, old-fashioned bastard, you power women, you are very strong and you do men’s things. Really I have much respect. When I was young, women did not leave house, now you travel on motorcycle - crazy these things!”

After settling in and discovering that there was another solo female rider at this guesthouse - a Swiss girl called Sue - poor Mike! - I went for a potter around the old town of Mostar. It’s a beautiful place of cobbled streets, minarets, old temples and endless alleys. Most of it has been rebuilt after the city was razed to the ground in the 90s war, but has been done so very much in keeping with the previous form and it’s a great place to potter. There are still a few buildings around which are either completely bombed out or where the walls are pocked with shell marks, serving as a constant reminder to the war.

Later on, I returned to the guesthouse to another encounter with Mike. I was relaxing with a beer in the sitting room before going out for dinner with Sue, when mike came lolloping in apparently looking for a sewing kit. “my son”, he explained, “he has school excursion tomorrow but has hole in pocket so I must sew. You womens, we complain about you but when you are gone it is very hard. Look at me, I am more like Emily than Emil here with my needle!” I did have to admit that we were facing something of a stark role reversal, him with his sewing and me with my beer and motorbike. Fortunately he was able to have a laugh about it!

Next morning I headed east out of Mostar towards Gacko, hoping to pick up the border crossing at Krstac into Montenegro. Once I got to Gacko, I continued onto Avtovac where the road was meant to fork onto the minor road to Montenegro. I rode into Avtovac, a tiny little village of heavily potholed streets strewn with rubble and the occasional strolling cow, in search of this road. Failing to find it, I turned back to ask one of the 3 older men who were perched on a street corner wearing battered brown jackets over their vests and huge moustaches. As soon as I pulled up, the men walked over as well as a huge throng of school kids. As I tried to point to the map and gesticulate what road I was looking for to these men (none of whom spoke a word of English), the kids jostled to peer at the bike’s controls and stare up at me, while more than one face lit up at the sight of donkey and a few stray hands even went to stroke his ear. After much debate amongst themselves, eventually the men seemed to agree that this road I was looking for was a very bad idea, and that I should head south to Bileca and cross there. Tucking my map back into my bag, I donned my helmet and gloves once again to this considerable audience, tooted the horn a few times (to many young cheers) and bumbled off on my way south. I love these little interactions with local people, it’s great to be a part of their world for a fleeting moment and there is a real warmth towards strangers that always makes me leave with a big grin. Heart warming stuff.

After another hour or so of road completely to myself save for the occasional doe eyed heifer, I made it across the border into Montenegro. After a nerve-wracking section of road that is “under repair” ie pure dust and rubble, I eventually made it up to Zabljak in the Durmitor national park. The vastness of the place is slightly reminiscent of Mongolia but all at a higher attitude and generally at spicier gradients. It’s pretty cold up here at this time of year so that night I stayed in a wonderful little wooden hut complete with double bed and duvet - its definitely warmer than a tent!

Today I set off for Serbia and eventually made it into the crazy city of Novi Pazar, but that’s a story for next time!