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25th September 2012

Into Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia!

Onto Serbia, kosovo and macedonia!!

After a fitful night’s sleep in my Montengran wooden hut (even copious thermals and a quick nip at the emergency hip flask didn’t entirely protect me from the temperature drop to a mere 1 degree C), I set off for the Serbian border with the ambition of spending the night in Novi Pazar. The border crossing was as usual hassle free and flushed with optimism, I headed towards the eminently unpronounceable city of Prijepolje with the aim of picking up a “yellow” road (according to the map) east towards Sjenica. Almost as soon as I crossed the border the temperatures strangely began to soar - clearly Serbians like it hot - and very shortly once I’d got to said city starting with P, I set off on this yellow road. Disturbingly however, after an encouraging section of new and pristine Tarmac, the road suddenly deteriorated into a horror-show of rock, stone and boulder as it climbed up a steep hill with a cliff face on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Surely this couldn’t be right? But sure enough up ahead, a road tunnel had been carved out of the mountainside. Only trouble was, the rocks and boulders were getting bigger, the drop steeper and the track narrower. There was no sign that any car had driven along this path for a very long time, if ever. Suddenly realising that my progress was starting to look like the early parts of a “999” reconstruction scene, I sensed trouble, gingerly executed a very tight 3 point turn and headed back into the preceding village, very confused as to where I had gone wrong.

Distinctly hot, bothered and hungry (a terrible combination), I went in search of local advice and eventually came upon a small cafe with slightly nuked looking grilling equipment out the front. Fortunately 2 young lads had seen me arrive and pull out my map in a slightly defeated manner and asked if I wanted help. Their English was pretty thin but eventually we managed to hit upon a common word of understanding - “asphalt”. They confirmed that this rocky path I’d found was indeed the yellow road on the map and correct, there was no asphalt anywhere along its length. They recommended I ride a large loop 3x the length of the “yellow” route but at least, they believed, the road had asphalt the whole way.

With a worried mind I headed off on the route they suggested. Probably owing largely to my very late (and distinctly chewy) lunch, my resilience and sense of adventure had started to falter. What if this route also deteriorated like the last one? How far would I have to back-track? It seemed certain I wouldn’t get to Novi Pazar at this rate, where on earth would I end the day?

I’m very thankful to report that after about two hours of riding (featuring a lengthy smile-off with an irascible policeman who I’d managed to annoy by misinterpreting his hand gesture for “stop here” as “ride on”), I arrived at the noisy, dusty, chaotic and smelly city of Novi Pazar. Once you get off the main “through traffic” road and enter the city, the streets quickly morph into a baffling maze of tight, twisty and unmarked routes where cars constantly shoot out at all directions from intersecting lanes and shops spill out onto the streets. There are people everywhere and within minutes I had entirely lost my bearings. Quickly realising I needed help, I spotted a Serbian version of the Fonz on his new scooter and asked him what direction I should take to get to the Hotel I planned to stay in. He simply nodded cooly behind his shades in response and beckoned that he would lead the way. I then followed him in hot pursuit as he sped his way through the streets, dodging cars & potholes and frequently tooting the horn and nodding at friends as he went, managing at all times to maintain his nonchalant sense of cool. No helmet of course. On arrival at the correct street, he motioned for me to look out for the hotel on the left, nodded, waved and then sped off. What a gent! It’s hard to imagine anywhere near the same level of unquestioning roadside assistance being offered to a tourist in the UK - or perhaps a
more stylish one.

Next morning the plan of action was to set off north east in a fairly large loop around the borders of Kosovo with the aim of arriving the next into Skopje, Macedonia. Wary of taking the map at face value, I wandered down to reception to point out my intended route on the map and ask the team’s advice about the quality of the roads. On laying out my enquiry, the receptionist looked at me very strangely. “You want to go to Skopje, yes?”. I confirmed that was the case. “then why don’t you just ride through Kosovo? Half the distance!”. I replied that I didn’t want to go to Kosovo. She enquired why, a trace of a smile starting to creep across her face. “Er, isn’t it dangerous? With fighting?”, I ventured. The receptionist laughed at my apparently surreal suggestion. “no it’s fine! It’s like serbia! It’s ok!”. I eyed her suspiciously. “Are you sure, aren’t there problems there?”. Struggling to stifle her laughter but sensing that further corroboration was required, she called over her manager and explained the situation to him in Serbian. He looked at me and also broke into a chuckle, confirming that indeed the road trip would be ok, insisting “You are from Great Britain, they like you there, they don’t like Serbians but for you it’s fine”. This was a surprising verdict and their laughter certainly
suggested that the Kosovan option shouldn’t be completely ruled out, but I was a long way from convinced that this was a good idea.

With a heavy heart I returned to my room and finished my packing. After a dark 10 minutes of the soul where I seriously asked myself how I had ended up in this situation, on my own, on a motorbike with the dilemma of either riding a huge loop of uncertain Serbian “roads” in a strange country where outside of this hotel I was barely able to communicate, or taking on the gauntlet of riding straight across Kosovo, which the foreign office website suggested was basically Operation Certain Death. I then had a sudden moment of realisation - whatever did happen that day, it was definitely going to be one of the most memorable Sundays of my life! This was the stuff of real, terrifying adventure and surely if I cowered from this now, I should forget any thoughts of riding to Capetown. It was time to man up, laugh in the face of danger and get on with it - Kosovo, be ready!!

After another directionally challenged departure from Novi Pazar, this time requiring the escort of a kind man driving a Mercedes, I headed out on the road to the Kosovan border. Very shortly I arrived at the checkpoint, which differed from the rest in that it was made up of a long avenue of enormous tanks and trucks upon which stood soldiers with guns trained on whoever passed through the middle. Slowing down to a crawl, I rode towards the armed border guard - a man built like a proverbial house, head shaven, his dark features set into a brooding scowl. In fact he looked so completely looked the part of a Jason Bourne style assassin, I realised with a “shit or bust” giggle in my helmet that there was only one thing for it - no hint of fear and a megawatt smile. I pulled up next to him, took off my gloves, removed my helmet and unleashed my most appealing grin and a very cheery “hello”. He cracked immediately! A big smile broke across his face and looking at the bike with cautious admiration, he took my passport. “You are alone?” he asked? “Er, yes”, I replied, reflecting that now was not the time to introduce Donkey. The man raised his eyebrows and threw me a “well good luck with that - rather you than me!” type glance, returned me my passport and waved me on. With that facial expression in mind I rode past his gun-toting pals at a steady but keen pace and started my journey.

The northern parts of Kosovo were certainly the most heavily dominated by road blocks, tanks, soldiers as well as various posters of army helicopters and the slogan “in support of the resolution 1244 of the security counsel”, but at no point on my journey did I feel threatened by it once that initial fear had passed. It’s a strange country with the military presence but one where so many features of the other Balkan countries remain constant -children waving excitedly, men driving ancient tractors staring openly, people just getting
on with everyday life - that on balance there was more similarity than difference.

I took the main road all the way south east past Pristina down to the Macedonian border. It was surprising how much of the country seemed to be just vast, scrubby landscape with huge piles of rubble running along the roadside for miles, punctuated with large mounds of rubbish. Almost like a Balkan Dubai, all of a sudden out of the barrenness Pristina appears on the horizon. It was at this point that the road suddenly broke from plodding single track into a wide black ribbon of dual carriage way - though really given the lack of any road markings or obvious speed restrictions, it was more like a race-track. Suzi isn’t exactly an R8 so we clung to the furthest right hand point of the road keeping one eye trained on the road ahead and the other watching out for speeding cars in the mirrors. Dicey times!

Eventually we made it in one piece to
the Macedonian border. All was well but, lacking a green card, I was asked to park up and buy some insurance from the office just before customs. Picking my way through numerous cow pats splattered all over the road, I proceeded towards the relevant hut, but not before first negotiating my way around the guilty heifer, who looked a lot less cheery than the laughing version of cheese triangle fame. From the look of crushed resignation on her face the story was obvious - she’d saved up for years for a weekend mini-break in the Macedonian hills but having arrived at the border, some gaps in her paperwork had let her down, leaving her to register her disappointment the only way she knew how all over the Tarmac. Poor girl.

In any case, €50 lighter but now legal, I waved Daisy goodbye and set off for Western Macedonia. After a terrifying half hour stint on the super fast motorway, I took the first exit I could to the city of Tetovo. It was by this point about 5.30pm and I was really starting to feel tired. The problem was that this city was incredibly hectic with rather unforgiving traffic, which made
finding a hotel nigh on impossible. After a few nifty turns I got out of the city and found my way onto a regional road that ran loosely parallel to the motorway. This route took me through an endless stream of identical villages, all featuring the same cafe’s, mini markets and assorted other shops for local people. Alas there was no sign of any overnight amenity for the passing tourist. I rode on but there was no sign of anything changing, and with the streets dusty and potholed with the occasional goolie of a steep speed bump, my concentration was starting to flag. Dusk was beginning to fall and passing a large cemetery I started to wonder if that’s where I would have to camp that night given the lack of any other alternative (there was no other green space anywhere). With thoughts of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video in mind however, I rode on, having to believe something better would come along.

And then, quicker than you can say “Guardian angel”, it did. Sitting there at a cafe on a street corner was a group of bikers with their various offroad KTM’s parked up next to them. Doing a quick double-take I hastily pulled onto the pavement, stopped the bike and breathed a massive sigh of relief. As any regular biker knows, the biking community is very tight and packed with some of the best-hearted, most generous and loyal people you’ll ever meet. The rules are simple and the same the world over - always acknowledge your fellow rider with a nod or wave, and always help out a biker in need. On this basis, I knew I was going to be ok. I walked over to the table and was immediately welcomed and offered a seat. Though they later confessed to substantial shock at seeing a girl on a bike (there aren’t many to the Macedonian Dinar, that’s for sure), when they heard my story, they offered to lead me to a motel about 10kms away and after a quick espresso, we were off!

What then followed was one of the most fun on-road rides I’ve ever had. Positioned in the middle of this 8 strong procession of bikes, we ragged through these tiny streets at quite  fantastic speeds, standing up on the footpegs, partly to help negotiate the dodgy road conditions but mostly because it was just fun!! Kids came running out of their houses, punching the air and jumping up and down with excitement as we raced past with exhausts popping and more than the occasional wheelie being pulled by my male companions. All in all the perfect hooliganistic antidote to an extraordinary day and by the time we pulled up outside the motel, I had a massive grin on my face - but this time not a policeman or border guard in sight. Safe to say this really had been one of the most memorable Sundays I’ve ever had - an awesome end to an unforgettable day.