Monday, 29 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - Expectations Demolished

We were on our way home (new readers might want to begin here), but first we had another massive detour to take in. Rather than just taking a straight line back to Calais we wanted to see a bit more of what used to be Yugoslavia, and we were about to enter Montenegro.

Crna Gora, as the locals call it, is the smallest of the former Yugoslav states, at least until Kosovo gets its way. The country is almost entirely mountainous, to the point that it makes Switzerland look a bit flat in comparison. We were on our way to meet up with Balsa, another chap with an SMT who'd got in touch via the forum when I announced we were doing this trip a couple of days before we left.

As mentioned earlier, I'd got a bit bored of any detailed preparation for the return leg of the trip, and apart from deciding that we wanted to see more of Yugoslavia I hadn't delved much further, so we had no idea where we were going or where we could stay. I'd pretty much just picked the capital Podgorica as a waypoint and hoped for the best. Balsa suggested that we take a better route, meeting him in Bijelo Polje in the north of the country, from where he'd lead us to his house in the mountains. This sounded good to us, so we made it a date. I'd checked a map and told him we'd be entering the country at Granicni Prelaz, then felt like a right plum when he told me it just meant Border Crossing in the local lingo.

First we had to enter the country, which meant collecting another passport stamp and waving our documents at some confused border guards. Green cards are meant to be a standard document, but I've never seen two that look alike and mine certainly wasn't green. Combining that with a UK vehicle registration document - Mark's was half in Welsh, compounding the problem - meant every time we crossed a non-EU border we got a lot of baffled looks. Everything was in order though, and soon we were riding down from the border and into Montenegro.

They must get bored of views like this in Montenegro

We'd given up having any expectations about countries by this point, trying to leave our prejudices and preconceptions at the border and going in with our eyes wide open to see what it would be like. Montenegro is one of those small countries that most people have probably never even heard of, so we had no idea what was ahead of us, but we had heard from a few people that the roads were good for biking. They weren't wrong. Mile after mile of perfect, swooping, near-deserted tarmac, the road from the border was two-wheeled paradise.

5000km in, still loving every minute

It wasn't long before we arrived at the junction outside Bijelo Polje and we gave Balsa a call to let him know we'd arrived. He'd been planning to ride his bike up from Podgorica that morning, but the weather forecast had been a bit iffy so he'd driven up instead. After a few minutes he turned up with a friend who just wanted to come along and say hello. I often got the impression during the trip that people were just generally happy that anyone had made the effort to visit their area, even their country, and we'd ridden a long way to get there. Life in London is so cosmopolitan that it's easy to forget that not everyone gets to rub shoulders with people from thousands of miles away on a daily basis. Often literally, where London public transport is concerned.

Picturesque, and a perfect spot for suicide

After a quick coffee in the shade - the weather forecast had been monumentally wrong - we got on the bikes and followed Balsa to his house in Žabljak. There aren't many roads in Montenegro, the mountains rather getting in the way, and there aren't any fast roads at all. That just leaves yet more perfectly surfaced roads wiggling through valleys and over passes, where it's hard to focus on the road with huge panoramic vistas fighting for your attention. The route took us through the Tara River Gorge, where we stopped by the Đurđevića Tara Bridge to take a few photos and buy more fridge magnets. This is the deepest gorge in Europe, the second deepest in the world after the Grand Canyon, and the view was magnificent.

Time was getting on, so we headed on to Žabljak where the bikes were tucked up safely in the garage and we got on with the most important task of the day: drinking beer. Balsa had invited a few friends up to join us for the evening, one of whom was riding his bike up from Podgorica so Balsa could join us for a ride the next day. We had a fair distance to cover again, but had time for a detour and for the first time we had a local guide who knew the best roads in the area.

It sure beats camping

While our host popped into town to stock up on beer and meat, we hung around chatting to his mates. They'd done a fair bit of touring themselves, and we swapped tales of long days on bad surfaces until it was time to head down to the basement for a barbecue. They were a great bunch and we stuffed our faces with meat and bread, all washed down with beer and a bottle of Jim Beam that Steve had brought along for the journey. Eventually it was time for the others to leave, they all had to ride back to Podgorica, with the exception of the chap who'd ridden Balsa's SMT up - he had the joy of 70 miles of mountain roads in the dark, driving Balsa's car back for him. That's what friends are for. As they left, we realised we'd been the only ones drinking, and we'd put quite a lot away, so rather than stay up and get more battered, we headed for bed in preparation for another long day's ride.

The next morning we tried to get away early but the lure of breakfast in town was too strong, and we spent a good hour and a half loafing outside a cafe talking bollocks, scoffing pizza for breakfast and guzzling coffee, with a quick raid on a nearby supermarket for good measure. I'd done a fair bit of nagging during the trip, trying to get people moving - at times it felt like all they wanted to do was sit around and drink coffee in picturesque locations without the hassle of riding bikes between them, and Balsa knew exactly how I felt. He'd had to play the same role on his trips, though he'd gone one step further, getting into a shouting match that ended in a fist fight. Fortunately it didn't come to that and we eventually made a move.

Playtime for the KTM club

Having ridden 3000 miles with two big singles and a manky old Triumph, it made a lovely change to have someone on a decent bike to play with. Balsa knew the roads like the back of his hand and shot off up a single track road through the Durmitor National Park, and I was only too happy to follow. The road only went one way, so rather than stop and wait we shot off into the distance and I tried to focus on the road - the scenery was lovely but I wanted to avoid becoming part of it. Every so often we stopped for some photos, to give ourselves a chance to soak up the view. It was pretty spectacular, so here it is:

After a while we started to drop down out of the national park and arrived back at the main road near Plužine. This put us close to the Bosnian border, but the nearest crossing was quite a small one and it was unlikely I'd be able to buy the insurance I needed, so Balsa had planned a route that took us further south, via Nikšić. There was only one road to Nikšić so we set off, again with Balsa leading and me glued to his rear, while the others trundled on behind as fast as their bikes would allow. Once again the SMT proved to be the perfect tool for the job, equally at home on fast, immaculately surfaced, sweeping roads as it had been on abysmally surfaced wiggly ones in Bulgaria a few days before.

After a while, we pulled in at the side of the road to wait for the others to catch up. Steve and Simon quickly appeared, and then the wait began for Mark. We waited, and we waited, and we waited some more. Eventually it got to the point where we started to wonder if he'd crashed, and when Steve tried to call his phone it rang but there was no answer. We waited a little longer and then decided Steve would go back to look for smoking wreckage while we hung around to see if Mark got in touch. Eventually we tracked him down - he was heading in completely the wrong direction, with no real idea where he was. We managed to guide him back to Plužine, where we'd last been together, and eventually he and Steve reappeared. While we waited, two cops, who'd been running a speed trap a short distance up the road, pulled in to check what we were up to. I didn't understand a word Balsa said to them, but I'm hoping it went along the lines of "our friend is a fucking idiot who can't tell east from west, let alone south." Mark confessed that he'd been so far behind that he'd not seen anyone for a while, and suspected he was going the wrong way. He checked his satnav and that gave him directions to the nearest border crossing, the one we were avoiding. He assumed he'd missed a junction and turned round to follow the satnav's directions. Had the fool ridden round one more bend he'd  have found us melting in the sun by the side of the road, wondering where the fuck he'd got to. A candidate for a Shaky Knowledge of Geography Award if ever there was one.

Our host, Balsa, who clearly has impeccable taste in bikes

Having regrouped, we headed south to Nikšić where we stopped for fuel. This was where Balsa would split off to head home, while we went in the opposite direction towards the border. He'd been the perfect host and a great guide to some cracking roads we'd never have found on our own, and I can't thank him enough for his hospitality.

Modern transport

It was time to head for the country we'd perhaps been looking forward to the most: Bosnia-Herzegovina. I can't speak for the others, but I knew almost nothing about the place beyond what I'd seen on the news in the early 90s and what I'd heard from the few people I knew who'd been there at some point. And, to be fair, most of them were wearing blue berets at the time, so they'd really only seen the country at its worst.

The road from Nikšić to the border took us past some absolutely spectacular scenery. The bit that sticks in my mind was the view down to Slankso Jezero, a lake dotted with islands that looked phenomenal from my vantage point high above. It didn't take too long to reach the border post and with minimal fuss we'd left Montenegro and were riding towards the Bosnian frontier.

I would try and give a bit of context to the situation in Bosnia, but I'd only do it clumsily and there's a pretty reasonable account on Wikipedia for anyone curious enough to look. If I learnt one thing from my time in the area it's that everyone has their own idea of what went on twenty years ago and I'm not going to argue with any of them. What's important is that, during the war that ensued when Yugoslavia disintegrated, the country was the scene of some of the worst atrocities since the Nazis, with rape and genocide used as weapons of war. The state was torn in two, and that division remains as a boundary defined almost twenty years ago, splitting the country into two entities - Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Federation. One is, as the name suggests predominantly populated by ethnic Serbs, generally orthodox christians, and the other by ethnic Bosniaks, generally muslims. There's still a very uneasy stand-off between the two and old tensions bubble away, barely beneath the surface, as scars like that take a long, long time to heal.

Republika Srpska forms a crescent that covers most of the northern and eastern borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina, so this would be our point of entry. Approaching the border, I felt some trepidation as it was the only country we were visiting that wasn't covered by my UK insurance or green card, and information about how to buy cover at the border was scarce at best, unreliable or misleading at worst.  I pulled up at the border post and handed over my passport and bike documents, and the first words out of the guard's mouth were "green card", in several languages, including one approximating English. I tried to explain that I didn't have one, and needed to buy cover, but was getting nowhere. After a while another chap appeared and told me, in better English (and believe me, I'm glad people everywhere can speak it, because if I'd had to learn the language of every country we passed through on this trip I'd still be doing evening classes) that I could indeed buy it there for about €20.

The mythical Bosnian insurance document

Once my passport was stamped I was told to park up by the booth, then walk down to the second building on the right where I could buy insurance. Sure enough, when I got there I found a chap behind a desk who sold me a three-day policy for the princely sum of €21 in cash, and once I'd shown it to the chap at the border post I was free to go. Result!

We'd been expecting terrible roads in Bosnia, clearly having learned nothing from the rest of our time in the Balkans, but the road down from the border was perfectly surfaced and offered yet more stunning views over the valley below. It was immediately clear that a huge amount of money had been poured into the country to rebuild it after the war.

As I approached Trebinje I saw a café by the side of the road which looked like a decent place to stop for a break. We were hoping to find somewhere to exchange currency after the border - Montenegro gave up its own currency a couple of years ago and now uses the Euro, despite not being a member of the EU, let alone the Eurozone, whereas Bosnia still uses the Convertible Mark (KM), a currency originally pegged to the Deutschmark, now pegged to the Euro. In spite of its name, the KM is downright impossible to buy outside BiH itself, and in recognition of this the Euro is accepted pretty much everywhere in the country, though generally only in fairly exact quantities, and change is often given in KMs.

With slightly fewer Euros and a few KM coins in my pocket, we left the café and hit the road.  Before long we headed off the main road to experiment with another Garmin Special, a single track road that took us up the side of the hill with yet another astonishing view across the valley. Just as we'd started to make our way across the plateau at the top, a truck came the other way full of men gesticulating wildly in a way that we could only imagine meant there was some reason we should turn back. For all we knew we really were in bandit country, so we did exactly that and rejoined the main road. This was no hardship, as it flowed along the valley floor for fifty miles or so, an hour of sheer pleasure.

Taking a detour in Bosnia

In the distance we could see the skies growing darker, and as we pressed on it was clear we were heading into a storm. Suddenly it started to rain hard, and there was no sign of the others in my mirrors. I waited a while, then turned back to see where they were. And then the hail began. The smallest hailstones were the size of peas and riding through them was like being shot-blasted, even through my cordura suit. Soon I found the others parked up by an metal shack, an abandoned restaurant with a small porch where they were sheltering from the storm, the sound of the hail hitting the metal roof so loud that I left my earplugs in until it stopped. We stood around for at least half an hour waiting for the weather to improve, discussing what might have happened to the burned out buildings across the road.

Eventually the rain eased a little and as time was against us I suggested we press on to our destination for the night, Mostar, an old city in the Federation. As we arrived in Mostar, the light fading and the rain still pouring, we headed for the nearest motel. The boys' own adventurers had been keen on wild camping, not something really recommended in Bosnia where some areas are still dotted with landmines and derelict buildings are occasionally booby-trapped, and to my relief the weather had dampened their spirits. 100 Euros scored us two comfortable rooms at the Motel Hercegovina, a modern hotel at the edge of the city with a friendly, English-speaking receptionist who was both amazed by the amount of luggage we were carrying and distraught at the amount of water we were dripping onto the floor. After a quick shower to try and ease the aches of yet another day on the road, we called a taxi into town for a look around.

Looks nice since they rebuilt it

Mostar takes its name from the 16th century stone bridge at its centre - the Stari Most, or old bridge, a major attraction since it was built. The city was shelled by Bosnian-Croat forces while under siege during the war, as an act of cultural destruction, resulting in its near-total obliteration. Following the war, a project was set in motion to rebuild the bridge and the old town, using traditional methods and original stones salvaged from the river below, and now it stands as it did before. It really is a fantastic sight, though its history is never far away. I didn't notice at the time, but the photo above shows a prominent reference to one of the darkest chapters of the Bosnian war.

No further comment required

Tourist trinkets on sale in Mostar ranged from the usual fridge magnets, which of course Simon and I had to buy, to objects made from items found around the city. Mostly bullets. It reminded me of walking around Ypres, where every other shop sells memorabilia from the first world war, and I wasn't sure whether to see it as just retailers pandering to a market, a visual reminder of recent history, or just tacky tourist crap. It was an interesting place to visit though, and not somewhere I'd thought I ever would.

After a quiet dinner and a few more beers some locals ordered a taxi for us and we headed back to the hotel. We were facing another long day, as we'd be riding to Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, and on to Croatia. It was a route recommended by Balsa and his friends the night before, and happened to be the route I already had in mind.

Mostar to Lug

The road north from Mostar began following the Neretva river, yet another flowing road along a valley floor. We avoided a speed trap by sheer luck, as the cop was facing the wrong way and only turned in time to hear our engines shedding revs as we dropped below the limit. We'd heard dire things about Bosnian police, though no worse than we'd heard about those in Bulgaria or Serbia before.

Lug to Vinac

At Jablanica we turned away from the Sarajevo road and eventually we began to climb. At Prozor I saw a couple of cops parked up just after a set of traffic lights, who watched me pass with a look of interest. As the road left town it started to climb quickly, twisting and turning up the side of a cliff, and I wound the throttle on and enjoyed the ride. Reaching the top, I pulled over and waited for the others to catch up. Simon arrived quickly, but we had to wait a while before Mark and Steve appeared behind us. This time Mark hadn't got lost, rather the cops had seen a chance and pulled them both over after the lights, claiming they'd gone through on red. This was clearly an attempt to shake them down, and we'd been told that offering 5 Euros or so should make any problem go away, but after producing their documents they stuck to playing dumb, telling the cops they didn't understand their questions, and eventually they were told in no uncertain terms to piss off. Brits abroad 1, bent cops nil.

Vinac to Banja Luka

At some point during the day I spotted a café and pulled over for a break, flagging the others down as they appeared. As we sat on the terrace relaxing, the muezzin call to prayer from a nearby mosque mingled with the sound of a local cover of the Beatles' Twist and Shout from the café's radio. Mosques in Serbia and Bosnia are something to behold - they look like nothing so much as alpine cottages with minarets, a curious blend of Germanic and Islamic architecture, the kind of building that could spark a war in Switzerland.

Bosnia makes everywhere else look expensive, with a coffee costing 1KM (around 30p) and fuel at just over £1 a litre. It has scenery to match anywhere else in the world, great roads, seemingly friendly people - at least they seemed OK to us, regardless of how they deal with  each other - and completely demolished any expectations or preconceptions we had left. The detour from the route home cost us a couple of days, and meant we had to hustle along in other places where we'd have liked to stop and look around, but was more than worth it and I'm itching to go back and see more.

The perfect ride

The rest of the road to Banja Luka continued in the same vein - occasionally over hills, generally following a wiggly river valley, with a surface that was, for the most part, perfect. A hundred miles of some of the best biking roads I've ever done in the last country I expected to find them. An absolute highlight of the trip.

Oddly, you never see signs like this for the the Bosnian Federation

As we approached Banja Luka we re-entered Republika Srpska, the boundary proudly marked by large signs as we'd seen when entering the country from Montenegro a day earlier. Looking behind us, we saw no such sign proclaiming arrival in the Bosnian Federation. It's clear which part of the country wants nothing to do with the other, and it left me wondering how long the union will hold before the former Yugoslavia fragments a little further. If it does, I hope it happens rather more peacefully than last time.

We stopped for fuel in Banja Luka, losing Simon briefly on the way, spent the last of our Bosnian currency on ice cream and snacks, and took the brand new motorway towards the border. It felt like we'd rushed through Bosnia. In fact since leaving Turkey we'd averaged one new country a day and it felt like we were barely scratching the surface. But time was our biggest enemy, and it forced us to say goodbye to what we'd thought would be the crazier countries on the trip.

It was time to return to the EU.

Read on here.

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