We have had some awesome riding so far. But we are also again behind on schedule, due to the rain at Rikavačko and the flat tire. Due to earlier delays we have also had to skip a number of places in BiH that we wanted to see. So in the morning we discuss our options. It seems unlikely that we will be able to complete the full tour we had planned out, crossing Kosovo and Serbia all the way to the Danube and the Romanian border. So in stead we decide to cut the route short, crossing only west Kosovo then riding through Biograd National Park which we skipped before doing the Morač-Nikšić track. After that back into BiH, towards Orlovačko Jezero hoping for better weather for this attempt. Then cutting east briefly into Serbia through Tara National Park, entering BiH again near Srebrenica and back north through eastern BiH (and the republika Srpska). With a new plan, we set off.
But first we need to pack again. While Sofie is packing the air mats and sleeping bags I sneak off to say hi to a biker that had arrived yesterday evening. He’s riding a 660 Tenere, uses the exact same tent as us and has the same cooking gear lying around in front of the tent. Having done a lot of miles on a Tenere in the past myself I can only conclude it has to be someone with good taste. It turns out to be Angel, a Spanish bloke who set off on a RTW trip in London after selling up everything he had. We have an interesting talk until Sofie comes over, which means I unfortunately missed out on all the packing fun. But she can still use a hand with the tent. So we say our goodbyes. You can follow Angel on his Facebook, his hebbortw blog is seriously out of date though.
During breakfast we meet another interesting traveler. A pensioner from Lier in Belgium who’s riding his bicycle to Istanbul and back. He calls it his “trip of a lifetime” and admits that it will probably be a once in a lifetime experience, given his age. He does look like the trip is getting to him a bit. But that’s probably because he suffered similar weather as us riding through Bosnia and Montenegro.
The SH5 looked like a nice and relatively quick route from lake Shkodra into Kosovo and we set off in that direction around 10AM. Just outside of Shkoder Sofie’s Terra has a birthday.
Meanwhile the Albanian countryside keeps impressing us.
The SH5 is all tarmac. But it is also 140km of relentlessly snaking tight corners, no breaks, not even a 100m stretch of straight road. It requires continuous full concentration.
We stop for fuel near Puke. After a bit of discussion we still pay too much for the fuel. But you win some, you lose some and the guy looked like he could use the money more than us. We don’t have any Albanian Leks on us, in fact we’ll end up riding through Albania on Euros alone. People are happy to take them, with the occasional little markup.
We stop for a pick nick lunch under a tree in one of the many hairpin corners of the SH5
Under the shade of a very healthy looking mulberry tree.
And a few other fine examples of Albanian nature.
Because I noticed one of my DRL lights was moving around a lot I took the opportunity to have a closer look at it. Turns out the L-bracket I had used to install it had a little crack in it. Easily fixed with some kneed-able metal. If it’s taking up space in my tool box, at least I can put it too good use.
The road winds on and on until just before Kukës, where we have to take a short stretch of motorway. For westerners like us the on-ramp is a bit strange though. It consists of a gravel parking lot in front of a cafe. In stead of a bridge or a tunnel to cross the motorway if you need to take it left, there’s just a hole in the central divider between the 2 directions. You cross the 2 lanes that are going right, cross the divider and then turn left on the other 2 lanes. An interestingly simplistic concept. The only reason it works is because there’s hardly any traffic and some of the traffic you do see is all kinds of horse or donkey-drawn vehicles.
We ride through Kukes and the first impression is pretty good, wide clean promenades lined with trees. Clearly these are the richer parts of town, the poorer parts of town we see a bit further look very different. Sofie is also hit by a stone thrown from somewhere on the roadside, so we decide not to stop and turn onto the SH23. It is a wide busy gravel road. Wide enough for 4 trucks to ride side by side. And judging by the amount of potholes and driving standards it is entirely possible that occasionally happens.
When we reach the border, the contrast between the Albanian post and the Kosovar post couldn’t be larger. The Albanian border guard doesn’t even bother getting out of his chair in the shade and simply waves us through. The Kosovar post is probably the most formal, well-staffed but also the friendliest, organized and most helpful that I’ve come across so far.
The guy checking our IDs goes “ah, Belgium. First time in Kosovo? You’ll need insurance”. And before we know it he’s taking us to the insurance agent inside a large building. There’s about a dozen border guards and they all speak English, are super friendly and very punctual. The insurance is handled in less than 5 minutes and we even get a huge A3-sized accident report template with the Kosovar insurance papers.
And then we are waved on our way. The landscape is a bit of a surprise though. After days on end of mountains, valleys and gorges in Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania, Kosovo seems to be as flat as a really flat thing. The mountains form the border and beyond that it’s like Holland as far as the eye can see.
Although with our modified plans we’ll only be in kosovo for a really short time, we still want to see some of its sights. So we make a little detour via the Visoki Dečani monastery. It is a (serbian-)orthodox monastery smack in the middle of mainly Albanian Kosovar territory. It is still heavily protected by Italian KFOR troops.
Before entering we need to leave our IDs and wait for permission from the commanding officer. After a quick call to confirm, we receive our visitor’s badges and are allowed in.
It is a small, but beautifully restored monastery with some amazing frescos. During the Kosovo war it also acted as a safe house for refugees of all ethnicities. But after the war there were still several attempts to destroy it. Once inside the place has such a tranquil and peaceful atmosphere that it is hard to understand why anyone would want to do that. But the KFOR troops aren’t there just for show, that’s for sure.
We’re not allowed to take pictures inside, but it looks pretty nice from the outside as well.
While we ride away I manage to make a little clip when we ride past the first of 2 checkpoints you need to negotiate before you get to the monastery.
What is clear though when riding through this part of Kosovo is that everything is a lot cleaner than on the Albanian side of the border. The infrastructure is more modern and better maintained, there are traffic lights and pedestrian crossings everywhere, the buildings are in much better nick. I’m assuming it is the KFOR presence and international subsidies actually benefiting the locals for once.
The rest of our ride towards the border with Montenegro is pretty unremarkable, except that the tarmac is absolutely in top notch condition. The border posts here are located on either side of a mountain pass, with about 30km of no-man’s land between. It’s a pretty fun ride.
We are hoping to find a nice camp site, but this isn’t exactly the most touristy part of the country. We ride through Rožaje, but except for a hotel in the town center we don’t really see any other options. The GPS doesn’t offer any suggestions either. When we leave town we spot a sign for a camp site though, so we go check it out. It turns out to be a patch of grass only large enough for 1 tent, in someones front yard. Sofie isn’t feeling very comfortable about the 3 guys hanging around the place so we decide to move on.
Next stop is Berane. And nothing much to be found here either. It is a run-down industrial town that clearly doesn’t see a lot of tourism. When inquiring with the gas station attendant he immediately offers the pitch of grass next to the pumps. Because “it has camera surveillance and so should be safe”. I’m assuming he is referring to all the drunk homeless guys hanging around. Not really sure whether they care about the cameras. It is a friendly offer but we decide to look further.
After buying some food and water at the gas station we take a road into the mountains, hoping to find a quiet spot in the woods to pitch our tent. With the sun setting soon we won’t have much time to pick it, though.
The first spot we come across is quickly discarded because it is too close to the road and there are a lot of fresh tire tracks around. But a little further we turn into a gravel road that looks promising. It is a steep climb up into the mountains and after a bit of riding around looking at different options we find a level, open patch shielded from the road by a couple of thick spruce trees. The tent is pitched with the light of the bikes and while Sofie is setting up our air beds and sleeping bags, I cook dinner.
We enjoy our pasta under an amazing night sky filled with stars.