Category Archives: Macedonia (FYROM)

The Strug-a Bus

The ride into Skopje was long and difficult, and it did not help that I had just started to come down with whatever Autumn had just gotten over. The day after we arrived in Skopje and a good few after I was pretty under the weather. Shanti Hostel in Skopje was really cool, we liked it a lot. As soon as we arrived, soaked and exhausted, the host offered to do our laundry and dry it, and offered us some pasta he had just made. It made the end of the day a lot easier. While we were there a lot of Peace Corps people from all over the USA were in town for the weekend. It was cool to hear about their experience, especially since they have spent so much time in Macedonia. The next morning after breakfast we headed out on the walking tour of the city. We have been doing a lot of these free walking tours and they have usually been quite good. This one was cool as well but with a cold, the 3 hour length was a bit much for me.

Lots of large new buildings and construction in Skopje
A newer eastern orthodox church, the largest in the city

Our tour group

I was exhausted and ready to relax by the end. We went to a little restaurant and got soup and kofte and Tavče gravče which was really good.

All we do is eat

Afterwards we saw a little burrito place and, because they are one of the things we have really missed, decided to get a second lunch. It wasn’t quite a tex mex burrito but it wasn’t bad. Back at the hostel I spent the rest of the afternoon working on the bikes, they had a rough few days in the rain and needed some cleaning and attention. That evening we went out to a little bar with our new friends Eyrk and Ola from Poland.

#groupselfie

It’s been great meeting new people at hostels and getting to hear about where they are from and the trips they are doing. We decided that we had to see Ohrid, Macedonia because everyone said it was great. The next morning we planned to take the bus there, stay a night and then another bus to Tirana, Albania before resuming by bike; the buses mostly because it was a bit out of the way and the roads weren’t supposed to be very good. In the morning, predictably enough, we managed to miss the first bus so we went back to the hostel and walked around the city a bit before catching the later bus. As we found out from one of the Peace Corps volunteers a day before, there is some superstition in Macedonia about the crosswind and cold, so buses tend not to have more than one window open. Our bus was really warm, which coupled with probably a slight fever didn’t make for the most pleasant trip. When we got to Ohrid we found that a German girl named Teresa was also coming from Skopje and looking for a hostel, we told her where we were staying and ended up meeting her again there. Once we got to Sunny Lake Hostel I took a little nap to try and fight off the cold and Autumn went to get soup fixings. She tried to go to the green market but it was mostly closed for the day and the one lady selling potatoes was trying to give her 15 potatoes when she only wanted 4 and didn’t see to understand. The kitchen at the hostel seemed to be the main room to congregate in. We met Tobi from Germany, Adam from Isreal, and Jake from Australia while we were cooking soup which we had enough of to share. By the time we were done with soup a few girls from Poland were teaching us all how to make perogi. Cooking and beer in a tiny crowded kitchen, it was a lot of fun. On our full day in Ohrid we wandered around the city along the water and to a few churches. Ohrid is truely gorgeous. The lake is incredible and surrounded by huge mountains on all sides. We went to a tiny church on a cliff with paintings dating back to the 13th century called Sveti Jovan Kaneo and from there walked up the hill to a slightly newer monastery, St. Clement and Panteleimon.

The views in Ohrid were not bad

Cool boardwalk along the lake
Tranquil
Sveti Jovan Kaneo

We checked out the green market which was now open and picked up some veggies for dinner. Most of the people at the hostel headed out that day so that night we hung out with Teresa and made buttermilk biscuits to show her some southern style cooking. She was a little shocked by how much butter we needed. We shared some biscuits with a few travelers while watching part of a Macedonian film called Before the Rain which gave us a bit of insight into the not so long ago conflicts in the region.

In the morning we took a short ride down the road to Struga to catch our bus. After having all the taxi drivers try to convince us we wouldn’t be able to take our bikes on the bus we got on the bus and rode to Tirana. It was a fairly long drive and again too hot on the bus. We didn’t get a stamp coming into Albania which was kind of a bummer. Along the way we also tried ˝”exotic” flavored Fanta which was pretty good. We arrived at The Tirana Backpackers Hostel by early afternoon. The hostel was really cool, lots of open space, orange trees growing in the backyard/bar area. And our friend Tobi from Ohrid was there and building a tree-house. We had some fresh oranges and I helped a bit with tree-house building before we headed out to see some of the city. One of the cool things we saw was this huge pyramid built by the last dictator of Albania and intended to become a museum about him, that is until democracy happened. It did make for a fun slide though and almost burned a hole right through my pants.

Sliding down was fun

In the morning we wandered around he city some more and then went to the historical museum which was really cool. They had everything from prehistoric pottery and jewelry from the area all the way up to the fight for democracy in the 90’s. It was shocking to see the exhibit of the personal items of people gunned down trying to escape the country as recently as 25 years ago. Along the whole trip we have seen just how tumultuous the history of this area has been. A lot of these countries have changed dramatically even within my lifetime.

After our history for the day we got a great lunch (hard to go wrong with grilled meat and yogurt sauce it seems)

Delicious

Then we just lazed around the hostel for a few hours. There was a group of french art students at the hostel collaborating with some local Albanian students to do an art installation and they were going to be having a bonfire. The bonfire didn’t end up happening but Autumn, Tobi, and I went over an hung out with them for a while. Afterwards we spent at least an hour gathering ingredients to make pancakes and in the process bought a half kilo of butter. We ate pancakes talked and drank cheap wine. Not a bad night.

A not so great picture of us with Tobi

The next morning it was sunny and beautiful as we headed north out of Tirana…

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Kid, you’ll move mountains/Skopje or bust

We left Sofia on March 22, a bit later than intended, but not too bad. In Sofia we heard a lot about the Rila Monastery so we decided to change our route a bit to check it out. We rode out of Sofia and immediately started climbing. It was astounding how quickly we went from being a fairly flat city, to in the mountains with snow and deep valleys. The total climb was about 25 km (15 miles), all with spectacular views of surrounding mountains. 

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant at the top of our climb (we didn’t realize this when we stopped though). We tried some homemade sausage, fries, and bread, all delicious. After our lunch we started down the mountain we had just climbed. The views kept getting better and better. Once we were in the valley, we could look back at the mountain we had just been on, which was a neat feeling. IMG_3048

We made it to Samokov where we stayed a little guest house. We made dinner at the guest house and prepared for the next day. We were a little worried because there was still a lot of snow and the route Haegan found seemed a little unreliable as the last bit of it looked like a hiking trail. After a lot of back and forth, we decided to take a longer route that we knew would be clear. We left Samokov early and rode at a pretty decent pace, it was mostly downhill. The incredible views continued. 

Eventually, we weren’t going downhill anymore, we were climbing. It wasn’t too steep, but after 68 km (42 miles) of riding already it felt a lot more difficult than the climbing the day before. The last 20 km were all uphill, and I was totally exhausted by the end. The two consecutive days of climbing certainly took a lot out of me, but I kept thinking about Dr. Suess’ Oh the Places You’ll Go. I kept thinking of passages from the book and how accurately they applied for this trip. The one I remembered especially was, “Kid, you’ll move mountains”. In my head though, I was thinking more “climb”. Just thinking about the book kept me going though. I thought about my dad reading it me when I was little and the very powerful message the book has. Doing great/cool/powerful/awesome things can be tough, but they’re possible. Ninety eight and three quarters percent guaranteed. Riding through Turkey was tough, but with that challenge we were able to meet some wonderful people and ended up loving Turkey. I never thought I’d be speaking Spanish in Bulgaria, but that also ended up being a great experience and now one of my favorite stories. And now we were climbing mountains, carrying all of our stuff, and seeing the mountains in their full glory. 

We had a delicious dinner at the hotel, I had local trout and “butter stewed” potatoes. It was probably one of the best meals I’ve had so far. I’m not exactly sure how to butter stew potatoes, but I intend on finding out. I want to have those potatoes again. Haegan had a Bulgarian stew, baked in a clay pot, which he enjoyed. Lots of the stews have egg on top, which is kinda growing on him.

Stew with egg.
Stew with egg.
Delicious.
Delicious.

The next morning we walked up to the Rila Monastery. It’s a beautiful old Monastery, started in 927 and named after Saint Ivan of Rila. We walked around the church, hands down the most colorful church I’ve ever seen, and the museum. We couldn’t take pictures inside the church or the museum, but outside the church there are paintings similar to the ones inside the church.

Outside the church
Outside the church
Inside the monastery
Inside the monastery
Bell tower
Bell tower
Images from outside the church. The paintings inside the church are similar.
Images from outside the church. The paintings inside the church are similar.

The museum had artifacts from the entire history of the monastery. We were most impressed by Rafail’s Cross. The cross is about two and half feet tall, and has over 100 religious scenes from the Bible. The artistry of the cross is absolutely incredible, each image is so intricate and delicate. We couldn’t take pictures so here’s one I found on the internet:

from: http://bgtourinfo.net/rila/images/monastery_29.jpg
from: http://bgtourinfo.net/rila/images/monastery_29.jpg

The monastery was beautiful, and so was the ride to get there. We were constantly stopping to take in the views, there seemed to be a new breathtaking view each time we turned. It’s humbling to know that the mountains here have been inspiring people for thousands of years.  I think there is something innately human that causes us to stand in wonder of nature. It doesn’t matter where we come from, how old we are, or what generation we were born, we have been and always will be astounded by what we cannot possibly create.IMG_3051

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After going to the monastery, we walked back to the hotel and started our journey to Macedonia. When we were riding to Rila, my chest had started to hurt a little bit, more so when I took deep breaths. As we headed to Macedonia my chest was hurting again and my throat was sore. I figured I could tough it out though, especially since most of the riding was going to be downhill. We didn’t get very far before the pain in my chest got to be too much. We decided to stop for the day in Blagoevgrad, just short of the border. We went to a pharmacy to get cough medicine and lozenges. Grocery stores in Europe don’t carry over the counter medicines, so you have to go to a pharmacy for everything. The pharmacist didn’t speak English so we played a desperate game of charades to get cough medicine. It ended up working out fine and we spent the next day resting. Being sick caused a bit of homesickness, especially when I wasn’t sure what was wrong with me. We managed it though, Haegan took good care of me 🙂

We left to cross the border into Macedonia on March 26th. The first 20 km (13 miles) was all climbing and we passed the time by practicing Spanish. Haegan knows a bit, and I know a decent amount… but I don’t remember a lot of the rules, I just know what sounds right. Our conversations were quite humorous, especially since we often had to find round about ways of sayings things due to our limited vocabulary. I think we both got a little better, and laughed more going up that mountain than any other so far.

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One of the incredible views from our climb up the mountain to the border.
This guy popped out of the ditch when we stopped for a break and then made laps around us as we continued slowly up the mountain.
This guy popped out of the ditch when we stopped for a break and then made laps around us as we continued slowly up the mountain.

At the top of the mountain we crossed the border, got a super classy photo with the welcome sign, and continued down the mountain. We descended for a while and ended up in Delcevo, our original stopping point for the day. We sat down for coffee and soon after two other cyclists pulled in. They joined us for coffee and told us all about their touring adventures. Alessandro is currently touring from China to Italy, and Hera is riding back from China to the Netherlands. It was so great to talk with people who have so much experience touring. Haegan and I decided to continue farther as it was still early in the day, the weather was beautiful, and we still felt good. We headed out separately from Alessandro and Hera but met again later on and rode together for the rest of the day. It started raining the last part of the ride and we found a cheap motel in Kochevo, Macedonia.IMG_3095

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Yay touring friends!
Once we crossed the border we descended for the rest of the day, which was nice after mostly climbing the last two days.
Once we crossed the border we descended for the rest of the day, which was nice after mostly climbing the last two days.

The forecast was for rain the next two days. We had about 120 km (75 miles) to Skopje. Our choices were to either split up the riding, two days in the rain. Or, we could just go for it and make it in one long day. We decided the later, and made a reservation for a hostel to motivate ourselves to go all the way. Skopje or bust.

It wasn’t raining too badly when we started. We made good time for the first 50 km and met up with Hera and Alessandro again. We got lunch all together and continued separately afterwards. The rain was frustrating, especially since after about 30 km water started coming in the sleeves of my jacket. By 60 km we were both totally soaked and pretty uncomfortable. The views were great though. Macedonia is an incredibly beautiful country. The day before we had been riding through rocky cliffs with lakes in the valleys, and in the rain we passed green farm fields and eventually reached more mountains.

I apologize for the lack of photos of the mountains. Because it was grey and rainy most of the days we were riding in the mountains it was difficult to get good photos. Even if it had been good weather, it’s difficult to capture the grandness of the mountains, especially when they were completely surrounding us.

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What wasn’t so beautiful was the number of squashed frogs on the road. I only mention this because there were so so many. About 60 km in we started keeping track of how many dead frogs we saw… it became a sort of game. No pictures of the frogs, I’m not that morbid.

At around 80 km we started climbing again. It was a maddening climb. It felt as though we were in an endless loop. We would be climbing what appeared to be a small hill, and it looked like once you turned left around the hill, there would be a descent. Instead, it was just another seemingly small hill with another taunting turn. We could never see the next hill, and it seemed like this pattern continued six or seven times. To make it worse, the road turned to a strange loose gravel. It looked as though they had tried to fix the potholes by just throwing gravel on the road. It all got to be a little much for me at this point and it took some effort to get my confidence back to make it all the way to Skopje.

The gravel roads continued as we climbed to the top and had a great view of the valley completely filled with fog. We started descending on the gravel on a very windy road. The rain had washed out the gravel in the potholes so now we were going down a fairly steep road, on gravel, trying to avoid potholes, and making very sharp turns. It was a long descent, and my arms were a bit sore from gripping my brakes tightly the whole way down.IMG_3119

Once we were down the hill we were about 20 km away from Skopje and we were so ready to be done. As we rode the final miles into Skopje I thought about how grateful I am to be traveling with Haegan. I couldn’t imagine a better travel companion, and that’s a nice thing to realize 3 weeks into a five month trip. We made to the hostel after 8 hours on the bikes, tired, soaked, and exhausted. We happily ate leftover pasta and went right to bed.

FINAL FROG COUNT

Haegan: 5

Autumn: 30

Total dead: 34

Total live: 1