Archive for the 'Bosnia and Herzegovina' Category

The Balkans

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Getting out of Sarajevo was one of the worst experiences we have had on the bike so far. The only way out of the city is on very busy roads and we had to battle the heavy traffic and crazy Bosnian drivers for over an hour. The scenery was industrial wasteland and the smells were also quite disgusting. Garbage was everywhere and whiffs of soot and pollution were only interrupted by the stench of raw sewage. It really was the worst area we have ever cycled through. Finally, after what seemed like an endless 20 kilometers, we reached a quiet secondary road where we could cycle in peace and enjoy the fall colors that are starting to appear.


Our peace didn’t last too long though because we soon rolled through the town of Vareš. Wow. Vareš seemed to consist solely of destroyed buildings and giant Soviet-style apartment blocks. It was shocking and sad to see how much destruction the war had caused in this small town. It also seemed like every single person in the town stopped what they were doing to stare at us as we passed. Riding through the street with the destroyed industrial buildings towering over us really made it feel like we were on some sort of horrible movie set. It was pretty unreal and we began to get nervous about what we were riding into.


We were originally planning to stop for the night in Vareš, but after getting such a weird vibe and not seeing any accommodation, we decided to push on. The road continued to get smaller and smaller and soon we were on a barely one-lane road climbing high into the forested mountains. When the road finally turned to gravel, we knew we were lost and we began to ask every local we saw for directions. Everyone kept saying “kugel” and pointing us back in the direction we came. We backtracked until we realized that “kugel” meant tunnel and that we needed to go through a 600-meter, unlit, unpaved tunnel to continue on. Every cyclist’s worst nightmare!


We put on our rear flashing lights and were searching for our headlamps when a car pulled up. We flagged them down and were able to mime that we wanted to follow behind them to utilize the light from their headlights. We started out behind them, but our plan didn’t work very well because their lights lit up the road about 15 feet ahead of us but the area directly in front of us was pitch black. We couldn’t see the road surface at all, so we had to just ride blindly and hope that there weren’t any large ruts or potholes to take us down. There were about 30 seconds of complete panic when the car ahead started going too fast for us to keep up. I was pedaling furiously and screaming at Sarah, “Get up here!”, but it was hopeless because she just couldn’t go that fast. Luckily, just as I was losing all hope of surviving, the end of the tunnel became visible and we were able to cycle safely out. Ah, sweet daylight!

The area we were cycling in was extremely remote. The road was surrounded by thick forest and the villages we passed through were comprised of one or two houses and no shops. We were carrying no food and had run out of water too, so we were debating what to do when we rode past a house with a sign with a bed on it. We went up to the front door and met Jozo and Erika who welcomed us and told us they could feed us and give us a place to sleep for the night. Jozo spoke a little English and little German, so we were able to communicate fairly well and we learned that he was trying to develop tourism in the area. He had produced all kinds of brochures and maps with information and he and Erika had turned their small farm into a bed-and-breakfast type place for tourists to stay.


We had a great time staying with Jozo and Erika. We got to try some traditional Bosnian food that was produced by Erika with ingredients almost solely from the farm. Practically the only thing they purchased was flour and they were even thinking of starting to make that too. We ate three different types of homemade cheese that ranged from creamy to salty and tried fried pickles with homemade mustard and pepper spreads.


After dinner we got to help feed the chickens, ducks, and pigs and watch Jozo milk the cow. Jozo’s favorite saying was “slowly, slowly” which he applied to almost every situation and it seemed like he and Erika had a really relaxed, peaceful life up in the mountains.


In the morning, we tried traditional Bosnian coffee which was surprisingly good. Our Lonely Planet guidebook claims you will see Bosnians drinking their traditional coffee in cafes, but we have only seen tourists trying it. All the locals are drinking espresso. I expected it to be really thick and bitter, but it was nice and smooth.


After breakfast, we said goodbye and set off through some beautiful forest roads.


Jozo had told us we should check out the water-powered factory along the way where they have been using the river to power a metal-works for hundreds of years. We were afraid we were going to miss it, but it was easy to spot because the sound was deafening. The rushing water was used to power a giant wooden hammer that pounded the red-hot metal as one of the workers shaped it. We both agreed, it was one of the coolest things we have seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


We spent the next couple of days heading northeast and the rain finally caught us again. Luckily, the steep descents were behind us before it got really wet, so it wasn’t too bad. The locals have seemed to get friendlier and friendlier each day. We are almost as much of an amusement here as we were in Southeast Asia. Shopowners have been giving us coffee and tea to warm us up and we met a group of young guys at a cafe who invited us to sit down and have a drink with them. Our impression of the people has done a complete 180 from how we felt in Vareš.


Next stop Serbia!

Mostar to Sarajevo

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

Location: Ten kilometers north of Mostar.
Conditions: Nasty headwind. Narrow road. Frightening traffic.
Realization: This is not fun, this is stupid.

Our original plan was to cycle from Mostar to Sarajevo but we ended up taking the train instead. The road from Mostar to Sarajevo is just not suitable for cycling. It’s a narrow, winding road with no shoulder and very heavy traffic. To top things off, there are multiple tunnels on the road with no bypass routes. We got about 10 kilometers out of Mostar before we decided to turn around and hop on the train instead. It’s too bad, because it would be a beautiful road for cycling but the view from the train was nice too.


The city of Mostar was great. After cycling through Europe for two months, it was a dramatic change to descend into Mostar and see the minarets dotting the skyline and to ride through the city streets while the call to prayer played over the loudspeakers.


Actually, the entire country of Bosnia and Herzegovina felt different from the rest of Europe right from the start. It seems like the entire country is under construction. Concrete and rough brick buildings are going up everywhere and it feels a little more like Southeast Asia in that way. In the first hour after we crossed the border, I saw more G-class and S-class Mercedes than I’ve seen in the rest of Europe combined. I have no idea why that is. The drivers are also a little crazy. I think the citizens haven’t decided on the national honking protocol because we’ve heard the “I’m passing you.” honk, the “Way to go!” honk, and the “Get the f**k off the road!” honk quite a bit. About half the drivers don’t honk at all. Drivers are pretty good when passing from behind, but way too many people ignore our bikes and pass in the oncoming direction while we are in the opposite lane here. I hate it when drivers do that more than anything else because I usually don’t realize it is happening until the car is right on top of me.

Mostar is famous for it’s bridge: originally built in 1556 and destroyed during the war in 1993.


The bridge was rebuilt in 2004 and there is a tradition of local guys jumping and diving off it (for money now). Here is a video we took of one guy taking the plunge. After he jumped, we looked out over the edge of the bridge and both decided we could do it too.

The old city is nice but the most fascinating thing about Mostar is the ruins of buildings destroyed during the war. You can walk down almost any street and right next to a functioning shop or office will be a bullet-riddled ruin. We spent most of our days there wandering around the city staring at the locals and wondering what they were doing during the war.


One other difference about Bosnia and Herzegovina is that it is pretty cheap. Groceries and restaurants are the most noticeably different, while camping and pensions are about the same as elsewhere (US$20-30). We haven’t free-camped due to the multitude of landmines that are still left in the country. Cheap food really makes a huge difference for us because we love to try all the local delicacies. The first thing we tried was Burek. It’s a buttery, flaky pastry sort of like a croissant filled with all different types of hearty food you would associate with Eastern Europe. We’ve tried potato, cheese, spinach and cheese, and meat and potato. The meat and potato was the best by far: nice and juicy and a little spicy. You buy Burek by the kilogram and one kilo runs about 7KM (~US$5).


Now we are in Sarajevo, visiting the museums and wandering around the city. It’s amazing how busy this city is. Walking down the pedestrian thoroughfare on a Wednesday afternoon, you wonder whether or not it is actually Saturday due to all the people out and about. The other amazing thing is how tall the young people are. We’ve noticed that all over Europe that there are a decent number of young women who are taller than me and the men are absolutely gigantic! We thought we were tall but we are beginning to feel like shrimps. We’re going to hang out here for a couple of days and then head northeast towards Serbia and Bulgaria.