Todays update comes from downtown Kosovo.
Its been a spectacular couple of days riding. The roads down here in the Balkans are great motorcycling roads. Since arriving in Croatia 4 days ago, we have done about 1300km and less than 100km of those I would describe as a bit on the boring side. Mainly about 50km leading into Tirane (Albania) and about 50 km leading into Prishtina (Kosovo). The rest has been wonderful mountain roads, snow covered mountains, passes, switchbacks, fast sweeping bends etc etc etc. Its fantasy stuff. I think we have been lucky enough (in the main) to have picked an interesting route, and I will try and get our GPS track posted up in the next few days.
So on with the story. We left off last blog in Tirane … Monday morning I started off by changing yet another fuse in my bike. I still havent worked out where the electrical gremlin is, and I probably wont have a chance to do it before the Crimea, but I will be geting some work done to the bike there anyway and will use that as an excuse to try and find what keeps blowing my instrument panel fuse. I borrowed a cup of tea from the only other guest of the Hostel, a french guy backpacking and bussing his way to China. He said he didnt have any normal tea, but he had this other one and I could try it. I recognised the tea immediately. It was Bolivian cocoa leaf tea. Brought back a lot of memories riding the Bolivian Altipano a few years back.
Marcin and Jon woke up a bit later and we packed up the bikes, rode down the steps to the footpath and a kind traffic police woman in front of the Hostel stopped traffic to let the Sibirsky Extreme Project hit the Elbasan Road. The road from Tirane to Elbasan was one of those great roads I spoke of earlier. It follows a razorback ridge for much of the way with steep drops either side of the road. We probably overpaid for a huge meaty brunch by the side of the mountain road but like every other meal we have had in the Balkans, it was HUGE.
After lunch we hit the road again headed for Greece. Again it was all mountain roads, then along the western shore of Lake Ohrid, another pretty Balkan lake, before turning off at Korce for Greece and the EU. Before hittiing the border we came across row upon row of fortified concrete bunkers. We had seen them facing the Yugoslav borders too. he Albanians must have been seriously paranoid about invasion at one point.
In Greece we climbed up to 1550 metres, passing another working ski resort along the way before dropping down into Florina, and heading north to the Macedonian border. Jon had made the mistake of telling the nice Greek immigration lady that we were headed for Macedonia next and got an earbashing of how Macedonia is in Greece, and that other place is not really Macedonia. Once in Greece, all the signs toward the border we to “FYROM” … Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Greeks cant bear too call another country Macedonia.
We were stung for 50 EUR insurance for entering Macedonia. It was the 17th country we had been to on this trip so far and only the second where we had had to pay border insurance – the other being 10 EUR for Montenegro. Marcin however had insisted his Polish insurance company give him a green card, and he was free to enter as his green card was valid almost everywhere in Eastern Europe. So lesson number one here learned on this trip, make sure you insist on a green card from your insurer before coming to the Balkans, and if they wont give you one (As BMW / NIG insurance didnt for me) consider changing to an insurer who does do green cards.
Apart from the border insurance, Macedonia wa a very pleasant surprise. It has the Sibirsky Extreme official stamp of approval. Almost everyone speaks English. Food and accomodation are great value. The scenery is outstanding. Roads are pretty good. What more can you want. Darkness fell just as we began looking for a place to stay on the shores of Lake Prespan … the third large and pretty Balkan lake we had seen in the past few days. Lake Shkoder bordering Montenegro and Albania, Lake Ohrid bordering Albania and Macedonia and Prespan Lake bordering Macedonia and Greece. After a bit of faffing about we found a out of the way hotel in a dusty old village called Stenje, which probably saw a few local tourists in the summer season but was so out of the way that we were the only inhabitants of the hotel that night. It was a lovely out of the way spot and the owner cooked us up a feast. As has been the norm in this part of the world, accomodation was in the 10 – 15 EUR a head (including breakfast) range, and meals were about 5 EUR each.
Tuesday started with bike maintenance. My front brake pads were down to zero and late on Monday after some particularly vigorous mountain pass riding, I begain to hear noises that were a little too metallic for my liking coming from the front brake pads. Indeed there was nothing left on them. Jon’s rear pads too were pretty thin, and Marcin “Safran” Safranow had a small oil leak on his KTM (thinks a valve cover seal is past its prime). And so in the sunshine, by the beach in Stenje, we did our respective maintenance jobs.
First stop for the day was the pretty monastery at Sveti Naum. It was 20 minute ride over a spectacular road and another cool mountain pass with snow still over the road at the higher levels. Marcin took a detour and decided to do some snow riding only to discover the snow was deeper than he suspected :-). Then it was North up the eastern side of Lake Ohrid and in fact North all the way to the university town of Tetovo. Again the whole way way from pass to valley to pass to valley. Most of the time between about 700 and 1600 metres in altitude.
We headed North again from Tetovo to the Kosovan border and were again stung for insurance. Marcin also had to pay this one (20 EUR) as the green card does not cover Kosovo. It was late in the day and we decided to blast though Kosovo to get to Serbia for the evening, and so along the busy crowded highway to Prishtina we flew past Italian, US, Swedish, Irish KFOR forces. The Prishtina traffice was the worst we had encountered on the trip and it took some pretty creative riding to get through it all. Once we made it through, it was 40km to the Serb border and we got there just before darkness fell looking forward to country #19.
The Serbs were having none of it. You cant cross from Kosovo to Serbia, effectively because Kosovo is still part of Serbia as far as the Serbs see it, so the border post is not a crossing point, it is merely a checkpoint. Their argument goes that we were already in Serbia yet had no valid entry stamp. We had no choice but to turn back and stopped by a newly built hotel by the side of the road just outside Prishtina.