Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wild Life

As it goes, we struggled to get out of Sarajevo in a timely fashion. We went on what nearly became a 4-hour wild goose chase in search of a Fed Ex, all the while using directions from a well-meaning woman who was instead thinking of a DHL. Problem is, DHL didn't do what we needed. We needed Fed Ex. Eventually we found a Fed Ex, but it was about 5km from the DHL and not in the direction we needed to go. So after getting things sewn up with the package people, we struck north toward Visoko and the "world's largest pyramids", or so we thought.

See, it's a "pyramid."

Upon visitation/investigation, we believe the "pyramids" to be nothing more than generally pyramidally shaped mountains, or, as some people believe, a mass-marketing scheme. I suppose with a bit of creativity, you can see pyramids, but Giza these ain't. However, because we had a late start, we didn't mind spending the night in Visoko in favor of an early start the next day. This turned out to be a good thing.

Yeah, so I mentioned in a previous post that buying property in Montenegro might be a good investment. Well, this isn't Montenegro.

First, let's get something out in the open. Bad maps prevent good planning and often lead to frustration. This was the case for most of our day, and the frustration was magnified as Greg and I thought back to our decision two days earlier; "we don't need a better map, it's expensive and this one's got the roads we need." Well, 12 hours, 120km (lots of backtracking) and a really steep, rocky pushing section later, we found somewhere to camp in the Bosnian countryside. But things were (almost) all up from this point. We ran across the first major wildlife of our trip in the form of the meanest, ugliest, hairiest woman any of us have ever seen. We call her the grizzly bear. She tried to charge us 20 Euro per person for a room without a bathroom or running water. Luckily, a family was grilling out across the road and saved us time and money by translating and telling us not to take her room, and that we'd be better off to sleep outside. One of the men was a local cop, and he assured us that no one would bother us there; it was perfectly legal for us to stay all night. We sat around and talked for a while, and it turned out they were Muslims from Albania and Bosnia taking a short holiday. They gave us beer and fired up the grill, cooking the rest of their food for us and leaving us with more than we could manage.

Engineers take note.

That night, the leftover trash attracted what Greg initially thought was a wolf. We yelled loudly and scared it away, but when it returned an hour later, we watched it for a while before deciding it was not a wolf, but something much smaller. We thought it'd be a good idea to charge it and scare it away because it was keeping us awake as it rummaged around the bottles and bags. So I put on my shoes and picked up a rock and started running toward it. About half way there, I realized it was a lot bigger than a raccoon, and in fact it was probably a coyote. No matter. It was more scared than me and after it ran off we built the fire back up and slept well the rest of the night. How could we not when we were sleeping in such a masterfully designed shelter (engineer friends of ours, take note)?

Skinned sheep - 9am.

We planned on riding about 80km the next day, but were slow getting out of bed. Just as we were about to leave the site at 9am, a car pulled up and a man got out, walking over and re-starting the fire we'd just extinguished. We said hello, but he didn't speak much English. Over the next 5 minutes, a few of his friends arrived and offered us a beer. We knew we were walking a fine line, but accepted the offer as "stretching beers." Well, during the coarse of our stretching, about 15 more guys showed up with two sheep (one cooked, the other prepared for a rotisserie-style slow cook over the coals), 10 cases of beer, and a soccer ball. Our "stretching beers" just below half full, we were presented with a second round (by now it's about 9:30a) and an invitation to spend the day with these guys and share in the lamb-roasting festivities. We decided that 'cause we had to go so far that day, it'd be best to hit the road "as soon as these beers are finished." Yeah, right.

Skinned sheep 3 hours later. Notice we're "ready to ride" only in a clothing sense.

The next 5 hours were a party the likes of which we may never experience again. We had 3-on-3 soccer matches (the USA didn't fair too well in the international match), drank about 7 or 8 beers each, and had a few shots of bourbon to balance out the 2 - 3 pounds of lamb we inhaled. These guys were thinking ahead. They had cooked one lamb the night before so that they wouldn't have to wait the 3 hours for the second lamb to cook. So between beer and soccer, we gorged on lamb, Ćevapi and bread. Turns out these guys all worked together at a shoe factory and came camping once a year at this spot together. They were all Muslim (hence the lamb), and welcomed us completely, sharing stories and telling jokes, listening to music and even inviting us to stay the night back at their homes - after all, 80km was looking harder and harder. But as the storm clouds rolled in, they decided to move the picnic to a better campsite with more shelter, and we decided to ride toward Banja Luka, the capital of the Republika Srpska (but not without a heaping plate of freshly finished lamb and a loaf of bread from the guys).

The sheep scene.

Riding 80km in rain while drunk is not a good idea. We survived the drunk part, but the hangover, combined with the professional lamb consumption of the morning, made for a long, cold, wet afternoon. Arriving in Banja Luka (Бања Лука - yeah, we've moved onto the Cyrillic alphabet now), we found a hotel and dried out before passing out. It'd been a long day, and we didn't make it out of the hotel 'till almost noon the next day. We were planning on touring around the city, but we met someone in the hotel lobby who dramatically changed our plans.

Nikola is a 63-year old, rally racer-turned-drag-racer-car-modification specialist. We started talking in the lobby and quickly hit it off with stories from our bike trip and his rally racing past. Turns out he and his son have been the numbers 1 and 2 rally drivers in the Republika Srpska over the past 4 years. Nikola's son, Nikica also rides bikes, so Nikola offered to take us to his house and introduce us to his son and his drag racing car.

Arriving at his flat, we were amazed as he fired up his Peugeot 205 MI 32, which he's modified by adding another engine! The front engine drives the front tires and the rear the rear. It's a one-of-a-kind vehicle that Greg was lucky enough to get test drive in. Joel and I laughed as we listened to Nikola and Greg screaming around Banja Luka. We talked with Nikica, who does freelance web design when he's not racing cars or bikes, who has posted the story of the car, along with some videos and pictures of the car on the net. After the test drive, Nikola offered to give us a tour of town in their 1 of 400 special addition unmarked Peugeot 405 T 16. It's a street legal version of the car that's won the Paris - Dakar road race a number of times, and it's really fast. We had to take him up on this offer, and we felt like VIPs as we were whisked around town at very high speed.

Greg = co-pilot.

Nikola's one-of-a-kind Peugeot 205 MI 32.

That afternoon we also visited the Motel Dragana, owned by one of Nikola's friends. There we participated in the Bosnian putt-putt golf championships and dined on the river. We were treated very well, and I've got to say that if you're ever in Banja Luka, this is the place to stay. After our late lunch, we headed back into town, but not before Nikola took us to one last place. You see, the best view of town is from the WWII monument high on the mountainside, but because it was Sunday, the road was closed. Well, Nikola carries a bit of weight in Banja Luka, and after telling the guard he was escorting "very important American journalists working on a big story," we were allowed to drive to the top of the mountain. As we arrived, a beautiful rainbow appeared over town, and Nikola spoke candidly with us about the recent war and his interpretations of the events of the mid 1990s. We were grateful of his willingness to share with us, and very appreciative of his open-minded approach to the story. He recognizes that everyone has a slightly different view of that difficult time and encouraged us to listen to his story, but also to do our own research. Although it's difficult to call one amazing day better than another at this point, we were truly humbled in Banja Luka by Nikola and Nikica's kindness and willingness to share their time with us. There's no doubt that we could have easily spent a week with them, sharing stories, riding bikes and learning from one another.

Special Report: Rainbow over Banja Luka.

Graphic depiction of the Nazis on WWII monument above Banja Luka.

So after Nikola dropped us back at the hotel, we had only a few hours before our overnight train left for Belgrade. Arriving at the train station we were faced with the common hurdle of, "there are no bikes allowed on this train." After numerous requests of the conductor and the help of many locals curious by the silly bicyclists, we wore him down and he relented with the caveat that we may only make it to Croatia where rules about baggage are "very strict." Breaking down the bikes and "stowing" them in a train car is an exercise to be avoided at all costs. It's difficult and time-consuming. However, we secured our gear just as the train pulled out of the station and after 8 semi-sleepless hours aboard the train, we arrived in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Here's some more free advice: visit Bosnia (by bike if possible). The people are amazing, friendly, and helpful at every turn (this is probably an understatement). We were welcomed nearly everywhere by people of different race, faith and economic background, all of whom shared their resources, but more importantly, their time and friendship. The country is physically stunning and offers far-reaching history that's relevant to us all.

Serbian Parliament

With Greg feeling a bit under the weather and not much time, Belgrade became an independent adventure for the three of us. While we spent some time together, we mostly freelanced, seeing what we thought to be the most important sights. Belgrade has an enormous fortress at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers, which has been the subject of many battles between many powerful peoples. It's the thing to see in the city that never sleeps, and provides a relaxing spot to spend an afternoon surrounded by trees and grass instead of buildings and concrete.

Belgrade fortress.

Beer on Skadarlija

The pedestrian streets are full of outdoor cafes and beautiful women are seemingly everywhere. We've heard the nightlife is among the best in Europe, but the one night we spent in town was relatively relaxed. We drank beer and ate Italian in Skadarlija, the hip, bohemian quarter of the city. And as we sat eating, I was surprised when someone covered my eyes from behind. Nikola and Maria had driven into town to celebrate Nikola's birthday, and they happened to run into us that night. After dinner we shared a few beers and a group of musicians played and sang to us at our table. Nikola and Maria danced before heading back to Banja Luka, a much shorter 3 hours by car (that's with Nikola behind the wheel, otherwise it's more like 4).

Beer in Belgrade with Nikola and Maria.

Nikola and Maria have a dance before hitting the road.

The next day I visited Josip Broz Tito's grave site and a few of the well-known government buildings before relaxing in the park.

St Mark's Orthodox Church in Belgrade. Construction started in the 1930s and it's still not finished.

Cafe along the old walls of the fortress in Belgrade, high above the Danube River.

That night we hopped another train to Sophia, and it proved to be the most interesting train yet. The trip started well. I was talking with the station supervisor and he helped us out by talking to the conductor, telling him the station master had allowed us to secure a compartment for our bikes and that we only had to pay 10 Euro to do so. So bikes aboard, we dozed off for a few hours. But then things got weird. At about 1am, the police came through checking passports. If we'd been at a border, this wouldn't have been strange. But because we were still in the middle of Serbia, it was odd. A couple of hours later at the border, the guards came through and checked our passports, asking us to open the compartment with our bikes. We couldn't do this as the conductor had locked it, so when they unlocked it and started snooping around we got a bit nervous. Then they started taking pictures in the ceiling with a digital camera, and no sooner did we hear loud, destructive sounds coming from the cabin did they start pulling carton after carton of cigarettes out of the space above the lights. At this point, I think we might be headed to jail. It's the middle of the night, no one speaks English, and the "authorities" have found what appears to be a cigarette smuggling operation in the cabin with nothing other than our bikes. No one is telling us anything and our bikes and bags have been ransacked. But nothing else happened. The train sat and sat, and the Bulgarian border guards finally entered, checking and stamping our passports. Then the train started moving again. It was surreal and we couldn't figure out what had happened. But when I got up to try and reorder the bikes, I noticed a group of people in plain sight of the conductor with more cases of cigarettes, and they were stashing them in the ceiling of the bathroom! No one ever told us what was actually happening, but best we could make they were testing the border patrols by hiding contraband throughout the train. In the end nothing else happened, aside from being overcharged by the Bulgarian conductors for the bikes. We got off the train in Sophia and rode on our way.

And that's where we are now, resting peacefully in John and Nancy Sasser's house just south of town. John is the director of Peace Corps operations here in Bulgaria and Greg is good friends with their son, with whom he worked in Colorado. We'll be here for a couple of days so I'll try and get a few more updates posted before we head out. and sorry this is so long - I hope the videos make up for the length.

route update
Because we've finally found some fast internet, I've posted a number of other videos from the trip here on youtube.

Other videos...
Crazy road in Montenegro (extended version)

High-country camping.

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