Cycling from Serbia to Mitrovica

I am currently sat in what is without a doubt, the most disgusting, filthy and stinking hotel room I have ever stayed in. It turns out Kosovo is the 60th country I have been to, and never having much money to my name I have stayed in some pretty shitty places, but never have I been somewhere and immediately thought I am going to have to sleep in my sleeping bag, despite there being some resemblance of sheets on the bed. I’d take a shitty crumbling Soviet hotel complete with sour faced babushka on the desk any day over this, yet this was the only place available that wasn’t extortionately priced for not much better…. We are third floor from the street and right opposite the bus station, the first flight of stairs leads from the garage at ground level and had not only a dead rat, but the skeleton on a dead rat. That takes level 10 dedication in shitty hotel management, a considerable amount of people have passed the expired rat and not removed it to the point it is closer to becoming a fossil than it was to being alive. The stairs lead to an area mysteriously free of lighting, which also serves as the reception. From some hole somewhere always appears a man who insists on calling me Bin Laden, sure its funny, but I cant seem him on account of the darkness so I have no idea if he is doing some reverse juju on me and he is in fact Bin Laden himself. The rest of this first level, despite looking normal from the outside with its 80’s Farnborough office block style reflective blue glass, is just a concrete shell with nothing else on it. After reception we have to head straight to level 3, we have no idea what is on level 2, but after the enthusiasm the real Bin Laden showed in insisting we didn’t head down there after we mistakenly started to look for our room there I suspect it is reserved for short term encounters with fat sweaty women squeezed into lycra far too tight. The stairs are of course in the dark, the blue reflective glass windows repaired with cello tape with wood shuttering hammered onto the frames in a pattern that can at best be described as erratic, or perhaps done by someone with only one arm hanging off a high ladder. Our level, level 3…… maybe it was an office block that was gutted and after stumping up whatever amount it cost, the owner had only his copper jar in order to actually furnish the area paying guests would visit. The stench of abandoned house is almost unbearable, not even unpacking our gear with its combination of sweat, petrol and old food has been able to deter the physical taste it is leaving in our mouth as we breathe. The plus points: we have a door that locks, there is a hose that we can clean ourselves with and there is a bed. The negative points: The ‘carpet’ is made up of a collection of offcuts which do not cover the bare concrete fully, and due to their small nature it is hazardous to walk around as they move and/or are curled up all over the place. Whoever cut them to fit clearly doesn’t know his shapes and has left large sections missing… While I say there are areas of bare concrete, what actually fills these sections is a grime that would initiate even the laziest, dirtiest teenage boy to clean his room. I’m unsure whether to classify the windows as a negative or positive as although they have a thick encrusted film that perhaps somewhat contributes to the aroma of the room, I suspect this could be used as a nutritional food source should we get desperate – a complimentary yeasty marmite. We don’t know if it is complimentary or a chargeable extra but the small square package labeled ‘love plus’ adds a romantic touch. After hosing myself like a piece of livestock in order to become clean, I almost didn’t want to step onto the collection of loose carpet squares. The window has been open of a good while now and we are still not used to the smell…. It’s really grim.   So how did we end up here? Yesterday we cut through a small section of Serbia in order to visit northern Kosovo, we haven’t been to Serbia yet on this trip and felt that it would be a shame to leave a blank space on the map. We were camped next to a large (about 50km long) reservoir and managed to wake nice and early, well rested as it wasn’t very cold. The road along the reservoir led straight into Kosovo and was great quality, wide and fairly well kept even though it had been built back in the 70s and seen little attention since. There was really nothing in this stretch of Serbia, no villages and very few houses so we saw no one all morning. Serbia does not consider Kosovo a country so they do not have a border post at the border, only a few sour faced customs men that leave you with no doubt that Neanderthals had their way with Homo Sapiens back when everyone lived in caves. With the seeming inability to use facial muscles to move the massive monobrow plastered over the potato shaped head, the hunchback goon in the hatch made barely a grunt as his ginormous hairy hands thrust our passports back. Less than 50 meters later, through the tangle of barbed wire, smashed up concrete barriers and other reminders of a recent past filled with hatred the Kosovo guard was surprisingly upbeat and enthusiastic. With a “Hello, how are you today?” we almost fell of our bikes, the usual questions of junior guards to their superiors of ‘errr, boss, where the fuck is Eire??’ occurred and we were on our way with best wishes. SAMSUNG CSC According to the foreign office this region has a travel warning, along with the other three provinces that make up northern Kosovo. “Advise against all but essential travel”. Why? Because they do not accept that they are part of Kosovo and still wish to be part of Serbia, as a result tensions have flared a few times and there has been a spot of civil unrest. We had asked about before we set off here and everyone assured us it was fine, there have been no issues for over a year and even then, as foreign guests we wouldn’t be the target… just to make sure the union flag came down and we went in under the cover of Irishness only. A small group of very bored, very young looking Hungarian KFOR soldiers a situated at the border, yet for some reason their flag was hung sideways and a weird shape… the short of thing you would see hanging in a lorry windscreen. Thinking they were Italian I returned their waves and greetings with a Bonjorno. I heard the same back and we carried on. A few km along the road into Kosovo we saw another bored group all standing around a stray dog taking it in turns to stroke it as it rolled about, their two jeeps were parked and we realised they were Hungarian, not Italian.. despite the communal greetings in Italian, no one was in fact Italian.   After arriving in the first town within this Serbian Kosovo region we realised there was a definite cause for a travel advisory, not for reasons of violence or danger, but for complete miserableness and stubbornness. Warning, travel here is likely to result in potential internal desires to self harm. Unwilling to accept the situation they are in, they still only deal in Serbian Dinar and not the Euro as with the rest of the country. Someone, perhaps the UN, NATO or the EU has plastered big noticeboards over the town saying ‘respect the outcome of UN security council resolution 1244’ with a big picture of a helicopter on it, other groups have responded by plastering up ‘this is Serbia’ signs elsewhere. Not sure why they chose that helicopter, it doesn’t look hugely threatening… It must be difficult dealing with a situation that has been decided upon and is outside of your control, perhaps somehow this has led to a distrust of foreigners. These regions where Serbians are attempting to carve out of their own lands, filled with stories of how the world is against them and everything they did bad is exaggerated are also the only places where people have tried to short change us, make mistakes with shopping adding or try on fake exchange rates. It seems that with the idolized pictures of Putin comes a dribble down effect of petty corruption, from either the perception of, or the fact that most people in these de facto states are lining their own pockets. This particular town was shitty and miserable, everyone looked like they had just been told they had a terminal disease. The only thing in more of a state than their faces was the stained, tatty remnants of Serbian flags hanging from each lamppost, some little more than the last threads of colour at the base. If you want to be part of Serbia then at least have some respect for the flags you insist on flying everywhere.

Say hello to my little friend.

Say hello to my little friend.

We absolutely, hand on heart are not lying here on the change that happened next. First, we did evaluate what had happened in while we cycled through these Serbian regions, had we expected to have issues and were less friendly ourselves? No, it has happened each time… After cycling a while longer we came across what I assume to be an Ukrainian APC, a small outpost with some very wavy, very bored looking soldiers in a collection of bunkers. After passing without having to stop, the very first vehicle was a van from Kosovo passing in the opposite direction. Just after it passed the driver slammed on the brakes screeching to a stop no more than 100m from the Soviet APC, I heard him change into reverse and reverse chase me down the road. Window down and arm hanging out, a ridiculously friendly Kosovar grabbed my hand and shook it enthusiastically. Wanting to know where we were from, where we were going and to tell us he loved mountain biking he was the greatest contrast to just 200 meters away. He took our facebook details and wished us well as we went on to return waves and greetings with just about everyone we passed for the next thirty KM. With flies in our teeth from smiling so much, and Sheena having perfected the art of one armed riding after having to wave to so many people we arrived in our destination of Mitrovica. We absolutely arrived feeling like royalty. Mitrovica is a troubled town, a river splits it into north and south and it is truly divided. The northern part wants to be in Serbia, it is considered not safe and is covered in Serbian, Kosovo Serbian graffiti. The south is Kosovar, where people have strong ties to Albania or consider themselves ethnic Albanians. The south is seriously lively, the streets are mad with business, coffee shops and the strutting of people. The bridge between the two parts is guarded by Italian KFOR soldiers and police (they are actually Italian and not Irish or Hungarian!) and the there is a ‘peace park’ on the bridge. The Serbians in quite the horrible display of isolationism or stubbornness have ripped up all the tarmac leading to the bridge, so even if someone wanted to cross it they couldn’t. Anti EU etc graffiti fills their streets, the 4 C cross thing they write is everywhere as well as the good man himself Putin. We call the north side ‘the dark side’ and have attempted to find life there but failed.

Just to make sure people don't cross, the road has been ripped up.

Just to make sure people don’t cross, the road has been ripped up.

Kosovo is yet another fascinating place on our journey, Mitorvica is also very interesting and we would love to stay longer… however, due to the rancid smell we are still putting up with I think we will be leaving early in the morning…

Everyone is busy buying sheep for tomorrows festival.

Everyone is busy buying sheep for tomorrows festival.

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