Leaving Ohrid, we knew we had quite a task ahead of us. We intended to reach Belgrade by the 9th of November so that we would have time to pack up all of our belongings and find boxes to transport our bikes as far as Sri Lanka. We’re not thrilled that we will be skipping part of our overland route, but it can’t be helped. Sam can get a visa for Iran but the conditions that would be attached to it’s issuance would be too restricting and expensive. As the winter fast approaches, we have accepted that the weather in central Asia will be too harsh for even us hardy travellers to brave. And so, we are flying to Sri Lanka to tour the Island and then on to India to see out the Winter months in a bit of sunshine before we decide exactly where our tavels will lead to next.
The route that lay ahead of us was 650km long with well over 4000m of ascent to be done. With no notion of the condtion of the roads we would be travelling and our ability to get the cycling done very much dependant on the weather, we set off from the little lakeside town hoping that the gods would smile upon us. Our first morning bode well, small whispy clouds dotted a bright blue sky, and once we had left the town behind us, the taffic slackened off and we found ourselves on a decent road with a nice hard shoulder. With such distances to do with limited time, we found ourselves racing the sun each day, pedalling hard to reach our intended destination before it had sunk below the horizon. It’s pitch dark by 4:45pm and so, in order to find a place to put our heads for the night, we found it imperative that we were looking for somewhere to camp by 4 o’ clock.
Our first day saw us passing through the Albanian region of Macedonia. There are certain things that have made this obvious. Mostly the proliferation of the Albanian flag, the black eagle soaring on a red background, hung from almost every available space. That, and the huge amount of rubbish randomly deposited at the road side, a phenomenon we have rarely seen in any other country apart from the homeland of these Macedonian inhabitants. As the sun began it’s hasty descent, we examined our map for a spot to sleep. We settled on a spot by a river in a corner of a rolling field, as far away from houses as possible but still within sight of a farmhouse several hundred metres away. It wasn’t ideal, and the proximity to other people meant that lighting a fire wasn’t going to be possible. We had however reached our target for the day and were pleased with our progress.
Day 2 saw us rising with a heavy frost clinging to the sides of our tent. The sun hadn’t yet reached our camping spot and we danced around in the frost packing everything up and preparing coffee. Setting off on cold mornings is almost hellish when you have a downhill. My hands cramp in pain from the cold and I can barely move a finger. Fortunately, we only had a little downhill to do and then we were climbing a shallow incline allowing blood to get to my extremities. Besides which, the sun was rapidly gaining height in the sky and by the time we had been on the road for an hour, we were stripping off layers to go from yeti chic to shorts and tshirts. We continued throughout the Albanian area, following along the main road. It was a wee bit busy, but a good surface and sizeable hard shoulder allowed us to make good progress. Until suddenly, up ahead in the distance, there loomed a toll booth where the highway turned in to motorway. Our quick route had come to an abrupt end and we diverted our route to one running a few kilometres west of the main road. Our new route was pachy at best and involved a huge amount of small hills. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Small, constant hills translate to tired legs. The uphill effort made is only ever rewarded wih a short downhill that seldom allows us to build up enough momentum to make any impact on the next one. On top of all of this, we seemed to be cycling through some sort of elongated village that went on forever. Bad drivers, wandering pedestrians and potholes all leant their help in making the second part of our day excruciating and drawn out. By the time we reached Tetovo, we were both at the end of our tethers and teetering on the brink of sense of humour failure. I pushed for us to go further despite our weariness; any shortfall in our target for the day would have to be made up for in the coming days and I was afraid we jus wouldn’t make it. And so we turned east towards Skopje and carried on parallel to the motorway through industrial areas until the failing sunlight forced us to find us a spot to camp. If I had been the one to urge us on further, Sam was the one to find us shelter. We camped in a gravelly site looking over the road and factories below.
We woke up knowing Skopje was our biggest hurdle for our third day. We prepared for the challenge by filling ourselves with burek and coffee at a mall cafe run by a father and his two sons. We watched mesmerised as one of the boys stretched the pastry for the burek to what seemed like breaking point before adding the meat filling and deftly folding the whole lot into a neat parcel. Once we had eaten, it was time to face the music! The capital of Macedonia sprawls from west to east and we hoped against all odds, that navigating through would be a straightforward manner. Despite a brief about turn here and there, and a quick visit to the main post office, which looks like asome sort of weird, communist space invader, we found ourselves popping out the other side with almost unexpected haste. At the next big town, we decided to change our remaining Macedonian Dinar for Serbian Dinar. This proved a challenge and it took me over an hour to find the exchange office, which I eventually located with the assistance of a lady who took pity on me. The road to the border with Serbia stretched ahead of us in a seemingly never ending hill climb. We huffed and puffed, surrounded by shops and houses. Suddenly a man bolted out of a shopand rushed towards Sam. I heard him blurt out some words, but Sam had his head down and carried on. I was crawling at a snails pace, and he approached me, thrusting two bottles of water into my hand, applauded our progress and left us on our way! At the crest of the hill, we examined our map. It seemed that the most suitable places to camp would be in Macedonia, close to the border and we decided to postpone our crossing until the next day. A little bit of stealth found us a quiet spot in an empty field and we pitched up, tired but happy that we would be entering Serbia early in the morning.
On waking, we wasted no time packing up and decided to forego our usual morning coffee until we had crossed the border. As we approached the road where it was marked on the map, we quickly saw that it didn’t exist and were debating what course of action to take when a young man passing by told us we would have to go via the motorway. Fortunately it wasn’t too far a diversion but we were getting increasingly worried we would be turned back by the police. Neither of us dared mention it, but the fact that we had left Serbia previously via Kosovo, has apparently been reason for people to be refused entry to the country again in the past. Joining the motorway, we could see truck after truck laid up in the hard shoulder, all waiting to clear customs. We cycled past, acutely aware that the motorway is no place for two people on bikes, and sheepishly rolled up to the booth for cars. With little ceremony, and a quick flick through our passports, we were stamped in and waved on. Breathing a sigh of relief, we didn’t hang around and made a beeline for a petrol station a few hundred metres away so that we could appease the coffee demons baying to be fed. Changing our leftover Macedonian money had been a good idea, we were still a long way from anywhere with an ATM and neither of us could be considered particularly saintly until we’ve had a cuppa in the morning.
And so, without much ceremony, we were in Serbia! We were, so far, meeting our stringent targets and making good time. As soon as we were presented with the chance, we exited, stage left, off the motorway and onto what we thought would be a quiet road, meandering from town to town, away from the thundering trucks and speeding cars of the A1. The peace didn’t last long. While part of the motorway, a rather large part, is being upgraded, every Tom, Dick and Harry travelling in a South-North direction has been diverted on to our intended route. So not only did we have motorway traffic to contend with, it was on a road that was in no way way suitable for carrying such a volume of congestion. Our day was spent weaving in and out of diversions, avoiding potholes and trying not to get run over as truck after truck hurtled by. It was a pity, our road followed a pretty valley with steep sided hills to either side covered in tall trees wih leaves every shade of green, red and gold you can imagine and if it weren’t for the fact that we feared for our lives, we would probably have enjoyed the scenery a huge amount. If the traffic and diversions themselves didn’t make the cycling difficult enough, we also had several tunnels to contend with, each it’s own individual heart-in-mouth experience as we checked there was no heavy traffic behind us and then making a mad dash to get out the other side in one piece. The concentrated effort required did make time seem to fly by and we soon found ourselves in Predejane where we found a not-so-hectic room for 15 euro. It did, however, do the job and we slept well to rise early and rejoin the madness early the next morning.
Day five began much as the previous day had ended. We were still zipping through tunnels and sharing the road surface with myriad traffic that didn’t belong on our road. It soon got returned to it’s rightful place, but by some accident of navigation, we ended up there too! Faced with the choice ofgetting on the motorway and then off at the next exit or turning back and finding where we had gone wrong, we did what any sensible cyclist would do and headed down the hard shoulder of the motorway. We soon found ourselves, aided by the perfectly smooth, spacious hardshoulder and encouraging tailwind, zipping along at well over 30km/hr. When our exit came along, there was a toll booth there. Afraid we might get in trouble for our little bout of naughtiness and quite eager not to get arrested, we wiggled around the barrier and cycled as nonchalantly as we could away, pretending not to hear the shouts of the attendant as he called us to come back! We pedalled furiously (which really isn’t all that fast in my case) until we reached the next village. With thoughts of being thrown in the slammer finally out of my head, we stopped for a drink and a snack. As we sat sipping a nice cold sprite, a man came up to us and asked us in broken english about our bikes. He indicated his approval with a big thumbs up and a massive smile and headed on his way, or so we though. Five minutes later, he came running out of the shop with a massive 2 litre bottle of sprite and bid us a final farewell, waving manically as we cycled off! As the day wore on, we found ourselves in Aleksinac, a smalltown by the motorway. With the light beginning to fade and feck all idea of where we were going to spend the night, we decided to tackle issue number one and headed to the supermarket. While we were packing our provisions into our bags, a local school teacher came along and started chatting to us. He warmly welcomed us to Serbia and recommended a small hotel that he reckoned was good value. We thought we would try our luck with finding somewhere to wild camp, but as we cycled out of town, we realised we had no idea whether the surrounding area was built up or how far we would have to cycle to find some peace. In any case, we decided to go to check out the place the teacher had recommended. After a little bargaining, he agreed that we could have a room for 12 euro. It was cosy, comfy and the internet was actually working! Having worked our arses off the last couple of days, we decided to indulge in an ice cold beer and feasted on pleskavice for dinner (pleskavice is almos exactly the same as a burger except that it’s smothered in cream cheese and loads of pickled veg, yummy!)
Our 6th day of cycling was somewhat monotonous. The target we intended to reach meant that our route had to be as direct as possible and we spent much of our time cycling on roads parallel to the main motorway. Direct, yes, but scenic they are most definitely not! Coupled with some very sore bums and aching limbs, and I can confirm that as we got closer and closer to Belgrade, the memories of it now seem like a hazy memory. We spent the day cycling through small, rural villages. As the day progressed, the roadand countryside became more undulating, and by the time we were ready to make camp, the villages were running one into another with little space in between and the hills rose up steeply either side of the road. Our attempts to find a place to call home for the night were proving fruitless, until Sam spotted a small tack leading over a railway. A little investigation revealed an empty field beside the train tracks and a perfect place to pitch our tent. Our evening consisted of watching the trains pass by and amusement at the reactions of passengers when they caught a quick glimpse of our little tent. We slept soundly knowing that 150 km lay beween us and Belgrade and that we would have two days to complete it.
We woke early and got our morning routine up and running. We planned to cycle 118km of our remaining distance on our second to last day as we will have a roof over our heads tonight with a family we found on a website for people who travel with their bicycles. We have cycled this distance in one day before, but itwas on fat ground in Holland. Our proposed road was far from flat and would see us facing a number of pretty steep hills. Despite our fatigue, we were pretty cycle fit at this stage and the early start served us well. With over half our distance cycled by lunch time, it seemed we would beat the sunset. That is until we realised that 9km from our destination that Google Maps (the little fecker) was trying to send us through a road under a few feet of water. We should have just waded through, we have been through much worse and it was just a short section. But I decided I was feeling a bit precious and we ended up weaving through some dirt tracks as the sun went down. We finally found the road we wanted but the sun had long fecked off. Humours were frayed as we struggled along a busy road towards Lestane. And suddenly, we were there! Our 118km had transformed into 125km and we had just completed our greatest distance to date. We found our way to our hosts house and introduced ourselves. Ivan and Olja were hospitality personified, we were plied with food and drink and had some great chats about different places we had been.
It was quite late by the time we got to bed but we rose early, keen to be in Belgrade and check out the sights as soon as possible. Our remaining 30km into the capital city was steep and difficult in places, but short and we arrived at our destination by 11am. We had done it, Ohrid in Macedonia to Belgrade in Serbia in 9 days. We had been greatful to have the wind behind us the whole time, had found some rgeat camping spots, seen some beautiful scenery and were now ready for a good wash and some relaxation!