Just the beyond border control is an enormous limestone quarry and cement production facility, the belt lift looming over the road. We are momentarily lost in its shadow and then we continue on through the dusty air, large trucks drowning out the whir of our tires, a foot to the left of the white line.
It’s a busy road. Both sides are lined with one commercial enterprise after another.
After an hour we stop next to a stone church with a roof that folds over the sides like mossed red satin. Below a shallow valley cradles a long and narrow town and we ride down for some lunch.
Like the border guards the man who owns the restaurant where we stop for lunch is happy to find out we are American. My hamburger is the size of a dessert plate, flat and simple. Rasham’s cheese came with a large portion of meat and there weren’t any vegetables but that evening we found a restaurant with a beautiful Greek salad.
In the morning we decide to get off the highway despite the extra miles and are immediately greeted with a different side of Kosovo. Meandering through smooth green knolls and fields of recently plowed dark earth we find a small village.
Most houses seem new and people are out in their yards doing chores. Serenity lingers in the few clouds in the sky and in the few trees that grow outside of homes. There is something strange about this place. It feels more like a piece of real estate than a country. On the way out a sidewalk and street lamps run for miles out into the fields. A farmer passes us on tractor with a trailer made from friction polished bound tree limbs.
In Kosovo ‘thank you’ seems to be the same as it is in Albania and it turns out it’s because in Kosovo there are a lot of Albanians, over 80% of the population. Cemeteries with Albanian flags are everywhere, we pass at least 20 every day.
The gravestones are polished black stone and embossed with photos of the deceased, young and old. Many are dressed in uniforms and brandishing rifles menacingly with UÇK written in commanding latters above them, an acronym for the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Outside of the capital, Prishtina, we stop by a huge grocery store. It’s the first time that we have seen something like this leaving Western Europe.
Long paralleling isles of packaged food, and everything is written in English. A variety of languages can be heard inside the store. I watch a black man in US Army fatigues try a sample offered by a young girl. Rasham encountered a group of Chinese tourists, and said a quick hello to members of the Croatian Army who were gathering themselves in the parking lot after lunch.
After passing through Prishtina we are again in a maze of industrialization. Some type of coal plant and beyond a huge cooling tank billowing white steam.
It’s another hour or so before we are back in the countryside on our way to Kosovska Mitrovika, a large town in the northwest of Kosovo. It’s quiet again but accumulating plastic clogs the stream following the road.
We follow one road and beyond mounds of garbage we find a flat spot next to the Sitnica River.
The sun falls low and brightens the yellow reeds along the banks. We meditate to the sound of the water running away to eventually find some unknown mouth of the ocean.
The sun is bright this morning. I poke my head out of the tent in time to see a man on a tractor staring down at us as he passes on the dirt tract above us. The only traffic of the morning. It’s so much easier to wash our dishes with a stream outside the tent.
We quickly arrive in Kosovska Mitrovika, the northern part of the city, across the river is inhabited almost exclusively by Serbs, I learn online.
Hundreds of students in grouped species of males and females parade the sidewalks, their uniforms blazing white and black in the burrowed shadows of the creases.
We are planning to cross the border into Serbia today (Kosovo being recognized as not part of Serbia by 108 of the 193 UN Member countries including the USA of course, who built a 7,000 person US military base in Eastern Kosovo to help the Albanians on their way to independence).
About 15 kilometers from the border a large green military vehicle appears in the distance surrounded by the familiar white UN SUVs. We stop in front of a group of soldiers.
They have so much gear on that they look surprisingly similar to men in fat suits. I thought we were going to have be the first ones asking for a photo but they beat us to it.
Apparently there was a recent “issue” that had erupted in the town we were coming upon, Zubin Potok. Riding on, we discover Serbian flags hanging from all the telephone poles.
And a political billboard with a rather blunt message.
The other side required a little more research.
We push on quickly past town and ride the corniche around a large reservoir, bridging gullies and tunneling promontories.
At the border, a Danish UN worker routinely stamps us out of Kosovo, but at the Serbian checkpoint, a border agent in a blue suit and cap after inspecting our passports, calls a woman form the Kosovo side to translate for us.
“Ok, here is the problem,” she says, “you don’t have a Serbian entry visa so you have two options,” I was hoping one of the options entailed letting us into Serbia it wasn’t. Apparently, despite the painfully obvious border checkpoint we were now engaged at, Serbia still considers Kosovo part of its territory and all foreigners entering Kosovo from other countries are technically missing a Serbian entry stamp. We knew there might be some issue but hadn’t expected to be denied entry.
We turned around and cycled down to Zubin Potok, the Serbian village we passed so hastily on our way up. Our new route would have to take us into Montenegro and included two passes, one of which was 6,000 feet. This crossing only included a 600 foot climb. We find a small store and upon checkout I notice all Serbian bills in the register. We begin to feel a little self-conscious. If the Albanians loved us so much for being American, what must these people think of us? But despite telling several people upon questioning that we were from The States, we weren’t the recipient of any ill will.
That night we sleep next to a small stream.
The next day there was an incredibly difficult climb of about 2,000 feet up a dirt road that was over a 10% grade.
We are working out a good system for these kinds of hills where Rasham pushes from the handlebars and I push from the back, but she had to abandon me to get the picture. We pass many pristine mountain farms. On the other side, a lush, bright green rolling landscape awaits. As we cruise down to the valley, going this way seems completely validated by the stunning views adulterated only by this depthless iPhone camera.
At a gas station we stop to get some food for the night. Its a lonely place and its clear from certain insignia outisde that we are back in Albanian territory. I walk in and notice there are several men hanging out. When they find out we are American they all ooh and ahh a little. “Kosovo says Thank You America!” one of them says. He motions that the man in the corner was a fighter in the war. He sat, grinning up at us in a red shirt cut off at the shoulders, a cigarette smoldering in one hand. A bottle of vodka in front of him on the table. “He would like to buy you a drink” said the man accepting our money. I picked out two juices, shook all their hands and left.
We find an ideal camping spot that night amongst some tall bushes. In the morning the sun comes shining into our tent.
The next morning we geared up for our 4,000 foot climb over the border into Montenegro: a couple shots of espresso, a redbull and three candy bars oughta do the trick!
The top is covered in snow and glistens brightly in the sun.
We leave Kosovo and continue climbing another two thousand feet to find the Montenegrin check point on the other side.
We saw many sides of Kosovo: the industrial and the pristine, the Serbian, the Albanian and the foreign influences. I suppose whether or not you consider it a country depends on your own motives. Since Rasham and I are country counting, we formally recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation.