Djeravica – 8,714ft
Date: October 29, 2014
Bicycle Tour Leg 7: Vusanje, Montenegro to Jazhintse, Kosovo
Oct 27 – Oct 30
“I’m sorry but you are not permitted to enter Kosovo,” the border agent told me sternly, looking up from my passport. “You must return to Montenegro,” he continued, pointing in the direction of the big hill I’d just biked down.
“Um, can I ask why?” I asked, very surprised. I immediately thought back to that wrong turn I’d made a few days back. I’d accidentally entered Serbia from Montenegro, then within a mile realized my mistake and turned back into Montenegro. I know they stamped my passport the first time, but they’d just waved me through when I returned since they recognized me. Was this missing Serbian stamp the problem? I knew Serbia and Kosovo weren’t exactly the best of friends.
My bigger problem, though, was that monster hill I’d just biked down. The Montenegro border station was at the top, and I’d just descended 4,000ft through the snow to get to this Kosovo station. Was this guy seriously going to make me bike all the way back up that?
The agent turned to his coworker, and then back to me smiling. “No, no, that was just a joke. I know you just biked down very far to here,” he said, handing me back my passport. “Welcome to Kosovo.”
“Ha, you had me pretty worried I’d have to go back up that,” I replied, taking back my passport. “Thank you.”
I got back on my bike and continued descending the remaining 1000 feet to the valley below.
My journey started Monday afternoon near the small village of Vusanje, Montenegro. I’d just summited Maja Kolata, the highest mountain in Montenegro, that morning and began biking back to Kosovo for the next mountain, Djeravica. I’d entered Montenegro from Kosovo at the Rosaje-Radac crossing a few days earlier, but it appeared there might be a shortcut for my return journey. The only problem was the shortcut might not be one hundred percent legal.
My gas-station map showed a very small road crossing the border at the Cakor pass, though it didn’t have the little border crossing station symbol on it so was a little bit suspect. If it indeed existed, though, it could save me 30 miles, which was significant. I texted Matthew and asked him to look into it (since he had internet access back in the US). He discovered that the road was in use before the split-up of Yugoslavia, but now a barricade of boulders and trenches had been put at the border, effectively preventing cars from crossing. However, that would pose little problem for a bike. There were actually some pictures online of cyclists sneaking through the crossing, with one picture showing the road paved on the Montenegro side (though gravel in Kosovo).
This route intrigued me, and I decided to give it a shot. The one possible problem was that the Cakor pass was at 6,000ft, the same elevation of the pass I’d crossed in at and almost been forced to turn around because of the deep snow. It was unlikely a dead-end road to the uninhabited Cakor pass area would be a very high priority for the snow plows to visit. But there had been two days of sun and warm since the last snow fell, and at 6,000ft on Maja Kolata that morning the snow wasn’t very deep, so I reasoned there was at least a chance the road was passable.
I started biking down from Vusanje around 3pm and within an hour reached the turnoff for the Cakor pass. A road sign had an arrow pointing to Pec (the Kosovo town on the other side of the border), but Pec was crossed out in black paint, seeming to indicate the road was closed.
I stopped at a corner store to resupply with some food, but unfortunately was almost out of euros and hadn’t seen any atms in the past few days. This store was too small to accept my credit card, so I had to find the most calories possible with the 1.35 euros I could scrounge from my wallet. Luckily food is pretty cheap in Eastern Europe, and I found a big chocolate brownie cake for 1.15. That ought to give me enough calories to get over the Cakor pass, I thought.
I quickly scarfed down the cake outside, and started biking again. The air outside was near freezing and I was looking forward to a long uphill ride to warm myself up. But soon after I crossed the bridge into Murino an oncoming car abruptly stopped and a man jumped out. I kept biking, but in my rearview mirror saw him waving his hands at me and yelling something.
I turned around and biked back to him.
“Cakor no, Cakor no!” he said.
“I’ll be ok,” I responded, giving the thumbs up.
“English, no,” he said, shaking his head. “Sneg, sneg,” he said, motioning with his hand up to his chest, with a concerned look on his face. I gathered that sneg was the word for snow.
“No, no” I shook my head, bringing my hand down to my ankle “sneg”. It was pretty clear I didn’t believe him the snow was chest deep up there.
“I just climbed Maja Kolata,” I said, making hand gestures for climbing a big mountain, “and sneg here” I said with my hand at my ankle.
We went back and forth a little more, and he modified his snow depth estimate to be waist deep, but still was adamant that I couldn’t go. I still wanted to give it a shot, but then he played his trump card.
“Politza,” he said pointing to himself. “Cakor no.”
“Politza?” I asked, pointing at him.
“Politza,” he said, shaking his head. “Cakor no.”
“Ok fine, you win,” I said reluctantly. If he really was a policeman, he probably knew I wasn’t allowed to cross there. I was ok trying to push through some snow, but not with being chased by the police. I got the feeling this guy would probably drive after me if I continued up to the pass, and it was pretty obvious I was intending to bike the whole way through to Kosovo, given all the gear I had strapped to the bike.
I waved goodbye to the man, now smiling at me, and biked back over the bridge to the main road. Thirty miles would only cost me a few hours anyway, so I wasn’t too disappointed. I even had a good campsite in mind for that night, since I’d come in the exact same way a few days earlier.
I biked for another hour until just about sunset, then confidently pulled off on a side road just north of Andrijevica and pitched my tent in the woods next to the Lim River.
The next morning I was biking just before sunrise, as usual, and retraced my route from the previous few days down to Berane, then back up through Rozaje to the Kosovo border. The scenery was amazing at the border – pine trees covered in 2ft of snow, undercast sunny skies, and plowed dry roads. It was a far cry from the blizzard I’d biked through at this pass three days earlier, where even the semi-trucks got stuck in the snow.
I made it through the Montenegro customs booth, then suited up in all my layers (including mittens and face mask) for the long ride down into Kosovo. Safely through the Kosovo customs checkpoint, I cruised down the final 1000ft to Fierza in the valley below. It was warm enough here that I could finally shed some clothes and continue biking south.
My route took me through the major cities of Pec, Decan, and finally to Junik. Biking through Kosovo you wouldn’t notice that it had been at war not too long ago. The buildings, roads and bridges are all in great shape, and it looks very much like other eastern European countries I’d biked through. One hint of tensions, though, is in the road signs. Every sign for a city name has two different spellings, one Albanian and one Serbian I think, and on each sign one of the spellings is defaced with a black paint, or sometimes covered up with white paint and changed to the other spelling. Luckily the spellings are usually similar enough (like Pec and Peja) that it doesn’t affect navigation.
When I reached Junik (spelled the same in each language), I stopped to fill up on water at a small grocery store. The owner pointed out Djeravica as the biggest snow-covered mountain in the distance. Then he began to worry about what I was getting myself into.
“You cannot bike up to the trail, the road is too bad after Junik,” he warned me.
“It’s ok, this is a good bike,” I replied, patting the seat of Randonee, “but I’ll walk if I have to.”
“It will take you more than one day,” he said.
“No problem, I’m bringing a few days of food,” I replied.
“If you leave your bike locked up somewhere, it will get stolen. This is Kosovo, you know, not America,” he warned.
“No problem, I’ll hide it in the woods where only I can find it,” I replied.
“There is a lot of snow. I think it will be very difficult,” he warned.
“I’ll be fine. I have good boots and have climbed a bunch of snowy mountains before,” I replied. “But, I’ve heard the area used to be land mined. Is it safe now?” I asked.
“No, no, there are no landmines there,” the owner said shaking his head.
“Great! Well I’d better get going before it gets dark,” I said, mounting my bike.
“Ok goodbye,” he replied waving as I rode off.
I rode to the middle of town, then took the turnoff for Janik. The road wound through neighborhoods and past a few schools before turning into the woods and changing to gravel. I’d read that this road was impassable to normal vehicles after Janik (at least as of 2012), even though it continued for miles more to the trailhead at the village of Erenik. One report even described it as “the worst road in the world.” But what I found was a reasonable dirt track with potholes patched up by gravel, giving my no trouble on my touring bike.
I passed a sign proclaiming the entrance to a new national park, with a guard post on the side. The guard confirmed I was indeed heading toward Djeravica, so I continued on confidently. After about 2 miles I passed a brand new restaurant, for some reason put way up here in the woods outside of town. The road
steepened after this, but was still rideable with my bike. After 3.5 miles from entering the park, though, the road became too muddy and I had to start walking my bike. If it had been dry, it would certainly be bikable, but the recent snow melt probably contributed to the mud.
The road was certainly still bikeable in the descending direction, I reasoned, so it was still worth it to push my bike up higher. Eventually by the 4-mile mark I found a good secluded spot on the side of the road and decided to lock up the bike and continue on foot. I made sure the bike wasn’t visible from anywhere on the road, laid it on the ground, locked it to a tree, and covered it with a tarp and a bunch of leaves. I think the only way you’d know there was a bike there would be if you walked up and tripped over it.
Confident the bike was safe, I loaded my camping supplies in my backpack and continued hiking up the road. It’s great to be so modular on the whole trip– I basically fly as far as I can then ditch the plane, then bike as far as I can and ditch the bike, then hike even farther and ditch the camping gear, then finally just walk from there with the bare essentials necessary to reach the mountain top.
I walked for another three hours up the road, initially cursing myself for not pushing the bike farther, but then patting myself on the back for a wise choice when the road became shin-deep in mud. Most of the road was freshly cut from the hillside and graded, just in the past year, and it must be a huge improvement over the previous reports I’d read. On a dry day in the summer with no snowmelt I bet a normal 2wd car could actually get all the way to the trailhead now.
I didn’t make it quite that far, though, by the time I was too tired to continue. My normal schedule had me sleeping by 7 or 8pm, but tonight I’d kept hiking until 10pm and was exhausted. I found a level spot in the snow to pitch the tent and was asleep by 11pm.
One reason to hike late into the night was that I planned to meet Nadine on the Kosovo-Macedonia border on Thursday afternoon to climb the next mountain, but I was running a little behind schedule over the past few days with the snow slowing me down. If I could gain a few hours today and a few tomorrow, I might get back on track. The only resource to exploit to gain those hours would be to take them from sleep time. I averaged about 10 hours of sleep a night on the trip, so could afford to shave a couple off tonight to make things work out.
I got up at 5am the next morning, hid my camping stuff under a black trashbag in the woods, and continued up the road. All the mud was solidly frozen at this hour and the road was much more easy to walk up. Soon I passed by some rustic wooden cabins at the edge of treeline, and then saw a sign reading “Gjeravica 7.2km.” Finally, verification that I was on the right track! The spelling was a little different, but it was definitely the right mountain. I think the signs must have been put in recently, when the area became a national park. Another sign pointed to Erenik, where the trip reports I’d read said they started hiking, but now it seems the preferred way up the mountain takes a slightly different route.
The cabins became more numerous up above treeline, and the snow became deeper. I kept following roads until I passed the last house and the road turned to trail. The landscape was amazing, with Djeravica towering above across the valley, and a plateau rising gradually to some alpine lakes at the base of the mountain. The trail was marked intermediately with red and white paint on rocks, though it was difficult to follow with the knee-deep snow. I definitely wanted to follow as close as possible though. As I’d read, this area was the site of some battles in the Kosovo war and at the time was heavily land-mined. The UN Mission in Kosovo spent considerable effort to de-mine the area, and had officially declared it safe in the mid 2000s, but it couldn’t hurt to play it even safer and walk where I knew other people had walked.
The snow at this time in the morning was very difficult to walk through. In some places it was strong enough to support my weight, but in others I’d sink to my knee. The going was thus quite slow. I worked my way up the plateau, though, occasionally seeing trail markers to tell me I was on the right path. I eventually reached a beautiful alpine lake at the foot of Djeravica – Lake Djeravica I think – and paused for a snack break. The day had started out completely clear and sunny, but by now the summit was passing in and out of the clouds.
I traversed the left side of the lake, then cut steeply up the ridge, trying to boulder-hop as much as possible to avoid trudging through the snow. On the ridge top I ran out of boulders and continued through the snow. The final leg to the summit steepened and soon turned into ice axe territory. The snow was developing a cornice on the ridge, and was actually a few feet deep. Unfortunately I had neither crampons nor ice axe, but was armed with enough determination to somehow reach the top. I kicked steps in the snow when I could, and when the snow steepened enough to make me nervous I climbed the rocks on the spine of the ridge. I made sure that every move I made up the rocks would be safely reversible on the way down.
By 11:15am I popped out of the clouds, and found myself on the summit. A concrete cairn marked the top, holding foot-long rime-ice feathers on the northern side. It reminded me of Mount Washington. Amazingly I lucked out and was treated to a 360 degree undercast view of Kosovo and Montenegro. Snow blanketed any land I could see, and clouds filled in all the gaps.
I briefly considered making a loop out of the trip, following a different ridge down directly to Erenik that I’d read a few Norwegians had done in 2012, but the threat of sketchy downclimbing in the snow and ice changed my mind. I knew the way I’d ascended was downclimbable, and was certainly safe from landmines, so I decided to return the exact same way.
Somehow the descent seemed a little less sketchy, maybe because I already had steps kicked in the steep snow sections, and downclimbing the rock sections posed no problem. Unfortunately in my eagerness to go fast and light I’d neglected to bring my sunglasses, and would now pay the price. The sun shown blindingly bright, especially reflecting off all the snow. My solution was to close one eye, and cover the other one with my hand, leaving only a small slit through my fingers to see. It was kind of like the slitted paper glasses you can improvise on a glacier, except with a
hand. It actually worked pretty well and I continued using my hand glasses until I dropped back below the clouds at Djeravica Lake.
I took a short stop at the lake and finished off the last of my snack food. All I had remaining was ½ lb of dry pasta, and two handfuls of muesli (to save for breakfast). That would have to do. By now all the snow had softened and I could easily plod down the mountain. I followed my tracks back to the small settlement at treeline, and then continued walking down the mud road.
I found my campsite undisturbed, and packed up my bags to take back to my bike. Shortly after, a pickup truck came up behind me. I moved off the side of the road, but the truck stopped and rolled down its window. Inside was a man, his wife, and three children. I’d seen them drive up to the settlement, and they must be heading back to town now.
“Junik?” the man asked.
“Yes, Junik!” I replied. (Not that there was really any other destination in that direction on the road).
The man pointed to the back of the pickup truck, and I gladly jumped in, saying thank you. This would save me at least three hours of walking back to my bike, which I definitely could use. The truck started up and I held on tightly as we weaved around the turns and over the bumps. I realized this was the first time in the past 4 weeks that I’d covered ground not under my own power.
After about 25 minutes we reached the place where I’d hidden my bike, and I motioned for the truck to stop. The driver looked a little confused, and I tried to explain with words and hand gestures that I had a bike in the woods and would bike back. I’m not sure he understood, but he smiled and waved goodbye anyways.
The bike was exactly where I’d left it, and I soon had out from under the leaves and unlocked. I now had a decision to make. It was 1 hour until sunset, so I could in theory put in another hour of biking. But then again, I had a perfect campsite here, close to a water source and in the woods where nobody would find me. I resolved to just camp here tonight and get up an hour earlier the next morning to make up time.
The campsite worked out perfectly, except for the dinner part. If my first night in Romania was my worst time attempting to sleep, then this night set a new high water mark for worst dinner I’ve attempted to eat. My only food was ½ lb of dry pasta, which wouldn’t be that bad cooked, but *would* be bad to eat uncooked. I tried for a full hour that night to get my stove working, but it just would not work. I think it was clogged up after at least a month of burning dirty gasoline every night. I took it completely apart and tried to clean it, but it still wouldn’t work. I was really hungry though, having already cut my rations during the day to stretch my food, and had to eat something. My solution was to soak the pasta in cold water.
Let me tell you, soaking pasta may make it digestible, but it hardly makes it edible. I waited for 45 minutes, optimistically hoping the pasta would eventually reach that perfect aldente texture with just the right amount of time, but to no avail. I’ll eat just about anything, but, despite my hunger, I could not finish that pasta. It was mostly crunchy, sort of chewy, and had a horrible after taste. I tried to minimize the time it spent in my mouth and just get it into my stomach. I think I managed to force half the pot down, but then threw the rest into the woods. I sifted through my trash and licked the wrappers clean from my chocolate cake, and scraped the last gram of Nutella out of my jar, but still finished hungry.
“Tomorrow I’ll find a bakery and make up for this disaster,” I told myself. “And I’ll eat enough to put that bakery out of business,” I resolved.
I got up at 4am the next morning and was on my bike by 4:30am. Usually I spend a lot of time eating breakfast, but with about a quarter ration of my usual breakfast, I was soon finished. I made it into Junik by the first twilight on the horizon, and the sun had fully risen by the time I hit the major road.
My meager breakfast was already nearly burned off by this time. However, by 6:30am I rolled through the town of Gjakova and saw exactly what I was looking for – a bakery! It was the only store in town open at this hour, but it was everything I’d dreamed of all night. I spent the next hour filling up on Borek, raspberry pastries, apple pastries, pizza rolls, cheese croissants, and handfuls of other cheese and bread combinations. Finally, stuffed to the brim, I was ready for the next mountain – Korab, the highest mountain in Macedonia and Albania.