Korab – 9,068ft
Eric Gilbertson and Nadine Muller-Dittmann
Date: October 31, 2014
My bike tour in Eastern Europe was nearing completion. I’d covered about 2,500 miles in the past four weeks, hitting the highpoints of Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Kosovo along the way. My final plan was to meet up with my German friend Nadine for a weekend trip to Korab, the Albania/Macedonia highpoint, then bike a short distance down to Thessaloniki, Greece and pack my bike up in a box.
Our rendezvous was set for the afternoon of October 30 in Macedonia. Nadine would fly in to Skopje, rent a car, and meet me somewhere on the road on the way to the Kosovo border. The only problem was it looked like I was running a little behind schedule. It’s hard to plan exactly how many miles I could put on each day on the rough roads in Eastern Europe, and the snow and a few wrong turns had taken their toll.
On the morning of October 30 I woke up early, at 4am, 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. Somehow over the previous few days I’d eaten more food than I’d budgeted and was now out. 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. Each pastry was only 25 cents, so there was no reason not to force down as much as possible. Finally, stuffed to the brim, I was ready get back to biking.
I biked on surprisingly smooth roads on R107 all the way to Prizren. Oddly, whenever I crossed a bridge there was a sign with a picture of a car and some numbers, then a picture of an army tank and some numbers. I presumed these signs were left over from the fighting in the 1990s, and had something to do with the capacity of the bridge. You don’t see signs like those in the US though.
Southeast of Prizren I passed through an amazing gorge. The road stayed right at the bottom, weaving along a stream through cliffs up to 200ft tall. At some points the road was so narrow that a large truck would probably scrape the rocks on the side!
The road climbed gradually out of the gorge, until I crested a 5,000ft pass with a few inches of fresh slushy snow. This happened to be very close to one of Kosovo’s few ski resorts, Brezovica.
I coasted downhill for the next hour, biking through Shterpce, Duraj, and Doganaj. Another biker actually passed me on this stretch of road. This was the first biker I’d seen in a few weeks, and it looked like he was out for a day trip, with no gear at all, compared to my four fully-loaded panniers. We waved to each other and I had no hard feelings for getting passed – I had come much farther than he had and was likely planning to go much farther, so had no reason to go super fast.
By early afternoon I texted Nadine my estimated time of crossing the border into Macedonia. It would probably be late by the time I made it to Skopje, but I hoped she would be able to drive to the border and pick me up there.
The final road to the border, route 116, climbed steeply back up into the mountains heading south, and didn’t pass through a single town. This was my favorite kind of road – no traffic, just trees and hills. Within an hour I crested the final pass, and knew it would be all downhill to the border. I tucked my body down into an aerodynamic position and tried to go as fast as possible to make up for lost time.
All of a sudden, a big white SUV pulled up right next to me, and the window rolled down. It was Nadine! But how was she in Kosovo? I thought the car rental agency didn’t allow cars out of Macedonia. She pulled over at the next turnoff, and I soon followed. Somehow just as I was slowing down I rode directly over a sharp rock, and immediately heard a loud hissing of air escaping from my tire. I pulled up next to the SUV just as the final air leaked out of my flat tire. But it didn’t matter now. I wouldn’t be biking for the next few days anyways.
Nadine had somehow gotten lucky and was able to drive across any border in Eastern Europe, it appeared, and now she added a new country to her list – Kosovo. Nadine had wisely suspected I might be hungry, and came well prepared with plenty of pastries. I threw my bike in the back of the SUV and we started driving toward Korab, and Albania/Macedonia highpoint.
Just a few years ago it was basically impossible to climb Korab outside of one day in September every year. The mountain sits right on the Albania/Macedonia border, and the Albanian side has been rumored to be land mined. The Macedonia side, until recently, was closed off by the military. Somehow the Macedonian mountain club had negotiated with the government to open the mountain one day per year – the first Sunday in September – for mountain climbing. On this day literally 1000 people would climb it. Luckily for us, though, the policies had changed within the past few years, and now Korab was supposedly open all year from the Macedonian side. We hoped this turned out to be true.
With Nadine driving we soon crossed into Macedonia, and headed southwest on E65 through Tetovo, Vrutok, and Mavrovi. We eventually turned off on a gravel road, following our GPS directions to get to the trailhead at Strezimir, a small military outpost. Once the road changed to gravel there were no houses and no signs. Without a GPS or carefully noting the car’s mileage it may be difficult to navigate past this point. But we reached Strezimir no problem. It was well-past sunset by now, and a guard tower with extremely bright lights and barbed-wire fence around it appeared to be guarding our path. But a rough gravel road continued around it, and we had a tough SUV, so we continued driving.
Nadine was an expert at the stick-shift driving, and made it pretty far past the guard house, but at one point the tires started slipping when the road steepened. We didn’t have 4WD, so had to back up to the nearest pulloff. At least we were far enough away from the bright lights that they wouldn’t keep us up at night.
I found a flat spot in the woods just off the road, and we camped out here for the night after a nice pasta dinner.
In the morning we packed up the tent, put it back in the SUV, and started hiking. It turned out we were actually parked where the trail leaves the road, so we started walking directly up the trail.
We soon emerged from the forest into grassy meadows, and intersected back with the gravel road. The road ended at an old abandoned stone building, and with a good 4WD vehicle you could probably get to this point. Above here the trail was a bit harder to follow, and snow started covering the ground on the north slopes. There were a set of footprints in the snow, though, and apparently another hiker had been here recently.
We soon encountered another set of tracks that wasn’t a hiker though – it was a bear! Very few areas of Europe still have bears, so this was a special treat to be in area remote enough for such wildlife. Indeed, we were pretty far from the nearest village, and there was plenty of open wilderness for bears to live.
The hiker tracks followed a northeast ridge, crested a small plateau and then abruptly stopped at a small 2-ft-tall snowman. This looked to be as far as the other hiker had gotten. Indeed, at about this point the snow got deep enough that the grass no longer showed, and the trail was pretty hard to distinguish.
We pushed on, though, traversing around a big south-facing slope, and then ascending. The clouds descended on us at this point, completely enveloping us and dropping visibility to about 50ft. Occasionally we would see a red paint mark on a rock to reassure us we were on the trail, but it was certainly tough navigating. Several times we would take a wrong turn, only to back track to find the trail again.
Eventually we crested the final ridge and reached the small concrete pedestal with Korab written in red marking the summit. A 2-ft horizontal mass of rime ice feathers clung to the windward side, not unlike the huge rime ice formations I’m familiar with on Mt Washington in the United States. These only occur in sustained extremely windy and snowy conditions, and it must have been pretty nasty recently on the summit.
Not that it was extremely pleasant today. It was still cold and windy, with visibility dropping to about 20 ft. Small snow or sleet pellets pelted us in the wind, making it uncomfortable to face any direction but leeward. We hung around, though, eating, taking pictures, and hoping for a break in the weather. Just as we packed up to leave, a hole opened in the clouds above us and bright sunshine streamed down. The valleys opened up all around us, into Albania to the west and Macedonia to the east. Gnarly snow-covered mountains surrounded us in all directions, dropping down to grassy valleys below.
The window lasted for about three minutes, then returned to dense cloud cover and low visibility. It was well worth it to wait for those views, though. But this return to bad weather was our que to head back down. Luckily this time we had clear tracks to follow, and had no trouble finding our way. We eventually dropped back below the clouds, and were treated to amazing views again of the mountains on the Macedonia side.
We reached the SUV by mid-afternoon, and packed up to continue our trip. Nadine had never been to some of the nearby countries in Eastern Europe, and was eager to pull ahead of her parents in the country count. This time I took over the wheel, looking to brush up on my stick-shift driving in preparation for an upcoming trip to the Azores, where the only rental cars were stick shift. This gravel road offered the perfect practice, because there were no other cars to worry about, and I could practice starting on the hills, the hardest part about stick shift driving.
We made it to near Mavrovi and soon found a nice
forest to sleep in that night. The next day we did a big road trip, swinging through Serbia, Bulgaria, and then back into Macedonia, adding two more countries to Nadine’s list and putting her firmly ahead of her parents in the country count.
Getting back into Macedonia from Bulgaria presented a bit of a difficulty, though. I guess it raised some red flags that we were a US citizen and German citizen driving a Macedonian car in Bulgaria. It probably didn’t help that I told the border agent I had come from Ukraine at the start of my trip.
The border agents searched the entire vehicle, made us come into the office to have their superiors interrogate us, and they made me empty my pockets and gave me a pat down. I couldn’t help but laugh at the whole situation. They were so certain they were going to bust us for something, but obviously we had done nothing wrong. It was kind of fun for me to explain my complicated story to the upper-level officer, that I had flown to Romania, biked from Ukraine to Kosovo, met Nadine in Kosovo after she flew from Germany and rented a car in Macedonia, and we’d just driven through Serbia and Bulgaria for fun. There’s no way they kept that all straight, and eventually they gave up when they couldn’t figure out what to get us in trouble for.
Nadine had to fly out that night, so we found a nice camping spot near the Greece border where I could get dropped off. Nadine then successfully made it back to Germany after an action-packed weekend, and I started the final leg of my bike trip, heading to Thessaloniki, Greece.