Serbia – Djeravica

Djeravica – 8,714ft

*Velika Rudoka was recently measured as 8,720ft, and these two peaks are within the error margin of SRTM data, so it’s not definitive which one is taller

**Kosovo is not currently a UN member, but if it becomes one this will be the Kosovo highpoint and Midzor will become the new Serbia highpoint

Eric Gilbertson
Date: October 29, 2014

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On the Kosovo-Montenegro border

Bicycle Tour Leg 7: Vusanje, Montenegro to Jazhintse, Kosovo
180 miles
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.

Approaching the Kosovo border

Approaching the Kosovo border

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.

Djeravica in the distance

Djeravica in the distance

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

Road starting to get muddy

Road starting to get muddy

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.

Walking up the muddy road with Djeravica in the distance

Walking up the muddy road with Djeravica in the distance

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.

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The small huts above treeline near the summit

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.

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My first view of Djeravica

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.

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A small lake below the summit

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.

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At the snow-covered summit

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

On the summit

On the summit

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).

Hitching a ride in the pickup truck

Hitching a ride in the pickup truck

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.

A well-hidden bike

A well-hidden bike

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.

 

Midzor (7,116ft)* – Highest Mountain in Serbia (outside of Kosovo)

*If Kosovo becomes a UN member then Midzor will become the new Serbia highpoint

Eric Gilbertson

Bicycle Tour Leg 4: Campsite near Moldoveanu, Romania to Midzor, Serbia
300 miles

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On the summit

October 15-18

The highest mountain in Serbia is actually a slight point of dispute, depending on whether Kosovo is considered part of Serbia or its own country. Kosovo is currently recognized by 110 UN members as an independent state, and is expected to soon become a full UN member, though it is technically not currently a UN member. Matthew and I define a country as a UN member state or observer state, thus this status is important.

The highest mountain in Kosovo (Djeravica, 8,714 ft) is higher than the highest mountain in Serbia outside of Kosovo (Midzor, 7,116ft). Thus Djeravica is currently technically the highest mountain in Serbia, though when Kosovo becomes a UN member the highest mountain in Serbia will become Midzor.

To be safe I decided to climb both mountains as part of my Eastern Europe bicycle tour in the fall of 2014.

October 15

I awoke in my secluded tentsite on the side of Moldoveanu, Romania to a crisp fall morning. The leaves at this elevation were at peak color, and a thin frost blanketed the grass in front of my tent. The sun was just about to rise as I started my normal morning routine – climb outside the tent, fill up my little red flexible bowl with cereal and powdered milk for breakfast, pack up my pad and sleeping bag to load into the red pannier, pack up the tent to put into my yellow panier, check up on my bike to make sure the tires were still pressurized, then load all four panniers onto the bike and head off down the road.

I usually tried to get moving just before first light to take full advantage of the limited daylight this time of year. I’m used to putting on 100 miles a day during a summer bicycle tour, but that was hard to do here in the Fall in Eastern Europe unless I was extremely efficient. Roads tended to be in bad shape, often being gravel where I couldn’t go very fast and got flat tires every other day. I also couldn’t really bike after dark since the roads were pretty narrow and it would be hard for cars to see me. It was also important to start looking for a campsite at least an hour before dark so I could be sure to find something. This meant if I found a good site early, I’d lose an hour of bikable daylight, but would take the site rather than get stuck in the dark with no campsite.

If I was efficient and left just before sunrise, I could get around 90 miles in per day, which still seemed pretty good. This morning promised to be a high-mileage day because I was starting at a high elevation and my first 20 miles would be mostly downhill.

Lacul Vidaru

Lacul Vidaru

I cruised out of camp and immediately started my long and awesome descent from Moldoveanu. For the first hour I didn’t have to pedal at all as I blasted through the colorful forests along route 7C. I rode along the shores of the beautiful Lacul Vidaru, passing tons of excellent camping opportunities. It’s too bad I couldn’t somehow bring this scenery with me to the evening, when I would have a greater need for the shelter of the trees.

As I crossed the dam at the southern end of the lake a huge white dog bolted up from its slumber and immediately started growling and barking at me. I was pretty experienced with dogs at this point in Eastern Europe, but unfortunately I had forgotten to bring a stick with me in the morning. I saw the dog get up and prepare to chase me, but I momentarily had the advantage. I swerved my bike to head straight for the dog, taking him off guard. His growl changed to a whimper as he turned around to get out of the way. Of course, I was bluffing and wouldn’t actually chase him, but hoped he would be taken off guard for long enough that I could get by and he wouldn’t catch up to me.

I swerved away from the dog at the last minute as he was running away, and continued on the road over the bridge. But the dog soon realized he was no longer being chased, and immediately turned around and started his pursuit. Usually at this stage in my dog encounters I would whip out a stick strapped to the back rack on my bike and raise the stick over my head while looking angrily back at the pursuing dog. Dogs in Eastern Europe are all aware of the meaning of a raised stick over a human’s head, and invariably cower away to avoid the perceived impending blow. This usually gives me enough time to get out of striking distance of the dog and bike safely away.

In this case, though I had no stick. As the dog pursued, getting closer and closer to nipping my ankles, I looked back and raised my clenched fist above my head as if I had an invisible stick in my hand. The dog immediately veered off to the side of the road, completely stopping his pursuit. It was like I’d activated a force field around me with the raising of a single hand. The dog looked up and growled angrily at me, but stood his ground and didn’t pursue. I had won the battle this time. I hoped the next dog I encountered would be as gullible as this one.

On the other side of the bridge I continued descending through the trees to the village of Cobeni. A light rain started now, punishing me for the previous week of dry weather. I was prepared, though, with waterproof ortlieb paniers for all my gear so didn’t worry. As long as I kept riding I would stay warm, even if I got a little wet.

The woods now turned to farm country as I rode through rolling hills to the city of Curtea de Arges. I stopped here briefly to stock up on food and bottled water at a corner grocery store before turning west on 73C. I followed the rolling hills through Budesti and Barsesti, before heading south to Galicea. Here I became a bit lost, not an uncommon occurence on this trip.

I was trying to cross the Olt river following a road on my map west, but the road didn’t appear to actually exist. It should have turned west from Galicea, but I went all the way to the next village south, Teiu, and saw no road. It wasn’t uncommon in Eastern Europe for maps to be wrong, roads to have been abandoned, or, more commonly, road signs to be non-existent. My tried and trusted recourse was to ask someone for directions. Even though nobody spoke English, I could usually figure things out.

Riverside camping

Riverside camping

I found an old man walking out of a store in Teiu and tried to ask for directions in English, pointing at my map and saying I wanted to get to Slavitesti. He didn’t speak any English, but was super friendly pointing me in the correct direction to Slavitesti. He couldn’t get over the fact that I was both on a bicycle and traveling solo. He kept saying the word solo and shaking his head. I shook his hand thank you and rode off.

The road indeed did exist, but was unmarked and much smaller than my map had depicted. I continued through the rolling hills and farms, stopping once more at a corner store to buy bottles of water before I started looking for a campsite. Just before dusk I found a nice wooded area next to a river with no houses in sight. I waited until no cars were coming before quickly darting into the woods and out of view. That night I cooked with river water to save my bottled water for drinking.

October 16

Pre-dawn start

Pre-dawn start

The next morning I started biking just before sunrise, as usual. My goal for the day was to find internet somewhere so I could buy a flight back to the US for the end of my trip. I had flown to Europe on a one-way ticket, planning to see how things went and how much progress I was making before committing to a return schedule. This is the same plan Matthew and I had used on a previous bike tour in Northern/Western Europe, and worked well because we had plenty of time but also plenty of uncertainty in our itinerary. I was in a similar situation now, and had projected at my current pace I could be pretty sure to be to Thessaloniki, Greece by mid-November.

As I rode through villages in the mornings I passed lots of children walking to school. Unfortunately all these villages were too small to have any facility with public internet. I continued through Fartatesti (that was a fun one to say), Balcesti, and Bulesti. I would occasionally stop in the villages and ask about internet, wifi, computers, or similar related words, but everyone I talked too just looked confused.

Finally I arrived in the major town of Craiova, and determined that if there were internet anywhere in Romania it would be here. I went to the middle of town, searching all the stores for something that looked like an internet café, but had no luck. I asked some of the storekeepers, eventually finding one that spoke English and said there might be one in a billiard hall a few blocks away.

I biked over there but saw no billiard hall. After wandering around for an hour I stopped at another building to ask, and this time got lucky. The owner was a Palestinian immigrant who spoke perfect English, and said there was indeed a pool hall just across the street that had a public internet café in the basement. He said he would watch my bike while I went (“This is Romania, you know. Everything is liable to get stolen,” he said). One of his workers even accompanied me to the café.

We went to the basement and amazingly there were 10 computers just ready to use, for only 10 leu per hour (about $2). I quickly logged in and started looking at flights as my Romanian friend also logged on to a nearby computer. I purchased a flight from Thessaloniki Greece to Seattle using leftover United Airline miles, so it only cost me $50 in taxes and fees.

I also took the opportunity to upload all the pics off my camera and catch up on a few emails I had missed over the past weeks. My friend had to leave, but wanted to tell me something before he left. His English wasn’t great so I opened up the google translate browser and he typed something in Romanian. Google translated it to “Be careful of the pool boys. Watch your wallet.”

I thanked him for the warning and waved goodbye. As my final minutes were lapsing on my hour I quickly looked over satellite photos near Craiova and found an excellent wooded place to camp 10 miles out of town. It wasn’t as far away as I’d liked to get, but there were no reasonable spots within the next 50 miles so I had to take it. No need to worry about finding a spot tonight, though!

With all my errands taken care of I walked back to my bike, thanked the nice Palestinian store owner, and got back on the road. I headed southwest out of town and within an hour had reached the wooded area for camp. It was still two hours before sunset, and I’d really only biked about 70 miles today with all the errands in town, but I still considered it an excellent place to stop and camp. Surprisingly there were quite a few mosquitos here, despite it being the middle of October and dropping below freezing at night. I was used to mosquitos, though, from plenty of bike rides up north, so had no problem.

October 17

I biked through farmland the next morning, heading generally southwest all the way to the Bulgaria border at Vidin. I had no problem crossing the border, and continued west on route 14 cutting across the narrow northern peninsula of the country. There was surprisingly only one small village, Kula, in this entire 30 mile stretch, and I stopped there to top off my water and eat some ice cream.

Entering Serbia

Entering Serbia

I hit the Serbian border at Vrashka chuka by mid afternoon, and as usual had no trouble getting through. The border agents would usually ask where I came from (I would say Ukraine) and where I was going (Greece). I would always explicitly say I was just passing through on my way to somewhere else, which was pretty believable given I was obviously on a big bicycle tour. The agents would always be surprised to see someone here on a bicycle, shake their heads, then give me the stamp and wish me good luck. I feel like this is not a common area for people to go on bicycle rides, given that over the entire month I didn’t see a single other long-distance cyclist. Compare this to my bicycle tour in Scandinavia one summer, when I saw a handful of other long-distance cyclists every day!

In Serbia the road descended all the way to the medium-sized town of Zajecar. My first priority here was to get some Serbian currency. Given that I only bought food at small corner grocery stores where I could keep an eye on my bike at all times, and that these stores were never large enough to take credit cards, it was critical that I get some Serbian Dinars.

In town I quickly found a bank and withdrew some cash. I didn’t know what the conversion rate was, but it was usually safe to choose the middle option of the three options of amounts to withdraw, so I chose 10,000 Serbian Dinars. (I later realized this was about $100, which I never managed to spend in the country and am now stuck with a large chunk of back in the US because no bank here will exchange for Serbian Dinars.)

Just outside the bank I discovered I had a flat tire, and quickly got to work patching it. The sun was setting and I really needed to get as far away from this town as possible before dark to find a secluded campsite. With the tire patched up I hit the road, following a wide and freshly-paved E771 south. Ten miles south of town I saw a dirt road heading into a nice patch of woods, and darted in. Just as the sun set I discovered a flat spot for my tent far from sight of any farms. I cooked my usual pasta and tomato sauce and went to sleep.

October 18

I was finally now within striking distance of my objective, Midzor. I continued south in the morning all the way to Inovo, stopping just briefly at Gornja to buy some more bottled water. A bottle of water in Eastern Europe is actually cheaper than the equivalent amount of purification tablet I’d need to purify water from a stream, and is much more convenient than finding a trustworthy water source to purify. I had a little Sawyer-Mini water filter in case I was in the woods and found a good stream, but in the city I generally just bought bottled water.

Map at the trailhead

Map at the trailhead

At Inovo I turned east on 222, winding up through the hills through more farms. The road eventually got quite steep as I reached the village of Crni Vrh (not sure how that’s pronounced). Beyond this village I entered woods, and soon saw ski resort chair lifts in the hills above. I guess it would make sense that there’s a ski resort in the highest land in the country.

The road wound up quite steeply until finally dead-ending at a small hotel called Babin Zub. This  appeared to serve the nearby ski resort, as well as provide a base for many hiking and mountain biking trails in the area. I passed a large tour bus that dropped people off at the hotel. It appears, then, that there may be public transportation options to reach this point if you don’t have a bike like I did.

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Above treeline after stashing my bike

I talked to a nice Serbian family at the road end here, and the son was impressed that I’d biked all the way here. He showed me some pictures of his favorite nearby mountain biking trails. I finished up a snack and then rode east from Babin zub on a gated gravel road that doubles as a hiking trail. This was the trail to Midzor, and was clearly signed at the trailhead. I hoped to bike up as far as possible, though it likely wouldn’t be too far given that I had a road bike.

The trail soon left the trees and emerged at the top of the ski lifts, in a grassy meadow above treeline. It looked like it was a service road here for the ski lifts, but farther on it quickly deteriorated. I continued following the dirt track until it ascended an impossibly-steep hill. No truck without serious 4WD could possibly get up that, and I had no chance fully loaded on my little road bike.

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Hiking toward Midzor

There was a small grove of pine trees nearby, and I stashed my bike here, threw some food in my backpack, and continued up the road/trail. The entire area soon turned to open grassland with spectacular views. Clouds rolled in and out but I could definitely make out Midzor in the distance, not too far away.

I continued following the dirt road, and sorely wished I had a mountain bike. You could definitely get just about to the summit without problem with the right bike. The views continued to be excellent, and as I got closer I whipped out my GPS to confirm I was heading to the right mountain. Before my trip I’d loaded coordinates for each summit, and as many relevant tracks as possible.

On the summit

On the summit

Indeed I was nearly there, and within 10 minutes was at the summit. A 3-ft-tall concrete block marked the top, with “MIDZOR” written artistically on the side. I was technically on the Bulgarian border, and could see far into Serbia and Bulgaria from here. There was nobody else on the summit, nor had I passed anyone on the trail, despite it being a beautiful fall weekend. Perhaps people had hiked earlier in the day, though. It was nearly sunset now.

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Leaving camp the next morning

I quickly jogged back from the summit to my bike, reaching it just before dark. This was as good a place to camp as I could possibly hope for, next to a trail and very far from any houses, so I pitched my tent here and went to bed.

My next mountain would be Musala, the highpoint of Bulgaria.

 

 

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