GL008: Unknown Balkans

June 14th, 2016


After some more visa planning, the laundry, reserving two sets of tires to be picked up in Osh (Kyrgyzstan) and a bit of sightseeing, it’s time to leave Dubrovnik. But not without carrying our luggage to the bikes again. That’s all uphill, but at least I’m not stuck in the queue in front of the Game of Thrones fan shop this time. Instead, there is a very slow old man to block my way as I feel my arms being stretched by heavy topcases. A shopkeeper that sees us walk past three times must think we’re crazy, and she might be right.

After cooling down over breakfast at the Lajk restaurant we’re leaving on a steep road out of Dubrovnik. The view of the city is stunning from up here. We’re almost sitting backwards on our bikes to get a last glimpse of it.

It’s only 35km (22mi) to the border with Montenegro, one of the more unknown Balkan countries for us. It’s the first time anyone has ever wanted to see the green cards that every European vehicle insurance company provides. For our convenience I’ve hidden mine somewhere deep in my luggage.

We’re saving the town of Herceg Novi for another time and are soon riding most of the outline of the bay of Kotor. Due to its special shape we can see water, mountains and villages in all directions. In Kotor itself, much of the view is blocked by an enormous cruise ship called The Norwegian Spirit, which has recently spit out a lot of tourists. Just like the other tourists, we also attract begging children and salesmen of ‘Ray Ban’ sunglasses. I can’t believe he’s really using the “I’ll give you a special price my friend”. I tell him I don’t want a Ray Ban, not even a real one, and that seems to ward him off.

After Budva we get stuck in traffic. Yes you can get stuck in traffic with a motorcycle with really wide luggage. I probably don’t have to explain that being stuck in traffic in motorcycle gear over an increasingly hot engine in the midday sun is not great. Other drivers must think we’re crazy, and they might be right.

After the traffic we continue for a bit to cool down and decide to stay in the vicinity of the town of Bar. There seems to be a hotel very close to the sea promising a good sunset. The hotel is difficult to find and soon we are riding down a steep and narrow street with rough pavement. Riding down this street is exciting because in order to get off the bike, you need the ground to be reasonably level and we don’t know whether that’s going to happen before we reach the sea. When we stop at the flattest bit we can find, an alcohol evaporating yet very helpful Russian comes from his garden to tell us we’re on the wrong street and points out where we need to go. We get some more excitement going uphill on this street and downhill on an equally steep parallel street.

We seem to be the only guests in the hotel and get a room with a great view from the balcony. The alcohol evaporating yet competent cook makes us a tasty dinner and we get the great sunset we’ve wanted in the end.

June 15th, 2016


When we enter the breakfast room all three employees jump up as if they’ve been awaiting our arrival. And they might have been because we still haven’t seen or heard any other guests. When we return to our room, somebody has already made the bed, although all our stuff is still in there and we’re leaving soon. Strange.

We’re quite the attraction at the first gas station today. We also get our first hotel offer there. We ride the southern tip of Montenegro before heading to Albania on a surprisingly good road. The local drivers think we’re too slow so we get passed at close distance every time.

At the Albanian border, at least three other waiting drivers tell us to pass the passport control booth on the left over the sidewalk. This looks a lot like an illegal bypass to us so we wait until a border guard confirms it. They keep our passports and vehicle documents for a while and everything is scanned until we’re dismissed. No need to open any luggage and the whole process takes only ten minutes. The Albanians take no interest in our green card and we’re not sure whether that is a good sign.

Driving in Albania is a bit different. Other drivers are a lot faster and they overtake in places where you wouldn’t expect them to. They’re only doing the speed limit briefly when accelerating past it to much higher speeds. We support our usual defensive riding style with the LED beams on full and nobody seems to be bothered including the Policia Rrugore.

After Shkodër we follow the main road toward Tirana. We notice that there are really a lot of gas stations here. So many in fact that each of them has almost no customers and the attendants’ day consists of waiting a lot and drinking tea. Their shops are very spartan too. I’d expect they’d try to increase their income with a small supermarket but here you’re lucky if you can find a bottle of oil. We also wonder where all the women are. They’re probably doing actual work somewhere.

Telltale signs that you’re no longer in western Europe:

  • Everybody on a long road through farmers’ fields has built a fragile shed in which they’ve put a couch. They wait and sleep here all day, hoping that someone will buy their melons, or their neighbors’ melons, or their neighbors’ neighbors’ melons.
  • In the middle of nowhere, you’ll find grandmothers, dressed in black and with headscarves. Although everybody else seems to notice us, they don’t.
  • Stray dogs
  • Deaf stray dogs
  • People taking their pig for a walk
  • People taking their cow for a walk
  • People taking their horse for a walk on a long rope, where the horse is on one side of the road and the owner on the other.
  • Snakes feeding on roadkill
  • Cordially greeting drivers
  • Petra getting two thumbs up from strangers after they’ve seen that she rides her own bike.
  • A restaurant with no-smoking signs and very full ashtrays
  • Keeping a bear as a pet in a cage at home.
  • Every village has at least two ‘Lavazh’: a tent with a water hose to clean your car.
  • When you pull up at a gas station, everybody jumps up and gathers around the bikes, even if they don’t work there.
  • Small children sitting on daddy’s lap when driving down the highway at 100km/h (60mph)
  • Cars driving around without any license plates
  • Cars driving around with obviously fake Swiss license plates.
  • Honking your horn means either “Hello” or “Please notice me” or “I hate you” or “What does this button do?” or “Hey, that’s my stolen scooter!” or “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”

At Lezhë we try to get stickers of the Albanian flag for the topcases but the lady at the kiosk doesn’t speak any language we speak. She tries to sell us cigarettes and I manage to pantomime her into thinking we want sticky tape. The search for stickers continues.

After Lezhë we go east through the mountains. Traffic is much quieter here and nature much prettier. I was not sure about the quality of the roads in Albania but we’re pleasantly surprised that the SH6 going east to Macedonia is actually quite good. Only the section between Burrel and Klos has fallen apart. It gets quite bumpy here in places where the asphalt is kept together with loose sand.

More adventure awaits in Bulqizë where we accidentally turn into a dead-end street with aggressive children, yelling and banging their hands on our bags as we pass, twice. I can restrain myself from using The Horn to clear our path.

East from Bulqizë there is a wonderful winding road going up to 700m (2000ft). The more east we go, the more unusual our appearance becomes as we notice from all the people greeting us with genuine smiles.

A bit before sunset we reach the Macedonian border. No problems here either. We decide to stay in Debar because we don’t want to ride the 70km (45mi) to Ohrid in the dark. Debar looks poor, especially in the center where life takes place on the street. Thankfully we manage to find a neat hotel just outside of town with a view over the lake.

June 16th-18th


The remaining stretch to Ohrid is easy following the winding road along the lakes of Debar and Kara Drin. The Macedonians’ driving style is more sedate compared to the Albanians. We quickly find ourselves at the gate of a hotel to relax for a few days, discover the town, do some visa puzzle solving and work on this blog. Petra’s brother Tim has been a great help finding a replacement for the broken communication system. We couldn’t find one in Greece, where we plan to stay longer. The question is how to get it to us without it getting lost. Our friend Giorgos in Athens warns us that the normal mail service in Greece is unreliable and that we’d better use a courier service. These seem to be really expensive. The package would be insured but what we really need is the contents to be able to talk to each other on the road again.

We can get used to the prices in this part of the world. We’re having a lunch for two with drinks for 12 Euros at the lake shore. Ohrid is a pretty town in a great location. There seem to be quite a number of Dutch visitors. Later we learn that the interest of the Dutch for Ohrid was sparked by the novel ‘The wedding of the seven gypsies’ of A. den Doolaard (1939). There is even a monument for the author in town which is part of a Dutch initiative to promote tourism in Macedonia.

After three days in this comfortable hotel it is time to go to Greece to pick up our visa for Uzbekistan and Iran.