About gypsybytrade

Ridin' bikes and travelin' light.

Albania! Albania! Albania!

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Come quick.  It’s the best.  There are mountains all over, and small villages, and dirt roads.  Alternatively, there are bustling big cities and smooth paved roads in the mountains, nearly vacant, save for a shepherd and a man on a horse and a classic Mercedes every fifteen minutes.

Albanians will greet you, unabashedly, with a friendly “hello, where are you from?”  

Albanians will invite you to their homes.  They will kick their children out of their beds for you.  They will feed you like kings and queens.  And if you are American– lucky us!– they’ll buy you another beer at the cafe.  Or the bag full of figs at the market is free.  A big friendly thumbs up to Americans.  

All the boys over a certain age ask to “giro” my “bicycleta”.  The first few times I just smiled and nodded, not sure exactly what they were saying.  They’d throw a leg over, smiling, and ride away.  Now I know.

Albanians love Americans, for more than a few reasons, but mostly and most recently for the US support of Kosovo.  Aside, Albanians like fancy cars and money and new things, all of which is assumed to grow on trees in America.  Elsewhere, shepherds are shepherding, farmers are farming, and people are living.  The clash of late-series Mercedes sedans and sheep is a daily occurrence.  Grandmothers walk mountain roads with cows, a willow switch in one hand and a mobile phone in the other.   Don’t try to speak Serbian, or Croatian, or Ukrainian, Russian, Macedonian, Slovenian, or Polish or any other Slavic variant; it’s all Serbian to them and they don’t want anything to do with it.  The Albanian/Yugoslav border has been a region of great tension, marked by thousands of one-man concrete bunkers.  These are things we notice with great curiosity. 

The riding is great.  The coffee is small.  Water is clear.  People are famously hospitable.  Albania is amazing.

We cross the border from the coastal lowlands of Montenegro, in a region with an Albanian majority.  Immediately, all roads lead to Shkodër.  We seek a map and a route, and some Albanian currency.

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Przemek is looking for a bottle cage to replace a broken cage.  Some bicycle related things can be found at motorbike shops, hardware stores, or the market.  

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We blast through town, and make quick work of the map, currency, and other affairs.  We’re out of town on an abandoned paved road to the north, toward Montenegro.  We have some intel from a Polish cyclist which suggests a mountain road along the northern border of Albania, eventually crossing into Montenegro near Gusinje and Plav.

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We turn off the main road on a lesser road toward Dedaj.  

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We stock up on goods.  We later learn that stores are uncommon in rural Albania.  Buke means bread, our first Albanian lesson.  Second lesson: raki, like rakija, means homemade liquor.

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We turn left towards Zagora, Bratosh, and Kastrat, over a small mountain pass to another road further north.  Turn left at the ominous monument with the noose.

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This route can easily be made from Podgorica in Montenegro, although the ride around the lake is worth the extra time.

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In our first mountain town, we discover several things.  Men without business sit around most of the day, drinking coffee and smoking tobacco.  Here, they play an excited game of dominoes.  We fill our waters and ride on.

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Into the evening, we climb away from the tentacles of the city.

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Onto rocky roads, we climb.  The road is lined with rock walls, and small trees with red fruits.  We learn that these fruits, called thana, are most often used to make raki.  

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In Bratosh, at the town center, we inquire about a place to camp.  The man who owns the store laughs, and says “anywhere”.  We opt for the churchyard.  

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Soon, a man appears asking if we wish to sleep indoors.  It will be cold he warns.  We assure him that we are from Alaska (and Poland and Slovenia), and we will likely survive the night.  Nonetheless, we tour the building.

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While Catholics are but a small majority in this country, Albanian Catholics are proud to call Mother Teresa their own.  She is Albanian, but was born in Skopje, which is now the capital of Macedonia.  Both countries were part of the Ottoman Empire at the time.  The pope makes his first visit to Albania this week, ever.

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As we are preparing dinner, a group of young men begin banging around inside the church.  They are making renovations to the choir loft.  Without a common language, we help by hauling timber out into the yard.  

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In the morning, the store across the street comes to life.  A group of men and the proprietress are hollering, about life or politics or coffee, I do not know.  Within the hour, the store is again closed.  The same thing happened last night for an hour or two.

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Away from Bratosh, I stop to watch a man cooking something outside of his house.  Naturally, he invites me to coffee.

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He’s making raki.

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Amazing the things people make when they cannot be bought.

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In fact, he beckons his daughter to prepare a warm cup of sheep’s milk for us, sweetened, of course.

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And for the man, a small glass of raki.  The drink is offered to me, but once they discover Lael is also interested, more glasses are summoned.  Two more glasses are brought once Saŝka and Przemek discover our bikes laying by the roadside.

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The man’s name is Konstantin, his daughter on the right, Konstantina.

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And his twins, Samuel and Samuela.  The concept of twins was curiously communicated with gestures.  Use your imagination.  

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We descend from Bratosh toward the main road.

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It seems the road has been paved.

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Fresh asphalt, aged less than ten years, is not uncommon in Albania.

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Przemek warns about a major climb coming up, as seen from his GPS.  But, it is a descent.  Back down to river level, at 500ft.

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Near the bottom of the descent, we encounter the paving crews.

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Graded dirt, en route to unimproved dirt.  Hurry up and ride this stuff, before it disappears.  

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Of course, we swim at the bottom.  Finally.  No more rain.  It is always sunny in Albania, I think.  

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We roll into the town of Tamare.  The town welcomes us with a small tourist office, a fresh plaza, and several stores.  A small army of German motorbikers indicate that we aren’t the first people to visit this place.  But, the tourists may change after the road is paved.  

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Extra high fives for wheelies.  Thumbs down for skidding.  Properly tuned disc brakes are a novelty, in comparison to aging coaster brakes, or unhooked v-brakes.  Albanian kids are fantastic.  Lael has a great gallery of our favorite young Albanians.

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The town has done a nice job to welcome tourists.  Some shops offer local goods, and a handsome map has been published to indicate all the hiking and biking routes, as well as other features such as caves, old mills, and folkloric attractions.

Liquor and wine.  A wide variety of berries are grown in the area, each at a unique elevation.  Blueberries grow up high, figs are found down low.

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Cheeses and mustached men.

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Out of town, past the post office.

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Now begins the kind of rides we seek.

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We camp for the night in a small grassy floodplain, before the final climb to Lepusha, and the descent to Vermosh.  Albanian wine is worth it.  We’ve had great wines from Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia.  Bulk or vacuum-packed olives are available is most shops.  Cheeses are exclusively of goat or sheep’s milk anymore.  

Oh, and the Adidas kicks help me blend in.  Paired with a pair of Adidas shorts (thanks Colin!), I call it my Serbian tuxedo.   

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I’ve spent six years under the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent.  I purchased my third tent this summer, while the other two remain back home as pieces and parts.  I’ve looked at other models, and tried one or two, but I always come back to this one.  It’s stormproof and drab green, and the pack size and weight is agreeable.  

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The few towns in this valley are provided signs by the Albanian government to promote tourism.  The signs indicate homes where food and lodging is available.  It enables the local flavor to flourish, rather than stamping it out with hotels and fancy restaurants.  Still, paved roads will change things.

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That’s Montenegro over there, over those mountains.  Around here. most of the borders are defined by mountains, which at once were essential barriers.

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Additional protection comes in the form of small concrete bunkers, which are present at major geographic and topographic locations, such as mountains passes or canyons.  This one currently resides in the front yard of a home.  Each bunker features two horizontal slots, one in the direction of attack, and the other as a sightline to another bunker for communication.  Up the way, a larger bunker would have radio communication to higher forces.

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Nearing the border of Montenegro (formerly, of Yugoslavia), we encounter an array of bunkers.  As they were meant, they are hard to spot at first.  And then, they are everywhere.  There were over 700.000 bunkers  

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Across the border, we’re off to Plav, Montenegro to connect with the Top Trail 3, billed as a route of “Eastern Enchantment”.

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The route includes some of the locally advertised routes near Gusinje and Plav.  The entire route is over 300km, mostly off-pavement, designed to be ridden with camping gear, although it also promises to be challenging.  I highly recommend reading the free PDF of the brochure, the writing is exceedingly romantic.  

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Around Shkodër Lake, Montenegro

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Meet in Podgorica on Friday, 8AM.  Actually, now it is Saturday at 8AM, or 9, or something.  Looks like three trains are coming from Belgrade in the morning, not sure.  We arrive in the city the night before and seek inexpensive accommodations.  Walking around a city at night is contrary to our usual touring pulse.  Montenegro, and I think Albania, are contrary to the pulse of Europe.  More Turkish flavors are found here.  

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At the station in the morning, we wait at the cafe.  Hot burek, and cold beer are on the menu.  Here, coffee is a sacred thing.  We have a habit of gulping it down.  The locals sit for hours.  Espresso machines are common, although turkish coffee is always an option, for half the price.  It’s turkish cowboy coffee.

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Przemek and Saŝka arrive on a 24hour train from Slovenia via Belgrade.  It’s a long ride, made tolerable by a sleeper cabin.  In these parts, smoking is unofficially permitted everywhere, in sleeper cars and cafes.

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We ride into the city to finalize bicycle assembly, and organize our packs.  Crossing paths with a wedding party on a photo shoot by the river, they borrow our bicycles for some fun.  I wonder how their wedding photos with the 29er Surly Pugsley will look to their relatives.  Bikepacking honeymoon in Montenegro?

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A quick trip around the city to fill up on food and water and we are off, still not sure where.

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Looking east, the high mountains call.  But rain clouds repel.  Instead, we ride west into the lower mountains around Shkodër Lake, a small fold of earth between saltwater and freshwater.

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Serene paved roads abound.  We are discovering that the Balkans are really ripe for some high-powered road touring.  Lael wishes for the carbon road bike she rode all spring.  Not that there aren’t off-pavement routes to discover, but Serbia and Montenegro are mountainous, and generally well-paved, with little traffic everywhere except the main highways.  Plenty of climbing and descending in every direction.

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Hiking routes in the area are much too rocky and steep to ride.  But small roads keep our interest.  We’re happy to be out of the rain.

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Local touristic signage indicates wineries and this curious “honey trail”.  There was a gorgeous stone house at the end of the road.  Not sure the relationship to honey; no tales were told.

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As the sun begins to fall, we talk about plans to camp.  We’ll ride a bit further to splash around in the stream before bed.  It looks like a stream on my map.  In fact, it is a significant inlet to Skodër Lake, a large shallow freshwater lake on the border of Montenegro and Albania.  It can be hard to see big topographic features such as this on the GPS.  

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Descending down to water level, now only 15ft above sea level, we find a campsite near the center of a small town, adjacent to an old stone bridge.  

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Thankfully, the sun is shining and the water is clear and cold.  I couldn’t be happier, and I manage to go swimming five or six times before we depart.  

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Climbing into the hills, we stop at a vista with a handful of tourists from countries across Europe, including Latvia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia.

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Grape vines and a sign for “Vino-Wine” lure is down a driveway.

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We are welcomed by twin brothers over 50 years old, who make wine as a hobby.  They live in Podgorica during the week and retreat to the mountains on the weekend.  The grow Vranac grapes, which are common in Balkan wines.  They also make rakija, or homemade liquor, in a small quantity annually.

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Aside from the wine, they are especially proud to have hosted visitors from 94 countries.  They are excited to make it 95 with our arrival, until they discover that Alaska is part of the USA.  This summer they add several new flags to the wall.

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As we climb and descend, new perspectives of the lake come into view.  The lake swells with the season, and has a highly variable area.  The lake averages only 15ft deep.

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Barely ten miles down the road for the day, I turn back to find Przemek and Saŝka.  I find them with new friends.  Hospitality is serious business in many Balkan countries.  

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It begins with a drink of rakija

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And some small talk, photos, and a few slices of cheese and tomato.  Lael trades some plums for an apple.

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It’s a long story, but six hours, two gunshots and several times more rakija than anyone ever needs in a day, we roll into the evening sun.  The goal is to find a place to camp.  The gunshots are the kind that involve zealous hosts, not any ill will.  Zoran is happy to share everything with us, and sends us off with a bottle of his own wine, cheese, duhan (tobacco), and of course, rakija.

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We pass through town for some basic supplies, and ride into the night.  In the dark, we find a small rocky pull-out aside the road.  For a bunch of drunk cyclists in the dark, we didn’t do too bad.  At least, I discover that in the morning.  Views of the lake aren’t bad, for the price.  Few cars pass in the night.  

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Our impromptu route around Skodër Lake turns out to be a delightful ride, and a good way for the Polish-Slovenian contingency to stretch their legs.

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From afar, we thought the lake might be a big swamp.  In fact, the road feels like a slice of Highway 1 in California, without any traffic, stores, or gas stations.  There are several towns below the road.

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Cheese for sale, almost always from goats or sheep anymore.

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German cyclists are also abundant in these parts.  

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As we climb to a valley away from the lake, we encounter loads of figs and berries, and eat until we are full.  It takes a moment to decide what the broad leafy plant is, but a big whiff in the warm breeze makes it clear that it is tobacco.  We pass through shady forests of chestnut trees.

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Przemek remarks that the rotten looking figs are best, especially those dripping with caramelized sugars.

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Montenegro has recently gained independence form Serbia, and for the most part, the countries are quite similar.  But along this route, all of a sudden, signage is now also in Albanian.  The towns look and feel different.  Mosques replace churches.  Things are changing.

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We climb and descend away from the lake, towards the coast and the official border crossing.  The ride over the mountains passes within a few hundred meters of Albania.  An abandoned structure guards the ridge.

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We plan to wait until morning to cross the border, and find a campsite near this old town site.

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This is still Montenegro, but we might as well be in Albania, politics, pomegranates and all.

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At the border, guards quickly look at our passports and wave us through.  This has been the most relaxed crossing so far.  

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To Albania!

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Romanian rail, Serbian sun, Montenegran mountains

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Above:  Sunny shades of Serbia.  Serbia is a big surprise, as we didn’t have any expectations at all.  

Since parting ways with my family, we’ve returned to our bikes in the Ukrainian Karpaty.  We followed the route from Kolochava to Yst Chorna, again.  It is shown as a road on the map, but it is more of a stream for about half of that distance.  We continue along forest tracks and singletrack to Yasinya.  To our south, the road crosses through the town of Rakhiv and into Romania,  Or, we can climb up the Chornahora Massif, possibly ride or walk up to the highest peak in Ukraine– Hoverla– and continue further east to cross into Romania elsewhere.  However, our plans with Przemek are looming, and the weather is constantly cold and rainy, at least about every other day.  It may not be the best time of year to be exploring the Romanian highlands.  Not sure if Saška would like to be cold and wet on her first bike tour.  Not sure if I want to be cold and wet.  Lael certainly doesn’t.  Weather predictions in the Balkans are promising– 30C and sunny everyday.  Przemek and Saška are coming from Slovenia.  He asks, “Can you be in Podgorica on the 5th”?

Sure!

Lael and I hurry to figure out where Podgorica is.  Ah, Montenegro.  Sounds nice.

We ride into Romania at sunset, and seek an inexpensive hotel in the center of town.  The first night in a new country is exciting.  Which currency do they use?  How much will we pay for a beer, and a loaf of bread?  It surely isn’t as cheap as Ukraine, although the facilities are nicer.  Immediately, we notice the roads are much nicer (smoother, but more traffic).  The roads in Ukraine are laughably bad.  Once-paved roads are actually worse than many dirt roads, in this country or elsewhere.  Low-traffic volumes are the reward.

Romania is welcoming.  The language is different, like Italian or French spoken through a 30% filter of Ukrainian, to my ears.  Espresso is omnipresent, and very good.  The Italians have left their mark on this part of Europe.  We will find more of this further south, and west.  Romanians use the Leu as currency.  Slovakia uses the Euro.   Both Czech and Poland have been EU members as long as Slovakia, yet they do not use the Euro.  Turns out, Montenegro uses the Euro as well, and they aren’t even part of the EU yet.  Previously they had used the Deutsche Mark in place of the unstable Serbian Dinar.  Montenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia in 2006.  There is a lot of history to learn for this part of the world.  We habitually load gargantuan Wikipedia articles about each country (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia), or past country (Yugoslavia), or soon-to-be independent country (Kosovo), and read them offline in the tent.   

Romania

Romania, as seen from across the border in Ukraine. To some, the grass is a little greener over there.

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The next day, we purchase train tickets.  The afternoon allows me to service my bottom bracket, which has begun to creak.  Shimano warns, “Do Not Disassemble”.  I recommend to anyone wishing to prepare their bottom bracket for lots of muck and rain to do this before it makes noise.   Carefully remove the plastic cover, and the rubberized bearing seal.  Flush with lightweight lube, and pack with as much grease as possible.  

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The Shimano crank design is almost free of specialty crank tools.  Unfortunately, the non-drive side utilizes a bearing preload which demands a special star-shaped tool.  In this case, a light tap with a hammer and a Ukrainian coin set the bearing preload just right.

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The Romanian train promises to be comfortable, as the air is cool and the cabin is only at quarter capacity leaving the station.  We’re sad not to spend the time that Romania requires, but this train ride will serve as a small consolation, and a basic reconnaissance mission.  We’ll be back someday, armed with more summer.

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The bikes cost us about $15 each on the train.  There isn’t an official policy or place for the bikes, although the train attendants are very kind and flexible, much unlike the Soviet-era attitudes aboard the Ukrainian railways.  Someone is transporting a large sack of flour on the train.

The 14 hour train costs about $15 per seat, plus the bikes.  Not a bad way to get across the country.  All is well until a woman enters our cabin of eight seats.  Each cabin is only ticketed for a maximum of about four passengers, as the train is quite empty.  She argues that I am in her seat.  I show her our tickets, the attendant ensures that yes, I am in her seat, although he has moved us to this cabin to be near our bikes.  She’s not happy, and the remaining twelve hours are miserable.  I’ll almost never say it, but is was really uncomfortable.  First, she closes the only window and the door to the cabin.  Then, she eats some fragrant fried food.  Finally she inspects us uncomfortably for a while, trying to figure out who or what we were.  She argues with her husband.  Lastly, she lays down across three seats, stomach hanging out of her shirt, shoes off, looking at us.  Eventually, she is asleep and snoring.  At intervals, she stretches and rolls over and puts her feet up on the window.  There are some cookies, and more fried foods.  Then, two older Romanian men enter the cabin past midnight to claim their seats.  Now, there are six of us.  Five of us sit upright; she still claims three seats.  She snaps at the two men, who maintain conversational tone in the dark.  Their voices are calm, yet earnest, and it doesn’t bother me.  Incidentally, about an hour later, she begins texting on her cell phone.  The phone is set to full volume, beeping with each key stroke.  That bothers me.  Lael holds back a laugh.  Then I laugh, and she laughs, and the woman looks at us, realizing her mistake.  She lays down again, and falls asleep.

Eventually, the two men deboard the train in the early morning.  Lael stretches out on the remaining seats.  I find an empty cabin at about 4AM, and catch a few hours of sleep.  We arrive in Timisoara at 7AM, greasy and tired.  I glare one last time at the fried food text-messaging bossy lady, and take my things.  Lael suggests we could take another train further south.  I suggest we ride.    

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We exit the train station in Timisoara as all the businesses open for the day, and rain begins to fall.  This is a flat, fertile corner of Romania.  We’ll be in Serbia by the end of the day.

I’d never have chosen to visit this part of the country but we make a great day or it.  We stop in a small store at lunch, to take cover from the rain.  We order two beers and sit on the ground.  The patrons are half Roma gypsies, and half Romanian, split between two tables.  Everyone, at different intervals ask us questions in Romanian, French, German, and some Russian.  The one guy that claims to speak English is wasted, and really doesn’t speak English.  Still, he buys each of us a beer.  This is a poor town stuck near the border.  For a moment, I like being here.

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In fact, this border crossing is listed on the map and on my GPS, but is currently inactive.  We arrive at the abandoned post and ride into Serbia, looking for anyone who can officiate our crossing.  There is no one.  We return to Romania, to find an official border crossing.  We’d hate to be clocking time in the EU when we have in fact left the EU and are in Serbia.  Further, we’d hate to spend time talking to the police later on.

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Serbia

We arrive in Serbia at sunset (a pattern, it seems), and spot a small mound of mountains.  

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Vrŝac, at sunset.

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This is one of Serbia’s premier wine growing regions.  Serbia uses the Dinar as currency, which is valued at about 90 Dinar to the Dollar. 

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Vrŝac is a fantastic city.  

Lael and I have been carrying some things we’d like to send home.  I wander into the post office, which is very busy.  Instead, I leave some layers and a camera in the park.  

Sadly, the lens is scratched and the camera body has a mind of its own when the atmosphere claims more than 90% humidity.  Hopefully, someone in Serbia will appreciate it.  I can’t justify sending it home to gather dust, nor do I want to take pictures marred by a scratched lens.  After a year and over a thousand dollars of experimentation, I’m using the same camera and lens as last year.  It is simple, small, and inexpensive.

In the past year, the screen on my lightly used Olympus E-M5 died within a week, and I lost the external hardware to the EVF on a ride.  I scratched the lens of the Panasonic 12-35mm lens, probably beyond repair.  I broke the threaded plastic filter attachment in the same bike crash that killed my last E-P3 body.  The Olympus E-PM1 body which I left in the park has been a solid performer since I purchased it as my first camera just over two years ago.  This year, I’m planning to keep it simple and cheap.

I enjoy using the Olympus E-P3 body (newer one, as the last one broke), and the photographs from the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens are to my liking.  And when it rains or I want to put the camera away, it fits almost anywhere on the bike.  

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Serbia is full of sun, for us.

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We intersect the EuroVelo6 Route along the Danube River.  This route connects the Atlantic with the Black Sea.

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For about 30 miles, we ride hard packed dirt and gravel along the banks of the river.

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This French cyclist has ridden all the way from Dijon on the EuroVelo6.  He’ll finish through Bulgaria and Romania in the next few weeks.

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Serbia is another place we’d love to come back to visit.  Fruit grows everywhere, the people are friendly, and there are mountains in large doses to the south.  So many people speak English here.  They speak naturally, and transition quickly from Serbian.  I’m not sure how to explain the phenomena.  They also play a lot of basketball. 

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Everyone in this region is familiar with conflict.  Kosovo and Monenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia.  Albania has only been quiet for a short time, and bunker tourism is part of every visit to Albania, I hear.  Each of these countries was part of a failing Yugoslavia just 25 years ago.  A lot has changed in the Balkans.  A few countries are still not yet part of the EU.  

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Entering the mountains is refreshing.  For the most part, we chase paved miles en route to Podgorica.

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Each town posts recent death notices in public places, usually taped around a pole or a tree.

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Yugoslav-era apartment building are everywhere.  As long as you don’t find them ugly, they are fascinating.

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Mining and other industries appear to be healthy across Serbia.  This is a lot different than Ukraine, where almost every old industrial building is vacant and vandalized.

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We first encounter walking trails in Serbia along this dirt road climb.

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Further, we find signage for the walking routes and a biking route.  I do not yet have any insight into these routes, but they do exist.  While many small roads in the mountains are paved, many others are not. There are also thousands of miles of farm roads.  We only find basic road maps in our few days in Serbia.  Also, the Openmtbmap.org file that I was using on the GPS contains less detail than in other nearby countries.  In general, these maps are highly recommended as at least some map detail is available for almost every country.  A small donation to the project allows unlimited downloads.  I have downloaded the maps for Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Greece. 

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Fruit is everywhere, especially blackberries and raspberries.  And as everywhere else in Eastern Europe, plums are in abundance.

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Potatoes.

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Cabbage.  Serbian fields are productive, another change from subsistence farming in Ukraine.

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Roadside springs are abundant on mountain roads.

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In the city, we find this awesome traffic model, scaled down for children on bicycles, rollerblades, and on foot.  This is a good use of schoolyard space.  

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Hot weather and cold water is how I hope to spend my summers.  It feels like we’re getting close, finally.

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We find camp for the night in a cemetery, for the first time, actually.

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The next morning, we pass through Guča, home to the world famous Guča Trumpet Festival.  This festival celebrates the style of Serbian trumpet found in regional brass bands.  I’ve seen one such band escorting a wedding party; the music is riotous.

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The written Serbian language is a mix of Cyrillic and Latin characters.  My Ukrainian is more valuable here than in Romania, where our French-English-Ukrainian was more confusing than anything.  In many of these countries, people try to speak to us in German.  Younger people more often defer to English.

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The mountains!  With each pass, we climb higher and higher.  We climb to 2500ft.  Then 3000, 3500, 4000, and then over 4000ft.

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And at last, over 4000ft, we reach the border with Montenegro, or Crna Gora in Latinized Montenegran and Serbian.

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As we get close, the rain returns.  When the weather is good, I ignore the forecast.  I look for the first time in a week.  The computer calls for rain as far as we can see, in every direction of space and time.  Rain for weeks all up and down the Balkans.  At least it will be warm, as long as we are not chasing dirt roads up to 6000ft.

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Montenegro

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We continue our ride, intersecting lonely paved and dirt roads, and by chance, the largest canyon in Europe.  The Tara River Canyon claims to be up to 4300ft deep in places.  It makes for a spectacular descent from the rim.  A quiet paved road continues upstream in the canyon for about 20 miles.

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Where did that summer weather go?  Lael is still wearing her number from the Fireweed 400.

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We prepare a bounty for Przemek’s arrival.  We will meet him and Saška at the train station in a few days.  Local wormwood liquor is a good start.

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A local sign near the Biogradska Gora National Park indicates a 300km cycling route, for mountain bikes!  The route is signed, mapped, and English-language brochures are offered online.  A website dedicated to the “Top Biking Trail 3-Eastern Enchantment” provides all the information.  Maximum elevation is over 6000ft, maximum grade is 35%; mostly, I think it follows rideable dirt roads.  If the rain holds, we’ll include some of this into our route with Przemek and Saška.

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We descend from the mountain valleys at 3000ft, down towards Podgorica.  At 280ft elevation, the weather is much warmer and the skies are clearer.  If necessary, we’ll plan a route nearer to the coast to avoid the orographic effect of the mountains.  The tallest mountains in Montenegro and Albania are over 8000ft and 9000ft, respectively.  So close to the Adriatic and Ionian Seas (and the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas), they create their own weather.  

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Just 8 miles out of Podgorica, we find a secret riverside campsite.  The water is cold and clear, and finally, it isn’t raining.  It has been a wet ride since crossing from Serbia.

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We awake to some sun and blue skies, tentative as they may be.

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Plums replaced by figs, we’re close to the sea.  We are, effectively, in the Mediterranean.

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Saška and Przemek arrive tomorrow, for two weeks of adventure.  We don’t have a plan or an end destination.  Surely, we’re all looking for good riding, great camping, and if possible, some sun.  Lael, as a recovering Alaskan, is always looking for sun.

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Anyone live in Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, or Greece?  We may be in the area over the next month.

Western Ukrainian snapshots; August 2014

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Images from our time in Western Ukraine.  This part of the country is characterized by Euro-Ukrainian cities such as Lviv, Uzhorod, and Ivano-Frankivsk, with roots also in Poland, Galicia, Czechoslovakia, Austria-Hungary, and more; a narrow swathe of the Carpathian Mountains, forested and crawling with people growing things and herding things and collecting things, and some tourists like ourselves; and a unique take on the state and future of the country, naturally.  Most of our time was spent in the mountains, and on either side of the mountains riding to and from Lviv and Uzhorod.  We spent a few days in transit to visit family in the southwest, or perhaps it may be called the south-central part of the county.  It is closer to Odessa and the Moldovian border than I realized.  Technically, this is all from the western half of the country, at the crossroads of our lives and Ukrainian life.  

The billboard reads, “My dad protects Ukraine! Are you ready?”  

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29 years in Ukraine

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My birthday comes near the end of August.  Once again, I dine amongst distant relatives near the village where my grandfather was born.  Twelve months ago these people were all unknown to me, but we’re closer relatives than before, even if I still don’t know exactly how we’re related.  What I know is that when we arrive in town everyone wants to feed us, house us, and spend time with us.  That’s family. 

Overnight rain from Volovets in the Karpaty to Vinnytsia.  This is the Uzhorod-Kyiv train line.

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Bus from Vinnytsia to Bershad.

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You can take a bus from far eastern Ukraine all the way to Munich.  Or at least, at one time you could.

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First business in town is to visit with Lida and Lonya.  Lonya is my mom’s first cousin and our closest relative in Bershad and in the nearby village of Romanivka.  His father Simeon visited us in New York when I was young, shortly after Ukraine gained independence in the 1990’s.

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Last year, a kind young man drove us to Romanivka and patiently assisted us as we visited with family.  Not until the end of the first day did we realize that our driver is also our cousin, Yaroslav.  His mother Olya and his father Vitaliy provide a place to stay on our brief visit this year.  They have a simple house near the edge of town.  Their location allows them the space to keep animals and grow most of their food.  They buy bread and some specialty items.  

In addition to fruits and vegetables, they also keep cows, pigs, and chickens; make homemade samohon and fruit compote; and keep nearly twenty young pigs for sale.  Both keep jobs in the small city of Bershad as well. 

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No such thing as too much garlic.

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As in the mountains, I suspect the nearby forest is also a food source.  In the right season, mushrooms are abundant, although in general, much of Ukraine is hot and dry in the summer.

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We return from a walk to a house transformed, with a table set for 15 people.

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Even the kovbasa is made of their own pork.

Слава Україна!  Героим Слава!  

Glory to Ukraine! Glory to its heroes!

We all drink to Ukraine.  We all drink to my birthday, and to our family, and to Ukraine a few more times.  

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Moments before dark, we all find our way outside for pictures.  All throughout the day we’ve looked at every personal photo archive at each house.  For the older generation in Ukraine, and elsewhere around the world, real photos are powerful and memorable.  I’ve got to remember to print and share more photos.  The young people all want to know if I have Фейсбуки, or Facebook.  

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The young man on the left is on the right in the next photo, all grown up.

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Our hosts Olya and Vitaliy, and my mom.  

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High ISO, a 12-second timer, and a flash make 15 smiling faces.

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Inside for some cake, coffee, more samohon, sleep, and in the morning another 30 hours of travel back to our bikes.  It is a brief visit and at one time I questioned whether it is worth it.  It was.  

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Lviv, Ukraine; August 18-19, 2014

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Following a few days at the hostel in Kolochava, and a few more days of riding, I finally received word from my mom that she was coming to visit us in Ukraine, again.  Last year, as we selected an eastward trajectory from France, we conspired to set a date and she bought a plane ticket to Ukraine.  We would meet just before my birthday.  We planned to visit her father’s family in the southwest, and her mother’s family in the far east, near Luhansk. 

Last Monday she wrote, telling me that she would not be able to come visit again this year, regretfully.  On Wednesday she wrote again, telling me that she had bought a plane ticket.  On Friday, she and my brother arrived in Kyiv and immediately boarded a train to Lviv.  Lael and I composed a roundabout route back towards Strij though the mountains.  We boarded an electro-poyizd (regional electric train) for the final 60km to Lviv.

Lviv is busy and beautiful, full of pedestrian boulevards and sidewalk cafes.  There are tourists, but mostly they are Ukrainian or from elsewhere in nearby Eastern Europe.  The city is rustic but not rusting; while many historic structures remain, they are artfully maintained, not artificially renovated as in more popular destinations.  To my tastes the city feels more like an improvement upon Prague and even Bratislava.  The streets are narrow and cobbled, not wide as in Kyiv, part of which was planned during the Soviet era.  And while comparisons to both Paris and Prague are in order for any charming European city, I’d choose neither of those over Lviv. The time to visit Lviv is now, before Ukraine’s economy booms upward and the city becomes more expensive and the cafes are replaced with tourist shops and the Ukrainians are replaced by English and German and Japanese tourists.  I believe Lviv is experiencing yet another high period in its long history.  It is exceptional.  

Lviv may also be the most Ukrainian city, not because it is the most even slice of the country.  Rather, the people here intend to preserve Ukrainian language and culture more than anywhere else in Ukraine.  Western Ukraine– hundreds of miles from Russia– is also the most Ukrainian part of Ukraine.  However, Ukrainianism here is not without fault.  The popular red and black flag of the УПА  (Ukrainian Insurgent Army)– an organization notorious for fighting both the Nazis and the Russians during WWII, under the leadership of Stepan Bandera– stands as one of several symbols important to nationalistic Ukrainians.  This militaristic organization is also responsible for the death of coutless Poles in the region.  Nationalism, in almost any form, often has a dark side.  Incidentally, the grave of Bandera was recently vandalized in Germany.  And yesterday, several Ukrainians ascended a high-rise structure in Moscow, repainting a soviet star in the blue and yellow pattern of the Ukrainian flag, marking their work with a Ukrainian flag atop the 32-story building.  These are a sign of the times in this part of the world, although the actual situation is much more grave.  

We have been unable to make calls to our family in Stakhanov, in the Luhansk Oblast near the Russian border for several weeks.  We hope they are safe.

Into Lviv.

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This region is known for changing borders.  The former Galician empire included much of the Ukrainian Carpathian region, and some of Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. 

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Someone has decided that smashing the windows of the Russian bank is a good idea.

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No military presence is felt in Lviv, although memorials are scattered throughout the city.  

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As is lighter fare, such as this toilet paper being sold at the touristic market.

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Mostly, life continues for residents of Lviv.  Tourism is down.  Young men and mothers worry about being drafted.  Over 2000 Ukrainians have died in the “anti-terrorist” conflict since this spring.

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A walk around the city reveals characteristic scenes of Lviv.  The aging Lada sedan is ever-present in Ukraine.

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Chruches are full on Sunday.  We’ve discovered that while riding through the country, we can visit as many as five or six churches on a Sunday morning, during active service.

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The Armenian cathedral in Lviv dates to the 1300’s.

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Taras Shevchenko is the most famous Ukrainian.  A poet, painter, and a fervent supporter of the idea of an independent Ukrainian nation, his likeness or bust stands tall in most every Ukrainian city.  He was born a serf in 1814.  He died briefly after a period of exile in Russia.  He died seven days before the official emancipation of serfs in tsarist Russia in 1861.

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Mostly, life continues as usual in Lviv.

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Return to Borzhava, Zakarpats’ka Oblast, Ukraine

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The discoveries of one day become the fuel for another.  For this reason, I have a tendency to revisit the same places and choose another path.  We’ve ridden up and down the west coast a few times, twice down the Divide, to Colorado and the southwest for a third season of fall riding, and to Europe for a second summer in a row.  Each ride leaves unridden routes.  When touring on pavement, we used to say that the world was getting smaller with each pedal stroke.  But the discoveries of off-pavement touring seem to make the world bigger.  These opportunities are not always apparent from afar.  Up close, they come into view.  Zoom in close on the GPS and a network or serpentine red lines appear.

Last summer, we hardly knew what to expect when we touched down in Amsterdam with our bikes.  We return to Europe this summer with the knowledge that there are overwhelming opportunities for off-pavement riding.  Last summer, we crossed borders from west to east until crossing into Ukraine, where things changed greatly.  This summer we return to the east and to Ukraine with an understanding of how things work, how some things just don’t work, and how to get around on two wheels.  We return to the Karpaty in spite of the cold rainy weather from last fall.  

This time around, being in Ukraine is familiar.  The weather is cooperating.  The roads and rides have been great, so far.  We’ve discovered that on Sunday mornings we can visit as many as a half-dozen churches, in active service, while riding through villages.  We also learned that the Ukrainian currency has plummeted in value by 50% in the last few months.  Last time we calculated about 8 hryvnia to the dollar, this time it is more than 12.  As such, a cup of coffee or tea is much less than a dollar, a cold pint of Obolon is often only sixty cents, and a cup of borsch is barely a full American bill.

Surely, there are reasons for this dramatic change.  We’re in Kolochava for a few days, enjoying the hospitality of a large guest house.  The televisor spits out images and details of the situation near Donetsk, in between dubbed American films, infomercials for butt-shaping walking shoes, and Russian soaps.  The Ukrainian border guard made jokes about Lael’s passport photo, calling out to his superior that she looks like a pro-Russian militant, laughing (she does).  The superior paused for a closer look, took a serious look at us, took another look at the passport, and waved us on.  There are some serious things happening on that side of the country, nearly a thousand miles away.  Not that nobody cares, but here it makes for small talk, mostly.  Tourism to this historic mountain village is reported to be about half of normal this summer.  For current English-language news from Ukraine, the Kyiv Post is a good source in addition to some major news organizations such as the BBC.  We’ve also discovered a substantial monthly publication entitled New Eastern Europe, full of essays and editorials from the region, in English.  The magazine is published in Poland, and the current issue focuses on the Ukrainian situation, through the lens of Polish, Georgian, Belorussian, and Ukrainan writers, among others.  The opening interview is with former Polish president Lech Wałȩsa.  

Riding from Slovakia, we detour though Uzghorod, and into the mountains on a series of forest roads and small paved roads.  We shoot for Volovets, to return to Polonina Borzhava.  Przemek led us up the mountain for the first time last year, before an impending thunderstorm sent us bombing down the mountainsides.  An long-term forecast for rain convinced us to catch a train to Crimea.  We intersect our route last year to follow an unfinished path through the Ukrainian Karpaty to Romania.  

Coming over the hill into Volovets.  One of the larger towns in the region, it features a regional train to Lviv for only a dollar or two, and more than a few food stores.  As such, it is a popular starting point for adventures.  There are nicer towns to visit in the mountains, although the setting is scenic.

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Soviet murals exist on large buildings and bus stops.  This is one of my favorites, featuring a couple in traditional mountain dress backdropped by sheep and a rocket and a radio antenna.  The man is holding a chainsaw.

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Packed with food for a day, we climb out of town to camp up high.

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Daily thunderstorms ensure our bikes remain muddy.  Logging trucks and six-wheel drive vehicles ensure some roads remain rutted.  

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We’ve been here before and know that eventually, the road improves.  The light improves as the evening passes.

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The mud ends, the sun sets, and we encounter a flat spot to camp.  Before dawn, people are quietly talking and walking up the mountain.  I suspect they are up early to pick mushrooms.  

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The next day, we discover that everyone is hiking up high to pick and rake blueberries.  These kids from Mukacheve are planning to haul a barrel of berries down the mountain at the end of the day.  They bring a sample of last year’s wine.

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We climb up the steep road at about the same rate as a 67 year old woman, walking.  Czechia?  Polscha?  

Amerikansky, I reply.  

Everyone thinks we are Czech.  In Czech, they all think we are German.  In France, they suppose we are Dutch.  In Holland, they know we are American.

She loves the Karpaty, and swoons when we tell her we have a whole month to enjoy.

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Plai is the first major peak at about 1300m, above 4000ft.  There is a weather station and an assemblage of antennae.

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From Plai, the trail pushes to Veliky Verkh, above 1500m, and 5000ft.

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Everyone is picking berries up high.  Dots on distant hillsides slowly work side to side, clearing only a fraction of the berries on the mountain. 

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This truck full of gypsies will spend the day collecting berries, before driving back down the mountain.  It is a steep drive up and down, especially with twenty people in the back of the truck.  The Ukrainian Roma are much friendlier than those in Slovakia, thus far.  

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Everyone is enjoying the weather up high, on Saturday.  People walk up from Volovets and Pylypets; motorcycles scream past, and a truck full of novice parasailers circle the sky.

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We continue on the polonina past our exit point last year.  The trail narrows as it descends into the trees.

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Our snack bags are nearly empty, and we point towards Mizhhir’ya at the end of this segment of the red trail.  Rutted roads, no longer is use by four-wheels vehicles, descend the mountain.

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Juniper.

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Eventually onto active farm roads into town.

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From here, a quick up and over into the next valley.  That road will descend all the way to Mizhhir’ya.

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Passing the first few homes, I stop to photograph an especially characteristic wooden home.  A woman calls out from the shade, “Dobre vechyr!”  I call back.

Within minutes, we’ve holding bowls of hot mushroom soup and bread.  She offers a bottle of cold beer.  No kidding.  We’re pretty lucky.

Soon, she’s talking about where we will sleep, and what we’ll eat for breakfast.  I compromise and agree to stay, but we will sleep outside, I tell her.  And for breakfast, we only want coffee and tea.  Don’t bother to make too much food for us.  She agrees, and we still awake to a feast of fried potatoes with salo, onion with salt and vinegar, tomatoes, and bread.  I oblige, out of necessity.

Христина was born here.  Her children live in nearby villages, and her mother died about five years ago.  She now keeps three small homes on this property, by herself.  She shows us pictures of her family.  We all sit down to watch the televisor, as she explains the complicated backstory behind Natasha and Mykyta’s love, and his relation to the other girl that lives on the Black Sea in a nice house, and the doctor, and the other red-haired woman and the attractive blond guy.  “Quiet.  Listen.”,  she says.  Then she continues talking about what is happening in the show.  The program captivates her imagination.  She turns it off and we sit outside on the grass for dinner.  

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Ukraine, so far

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This is when and where everything becomes more infrequent, digitally.  There is internet, but there are also lots of dirt roads and rustic crumbling paved roads and old churches and inviting groups of men with horilka at lunch, and woman selling mushrooms by the side of the road, and kids who chase on bicycles and just a few weeks of summer left.  We left more than a few weeks of summer in Alaska, and we’re chasing the last of them in Ukraine.  We climb up Polonina Borzhava again tonight, almost a year later. 

Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine:  Uzhorod, to the Karpaty via dirt roads, some small paved road, to Volovets…

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Across Slovakia, up high

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Surely, we’re having fun.  We’re working hard– not working, technically– but riding lots.  On occasion, we stop in bus stops to avoid the rain.  This time of year, the sun is high, the air is wet, and the afternoons are stormy.  It seems we’ve also encountered a wet week in addition to normal summer storms.  That’s alright, as long as we can outlast thunderstorms by taking cover under bus stops and eating lunch in our t-shirts, or less.  These are the summers of my youth.  We’re eating pickled peppers stuffed with cabbage.  Slovakia is still a dream.

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Since our first foray out of Bratislava following touristic segments of dirt through the Male Karpaty, we’ve pedaled upstream of the Vah River, toward our eventual goal.  Ukraine, and possibly a brief segment of Poland are on our horizon.  A mix of dirt and pavement lead through the wine country of the lower Vah River valley.  Eventually, we leave the lowlands for the mountains.

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Much of the population of Slovakia lives in a few major valleys, although many small towns exist everywhere else.  This is still a country of mountain people.

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Each town features a small food shop, called a potraviny.  This one is a relic of times past.  Most often they look like mini supermarkets, with a limited range of common goods.  Everyone shops every day and buys little, but always buys those little crescent-shaped white bread rolls.  The rolls are always a little dry, and cheap as dirt.  We’ve learned to stack them with olives and tomatoes and cheese and meat.

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Each town features a bar or a restaurant or both, sponsored with signage by one of the major beer manufacturers in the country.  Lael habitually asks for dve kava and jedin chai in the morning– two coffees and one chai.  In reverse– “chai and kava”– she calles this Chai-kav-skij.

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As often as possible, we swim.  Slovakia is laced with cold streams.  The lowland countries nearby, full of people, are different.  Here we find plenty of water.  

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Finally, we’re surprised to find castles everywhere.  It is unlike Poland or Czech or Ukraine.  

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We entered the country with new(-ish) bikes.  Searching for chain lube was more complicated than expected.  I passed the opportunity to buy WD-40 several times.  Finally, I bought some.  Chains are silky smooth, for now.  XTR and WD-40 are a winning combination.

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I also bought a pair of real shoes, after a week and a half in Birkenstock sandals.  I committed to only bring clothing which I already owned.  While I spent a grip on new bike parts this year (for fun!), I knew for certain all the clothes I would need were already in my possession.  Self-destruction is inevitable with clothing, so why not let them destruct, before replacement?

I found some proper bicycle chain lube at the Tesco superstore.  Free sandals and chain lube to anyone that walks by.

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We begin our path over the mountains on a route comprised of narrow grey lines on our road map.  It proves to be a signed cycling route, and a reliable route over the mountains on a maintained dirt road.  

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Climbing into the rain…

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We find a secure cabin at the top.  All locked up– except for the outhouse– we take cover under the porch for the night.  It is nice to cover ourselves only in netting, and to keep our things dry.  The daily process of drying our things is tiresome, and an uphill battle.

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The morning is foggy, without rain.

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We eventually descend to in Trenčianske Teplice, for groceries, coffee, and internet.  Lael loves this poster advertising regional Slavic mountain festivals.

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Finally, we connect with the 1000 Miles Adventure Route.  This is an annual race route created by Czech adventure rider Jan Kopka, across Czech and Slovakia  We don’t know what to expect. 

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It begins on pavement, climbing tertiary roads into the hills.

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Mostly, we’re following signed hiking and cycling routes along the way.

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Passing through the heart of Slovakia, through towns of wooden villages, old churches, and active farmland.  

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An apiary/treehouse, or beehouse– surprises us in the forest.  There are a lot of bees here, in managed bee communities, in converted trailers and raised beehouses.

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We connect to an historic road, cut from the hillside.  Up, and up, above 1000m.

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A hiking shelter.

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Up…

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up…

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up…connecting a dirt road to a dirt road, via an unrideable hiking trail for a short distance.  We’re beginning to understand the “route”.  It is mostly rideable, but does not shy away from unridable connectors as needed.  This is our preferred mode.

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At the top is a small ski area and a seasonal hotel. It is barely open in the summer.  Winter must be busy here at about 4000ft.

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There are well-signed hiking and cycling trails in these mountains.  It is nice to see cycling trails comprised of rough, unpaved routes.  Slovakian cyclists are hardy.

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Follow the red and white, as ever.  Up and up, as ever.

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We’ll talk more about the bike later.  Yes, the main compartment of the framebag doesn’t have a zipper.  The seatpack conceals a MacBook Air.  I drilled a hole in the fork and several holes in the frame.  And yes, the bike still shreds.

Thanks to Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs for the design, creativity, and fabrication, and the dedication to do all of it at the last minute.  Thanks to him, I’m carrying a MacBook and the bike rides like a bike.

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Up over 5000ft, from the river valley below near 1000ft.  Our legs are figuring themselves out.  Rather, mine are gaining figure.  Lael’s have been ready to go since before the Fireweed 400.

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Down, down, down…

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Brakes are hot and our stuff is wet.  Swim in a stream and eat an apple.

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Of course, drink a beer.  Small drinking establishments are ubiquitous in Slovakia, as in Czech.  Beer is about $1, or less.

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The next day, we awake to sun and the opportunity to dry our things.

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The route takes a hike over some high meadows.

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And down grazing lands and logging tracks.

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All of this is adjacent to the Low Tatras National Park.  We soon learn that the logging continues into the park, although you are warned not to ride a bicycle on unstable soils.

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Up again, now on the red hiking trail, one of several national hiking trails across Slovakia.

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Don’t ride on fragile soils, say the signage.  Just drag some logs down the wet roads.  

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I do my best to keep the tires running through the frame.  Thanks to the new Fox fork and the Surly Krampus, even these muddy 2.35″ Hans Dampf tires keep rolling.  That was the plan.

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Six-wheel drive ensures the road remains a quagmire.

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Again, we wash in the stream, dry our things in the sun, and dine.  We refuse to get wet every day.  Lael says, “the forecast in Lviv calls for sun every day”.  We’re moving east.

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Out of the high mountains, between the Low Tatra and the High Tatra, we point towards Ukraine.  The 1000 Miles Adventure Route chooses some mellow dirt and pavement at the front range of the Tatras.

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Celebrating our last few days in Slovakia– not that we aren’t always celebrating– we fire a round of sausages over the fire.

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We enjoy a few more days in the country, before our focus leans towards Ukraine.  Considering our current location in the northeast of the country, a few days in Poland may be in order.  There’s something about Poland.  Namely, the Red Trails capture our attention. 

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Slovakia for a few more days.  Poland for a minute.  Ukraine, for a month or more.

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To Slovakia!–nothing not to like

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It has been a long time coming, our return to Slovakia.  We grazed the border of Slovakia on several occasions last summer.  Once, en route to meet Przemek for the first time, we rode through Slovakia for part of a day.  Unwilling to participate in yet another currency, we starved ourselves for the afternoon and raced into Poland to begin our ride on the red trails of southern Poland (Note: they use Euros in Slovakia, we started the day with Czech kroner and ended with Polish zloty).  On another occasion, we detoured from the red trails in Poland to spend a few days writing for Bunyan Velo,  We crossed the border a few times in two days, curious about the pace of life in Slovakia.  Poland is a dreamy place, as long as you are in the woods.  On the roads and in town, the energy is high.  Slovakia, like Czech, is relaxed and kind.  We liked it, but the trails, and Przemek, were in Poland.

The country is crossed with mountains, and farms, and relatively few people.  The beer, as in Czech, is cheap.  The mountains, as we are coming to find, are laced with roads and trails, accessible by a plethora of hiking and cycling routes.  These things are always easier to discover in country.  The women– I promise I won’t let this become a place to review the women of the world– have long legs and have obviously spent the summer outdoors doing things they enjoy.  Seriously, Lael agrees, and we marvel at the discovery of Slovakian women– they are beautiful and healthy.  It’s like they’ve never outgrown the age of 12.  We find this to be an interesting social and cultural marker.  The men?  Well, they mostly look like sunburnt farmers.

When crafting a plan for this summer while back in Alaska, the far eastern part of Europe invited us once again.  I want to spend more time in Ukraine, and the other half of the Carpathian Mountain chain in Romania.  Lael wants to learn some Romanian, and bulk up her Ukrainian vocabulary.  We both want to ride bikes in the countryside and mountains in places that are habitable and arable, but not yet overcome by the hypermodern life we know.  Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania.  Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania.  That’s the plan for now, at least as much of a plan as there will ever be.  Beyond that?  Greece and Macedonia?  Spain and Corsica and Morocco?  There are many opportunities further afield, but we’ve really just begun.  Its not fair to this end of the trip to focus on that end of the trip.  We’re focusing on this side of Slovakia for now, trying not to look too far forward.

We took advantage of the Condor Airlines flight over the pole, which runs nonstop all summer from Anchorage to Frankfurt for about $500.  To hone our eastern aspect, we chose a connecting flight to Vienna, which is only 40 miles from Slovakia.  While I am reading maps, Lael is honing her Euro style.

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Look who met us at the airport in Vienna– Przemek!  He came bearing gifts for Lael’s birthday, including homemade currant liqueur and a small loaf of his mother’s bread.  I’m not supposed to tell, but he also made the three hour drive to the airport the day before.  Upon returning home, deflated, he realized that we had departed on the 22nd, but would not arrive until the 23rd.  Thanks for coming back a second time.

We may have the chance to spend a few more weeks with him later this summer.  Our tentative plan is to rendezvous in Romania in late August or early September.  He’s currently living in Slovenia for work.  He still does a very good impression of a Polish man, in English, for our benefit.

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We’d planned a Warmshowers.org host in Vienna, although a delayed arrival and the time it took to reassemble our bikes meant it would be too late to ride into the city.  Neither of us had much interest in the big city, for now.  Rather, we pedaled towards Slovakia.  Head east!

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We connect to a bike path adjacent to the road, only a short distance from the airport.  We ride through several small towns, over the autobahn, and onto a signed hiking route on a small dirt road.  This leads to a dirt track along the Danube River, dotted with rustic fishing cabins.  We slept well on our first night, on a dirt road, alongside a river, only three miles from the airport.  Even the passing “dinner and dance” barges from Vienna didn’t bother us.

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Awake early, without a plan, we pedal.  Several hours later, barely 7:30, we realize we must have been up before 5AM.  This never happens, although we appreciate the extra hours.

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What time is it?

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Immediately, our eastward route intersects the EuroVelo6 route, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea; the local St. James Way, which eventually leads to the local Camino de Santiago route in Spain; and a plethora of local walking and cycling routes along the Donau (Danube).

Signposts are stacked with signs and maps covered in colored routes.  The pathways are in constant use by a steady stream of riders, runners, rollerbladers, and walkers.  Many cycling routes incorporate graded gravel farm roads or unpaved cycling paths.  Most routes utilize existing facilities.  Creating bikeable routes is sometimes as easy as providing maps and signage.  Rest stops like this one are also welcomed, which include drinking water, a bike rack, a detailed map, a covered picnic area, wooden reclining chairs, and some green space.  These are luxuries to a cyclist on a long ride.

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The red and white signage indicates a hiking route.  The shell signifies the way of St. James, whose terminus is in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  The most prominent portion of the route is in Spain, although routes and signage begin much further afield.

907 must be the hiking route number.  We’re not in (907)Alaska anymore.

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A short way down the river, Bratislava comes into view.  The capital city of Slovakia borders both Austria and Hungary.  Of the three countries we choose Slovakia, although the long-distance “blue trail” in Hungary is enticing. It claims to be the oldest long-distance footpath in Europe (c. 1938), and comprises part of the modern E4 route across Europe.

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We find easy entrance into the city on paved trails.  Some public maps suggest an off-pavement exit.

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Large Soviet housing projects are common in these eastern cities.

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Europe is full of signed and mapped routes for walking and cycling.  Many walking paths are great fun to ride.  Some cycling routes include mellow dirt tracks, although most prefer pavement.  Dirt routes begins immediately outside the city, climbing into the Malé Karpaty mountains.

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The park includes many features benefitting activity and community.  The greater area includes routes for miles, trending northward through the mountains.

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Dirt, right out of the city.

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The red and white is a walking route, the colored “C” routes are cycling routes.  They diverge, and converge, in this case.

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Along the way, we find dozens of picnic tables, gazebos, and grassy areas.

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And plenty of signage.  Lots of signage.

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Segments of genuine singletrack are exciting, through managed forests dominated by beech trees.

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Some of our route convenes with the race route of an upcoming series.

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Even some hike a bike on day one.  Not bad, considering we don’t have a plan.

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22-32.  This one gets a lot of use.

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Further from the city, the moutnains grow taller and all the cycling routes descend into the valley.  We continue for a time on walking routes, with some pushing.

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Descending from the mountains, we direct ourselves north and east.  A near goal is to get to Ukraine, although there is plenty of riding in Slovakia to keep us busy for years.  We’ll sample some along the way, including some of the 1000 Miles Adventure Route, which crosses Czech and Slovakia.

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Fruit falls onto the roadways.  Camping is abundant.  Nothing not to like.

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Swimming.  Once a day keeps the stink away.  Public laundromats don’t exist where we’re going.

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More cycling and walking routes in the mountains.  So many options.

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The beech forests!–generouslly spaced trees, filtered sunlight, singletrack.

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Dobra Voda.

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Descend to Dobra Voda.  Ascend from Dobra Voda, through a cemetery.

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To a castle.  We didn’t expect a castle at the top of this hill.  Not that this is the fist castle we’ve seen in this corner of Slovakia.  There are dozens.

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A short distance away, we make camp at the top of the mountain, along the red trail.  Red trails are most often major routes, which cover longer distances.

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From the top, we descend through more scenic beech forests to town.  Slovakia is a new favorite.  Nothing not to like.

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The E8 walking trail, like the E4 and the E2, crosses the European continent from Ireland to Turkey.

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This map locates all the castles, in reference to cycling routes.

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Searching for chain lube, we go looking for small town bikes shops.  It seems WD-40 in spray cans is preferred.

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We choose pavement for a few days to make some distance north, and east.  When possible, we interject mellow dirt routes chosen from local signage.  A forecast for heavy rain will keep us off the dirt for a few days.  Much of the dirt riding ahead of us promises to be steep, as we enter higher mountains.  Lael also has a nagging ankle injury that likes to ride a bike, but not to push bikes up steep grades.

Postcard Slovakia: Soviet housing, sunflowers, rolling hills, and blue skies.

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Tidy houses, forested hills, small farm plots, and fruit trees.

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Swim in a cold stream, a castle on the hill.

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Slovakians love to ride.  There are often families and groups of riders on the weekends.  Through the week, people commute to work and ride to the store to get what they need.  Most often, older men and women ride vintage step-through frames with 24×1 3/8″ tires and rider bars, perfectly practical for this kind of riding.

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Proper bike shops are infrequent, although bikes from the past several decades are still riding alongside newer bikes.  It is not uncommon to see a 30 year old bike with patina and signs of use, still exhibiting smooth operation.  This is what happens when you value the things you have, and take care of them.  The values of our grandparents are still alive here.

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Aside from maps and signs by the roadside, detailed guidebooks and “Active” maps for hiking and cycling are available from local bookstores and supermarkets.  This book details cyclings routes around Slovakia, concentrated in the southwest corner, nearby much of the country’s population.  This book includes paved and unpaved routes, and many routes which combine the two.

Check our this digital resource for all the walking routes in Slovakia.  Cycling routes are all here.  An Android App called Hiking Map Slovakia is also useful, and is currently installed on Lael’s Nexus tablet.

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Look for these maps as well, in country or online.

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Cycling signposts also include directions to local attractions such as castles, swimming pools, and this BIKEPARK.  Mountain biking is increasingly popular here.

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Cycling routes are surprising in Slovakia, ranging from busy two-lane roads to this levee singletrack.  A mountain bike makes a versatile touring bike in this county.

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As anywhere, it ensures the right tool to avoid busy roadways.

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Much like in Czech, beer is everpresent.  When we order kava at 7AM, it is not uncommon to see a table of townspeople talking over tall glasses of beer.  At about 4%, a beer or two in the morning is like a strong cup of coffee with sugar, right?

Hops and wheat, from which beer is made.  Slovakian lowlands are filled with fruits, vegetables, and grains.

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We’ve had such good luck finding campsites all over Europe.  As a rule, as night falls, find a small road and ride uphill.  Ride past the last house, ride onto dirt, and soon, the place will appear.  In this case, as we ascended a dirt road we passed several mountain bikers coming down, including several young boys with full face helmets.  We ascended to find an historic logging railbed.  We camped alongside a picnic table in the woods several kilometers from the nearest town, 500ft down in the valley.  Nothing not to like about the touring life in Slovakia.

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The best part is that every morning, sooner or later, we descend to a town.  A period of rest each day, including kava and pivo and ubiquitous free WiFi, encourages enough energy to pull out the maps and plan another day’s ride up and over something.  Our immediate goal is to explore some of the 1000 Miles Adventure route, which is an adventure race route organized by Czech racer Jan Kopka from the border of Germany and Czech to the other edge of Slovakia, on the border of Ukraine.  The mixed terrain route promises some significant challenges, but also a largely pedalable route across the country.  Incidentally, I met Jan this winter before the Iditarod Trail Invitational.  He and Greg came over from Speedway to buy all of our fatbike tubes at the shop.  If Lael’s ankle cooperates and the weather is not too wet, we’ll follow as much of this route as we want across the country.  Soon enough, some time in Ukraine is also a priority.  And Przemek will be waiting at the Romanian border in another month or so.

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We’re trying not to make plans.  Mostly, were trying to do a lot of this, if we can find it.

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