The cluster of solid purple lines on my gas-station road map of Montenegro only partly reflects the borders in the Balkans, specifically between Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo. If you imagine 6000ft passes and 7000ft peaks comprising the actual borders, a clearer picture emerges. As such, to connect two towns less than twenty miles apart, we have to ride well over 100 miles. As mentioned previously, this allows us to revisit Montenegro and to explore the Top Biking Trail 3, a 300km off-pavment route; and, to make a brief visit to Kosovo. Our ride through Kosovo is made exclusively on pavement, and mostly in the rain. The 4000ft descent to Peja is particularly wet, in shorts and sloshy shoes, topped with white knuckles.
Between the border stations of Montenegro and Kosovo, we encounter a Greek rider on a recumbent bicycle under cover of an abandoned roadside building. It’s raining and windy, so to make it brief I ask, “Where are you from and where are you going?”
Hercules, from Greece, riding back to Greece, from Greece.
Nicholas, from Alaska, sort of. Headed towards Greece. Maybe we’ll see ya.
Lael and I arrive in Peja to clearing skies and puddles. Outside a cafe we scan the streets for clues towards the part of town with a cheap place to stay.
“Hello, where are you from?”
This has become the standard greeting in Albania, and again in Albanian Kosovo. The cafe owner speaks American English, comfortably.
After a look around the city to discover a raging river, a bustling budget shopping district, and innumerable cafes, we return to ask for assistance.
“Is there an inexpensive hotel in the city?”
The man thinks, and ask his friends. I know they are indicating something near the center. He verifies, and suggests that he can ride with me to check it out. We inquire, and the price is quite high. He is astonished as well. He’s never asked the price of a hotel locally. I search online to get a better sense of things. He then suggests a place near the train station, and insists we will drive there. I hate to lose control of a situation like this, but he is genuinely kind and I think we understand each other. The place he was thinking has closed, and is being renovated under new ownership. We stop into another hotel on the opposite corner. Hotel Jusaj is adorned on the lower levels with Jusaj Metal, Jusaj Paint, Jusaj Electrical, each taking a small shop space at street level. They offer several rooms for 10€ a head. Ok, maybe we’ll be back in a minute.
Back in the car, he shows me pictures of his son on his phone, who will turn one year old today. I lead, “Business appears to be good in Peja?” People don’t have any money, he says. This is much the same as we hear everywhere. But the streets are busy, cafes are doing business, shops are full of stuff, including name brand Adidas goods and the usual Chinese two-stripe and four-stripe brands. I figure that some business is better than no business, but people want things, and certainly some people need things. Even in America we want things. Is there any place where people stop reaching for more money. Switzerland, Luxembourg, Norway, Qatar? “Kosovo is doing better?”, I insist, still leading, as if my positivity will make a difference to Kosovo. He shrugs, in loose agreement.
We return to the cafe. Przemek, Saŝka, and Hercules have all arrived. We all trace the same route into the city, and their eyes quickly spot our soaking pile of touring bikes. The man offers us coffee, gratis. He insists. We confer about the accommodations, and agree that the price is right. I describe the place: it is near the train station, the first level is taken by shops selling construction supplies but we can store our bikes inside the paint store for the night. The guy that is working at the hotel is very nice, although we don’t speak much. Exiting the cafe, I leave a tip equal to the price of the coffees.
At the hotel, a fourteen year old boy named Leotrim becomes our enthusiastic interpreter. The older men ask the questions as we unpack our things outside the paint store; he translates the conversation. The older men welcome us to their hotel, to be “like at home”. Leotrim becomes inquisitive himself, wondering where we sleep and where we will travel in Kosovo. He is proud to own these fine businesses, including the hotel and the stores on the street. He says that he also owns three cars, one of which is a Mercedes. It is his father’s business and his father’s cars, I verify, but they are his as well. I tell him I do not own a car, and never have. I like his energy.
As others shower I run out for five cold cans of Peja. We all meet to debrief in our room, which we are sharing with Hercules. Post-shower bliss and the unusual opportunity to enjoy a city at night excites us. Saturday night in Kosovo! The five of us pile onto the sidewalk like college students on a Friday night, hopeful and energetic. In fact, Peja is much like any other city we’ve seen. But it is friendly, and especially friendly towards us, the Americans. Mostly, we’re excited to be here and find out “what is Kosovo?” I didn’t know before, and I’m learning. These things are complicated. It is much like Albania. The population is mostly Albanian, and Albanian flags are as common as the flag of the Republic. Serbia is out of fashion here, to say the least, while America is everywhere. A large monitor celebrates Rep. Eliot Engel, a congressman from New York. He has been an ally to Alabanians and an advocate for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. Officially, Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation. Neither does Russia or China, while 108 member states of the UN do. Albania is something of a brother or mother to Kosovo. But Kosovo is an individual entity, and something to be proud of.
We enjoy busy streets and a dinner of qebap ; sodium lighting, all-night vegetable markets, butcher shops, and streets named for Bil Klinton and General Wesley Clark.
As we ride towards the border of Albania the next day, I stop along a rural road to meet a man. He is looking at me with the burning urge to know what the hell I am doing. I’m not sure what he’s saying, but I’ll guess. I point at myself, “Amerikan”. He shakes my hand strongly. He’s an older man, and a simple man. “George Bush (thumbs up). Bil Klinton (thumbs up). Kosovo, Amerika (thumbs up). ” This is fun, if a little naive.
I proceed, “Albania (thumbs up)”. He pauses, and waves his hand flatly to indicate maybe, sort of, not quite. “Albania, Albania…mafioso”. We’re standing next to a drive with a tall metal gate, adorned with two hand painted Albanian flags. I furrow my brow and nod in an understanding way. I really like Albania. These things are complicated.
Montenegro, with Albania to the south and Kosovo to the east.
A period of heavy rain spoils our pavement days, which is better than muddy dirt days.
Up to the border, we duck under cover to escape a deluge. I warm the two liters of milk given to us on the planina.
The following morning, Hercules pedals towards Macedonia. We depart later that morning to return to Albania, towards the valley of Valbona.
Most signs in the region display Albanian and Serbian place names. Most signs in the region are vandalized, to conceal the Serbian variant.
Up to the border, we wear our rain jackets. Across the border, as I say, it is always sunny in Albania. Back to the mountains.