Back to our game of Balkan hopscotch, we cross the border into Macedonia with the plan to return to Albania in a few days– for a few more days of riding– before crossing into Greece. We’ve already got our sights on an 8-day MTB race route across the northern half of Greece, called the Bike Odyssey. This section of rural Macedonia is noted for several larger cities, and mostly, two large lakes, Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa. Between the two is Galičica National Park, one of three national parks in the country. A quick study of internet resources reveals a local mountain bike club in Ohrid and an annual race in the park. A network of signed hiking and mountain bike routes are a welcomed surprise. Unlike the faintly existent national parks in Albania and Montenegro, which almost only appear on maps, this one may have some presence on the ground.
We arrive in our first Macedonian city, which looks and feels familiar. Some churches, but also mosques and signs in Albanian.
After exchanging money and buying some fuel, we’re off into the hills. It is always fun to source fuel in each country: to learn what it is called and where it can be purchased. In the Balkans, the pharmacy is usually the best place to look for the high grade 96% stuff. Just ask nicely and look as sober as possible. It is for my “kitchen” I tell the pharmacist, for “kamping“.
This is strong stuff. It burns like rocket fuel in the Penny Stove with almost no smell, which is nice when heating water under the rainfly on a damp morning.
The road narrows and each community in these hills waves a Turkish flag. Something is amiss. We sit for coffee with a Macedonian guy that lived on Staten Island for some time, and he explains that “recent” Turkish immigrants have established small communities in this region. Many cities and towns along the Albanian border are, nearly, Albanian. Statistically about 65% of the country is Macedonian, 25% Albanian, and about 4% Turkish. Officially, Macedonia is in conflict with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia, which is also a region in modern Greece, and of course, the name of the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great. The temporary name in use is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. The Greeks insist on using this name, and I’ve even seen the acronym in parentheses on maps. To be fair, the recent government of Macedonia has supported some provocative campaigns of Antiquisation, drawing connections between the moderns Macedonians and Alexander the Great. The Greeks claim the ancient Macedons and Alexander as their own. It’s complicated and important on many levels, but it is hard not to think the dispute is also petty. It is just a name, right? The Balkans maintain a level of tension. It is interesting to ask country A what they think of country B, and B about C, and C about B, and F about A, and so on. I discretely let these topics come up in conversation.
Climbing away from Debar and the dammed Debar Lake, we meet two young Turkish guys on a self-propelled mountain bike shuttle. They labor up the road as high as possible to turn back and enjoy the descent. That’s the international language of mountain biking.
Eventually the road turns to dirt. Clouds join us for the evening. The mosque sits like a rocket ship, poised at the center of town.
Sheep come round, by the hundreds. The musical clanging of sheep’s bells in the Balkans is ever-present up high.
Lastly, this guy sat in front of our tent for some time. Not all Balkan sheep dogs are so mild mannered. Some, as in Greece and Romania, will bare their teeth in genuine aggression. I can’t blame them for their line of work.
All those walnuts and acorns we’ve received become a treat of salted caramelized nuts. Nice to have an abundance of high grade alcohol for such culinary exploits. I’ve really enjoyed the new 0.85L MSR Titan titanium pot. It is the perfect size, shape and weight for cooking and packing. It appears to be constructed for the long haul, and easily stores our stove, pot support, and windscreen, along with a plastic container of sea salt, and a bag of tea or coffee.
The next day we descend through several more Turkish communities on our way to Struga and Ohrid.
The Struga waterfront is developed for summertime tourism, although cool and windy on this fall day. Reminds me of home to feel the wind off the water like this.
Looking out towards the nearby city of Ohrid and the mountains of Galicica National Park.
Ohrid is a popular touristic destination. Many people are speaking English in the main square along the waterfront. We go looking for the market and a map. Next, a discount German grocery chain supplies the orzo, wine, and sausages before riding into the hills for the night.
Saints Cyril and Methodius are credited with bringing Orthodox Christianity and a written language to the Slavs.
A quick bath before the end of the day…
…and a climb out of town.
Some singletrack in there, along a wide bench-cut trail.
Stop in at a local monastery in the mountains for water, although the spigot has a broken handle. No one is around.
Following a night of wind and rain, morning brings clearing skies over Ohrid and the lake.
Signage keeps up on track, funded in part by Germany. Elsewhere in the Balkans we see touristic facilities funded by the Austrians and Swiss.
The GPS indicates a spring nearby, which we soon find via hiking signs and the word ВОДА.
Rocky and well drained, the road climbs over the ridge leading to a rocky alpine meadow. The MTB routes in the park are exclusively on dirt roads, which is typical of official mountain bike resources in much of Europe.
Detailed maps are posted at major junctions.
Typical European hiking signs: directions, distance, and time. These red and white signs have led us from Holland, in part.
These newer bike specific signs are nice, indicating the distance to bike specific junctions. There is one major route that claims a total distance of about 55km, traversing the mountains north to south. This is a nice connector for anyone riding through the area and should be rideable on most any bike with a 2.0″ tire or greater.
Feels like the American West, down to the color of the mud.
Even the consistency is familiar. Ooph. I do my best to ride around the worst of the mud in the tall grasses or through the puddles, which alternately wash away some mud while adding a lather of watery mud to my wheels, resulting in a net loss of matter.
The generous clearances of the Surly Krampus are put to good use, and the bike keeps rolling. Chain to tire clearance in the small chainring is good with Shimano MTB doubles, such as my Deore, but not as good as the Surly OD crank. The chainline on the Shimano cranks is better than the Surly crank, for performance and drivetrain wear. The big-big combination with the Surly crank is far from ideal, but the clearance is likely necessary if using 3.0″ tires. Any MTB triple will locate the inner ring even nearer to the tire, as on Lael’s bike which uses a Race Face triple converted to a double with a bash guard. In such conditions I try to use the big chainring to avoid jamming the chain full of mud.
Even the Fox fork lets the muddy tire pass freely.
I stop to wait for Lael. She arrives, carrying her bike.
That’s not good. But that’s not the problem.
That’s the problem. I’m carrying two spare derailleur hangers for her bike, remnants from the time when we both rode a Raleigh XXIX and used the same hanger. I’m down to one, which is fine as both of our bikes can be easily set-up singlespeed. Her bike has an eccentric bottom bracket and mine, rear facing Surly dropouts.
It is not terribly important for the hanger to be especially strong, as it is designed to break before the derailleur or the frame, but these Wheels Manufacturing hangers are much nicer than the cheap Amazon.com hanger that it replaces.
Her drivetrain has been unhappy for some time, the result of a cheap cassette and too much wear on the first chain before replacement. Her drivetrain took a few days to settle after the new chain, while mine was just fine. She also likes to ride in the little chainring, and thus uses the smaller cogs more frequently.
Her bike is rolling again, and we connect to the paved road at the pass. From here, we can descend to Lake Ohrid or Lake Prespa. We continue toward Prespa, and to a quiet border crossing with Albania. There is even a little singletrack along the way, cow trails I think, that cut the switchbacks on the paved road. I wonder if there is more of this in the area. Some of the hiking trails we saw looked prime for riding; others are rocky and steep.
Once back in Albania, we order a beer in Albanian. A Macedonian beer arrives, which is not uncommon in the area if you order a big beer (0.5L). A local boy stops to check out the bikes, wearing a jacket with the Macedonian flag and colors.
The Macedonian flag waves proudly in the next few villages we visit, yet we are in Albania.
Looking for a water source, the town center features a church and a fountain with a cross. For all the Albanian and Turkish villages we visited in Macedonia, the only rural Macedonian villages we see are in Albania.
Back to Albanian Albania tomorrow!