I landed in Frankfurt that evening and had a few hours to catch my night train to Vienna. I dug out the reservation I had made the previous week and found the car with my berth. The compartment was empty, except for me. I made my bed and went to sleep.
Do I need to continue here? Or can you tell that something is about to go wrong?
The train stops in other major cities on the way to its destination. In Mannheim a family got on and came into my compartment. That was fine, there was room for five more people. Unfortunately there were 6 new people. And I was the one in the wrong place. Actually, not so much the wrong place as the wrong time. I was traveling on July 31, and apparently the reservation had been made for that exact spot – on August 31. Fortunately the extra person agreed to sleep elsewhere so I got to stay where I was. Just so much for best laid plans and all.
I only had an hour in Vienna to change trains, so after buying some food for the journey I got on board for the very long trip through the tip of Austria, into Hungary with a stop in Budapest (tourism officials boarded the train, handing out maps and making hotel reservations before arrival), before heading south into Serbia. Following what I think was the Danube the terrain was flat and unremarkable, although full of agriculture (and a lot of sunflowers). The train was on schedule when it hit the Serbian border but then went very slowly into Belgrade. I thought it was interesting that by the time we arrived, new cars had been added. Cars with destination signs saying "Moscow-Belgrade" and "Kiev-Belgrade." I definitely wasn't in Kansas anymore…
I was supposed to have about 3 hours in Belgrade but because we were late I had a lot less time to get everything sorted for the next leg of the journey. Although I had a ticket I didn't have a reservation for a bed on the night train to Macedonia. And not for lack of trying: normally you can reserve a berth for any train at any station in Europe. Except apparently not the trains from Serbia. So there I was: it was late, it was dark, it was crowded, and I didn't speak the lanuage. Inside the run-down, communist-style train station chaos abounded. I got directed from counter to counter, trying to make my reservation, which eventually resulted in being told to make it with the conductor on the train. That was complicated itself, although here I was helped enormously by the fact that I can read Cyrillic. (Serbia uses both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, the former more so, except in the train station). I was able to figure out which was the correct train, but none of the cars had destination signs on them. This was a problem: half the train was going to Skopje, and half to Sophia. If I got on the wrong half I was going to wake up in the wrong place. Eventually I found a conductor, a very distinguished gentleman who spoke very good English. He told me which car had the beds, he told me how much they cost, but he wanted Serbian money and all I had were Euros. Back into the station I went, but alas, the change office had just closed. Fortunately the man at the information desk nicely changed the money for me.
After washing up in the essentially clean if not thoroughly modern WC (squat toilets are challenging) I got settled into a nice sleeping car, which was better than a couchette compartment. The latter sleeps six people and on harder berths, whereas the sleeping cars have compartments with just three berths and an en suite sink basin (bedding – sheets, blanket, pillow – is included for both types). The entire car was fairly empty even though the train was crowded. For me it was cheap, only about 10 Euros, but I guess it may have been too expensive for the average citizen in that part of the world. On the other hand, maybe it just wouldn't be worth it. They would all soon be home, whereas for me it was just another step in traversing half a continent.
The amazing thing, with this whole journey to the far corners of Europe, was that when I arrived in Macedonia the next morning, my sister was there waiting for me. It was amazing for a bunch of reasons, including that we had barely planned the logistics, had hardly communicated beforehand, and were traveling in a part of the world where travel logistics can often be extremely unpredictable. But there we both were in the Skopje train station.
We went over to the domestic bus terminal, which is where the not-domestic buses to Pristina depart. Trying to ascertain the departure times was difficult as we were being fed bogus information by cab drivers who wanted to drive us there for 40 Euros. Eventually we found out the next bus was leaving in an hour so while we were waiting we walked over the river and my sister pointed out some things I should see when I returned through the city a few days later. The bus ride then was fine, except for the boys behind us who would grab the seat, pull our hair, and sneeze on us.
At first glance Kosovo looks fine. Apparently vibrant towns cluster the road on the way in, and lots of construction is happening in Pristina. What is less apparent is that the towns are all being rebuilt because many of them were completely destroyed 5 years before. The massive building boom in Pristina is partly to absorb a population that cannot return to their former villages.
There are three basic damage patterns I noticed in the few days I spent in Kosovo:
- Buildings and houses by the road, which were blown up by the Serb army to prevent snipers from taking refuge there. Some have been rebuilt, but many are still ruined.
- Buildings and houses with scorch marks or that are still charred ruins from when they were burned by retreating Serbs to keep the Kosovar Albanians from returning. In Peja many of the concrete houses that were gutted but still stood now have new interiors, but the scorch marks often remain on the outside.
- Buildings that have recently been burned or destroyed in the March 2004 revenge attacks by Kosovar Albanians on the Serb minority residents.
My sister was staying in a nice apartment two doors down from the office where she worked. It was typically European in amenities and owned by a very friendly family who ran the convenience store below. However, no amount of niceness by the family could change the fact that there was no water half the day. And no electricity at various points either (this is when that Target flashlight turned out to be useful after all). The former was at least scheduled: some parts of Pristina had water during the day, some at night. The electricity supply was less predictable, however. Which meant that most people in the city, if they could, owned their own generators, which added to the ambient air and sound pollution of the city. The NGOs operating in the city seemed to largely have their own wells, and many local businesses seem to have worked out contingency plans to stay open even when a major utility is lacking. But this is hardly a quaint situation and the Kosovars are frustrated. Five years after the war they still don't have reliable electricity or water, and many villages don't even have either at all. How are they supposed to rebuild their society into a modern European community under these conditions? The situation ends up stoking local frustrations and leading to more resentment and instability, as the attacks in March attested.
On the other hand, Pristina was a pretty easy place for a traveler to visit. The NGO presence, although diminishing over time, has led to some interesting local enterprises, like a fairly authentic TexMex restaurant (with a giant whicker sombrero mounted on the roof). We went there for dinner one night. It was an odd corner of the world in which to eat fajitas and drink Corona, but it worked in its own surreal way.
My sister had to work the next day, but her boss had a meeting in Peja and invited me along for the journey. I had wanted to see more of the country and it was easier than taking the bus. The extra bonus was that during the meeting, Arsim (I think that's the name), the native Kosovar driver, walked with me around the city and told me about Balkan history and his life in Kosovo.
In some ways Kosovo looks like California, with flat valleys rimmed by rolling grass hills. In other ways it looks like Switzerland, with alp-like granite peaks jutting from the ground. The difference is that in an Swiss alpine scene the spires projecting from the villages below would be church steeples; in Kosovo where the population is mostly Muslim they are minarets.
I had been warned about Peja. Peja was 80% burned by the Serb army. Everything that's there is new. Maybe too much is new. My sister and I were debating this: in some places where people have been unable to rebuild there are still ruins, which remind the people of the terror they experienced. The 1999 conflict was a psychologically scarring experience, and the visible ruins keep the wounds from healing. On the other hand, I think Peja, being a city and maybe one day once again a tourist destination, needs to preserve something of its recent past. There's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind quality to the rebuilding, as if they are trying to erase everything that ever happened, and I wonder if that's healthy either.
But Peja is gorgeous, even with its jumbled mass of uncoordinated new architecture. It's nestled below some awesome mountains, and the city plan retains some ancient medieval feel. It also bustles with a particular energy. The residents of Peja were always known for their entrepreneurial spirit, and it still shows today. When we picked up her boss later she asked how I liked Peja, and I think she was surprised at how much I raved about it. It's not really ready for tourists yet – there's only one hotel and I'm inclined to think the infrastructure still lacks – but if you happen to be in that part of the world I think it's worth a visit to see its irrepressible energy.
It was indicative, however, of the situation in Kosovo that when I was walking around looking for a souvenir of the place, everything we found, even if it was something a Kosovar might use, like a Turkish coffee maker, was made elsewhere. Nothing was made in Kosovo, and that's a big problem. Eventually I found some postcards, at one of those communist-style bookstores (the kind where the books are behind the counter or glass cases and you need a clerk to show you what you want.) They were recent pictures of places in Kosovo, some of scenes showing nothing but ruins. (I couldn't find anything with pictures of what it used to look like, either in books or postcards.) I commented to Arsim, "At last, something from Kosovo!" But I spoke too soon: the postcards were actually printed in Albania.
It's hard to stop talking about Kosovo and move on to the remaining part of the trip. There's something about it that's so compelling, and I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe it's because it's a place that somehow feels more "real." Other places are somehow detached from their history and put it on display. Kosovo is in the middle of creating it. There's something exciting and hopeful about that. And maybe also some of what makes it compelling is the tragedy that is so recent and still permeates. Other places in the world (e.g., Western Europe, America) are somehow antiseptic. Nothing goes wrong there anymore. In Kosovo life still goes wrong, like when the power goes off or the political situation fails to stabilize. Being there puts you in touch with a kind of human existence that normally you only read about in books. These are real people with real problems --REAL problems and not the kinds of things Americans tend to think are problems but in fact are just minor inconveniences. There is a certain beauty in the human condition and its unstoppable drive to survive and thrive, even among imperfect circumstances. It's a beauty that's not often seen but unfortunately is quite visible in places like Kosovo.
The day after visiting Peja it was time to leave and start working my way back across Europe. To do this I needed to return via Macedonia. If you look at a map it looks like I should have been able to just head north through Kosovo and end up in Belgrade. But you can't go that way anymore. For one, there are not a lot of transit routes because Kosovars have no desire to go to Serbia anymore. But more importantly, one's immigration documents would not be in order. When you enter Serbia, as I did originally from Hungary, you get an entrance stamp in your passport. When you exit Serbia, which I did to get into Skopje, the Serbs stamp you out. But when you head back north into Kosovo from Macedonia, because the Serbs don't control that border (the UN does) they can't stamp you back into "Serbia." But they think, and technically this is still true, that Kosovo is part of Serbia. So if you head north to the Kosovo/Serbia-proper border, the Serbs won't stamp you "in" because to do that would be to acknowledge that when you were in Kosovo you were "out." You would instead appear to have already been inside the country illegally. So in that part of the world you really can end up in places where "you can't get there from here."
For my purposes it was easier for me to return via Skopje anyway so that I could take the night trains. (Kosovo no longer has a full rail network, although pieces of it are apparently being rebuilt). Arsim had to drive into Skopje so he took me along, which saved me a trip on the bus once again. I rode around with him as he did some errands, including getting the car inspected at the Macedonian equivalent of the DMV. Then he dropped me off near the "downtown" and I had lunch at a Macedonian McDonalds. It was cheap, and microscopic. I think it was an adult menu with Happy Meal portions. Good fries, though.
My sister had recommended visiting Lake Matka near the city. I went to the taxi stand and found a driver. He was nice and chatty, and seemed to really want the business of taking me back to the city from the lake as well. So we worked out a time for him to come back that gave me a few hours to wander around the area.
The lake was in a granite canyon that looked a little like Yosemite. It was pretty, serene, and quiet, completely isolated and detatched from the nearby metropolis. I wandered around and met a man who told me about the monasteries up in the hills. I didn't have the time to hike up to them, so instead I talked with him for an hour. Interesting guy: he spoke English well, having apparently lived in Bolinas (California) for a while, among other unusual places (e.g., Iraq, Libya...) He and another guy had hiked in from Skopje and then left to hike back. When they departed I went back and found the taxi driver, who apparently had waited around and taken a nap. It seems he only drives on weekends for some extra money, so it was fine with him not to go back to the city to pick up more fares. On the way back we talked. We mostly spoke English, although there was a smattering of French and I managed to conjure up what little Russian I could remember. I took out my guidebook on the way back and was looking to see where he should drop me off. I suggested the national museum. "It will be closed when we get back," he said. He paused, then said, "But maybe only a little closed." It seems that for his day job, he works for the museum so he was able to take me in and give me a private tour. After that he suggested coffee, so we went to a park with tennis courts and had a drink. He really likes tennis, so as he was driving around and pointing things out, he also pointed out all the tennis courts in Skopje.
But then I had some errands to run so it was time for him to drop me off. I went to a supermarket where I bought Mozartkugeln, a yummy chocolate candy made… in Salzburg. I have no idea how it made its way to Macedonia – it's not something I often see outside of Austria at all – and it turned out to be cheaper in Skpoje than it would have been in Salzburg. (Through which I carried it back with me later in my journey…)
Eventually I got to the train station for my night train, which was running quite a bit late. That was ok for me since I was planning to spend the whole next day in Belgrade, but it was not so good for the Slovenian couple I met who were trying to get home from their trip to Greece. Upon arrival in Belgrade, they decided to take the next train home, which would depart in two hours. I decided to join them. I was too tired to deal with Belgrade. This time the people at the information desk at the station were entirely unhelpful. "I need information…" "Next counter [which seemed to be only for tourist information]." "Information about a train, I mean." "Next counter." "But the sign on your desk says 'train information'?" It was going to be a long day at this rate.
So I stashed my suitcase, changed some money, and took a cab up to the citadel where I took pictures of the Danube, the fortifications, the basketball camp in the shadow of the ramparts on one side, and the 20th Century military weapons on the other. I then bought some food and took a cab back to the train station in time to join the couple for the long trip to Slovenia (which, being during the day, meant I could see some of Croatia and Bosnia in the distance, including ruined buildings near the Serb border where there had been fighting). I do find it telling that nowhere could I buy postcards of Belgrade. Poor Belgrade, poor Serbia. What has it done to itself... On the train down from Hungary I talked with a nice young Serbian woman who was very Western-looking, learning all sorts of languages and such. She asked where I was going and I felt embarrassed to tell her Pristina. She stayed friendly but it was like her feelings were hurt. Later on she was talking about how Serbia should be allowed to join the EU. This was awkward, and I deflected it by saying that the EU has just expanded and needed a while to absorb the new countries before expanding further. But it's hard to tell what will happen to Serbia. Some of the people that I encountered were forward-looking and cosmopolitan and wanted to be part of Europe and the world. Yet some were sort of mired in their own insular space. Belgrade gets some tourists, but it doesn't quite seem ready for them. It's straddling a balance between being open to the world, and being blocked-off, which is interesting because even when it was communist Yugoslavia had been fairly open to outsiders. Serbia is still marked with the physical reminders of communism, with block-y buildings and street kiosks that all sell the same things (similar to what I saw in Russia in 1992). It's also poor, having lost some of its most economically viable regions to the breakup of Yugoslavia, as well as being burdened with the costs of its wars and resulting sanctions. In a sense I wish I'd stayed longer because my perceptions are extremely limited due to my limited time there, but it is somewhat telling on its own that it was a hard place to be as a tired traveler.
Not so Slovenia, which seems thrilled to be part of the EU. It's not yet crawling with tourists, but it's ready for them. The Ljubljana train station has been renovated with a helpful tourist office with lots of free maps. There are also new hostels and things and lots of informative signs. It was an easy place to be, even arriving well after dark. The hostel I found was a little chaotic, but it was sufficiently clean and comfortable and the two other women in my room were nice.
I went out the next day with one of them and we did a walking tour of the city. Slovenia really looks a lot like Austria, both topographically and architecturally, which makes sense given its proximity and history of being connected to the Hapsburgs. After the tour we joined two other backpackers and had lunch dining on Adriatic seafood at a nice restaurant on the river. This was really the first stop on my entire tour where I connected with other backpackers (there was the Slovenian couple before, but they were going home and weren't really tourists anymore). We joined up to spend time with each other in that casual way backpackers often do, enjoying the other person's company as the moment allowed and then going our separate way as our own itineraries demanded.
Israel | The Balkans | Germany and Home
c. 2004, 2005, 2008 Cathy Gellis