Saturday, November 01, 2008

Time flies

Belgrade-Prishtina-Skopje-Sofia

How time flies when you spend no more than two nights in a place and get a raging head cold. I first blamed the smoky Belgrade hostel for my sore throat, but by the next day it was clear that I had an actual cold since I'd practically lost my voice and was full of headache. I am finally getting better but it tends to wax and wane. For example, I spent the early morning hours today (Friday) completely unable to breathe through my nose. Now, I can breathe, but I've lost my voice again. I can't win.

Monday
After Belgrade, we went to Kosovo. I couldn't be more surprised. Prishtina, the capital, is a place I've only heard of and know nothing about. My guidebook only covers Central Europe and buying another was impossible. Plus, I have a love hate relationship with any guidebook. It was not my idea to go to Prishtina, that falls fully on Kent. It's still not entirely clear to me why he wanted to go but I think it was mostly for the adventure. In retrospect, I feel the same way, though I am constitutionally disinclined to visit any place even vaguely resembling a war zone (Kent is my constitutional opposite in this respect).

The bus ride was pretty. The landscape, as much of what we've seen on this trip, reminds me strongly of the Appalachian foothills in the fall. The trees are similar, the mountains are small, with some stone showing, and a few winding rivers. After a mildly hair-raising six-hour bus ride, we were there. But where were we? It was only 6pm but black as pitch. Another American happened to be on our bus and we joined her in grabbing a taxi to one of the few hostels in town. We drove up a large hill and I could see enough to tell that Prishtina is all hills. Other than that, I had absolutely no idea where the bus station was in relation to our hostel (disconcerting).

We were greeted warmly by the proprietor--he was pleased to have two Americans staying with him but he wasn't so sure about the Kiwi (that's Kent). Nevertheless, he gave us a decent price (in Euros, the currency of Kosovo) and we settled in. Rather than going out, we sat and talked to a young Brit and the other American for a few hours. Kent and I shared a bit of the food we were carrying (bread, cheese, fruit) and the Brit tucked in heartily (the American was off to use the very, very slow internet).

Tuesday
After a decent sleep, we got to exploring the next day. The main problem was that I was fairly sick and didn't have much stamina. We walked slowly down the hill, taking note (and a few photos) of piles of rubble that used to be houses and remaining walls and ramshackle structures. Most of the area was built up and looked livable but signs of destruction remain. Our starting point was mostly residential but we passed a number of shops advertising themselves as "Mini Marts" (in English). The stock was about the same as convenience stores back home. We only saw one larger scale grocery store and it was small by US standards. I figure most shopping is done at open-air markets but we didn't come across one (not that I was looking).

As we got further down the hill, the area became more developed and we passed a number of cafes--all of which contained only men drinking coffee. Some cafes seemed to serve only drinks while other had grills. We picked a cafe to eat at that had a board on the sidewalk advertising all of its goods (hamburger, toast, sandwich, espresso) as costing fifty cents. We couldn't quite believe it so we stopped in for burgers and espresso (breakfast of champions). Everything was, in fact, fifty cents. The food was decent and the espresso was strong. The guy made our food on the spot so it was fresh. He asked what we wanted on the burgers and we stood up to point at the right condiments. He handed Kent his burger but he wouldn't let me carry mine back to the table. I had to sit down first and then the grill man placed my burger in front of me.

After breakfast/lunch, we wandered all the way to the bottom of the hill and found a very lively, diffuse city. The restaurants (grills/cafes) were more expensive in the denser retails areas but prices rarely got above 2-3 euros per menu item. We stopped in the Archeology museum, most notable for a large banner complaining that Serbia was illegally holding a few hundred of its artifacts--and for the large KLA memorial exhibit on the second floor--banners of the dead and a whole bunch of guns.

After a bit more wandering and a fruitless search for the bus station, I was ready for a rest. Unfortunately, a very large hill was between me and my bed. After a very slow ascent, I was able to lie down and revel in my illness for the rest of the afternoon. Kent went exploring on the other side of our hill (and still didn't find the bus station--though he came quite near it we found out later) and later that evening we went back that way to get some dinner. We stopped in at a couple of places that advertised pizza but each time we were told there was no pizza. At the second place, we pointed to a big pie (filo dough-like covering folded around ground beef) and were sold two huge slices for--fifty cents each. That was dinner plus some veggies picked up at the small supermarket.

Wedneday
The plan was to get to Sofia, Bulgaria but we decided to make a stop in Skopje, Macedonia on the way. (I should note that we are trying to meet up with Kent's travel buddy but he's something of a moving target. We expected to find him in Belgrade but he had already gone by the time we arrived. He's now in Istanbul and that's where we're heading, though at a leisurely pace.) We took an easy 2.5 hours bus ride from Pristina and got to Skopje as night was falling (it gets dark so early). Being completely clueless about where to stay or even the exchange rate, we took a cab driver up on his offer to get us to a hostel. While he did overcharge us for the ride, the Hostel ("Hostel Hostel"!) was probably the cheapest place to stay in town and full of friendly people--including four (!) other Kiwis (not the first we've met but the largest group encountered yet--three of them were traveling together). I got along well with them and when I found out the next day that the couple in group are coming to DC in January, I invited them to stay with me.

I didn't stay up too late, but, unfortunately, I had a lousy sleep. The room was cold and musty and my top bunk was singularly uncomfortable. I was determined we would only stay one night.

Thursday
We had a good look around on Thursday. We stuck to the old parts of town--the citadel and bazaar. The town is almost completely tourist-free (pretty much the case everywhere since Belgrade), which is refreshing. Communication is mostly pointing and nodding but people are patient and I am starting to feel less foolish.

The plan was to catch the 3pm bus to Sofia. We headed to the bus station with not enough time to spare and we missed the bus. We arrived slightly before three but the bus was full and we didn't have time to buy tickets anyway. The next bus wasn't until 11pm and since the ride is five hours (or so) we'd end up in Sofia in the middle of the night. We went to the train station, right next door, to see if the train was an option. The train left at 8pm, cost about the same and took much longer to arrive since its route is indirect and would take us back through Serbia. We opted for the train figuring it would be easier to rest and getting in around 7am was better than 4am. We hung around the station, ate a little, and changed the extra money we had into Euros.

Our plan was decent but in practice it didn't work out so well. The train was over an hour late arriving--which turned out not to matter since we made our connection without any trouble. In fact, the first part of the ride was fine since we had a compartment to ourselves and were able to spread out and get comfortable. At the transfer point (Nec), we waited nearly and hour before leaving. We got into a compartment with one other person but it was still fairly comfortable since we each could put our feet up. The problem was that a train "official" (not an official at all, as it turned out) rousted us an hour or so into the journey with a lot of words and pointing towards the ceiling. He grabbed my bag and moved it a few compartments down the car and we all had to move. In the new compartment, a woman was sleeping across three seats and she made no adjustment for her new companions. All this, plus my cold, lead to an uncomfortable, restless night.

In the morning, the "official" came and moved the lady to a different compartment and we spread out but it was really too late (early) to get sleep. Sometime before or after this we crossed the border to Bulgaria. (We had a tiny problem with the Serbian border control because we had two entry stamps and no exit stamps. Serbia doesn't recognize Kosovo and they wanted to make sure we knew it. The stamped our passports and returned them to us before making any fuss, though, so it wasn't an actual problem.)

After we had the compartment back to ourselves (and the other fellow who never spoke a word to us), I saw some folks with coffee and Kent went out to investigate. He didn't find coffee but he did see our "official" and some other passengers pulling carton upon carton of cigarettes from the ceilings of the compartments via the light fixtures. Nice. I'm not sure the sleepless night was worth observing a Bulgarian cigarette smuggling scheme but it sure isn't something you see every day.

Friday
The real problem with our train fiasco is that I essentially had two nights in a row with almost no sleep. Arriving in Sofia, I was grumpy, exhausted and sick. We did have a hostel in mind, luckily, and found our way there easily enough. However, we couldn't get into the room until 2pm so an attempt was made at walking around. I didn't make it far before I was almost asleep on my feet. Kent took me back to the hostel, which has a nice big common area, and I lay down on a sofa for a while. After we got in our room, I promptly went to sleep and Kent got out on his own.

Since our hostel provides a simple meal and a glass of beer with the price of the bed, we stuck around for a while in the evening before taking a walk. They had dishes of candy around for Halloween and the two on-duty staffers dressed up (witch and bear). A few jack-o-lanterns were even carved and placed about. Also, one of the guests from Japan did a dance performance for the crowd. He seemed to be an itinerant performer--working for drinks and board (perhaps). I was entertained but it was mostly odd.

After, we took a little walk and bought some supplemental dinner (pizza slices). We drank a couple of beers back at the hostel and made it a (relatively) early night. I slept very well.

Saturday
I woke up feeling better than I have in days. We took a good long walk and I saw most of the highlights of the town. We also went over to the bus/train station and got tickets to Thessaloniki for tomorrow morning. We'll go to Turkey via Greece...though I'm not sure when we'll get there. It's an adventure.

Grateful for: more adventure and a patient traveling companion.

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