Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Ramble through Kosovo - Trail Via Dinarica


I am curious to visit and experience new places, especially those that are labelled difficult to reach, hostile (geographically) and otherwise out of main touristic destinations. Since Kosovo declared her independence in 2008, and formed itself as the youngest and newest European nation, it has been on my travel wish list. Formerly considered a war torn and ravaged nation, it is presently a haven of peace and tranquillity. Finally this year, during my European trip, I decided impromptu to dip into this small nation of wonders. Needless to say, I am primarily attracted to the natural bounties, mainly mountains and forests, of a nation. Other attractions like culture, history, craft, museums, and any kind of manmade structures, aren’t that high on my list. Though I like unplanned trips, which takes twists and turns according to my impulses, it never hurts to do a bit of research, especially when Uncle Google is so accommodating. And during this research I came across an absolute gem called ‘Via Dinarica’ of which, I am ashamed to admit, I had no clue.

At 1260km, stretching from the highlands of Slovenia in the north, sweeping south and as well as east and west, through Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia, finally tapering off into the accursed mountains of Northern Albania; it is one of the longest mountain hiking trails in the world. As I dived deeper into this trail descriptions and reports, I also realized much to my relief and amusement that unbeknownst, I had already completed large swaths of this trail during my earlier trips to other countries that share this trail. So I decided that it was time for me to complete the 130km (approx) Kosovo section of Via Dinarica. Though there are couple of excellent websites about Via Dinarica, I was finding it hard to find any concrete details about this trail, regarding exact starting points, places to camp, resources along the way. I wouldn’t bother about these details if I wasn’t constrained by time, but this time I was as my visa duration was coming to its natural conclusion. With my Schengen Visa, I could stay in Kosovo for 15 days, which I figured was enough for me to not only complete the trail Via Dinarica but also to plunge at few other places in Kosovo.



As a first step, I got in touch with the mountaineering association of Kosovo and dropped a mail to via-dinarica dot org. Promptly I got connected to four individuals, who helped me in all sorts of ways in terms of planning and preparing for the hike. The president of the Kosovo Mountaineering association offered me his resources and knowledge. The first Kosovo woman to climb Everest (2017) Uta Ibrahimi, who runs an excellent outdoor outfit ‘Butterfly Outdoor’, couldn’t offer any direct assistance as she was away in Nepal but she gave me some useful advice.

The next two individuals were my most reliable and trusted source and I owe them a huge amount of gratitude. Thierry Joubert of greenvisions dot ba, an outdoor adventure outfit from Bosnia, and I guess the administrator of via-dinarica dot org, was the first to respond. He is one of the pioneers who developed Via Dinarica and has personally walked the trail, offered me contacts, information, relevant gps tracks and most of all his wholehearted support. We instantly became friends and his invitation to visit Bosnia will surely be taken up in 2018. Through Thierry I got to know Bujar Zeka, the owner of Rugovahiking dot com, another excellent outdoor outfitter based out of Peja. And it is due to Bujar’s assistance that my Kosovo hike became a reality, paved as smooth as a Roman highway. Thank you Thierry and Bujar, this post is dedicated to the two of you.
I packed a small backpack with bare necessities, including a lightweight tent, tiny sleeping bag and plenty of excitement. Entering from Greece, I first took a bus from Thessaloniki to Skopje and from Skopje a morning bus to Pristina. Border crossing was a breeze. At Pristina I was pleasantly surprised to find free Wifi at the bus stand, which was more or less deserted. The public toilet, where I disposed some of my load, was rather clean manned by a toothless old man, who grinned from ear to ear and looked after my bag outside while I did my thing inside. The next bus to Peja was leaving in 20 minutes so I hopped in it without further ado while grabbing a pair of cheese burek from a smiling boy with excellent English.

The bus was rather full, but I found an empty seat beside a petite girl, who smiled sweetly when I asked if I could sit beside her. The bus started and I dozed. Peja arrived soon. At Peja I went to Cafe Dio, to meet Bujar Zeka, which he owns. Bujar came by soon enough and offered me a map of POB (Peaks of Balkan) trail map that shows much of the Via Dinarica as well. He is a literal encyclopaedia for Balkans, primarily Kosovo and Albania. I returned to the bus station and caught the bus (which must have seen better days) to Boge. This bus took off at 3 pm and dropped me after around 15km, through Rugova Canyon, at a point where a smaller road led off to the right with a signboard for Reka e Allages (the starting point of the hike). Shouldering my backpack I started walking. Sure enough a 4X4 soon came rambling and offered me a lift. The driver has a home stay in one of the local villages and told me many enchanting stories through a smattering of broken English, even as the car coughed and gasped upwards.

After five minutes from where the car dropped me, I reached Guesthouse Ariu, which is the first home stay and the beginning of the proper Via Dinarica Kosovo. There’s a huge signboard outside displaying the POB and Via Dinarica trail. Though they have comfortable heated dorm rooms, I decided to pitch my tent and eat with the family of Mustafa, the owner of Ariu. Dinner was sumptuous to say the least where I met a Swiss couple who would also begin the hike next morning.

After breakfast, the three of us took to the trail with great gusto. The well marked trail was easy to follow though at times it might be confusing within the forests. In about 3.30 hrs we reached the summit of Hajla Peak (2403m). From there we parted company as the Swiss were doing a much shorter route. From Hajla summit I continued along the narrow crested ridge, going up and down, following the markers with Montenegro to the northwest. Just before getting down to Boge I came across a shepherd with a large herd of sheep and four friendly dogs. He bid me to sit with him for a while, using universal sign language, and offered me some cheese and then started playing his flute. I gazed mesmerised as his flock came all around and some of the curious lambs started chewing on my bag and jacket. The sky had by then darkened and a storm seemed imminent.

I sped down through the undulating forests towards Boge. At a point where the muddy trail joins a tarred road, sky opened up in a fierce deluge accompanied by thunder claps. I had my gore tex so rain wasn’t my concern. I walked through the downpour. As I entered the outskirts of Boge, a plain clothed policeman holding an umbrella stopped me and asked my nationality where I came from. I guess he was checking if I had crossed over from Montenegro. On entering Boge, which a Alpine resort in winters, I inquired at a small shop where could I go to get some shelter from the rain, which didn’t seem to be letting up. An old man volunteered to show me but in his eagerness he lost his umbrella that the wind carried off from his hand. A short chase I had it replenished to him. He pointed to Rudi Bar and guesthouse. I entered an empty bar where the bartender said I could stay till the rain stopped and could dry my wet clothes. Nearly at 9 pm when the bar was closing down, the rain stopped exposing a clear sky with twinkling stars. By then I have had some sort of dinner and watched a Hollywood crap on the TV.

I followed the trail out of Boge and found a flat spot besides the road where I pitched tent for the night. Next morning I woke up with twittering birds and continued further. Today I was headed for Leqinat. Hopping across puddles and wet spots, after Dugaive, the trail went down steeply through thick forest towards Kuqishte. Much of this section had been freshly cut and cleared. Kuqishte proved to be a tiny hamlet across the road connecting Peja to Boge. I crossed the bridge across a stream and then walked on towards Leqinat. The road spiralled up in a continuous circular sweep. At Leqinat I partook lunch plus dried my tent at Te Liqeni restaurant complex. Another 40 minutes of steep hike brought me to Leqinat Lakes.

Surrounded by a ring of spiked peaks and forests, it’s a moderate lake of exceptional beauty. I pitched my tent just above the lake and quickly hammered all the pegs before the wind built up. Dinner was a pair of vegetable sandwiches and omelette that I had got packed from Te Liqeni. Next day I continued through the forest, eventually reaching a fork, where I took the trail towards Zllanopoje. It took me over a high ridge and then down to the edge of another plateau from where I could see below into Roshkodol Valley, dotted with tiny villages and hamlets. Eventually, after some bit of trail finding, I arrived at Zllanopoje, Bujtina (guesthouse) Lojza, where Bujar had recommended I pitch my tent.

Lojza was beautiful and to my eyes had the most vantage location of all campsites and guesthouses along the trail. And what made it my favourite was the owner Zeki. An absolutely charming man with his heart in the outdoors. I found him just within the gates, unloading a crate of beer into a water filled cavern. He welcomed me profusely and showed me where I could pitch my tent. I had my first and last hot shower at Lojza during my hike. What Zeki churned out for dinner was a meal fit for royalty. Needless to add I had a great night’s sleep. Next morning sun shone brilliant and I continued onward through Roshkodol and Mariashi peak (2530m) towards Bjeshka Belegut village. The trail wasn’t hard but extremely scenic. At few stream crossings I snacked. Met a couple of German hikers who were on the POB trail.

As I reached Bjeshka much before my estimate, I decided to continue to Dobrosh and here I briefly entered and criss-crossed through Montenegro. I was low on food and I hoped that I would be able to procure some cheese and bread from Dobrosh. But I wanted to camp in wilderness and not in the village as it is slightly off the trail. Finding a nice spot near a stream, I camped and then went down to Dobrosh. Though from afar it had looked inhabited, once I entered the village I slowly realized that it was completely deserted. Even then I decided to walk the entire spread of the village, knocking upon several doors. With a growling stomach, with no sight of bread or cheese, I had to walk back to my tent. Ate two protein bars and some peanuts for dinner. Night sky was brilliant, redolent with zillion stars, without another living being in sight.

Day six started with tea and a packet of glucose biscuit. My first stop, the three border peak Tre Kujfit, at the tri-junction of Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. From the peak I descended back into Kosovo and continued towards Gjeravica. Across the ridge above Dobrosh, I first came across a beautiful lake, emerald and circular and then through some beautiful rocky terrains to Lake Zemer, which resembled a heart shape. From Zemer the trail climbs steeply with short switchbacks. As I climbed higher and higher with the valley falling below, I had to stop time and again to take pictures of this amazing scenery and regain my breathing. Finally I turned a corner and spied the lakes of Gjeravica and the eponymous peak (2656m), which is the highest point of Kosovo and my destination. Though Bujar had suggested I camp by the lake for the night and then go for the top next morning, I decided to go straight to the summit.

The last 20 min is over exposed grounds and I enjoyed the exercise. At the top, just beneath the summit marker, I found an old man sitting placidly gazing at the far horizons. I found it amusing to learn that he was keeping a watch over his sheep and lambs from this vantage point. And he would be there as long as the daylight lasts. I took some pictures, shared some biscuits with the old man and went down to the bigger lake. Pitched my tent on the further end of the lake, as far as possible from the trail. This campsite was my favourite of the hike. Dinner was again couple of protein bars and a cup of tea.

Morning came and I packed and headed down to Gropa e Erenikut, from where I caught up with the road going down to Junik. There was no option but to continue on foot towards Junik, which lay 17 km from Erenikut. Luckily a shattered pickup came along in a while and offered me a lift. The driver was from Albania Valbona Valley with some grasp of English. On learning that Valbona was my destination in few days, he whipped out his mobile phone and proudly showed me some pictures of his hometown.

Junik is a small town and it wasn’t difficult to find the bus station where a bus left in five minutes for Gjakova. Just outside of Gjakova bus station was a pizza place where I barged in like a storm as my belly fire was devouring my innards. At 2 Euros it was a deal. A bus left for Prizren after an hour with me inside. While I was planning for Kosovo I had told myself that I will only visit one city if I had to and Prizren was the winner by popular recommendations from one and all. And I wasn’t disappointed, though I dislike cities.

I stayed for two nights in a quaint family run hostel right by the old city and walked to all the recommended sights. There’s no need for me to elaborate any further since you can find all the Prizren sights and attractions in Google and I had been to all and then some. Sunset from the top of the fortress was memorable as was the ice cream. Food was wonderfully nice while prices were abysmally low. Friendliness of Kosovo won my heart many times over. And thus with a sombre heart, on the 10th day of my arrival into Kosovo, I left its borders sitting inside a bus from Prizren heading to Shkoder in Albania.

2 comments:

  1. Good have you back, S :-) and thank you for sharing your travels.
    As always a joy and envy to read! xxoxx

    ReplyDelete
  2. great story satya. even better that kosovo and the via dinarica made a lasting impression on you. hope to see you soon in bosnia. have a wonderful autumn and winter. topli pozdrav, thierry

    ReplyDelete