We don't even want to go to Serbia.
But here we are, enveloped by a dozen friendly Kosovars, deciding if the border officials over in Serbia will be kind enough to let us in.
We want to go to Macedonia. That is the plan. But this border, the one to Macedonia, the one right over this hill, is closed. The next best option, the way in via Serbia, is not closed. But it's closed to us because we entered Kosovo via Albania, and not via Serbia like the Serbian government insists. We are stuck in the thick agar of bureaucratic purgatory.
It is dark, and thus one thing is certain. Even if we can find a way out of eastern Kosovo, it will not be tonight.
We ask if there's a spot we could camp. Just a little grass, here or across the road or anywhere. Alban, the petrol pump proprietor, points us to a patch and helps us start clicking together our tent poles.
There's a tall wall behind the station, and atop that wall a cluster of houses on the edge of the butte. A woman calls down to Alban. He calls back up. "My wife!" he says to us, beaming.
They shout back and forth in Albanian: him, his wife, and a few other women on the terrace above. They want to know if you'd like to sleep in our house, he mimes to us. And have dinner.
Oh! we mime back. We really don't want to be any trouble. We camp plenty, and we're totally fine here.
But he insists and so we relent. We're tired and also really need to figure out how we're getting out of Kosovo, but we can do all of that later. There's a nice family upstairs that would like to meet us. We pack our tent back into its compression sack and head toward the staircase.
Albanians are wonderful and Albanian families are big and lively. This family is no exception. We are greeted by Alban's wife, his father, his mother, his son and daughter and toddler, his sister and niece and nephew and, well, I'm probably forgetting a few others. We are greeted as though we are old friends, or really, already part of this great big family. They help us bring our bags into our room for the night, then usher us into the kitchen for dinner.
We spend hours—us, them, and Google Translate—doing the best we can to converse. It isn't necessarily effective but it's still tons of fun. We're passed plates heaped high with salad and pasta and bread and vegetables. We're each handed a shot glass filled to the brim with rajika, eastern European brandy. Alban's father ensures, for the remainder of the night, that these glasses never sit empty, much as we insist that really, really, we have had enough. We play with the kids and talk with the adults and, late into the evening and after a very long set of goodnights, we stumble off to bed.
We wake with bleary eyes and mild hangovers and only a slightly better sense of how to reach Macedonia. It'll mean doubling back whence we came, a sixty- or seventy- kilometer turnaround, plus an extra few dozen kilometers and few hundred meters of climbing to detour through Skopje. Normally, I'd groan at the thought of undoing our progress and having to ride the same old road again. But in this case our unsuspecting deadend led us to a really wonderful spot in its own right: this lively home and this very lovely family. None of this was part of the plan, but all of it was well worth the extra effort. It is, as they say, about the journey; never the destination.
We pack our things. We retrace our route through Kosovo's wheat fields and back into its fresh, verdant undulations. We veer left, approaching Macedonia not from Kosovo's eastern edge, but instead from one of its sharp southern tips.
We're about twelve kilometers from the border when we come upon a construction crew blocking the road. There are big trucks and workers in bright vests and a slender beam barricading us from the rough gravel on the other side. Barricading us from Macedonia.
There's a man guiding dump trucks and bulldozers into the construction area. We wave and he walks over. "Road closed," he tersely informs.
No. No, no, no.
"But ... Macedonia," I stammer. I point to the mountains in the distance, lost for words. "Macedonia, right there."
"Construction," he shrugs. He speaks a few words of English, but not much, and we of course have not learned much Albanian. He picks up a large pebble and pinches it between his fingers. He points to the road. There's lots more where that came from, he seems to say.
"That's okay," I exclaim. "Really, we can ride on gravel. Please, oh please. We were told this way would be open." We love Kosovo. Really, we do. But please, let us leave.
Our desperation does the trick. Fine, he shrugs. Don't make me regret this, his eyes say. He cocks his head toward the barricade and we follow its direction with our bicycles.
We pedal. Out of Kosovo and into Macedonia. Through Skopje and up into the Macedonian highlands. Our time in Macedonia is brief, and mostly uphill. It's strenuous work.
Strenuous, but beautiful. Macedonia is a sea of tall grasses. We ride and watch the breeze ripple through the hills like wind on water. Lots of green. Dollops of red and purple and blue, the brilliant blossoms of spring. It's a quiet country, Macedonia. The sounds of our bicycles, our chains clicking into ever lower gears, spooks gophers and sends butterflies fluttering into the crisp blue skies.
Our time in Albania and Kosovo was quite wet, but here in Macedonia we enjoy days of cycling and nights of camping without even unpacking the rain layers. There's no rain, yet we still enjoy a few wide, arcing rainbows. We camp comfortably and stop for picnics in the grass. One day a driver pulls over and rushes out of his car with his daughter. He was part of the old Yugoslav professional cycling team, back in the days when Yugoslavia was still Yugoslavia, and he saw us on our bicycles and thought maybe we'd like some energy drinks and canned peach drinks and a few snacks. Here, he says, thrusting a shopping bag at us. Here's a bag of energy drinks and canned peach drinks and a few snacks. These hills!—he points into the distance—You need your energy!
He's not wrong. We've been riding hard and have had only one day of rest—in that quiet little village on Komani Lake—since leaving Lauren's parents in Montenegro. We drink some off-brand Red Bull, are given enough wings to get us within a stone's throw of the Bulgarian border, and shack up at a tiny inn for the next two nights. Rain, thankfully, doesn't arrive until we're safely indoors. And then it comes down hard.
The sky flashes, and thunders, and settles for a moment. We huff up the great big hill separating Macedonia from Bulgaria. We get caught in a little storm right at the customs crossing. Once it rains itself out, we cross the border and leave the last of the former Yugoslav republics (Macedonia separated peacefully from Serbia in 1991) behind.
We do a little more climbing. We reach our last pass in Europe, a simple unceremonious affair about four thousand feet above sea level, and for the first time in ages we enjoy a nice long stretch of uninterrupted downhill. We freewheel east.
We move quickly across Bulgaria. Istanbul isn't very far now. We pitch our tent in wide open spaces and sleep atop hills, in old fallow fields, in peaceful forests. I go looking for a camping spot one day and unwittingly stumble into a snakes' nest. Several dart out right near my feet, racing in all different directions. I stumble, nearly fall on top of them, and rush back out to the road. Uh, let's go a little farther.
Most of the wildlife we see isn't so scary. Big, slimy snails slithering up our tent fly. Tortoises safely withdrawn into their boxy shells, some alive and some very much dead. Herons, or albatrosses, or—I don't very much know my birds—some other grand, beautiful creature with lanky limbs and a long, gangly neck stalking silently through the hillside. A big insect that isn't exactly scary but most definitely trying to be. We find it in the parking lot of a gas station, wriggling upside-down and trying desperately to right itself. I flip it over so it can go in its way and it charges me with its large, menacing pincers.
We ride for three or four or five days. We enter the wide orbit of Istanbul, still several hundred kilometers east, and the highway grows busy. Choked with trucks and speedy, unpredictable drivers. The road itself isn't very good: it's potholed and bumpy and has very little in the way of a shoulder. We search for an alternate way.
Greece. There's a point in southeastern Bulgaria where Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey all join up. We can continue on this road right from Bulgaria to Turkey, or we can detour through Greece on a parallel road for thirty or forty kilometers, picking up in Turkey a little later on. Well, we figure. This road can't get much worse. Let's try for Greece.
Greece, at least for our very brief ride across its northern tip, is marvelous. This road, unlike its neighbor in Bulgaria, is silky smooth. It is, quite unlike the one on the Bulgarian side. rather tranquil. Though it's at least technically a highway, with exit ramps and everything, the road is virtually free of cars. It's exceedingly pleasant.
The scenery isn't bad, either. Nothing dramatic. Mostly large tracts of lush farmland and a little woods here and there. We see few people and, unfortunately, don't really meet any Greeks. We'd planned on maybe grabbing a meal to celebrate our one and only evening in the country, but we don't pass any restaurants. Or shops. We don't pass much of anything
We pull of the highway and camp on the edge of a farm. In the morning we find a gas station. We fill our water bottles and cycle the remaining fifteen kilometers to Turkey.
Turkey is the eighth country (after Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece) we've visited in May. This pace of change, for us, is a little strange and a little disorienting. Most months, we cross one border. Maybe two. Things change slowly. We have enough time to learn the basic greetings of each language. To read up on the history of the lands we're traveling across. To adapt, if only superficially.
We enter Turkey and we are thrust into a land of yet another language (Turkish, after Croatian and Montenegrin and Albanian and Macedonian and Bulgarian and Greek), another currency (the lira, after the kuna and the euro and the Albanian lev and the dinar and the Bulgarian lev), and another alphabet, another assortment of umlats and squiggly lines above and below certain letters that are supposed to tell us something but we're not really sure what. I was just getting accustomed to Cyrillic.
We enter Turkey and we race toward Istanbul. We're on another highway, but it's not so bad. There's a wide shoulder, and the road surface is decent, and drivers are friendly to us.
The hills are less friendly to us. We are done with the long, grueling climbs of eastern Europe. From here to Istanbul we won't top more than a few hundred meters. But that is not to say that the road is flat. We are riding the ridges of an accordion. We climb for a few minutes. We reach the top. We're rewarded with a view of a dry, empty valley and an equally steep descent. And then, on the other side of the valley, the very same hill we just climbed. Again and again and again. Up and down and up and down for several long, sweaty days.
There are plenty of petrol stations, so we stop often to fill our water bottles and buy some snacks. We've really been making the most of gas stations lately. Sometimes we camp behind them, with the owner's permission. Sometimes we enjoy a cold beer or Fanta straight from the fridge. Mostly we resupply on Ruffles potato chips, dry roasted peanuts, and whatever sleeve of cookies look the most appetizing (it's all relative; none is very good).
The Turks, like just about everyone we've met in eastern Europe, are unbelievably hospitable. We stop at gas stations and they hand us bread and buy us drinks and carry out cups of Turkish tea. We ask if there might be a tap for us to fill our Nalgenes from and, if there isn't or if the water is no good, they thrust free bottles of cold water in our direction. They give us canned coffee drinks and gazebos to camp under when the roadside is too busy to find anywhere else to sleep.
One night we book a room in a dingy motel and shower for the first time in a while. We rinse our salt-lined shirts in the sink. Most nights we do not shower, let our sweaty clothing fester at the foot of our tent, and just put the same things on the next morning.
Saddle sores develop, as they often do. We've been riding more than two weeks straight, over a thousand kilometers, with just two rest days. And, if I haven't already mentioned, a hell of a lot of climbing. Thousands of meters: six thousand or eight thousand or ten thousand, something like that. I don't really keep track of these things, but my calves and my thighs and my knees are telling me it's more than we usually climb.
We reach the Sea of Marmara and turn east. The road we've been on, the pleasant one with the wide shoulder, melts into the coastal one, a chaotic, bumpy freeway with no shoulder to speak of. We are outpaced in an Istanbul-bound stampede of vans and buses and trucks and cars and motorcycles, and we do our best to not get trampled.
Each road sign we pass is a small, internal reason to celebrate. Istanbul: 100 kilometers. Istanbul: 75 kilometers. Istanbul: just 50 to go! As we near Europe's last great city, dozens of small roads and avenues converge with the highway, creeks and tributaries feeding a roaring, rushing river. The highway swells with the mass of motordom.
It widens. Two lanes become four, then eight, then sixteen. Concrete medians carve up expressways from access roads, off-ramps from on-ramps, but mostly it's all the same thing: a collective force, a cumulative roar, one current surging east as some unstoppable, monumental, singular entity; and the other forging west, vehicles swept up in the torrent as if they're awash in a fast-moving flood.
It's the most unpleasant road we've ever cycled on, for sure. We ride as far to the right as we can, and take the parallel access roads whenever available, but it's still a highway. Hills and headwinds compound our struggle.
We don't enter very many cities by bicycle. On a trip like ours, we tend to avoid them. But when we do we're used to a chaotic entrance. Cape Town, Lusaka, Dar, Barcelona, Marseille. Cities the world over have been retrofitted for cars, not people, and we brace ourselves for an hour or two of tense, tumultuous riding.
Getting into Istanbul is something else entirely. After ten kilometers of chaos, we consult our maps. We still have, like, forty kilometers to go. We are still in the suburbs.
Istanbul is an old city. Very old. It has had thousands of years to grow and sprawl and metastasize into what it is today. A city sprawling two continents and every side of every waterway within a thirty-mile radius. A city never intended for motor vehicles, but reconfigured to make room for them all the same. We take a break on the side of the highway and watch thousands upon thousands of automobiles course into the city every minute. We're not quite sure where they're all going to fit.
The long, loud road into Istanbul continues. We ride through towns, if you can call them that, cleaved in two by about a dozen lanes of traffic and exhaust. Garbage and dead animals litter the gutter. The cityscape, the subcity before the city, is all Blade Runner and smudged glass.
We pedal all afternoon, through Istanbul's industrial and post-industrial belts, across the dusty stage of late capitalism, and finally, mercifully, we arrive. We turn a few corners and follow a few signs and, some four or five thousand kilometers since disembarking a ferry in southern Spain, we catch first sight of the city's famous Blue Mosque, and even more famous Hagia Sophia, and, behind all that, of the bridge connecting Europe to Asia.
We have made it to Istanbul.
It is time for a rest.
Not a very long one. We've had a few months of many, many rests. Just a week.
We've booked a room in a simple Airbnb—it's a little musty, but it'll do—and we put our bikes away for the remainder of our time in Istanbul. It's a better city for walking, anyway.
We walk a lot. Usually when we take time off we don't do very much, but in Istanbul we keep busy. We run some errands. I get a new memory card for my camera and a pair of pants to replace the ones I'd picked up in Morocco that never really fit well to begin with. We buy new headphones (both of ours have only been playing out of one ear) and loads of dried fruit. After nearly a year of trying to cut tags and cable ties and fabric tape and patches with knives and several times very nearly slicing our fingers open, we welcome a small pair of scissors into our small, traveling toolkit.
We eat pretty well. The lira has weakened against the dollar quite a bit lately, and so we're able to fit falafel sandwiches and Turkish teas into our daily budget. We cook a little, but enjoy quite a few vegetable wraps along our daily walks.
We stroll across Istkilal, the main commercial thoroughfare on the more modern side of Istanbul's European half (Istanbul is a city split in three: in addition to the newer, northwest corner we're staying in, there's the older, more historic southwestern corner, also on the European side, and a less-tightly-packed Asian half east of the Bosporous Strait). We cross to the old town, a menagerie of different cultures and religions and peoples and architecture resulting from many, many centuries of war and conquest. We visit many mosques, most of which had probably underwent their third or fourth major renovation before America was even a thing. We marvel at their massive and mathematically precise domes, amazingly designed, crafted, and built about four hundred years before calculators or AutoCAD renderings or cranes or jackhammers.
Istanbul, if you ignore the great surrounding belt of chaos and destruction required to keep it running, is an enchanting place. It is dirty and it is loud and it is in many ways one enormous open-air shopping mall, but it's also captivating in its own special way. It's nice to be back here. We spend an entire day exploring mosques (and a few churches), wandering inside between prayer times. Following the calls to prayer, in which Allah akbhars ring out musically from the tops of Istanbul's hundreds of minarets and Muslims all across the metropolis make for the nearest mosque, we retreat to the shady courtyards (non-Muslims are not allowed in mosques during the prayers) and listen to the throaty hymns waft out from the imams at the altar.
Lauren and I split up a few times. She goes for a walk while I read a book in the park, or she heads to Sultanahmet while I do some writing in a cafe. This sounds trivial, but as Lauren and I spend about twenty-three-and-a-half hours together most days, for weeks and weeks at a time, you might say we each get less alone time than the average couple. We enjoy our time together, but it's also nice, once or twice per year, to have a few hours of solitude.
I write quite a bit. I sit at a cafe for two afternoons and hastily recount our last few months in Europe. I write, and this time my phone doesn't black out, and by Monday, the day we're leaving Istanbul, I'm actually caught up. Like, I'm actually sitting at that very cafe right now, writing these words, which is more than I can say for anything I've written since, oh, Arianna's way, way back in Dar es Salaam.
I skip some things. I don't have the energy or the time to recount an entertaining half-hour stuck at the Slovenian-Croatian border in the back of a van with Myrna, Francesco, and Sara when we discovered that not having an entry stamp into Europe (which we'd been told back in Spain wouldn't be a problem) was most definitely a big problem. I condense a few lovely weeks with Lauren's parents and I gloss over great swaths of eastern Europe in just a few paragraphs. I forget to detail a million beautiful little sights and sounds and serendipities, a hundred sweet little generosities, whole days and nights that have faded and muddied together, washed away by the waves of time. I jam this heap of words together and I call it a day.
I'm writing this now, on the 28th of May, though if you're reading this it certainly won't be until the middle of June. And by then I'll no longer be sitting in this cafe, listening to the cats hiss threats at each other and the dull murmur of frenetic Turkish in the background and the fun bass-heavy jingle of the Aygaz truck, rounding the neighborhood with a bed full of full propane tanks and a few empties, like an adult ice cream truck selling compressed butane, instead of something sweet and sticky, to whomever hears the familiar ring and finds themselves low on cooking gas or heating fuel and rushes out the door to catch it. By the time you're reading this, we'll no longer be in Istanbul.
In fact, we'll have long since left Turkey. We have a plane to catch. A flight to central Asia. It leaves today.
The mountains are calling, and we must go.