The Balkans- a Bleak Understanding

I said good bye to my dear friend Ivanka and walked for 20 minutes to the road that goes north west out of the city and stuck out my thumb, but it was hopeless. People clearly do not hitch hike around here

Furthermore high petrol prices have seen that bus tickets have gone up and because of the visas for China and Pakistan which did a really good job at emptying my wallet (actually a money belt worn like a holster) faster than I wanted to, I had to hitch hike in my current direction all the way home to limit my losses. At this point that felt like a very unlucky situation. I stood for an hour in the cold and then was forced to take the metro into the city and then reluctantly waited for the train. Slow or what! Unbelieveably so! It seems the ex-soviet bloc countries organise anything to any reasonable standard and having to pay for it was painful.

My passport was really well scrutinised leaving Bulgaria and then some truly bizarre things happened. The guys in customs turned up and started sniffing around looking under the seats and having a thorough comb down of the compartments. Especially in fact they seemed interested in the smokes that the guy in one compartment I had just seen putting cartons in black plastic bags and then placing them in other compartments, up and down what was just a two carriage train. Things begin to get really curious when a ladder appears and they proceed to take the light fittings down and from behind the lights, sure enough, they recover packages all wrapped up in bubble wrap which looked very much like guns. I am not into guns BUT I know a rifle butt when I see one. I start counting 1, 2 , 3 and some other boxes, which you could only really assume was ammunition. It was strange but the guy who had his ciggies seized I had seen earlier at the electrical box on the train, just after he had stashed the cigarrettes. So who knows what was going on, as soon enough he was back on the train and we were off. Yet, the way they went to that compartment and dismantled the ceiling light unit was surely as if they were tipped off, but whether and who I really couldn’t decide or figure out.

I later learned that this route from Bulgaria into Sebia is a popular smuggling route as its linked to Turkey and the rest of the middle east and Iran/Iraq etc, so lots of arms and other goods made for war are trafficked on this route. Interesting to see, but a little unnerving as you would imagine!

I stayed two nights in Nis, which is home to the largest Yugoslavian german killing houses. Oh sorry I mean concentration camps. I did not go there, as I found Dacau was depressing enough and after you have seen a concentration camp and understand the history there is no point going to see them all to improve the width of your understanding of the most tretcherous and brutal killing system the world has ever seen. However I went to Bubanj, a famous hill out of town where the remains of 10,000-15000 people were found after the Serbian- Bosnian war, which has recently excavated and found all those people having been been executed on the site. 3 big concrete sculptures of a fist have been put up in memory and it was another harrowing reminder of what happens in the world.

Then I was in Beograd or Belgrade. An imposing fortress dominates the city. Wicked views over the country and city is all I can really say about that. Then quickly leaving Serbia behind I went to Sarajevo the other side of the wars history, which is what I am reminded of here. I took a tram out to the city limits and once again stuck out my thumb to wait in anticipation of some kind of ride. However 90 minutes later I rode the tram back in to the city and took a bus up over the hills, which offered stunning scenery and roads winding into the spartan, yet rural countryside. It would have been great with a bike!

The capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina has under gone massive reconstruction after the war but most buildings still bare the scars and there are bullet holes everywhere. There are still even one or two bombed out buildings remaining in the centre of downtown, which rest as a permanent reminder amongst the nice shoppping streets, which have since been built. Just like in Beirut I thought, which has touches and hope for modernisation and yet slow progress, where capital is clearly an issue to rebuild so things move forward slowly and the scars stay visible for years to come. I educated my self on all things Bosnian and then went to Mostar, which was even more shocking. You see still easily see how a city can look like after 4 years of war. Photos taken between 1992 and 1995 show the damage at its worst, which is actually represented by this being mostly flattened. 15 years on, not so many bullet ridden buildings just bombed out shells of buidlings. I was caught up in the scene easily to reflect on what it must have been like and started talking to the cleaning lady who eventually turned up to clean my dodgy and fairly run down, skanky apartment, where I was forced to stay as all the (not so many) hostels were full.

I had been struggling to work out and conjour up a picture of who had been killing who and for what reasons, but the more I read the more lost I became with the whole story. Then suddenly the penny dropped. The cleaning lady mentioned that she had a muslim name through marriage and yet she was Orthodox. She also mentioned the fact that it was a very dangerous place for her to be in Bosnia. she went to Italy and Norway. So, do you suddenly see what it was all about? It became aparrant that it was not at all about not control of different parts of the country. It is the same as is nearly always the case- it is about religion. You may think that is a negative assurtion or perhaps genralising, or even call me a pessimist but I prefer the word “realist”. History seems to have shown that Muslims, Catholics, the Jews, the Christians and God (no pun intended), just can not live together. Becoming entrentched in this intense topic was the focus of the whole place and offered constant reminders of it. I just googled “the holy war” the crusades from the 12th century and many others like it. The same story has been repeating itself since the begining of time.

The Balkans was getting depressing! why oh why?

It all became too much so I went to Split on the Adriatic coast. What a stunning place. There is certainly lots of cash around here and a world apart from my last destination. It was also a place to party, which is why thankfully I was here in the off season, as the place was relatively quiet, it was easy to find accomodation and things were not over priced.

Today as I travelled up the coast, 386km to Rijeka, suddenly I hit the wall an felt an imense tiredness kick in. I realised that I had had months and months of disrupted sleep. Last night two girls from my room slept on the floor in the lounge, as the other guy snored like a frigging… I just dont know what. I tried to make him wake up and get him to turn on his side. I ended up by shaking him quite heavily, but he didn’t stir one bit! Oh the joys of backpacking.

After a few nights of more bad sleeping I arrived in Rijeka. This is the 3rd largest city in Croatia and on the border almost with Slovenja through which tomorrow I will pass on my way to Western Europe and Venice, Italy. Slovenja will be my 50th country during the trip, but it does not count as such till I have slept there for a minimum of 1 night. I am planning to stay in Ljubljana after Venice, but as I am on a self-imposed detox I am not allowed coffee or beer to celebrate. This was because I ended up feeling very wierd after 2 extra strong coffees that I had bought in Mostar, which was really strange and when you travel on your own you need to listen to your body carefully. So I will drink a herbal tea or some thing to celebrate instead, and decided that perhaps I should pay better attention to my diet…

That was a strange conclusion to my recent adventures…18 more days left of my trip. What a life!

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