Day 197 – Hints of the Orient

A new wind blows

 

The handlebars of our bikes wobble as we race down the mountain. The border crossing brings us into Kosovo, the fourth country of our trek. We’ve lost our cycling muscles during the horse trek, and the bikes are difficult to hold steady. Crossing the pass at the border, a new adventure has begun. The familiarity we felt in Albania remains at the customs post.

Searching for a culture

The lights of the Hadum Mosque in Gjakova illuminate every corner of the sanctuary in warmth. Not a square inch left unadorned. We pad around the interior in our socks, the plush carpet so thick it feels we are walking on pillows.

In Prizren, we do not visit the mosque but prefer to observe the movements of the city at sundown. The clatter of the city center is only silenced until the last notes of the call to prayer fade. The song weaves through the streets, quieting the whole city if only for a moment. Then the voices rise again, the people continue to drink their tea, the street music picks back up.

The remnants of the Ottoman Empire are all around us. Layered atop these remnant is rubble from the wars in the 1990s. And finally, there are shining modern cafes, built to cater to EU soldiers and diplomats. Kosovo feels like a place trapped in many centuries. It feels like a place where time got stuck, where many cultures battle for a place, yet a victor never appears.

 A shiver in our bones

 

If Kosovo feels like a mix of time, Macedonia feels like it’s trying to erase time. The new buildings are square, concrete and cold. Rumors say the impressive statues decorating Skopje center are made from styrofoam instead of marble. Outside the city, smoking piles of trash burn next to the road, a scene from the 2019 apocalypse. In the countryside, modernization moves slower. The song of the mosque sings out over the hills. From one village to another, different flags fly; always an eagle. The Albania eagles in one village, the Serbian eagles in the next. We ride through canyons and camp on plateaus. The last rays of the summer sun drench us in their warmth. The turmoil of these two Balkan states, Kosovo and Macedonia, gets into our bones.

As we approach Bulgaria, more and more monasteries peek out from high in the canyons. Eastern Orthodoxy begins to show its face. In the ornate churches with their frescos of heaven and hell, we learn of its role in the longevity of the Bulgarian culture. We’re anxious to cross the border, where tradition promises to be firmly rooted, where identity is sure.