11 May 2011

Faith is Restored! [Macedonia and Kosovo]

I have been officially blown away. Macedonia is one of the most naturally beautiful countries I have ever visited. Massive snow-capped mountains, crystal clear lakes and rivers, rolling green hills... almost as beautiful as New Zealand! ;)

I didn't have a host for Skopje, but was saved at the last minute by Tomas - a guy originally from Slovakia. Him, his flatmates and friends were an amazing bunch of people. Most are volunteers in Skopje with the EVS (European Voluntary Service). They really made my time in Skopje.

So carrying on from the last few days in Sofia, my time in Skopje was also centred around getting a tourist visa for Ukraine. Problem - the first of May is a public holiday in Macedonia. The first was a Sunday, but the holiday was carried across to the Monday, so everything was closed. Bright and early Tuesday morning I trundle up to the Embassy to find out they were closed again! And guess what? They never open on a Wednesday. So those lazy buggers just gave themselves a five day weekend... It's Tuesday morning, and there is no way I can even submit the application until Thursday. So rather than just hanging around Skopje, I decided to jump on a bus to Prizren in Kosovo. And that, my friends, is why I love this trip. Bored? Things not working out the way you want? Not having a good time somewhere? No problem, just jump on a bus and two hours later you are in a completely different country!

But I am getting ahead of myself, let me tell you about Skopje. It is quite a new city - well, the buildings at least. 80% of the city was destroyed in an earthquake in the 1960's. The 'new at the time' Turkish area of city was the only part to survive, so is now the 'old town'. I really liked this part of the city, with bustling outdoor markets, bakeries and kebab shops on every corner...

The center city is very new and chic, nice malls, expensive shops etc... But just a hundred meters away it is a different story. It becomes quite clear that Macedonia is not a rich country. Not in a bad way, that is just how it is... But the people seem un-phased, as happy as I have seen anywhere else in the world. There is a large gypsy population in Skopje, living in makeshift houses on the banks of the river, and even they seem really happy! I think it adds something to the place... It is quite cool to see an old guy on an old rickety cart with wooden wheels being pulled down one of the main streets by a donkey just as old as he is.

One of the highlights of my time in Skopje was a visit to Matka Canyon. I visited on the public holiday and it was insanely busy! It seems Macedonia's go there to do what we kiwis go to the beach to do - chill out in the sun, drink beer, spark up a BBQ and listen to music. The canyon is unbelievably beautiful - the greenest rolling hills give way to massive rock faces, that plunge down to a deep blue river.

As I was saying before, after the epic fail at the visa office, I jumped on a bus to Kosovo. Another extremely beautiful country. While on the bus I saw one of the most breathtaking sunsets I have ever seen, set against a huge snow-capped mountain. I arrived in Prizren and had no accommodation and couldn't find anyone that spoke English... well, apart from the taxi drivers who all wanted to take me to the furthest accommodation possible. I was wandering around for a while as the sun set and it was starting to get dark. And I was starting to get a little stressed. I finally found someone that spoke English that pointed me in the direction of a hotel. I wasn't too keen on the idea, hotels generally mean spending a lot, but my options were limited and I was open to anything at this stage.

I got them down to €15 for the night at the hotel in the most basic room with a shared bathroom. Which, by the way, had no lock on the door or shower curtain! And the rest of the hotel seemed to be under construction. But to be honest I really couldn't care - I had somewhere to sleep.

Prizren is an interesting mix of past and present. It is a mid evil city, visibly scarred by war, but re-emerging and growing. The center of the city is really nice, with cobble streets, old stone bridges and plenty of cute little shops. But to be honest, outside this small 'tourist' area, the city is crumbling. Walk a few hundred meters from the main street and it feels as though the war could have occurred yesterday. Burnt out, crumbling buildings have been left abandoned all over the hillside. It is really quite scary. But the people seem up-beat and happy. It really makes you think about what makes someone happy. Possessions? Money? These people have none, but they are still smiling, living among the ruins of war.

I had been warned about getting my passport stamped at the border in Kosovo - as apparently the Serbians don't like it. Why? Kosovo is fighting for independence from Serbia. Some countries recognise Kosovo as independent, but Serbia does not, therefore they see the stamp as 'invalid'. There have been some bloody wars over independence during the 1990's. Anyway, as I will be visiting Serbia in a few weeks I was a little worried. But after speaking to some locals, apparently the Serbian border guards will just scribble over the Kosovo stamp if they see it. It is like a little political war in my passport!

I had planned to return to Skopje on Wednesday evening, so I could stay the night and visit the Ukraine embassy first thing on Thursday, but the only buses they had were at 5am or 9am. I could have stayed in Prizren one more night and got the 5am bus, but it is not a large place and I didn't really feel like an early morning after a night at that shitty hotel. The only other alternative was to get on a bus heading for Istanbul, which stopped at the outskirts of Skopje. It left at 1pm which was earlier than I had wanted to leave, but I didn't have much choice.
Me: How far outside of Skopje does the bus stop?
Ticket man: Maybe 3 kilometers... not far
Me: So I could walk it?
Ticket man: Yeah, no problem
Me: And how much is it?
Ticket man: €10. Just pay on the bus
And here is where I learned to never trust stupid travel agents. I got on the bus, we drove off, the ticket guy came around... I gave him €50, and he gave me €30 back. What the flip? No way man, the guy in the office said €10. We argued for about five minutes before he threw a €5 in my direction and turned and walked off. To put things in perspective - €10 is already a very expensive ticket in this part of the world. Part two of the lesson came when we stopped to let me off the bus. The bus driver pointed me in the right direction, I strapped on my backpack and I was off. In the distance I could see Skopje, and I thought it looked a little more than 3kms. I got out my GPS and sure enough it was ELEVEN! And that is a direct straight line from where I was, not following the road. GAH!

I walked for a while before deciding there was just no way I was going to make it, at least not before dark. There were no taxi's or anything around, and just as I considered hitch-hiking I heard a beep from behind me. And here is where my luck changed. One of those tiny Suzuki vans is hurling toward me. This old guy pulls up and with a big smile says 'Skopje?'. I jumped in! He could barely speak a word of English, but I managed to communicate that I wanted to get to the bus station. He was trying to tell me something, but I couldn't really understand what he meant. And then we turned off the main road to Skopje and started heading in the wrong direction. I was a little worried, and started sizing him up... I was pretty sure I could take him if I needed to. We pull up at a bus stop, he jumps out and goes to speak to the bus driver. He tells him where I want to go, then PAYS THE GUY! Shakes my hand quickly, then jumps back in his van and a second later is gone. So just as the world was turning me into a bitter, untrusting person, my faith in man-kind is restored!

That night I stayed in a hostel and ended up going out with a Danish guy who was also staying there. And this is why I love Macedonia - we went out for a good meal and a beer; €2.50. We then took a taxi across to the other side of town to meet up with some people he knew; €1.50 each. Beers at the pub; €1 each. I love this place.

Early Thursday morning I made my fifth visit to a Ukrainian Embassy, and finally submitted my visa application. The normal processing time would mean I got my visa back the following Tuesday, and cost US$50. Having already spent longer than planned in Skopje, I couldn't do another four days. I have to be in Croatia in just over a week and there is a lot to see between here and there. So the express service meant that I would get it back that same day, but it cost US$100!! I didn't really have a choice... They told me to take a slip to the bank and make the payment. I assumed I could just pay the equivalent in Euro or Macedonian Denar. I thought wrong. And they did not exchange currency. I went and found a currency exchange office who quoted me a stupidly bad exchange rate, and when I returned after getting cash out, it had deteriorated even further... Grrrr. But again, I didn't have a lot of choice. I soon forgot all that, as a couple of hours later I had my passport back with a shiny, new tourist visa!

That afternoon I jumped on a bus to Ohrid - Macedonia's headline attraction. And it really did not disappoint. Ohrid is spectacularly beautiful. You could have a crappy disposable camera, point it in any random direction, and take a photo that looks like a postcard. The perfect weather helped, but the natural beauty in Ohrid is just unbelievable. There are monasteries dotted all around the lakes edge, as well as towering mountains, lush green forests... It is breathtaking.

It also helped that I met a whole bunch of truly awesome people while in Ohrid. A couple of Americans; Ben and Alison. Both my type of people, chilled out and love to travel. A interesting Brazilian girl, Renata, as well as a couple of Germans, Sophia and Reuben. I actually spent most of my time in Ohrid with Sophia and Reuben, and had such a good time with them that they convinced me to stay another day. I guess it wasn't so hard, who wants to leave paradise? We spent most of our time just hanging out, and them teaching me lots of dirty words in German. I was really sad when they had to leave.

So that about finishes up Macedonia. I can't really add much more to the above... I loved it! Go and visit. Now.


  1. OK, so I want to go to Matka Canyon and now Ohrid. *sigh* :)

  2. Certainly gives me even more motivation to seek out my heritage :)


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