Mixed messages while landing at Prishtina airport – local teleoperator warmly welcoming me to Slovenia while Google Maps clearly shows my location in Serbia.
Luckily, the airport taxi driver finally gets it right – “Welcome to independent Kosovo, hope you enjoy your stay!”
The city looks modern and there’s a lot of young people around. I later learn that more than 70% of country’s population is under the age of 35 making Kosovo the youngest country in Europe.
Bill Clinton is a big shot in this part of the world. The country recognizes his support of the 1999 NATO air campaign, and there’s a major road at Prishtina city center named after him.
And yes, there’s a 3m statue too.
I see some KFOR military presence at airport, but the city itself feels relaxed and safe. Still, I’m able to spot a couple of military gear shops selling gun pockets and bulletproof vests.
Casual conversations with locals tend to lead to international relations and recent conflicts more often than I’m used to. The underlying conflict in the Balkans is way too complicated to comprehend with my limited reading before the trip. Even today, only 97 out of 193 (50%) UN member states have recognised Kosovo as an independent state.
One book that somehow opened my eyes to the realities of this corner of the world was My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony Loyd. Not specifically about Kosovo, but instead, it covers the conflicts in Chechnya and Bosnia. His personal portrait of the war has been troubling me long after finishing the book.
It’s hard to comprehend it’s not a story of something that happened long time ago somewhere far away. It’s a description of realities in Europe in the 90´s.
I should have paid more attention to news back then.
The cost of traveling in Kosovo is really cheap in European standards. 25€ for a night in an AirBnB at Prishtina city center, less than 5€ for a lunch and latte, bus to basically any part of the country for 10€. As long as you find an accurate timetable and the right bus to jump to.
Based on GDP per capita, Kosovo is the 3rd poorest country in Europe. Still, I spot only a couple of beggars on the main pedestrian street in Prishtina, lying face-down on the cold ground crying aloud. The style feels quite intensive for a newcomer. It doesn’t seem to draw much attention from the locals though.
I was in Balkans for visiting the Accursed Mountains lying between Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. After exploring the western part of the mountains in Albanian side (story and photos from Theth Valley), I headed off to Peja in western Kosovo for some more hiking.
Peja (Pec) is a small town at the eastern end of Rugova Valley. While being much smaller than Prishtina, it still provides a cosy selection of accommodation and restaurants, providing a perfect base for exploring Rugova Canyon and the surrounding mountains.
The canyon starts right at the western end of town. There are a number of trailheads dotted along the road passing through the canyon from Peja all the way to Montenegro. However, to get to the trails, you either need to take a bus (runs rarely) or organise a taxi to take you there.
I decided to bite the bullet, and start my hikes directly from Peja. After a bit of research, I was able to find a couple of good 25-40km loops around the surrounding mountains. Mentally, I prepared myself for long days out and possibly returning in darkness.
Starting my days on the asphalt road in the bottom of the canyon, my trails soon veered higher up along the mountainsides. First on dirt roads and soon deteriorating to trails packed with snow.
Along the trails, I passed through a number of deserted nomad settlements that were completely empty this time of the year. It was a ghostly feeling walking past empty houses and barns that in summertime would be teeming with life.
During my days out in the mountains, I didn’t come across a single person. Higher passes were still covered with snow in April keeping most hikers away until mid-June.
Eventually, the combination of loneliness, deserted nomad villages, the stark name Accursed Mountains, and the rumours of bears wandering the area, started to play tricks on me. The ambiguity of trail markings, being either close to non-existent or completely covered with snow, added to the feeling of desertedness.
There’s something vaguely familiar in the Balkans, but if I needed to specify what it is, I just can’t put my finger on it. Somehow, it feels cosy and a lot like home, while being completely different on some very fundamental levels.
It’s been a while since I came home, and still it keeps puzzling me – guess I need to go back to learn more!