I am finally bearing down on the Bulgarian border after all the stress of getting my new wheel parts released by Serbian customs. It took a full 8 days from the parcel arriving in the mail centre in Belgrade to being in my hands, crazy when it only took 22 hours for it to get to Belgrade from Northern Ireland!
The forms I filled in whilst in Sarajevo were accepted (A form giving permission to check the parcel, a form for detailing the contents, their value and purpose, as well as copy of my passport). They got back to me on Monday asking for my “White card”? No idea what that is a but Google told me it was the slip the hostel had given me showing I was registered with the police here. After that it was a 3 day wait until Friday before they finally calculated the import tax.
During those 3 days I sent emails around once an hour and the extremely helpful lady running the day shift at the hostel phoned them on my behalf numerous times a day, on occasion berating them as an embarrassment! I managed to go on a few walks around the city seeing the temple that is under construction and eating a lot of local fast food but I was always rushing back to the hostel eager to see if I had any new emails .
I’d expected the worse from the customs bill and Serbian customs did not disappoint. £75 tax on an order worth about £120. The guy on the phone actually seemed shocked when I was willing to pay, I didn’t really have a lot of choice.
Even then this was a pain. I couldn’t pay on the phone, I had to wait for them to send a bill which I would have to print out and take to a bank to pay. It took abut 7 hours to receive this bill, in which time I couldn’t leave the hostel as I would have to get it paid ASAP. I finally got it and rushed to get it printed and then the lady from the hostel very kindly took me to a bank at the end of her shift and helped me through the process. I can’t thank her enough as I don’t know how long this whole thing would’ve taken otherwise.
I rushed back to the hostel and emailed DHL the copies of the receipts and they said they cannot release the package until the payment is visible in their bank. This confirmation did not come for another 24 hours at 5pm on Friday when the finally okayed it. I prayed delivery would come on the Saturday.
I was woken first thing in the morning by the lady from the hostel with a big smile on her face saying it was here! I was like a kid at christmas. Grabbed a very quick breakfast then power walked across town to a bike shop that had been recommended to me. They said the wheel would be finished by 2pm and would cost £8 including spokes! Wow! That almost offsets the taxes when you think how much a wheel build costs in England.
I got the wheel on the bike and to test it was solid I headed up to an event called Critical Mass Belgrade. If you don’t know Critical Mass is a monthly cycling event that happens in most major cities globally on or around the last weekend of the month. The purpose of it is to remind other road users that there is a significant presence of cyclists in that city and also as a platform for getting improvements made to cycle networks. I’ve been on the one in Brighton, UK as well as seen the one in London, UK and have to say I saw a lot of people just use it as an opportunity to disregard road laws. I was delighted that the Belgrade one felt more like a pleasant ride around the city taking in all the sights in a big group for an hour. Afterwards I headed back to the hostel keen to get an early night before cycling the next morning.
I actually felt quite sad leaving the hostel. Due to the place being quite empty, a result of the time of year, me and the hostel staff spent most of the time relaxing, watching TV and drinking coffee (and phoning DHL to whinge at them) and I’d been getting along really well with them. I reminded myself that this is a cycling trip and bid my new friends farewell.
I was not far down the road before I realised just how cold it was now after my 12 day stop. It had felt much warmer walking around the city but on a bike the wind was piercing and wasn’t helped by a big long climb out of the city. I didn’t have a specific amount of distance to cover today, I’d just planned out a route and was going to camp once I was too tired.
Halfway through the day I said goodbye to the Danube river which I’ve been following now for over a thousand miles. It’s weird when I think about the river being about 2 metres wide back in Germany and is now a couple of hundred metres wide, it’s almost been like watching someone grow up.
As I headed south towards Nis I started to have numerous encounters with dogs. Throughout Hungary and Croatia dogs were constantly barking at me from behind gates but here in Serbia dogs are not tied up and people do not have fences so the dogs are free to chase you. This was a bit worrying until on one of these occasions, whilst struggling up a hill, I noticed the four dogs that were all growling and barking at me were not actually going for me, just getting about two feet from my legs and looking vicious. This helped me relax on the later encounters, I also learnt that if you make eye contact with the dogs before they run over to you they normally just stay sat down staring. Despite both these bits of knowledge I still had my front water bottle ready to use as a water pistol.
I also had a couple of other more positive encounters. Earlier, whilst leaving Belgrade, an old truck had crawled past me and two guys in the back started cheering me along. Later in the day two road cyclists went past me as I was puffing up a big climb screaming “Bravo!” as they flew past.
As the day wore on the idea of camping started to appeal less and less. I was getting seriously cold and tired, I hardly end up taking and breaks in this temperature as after a mere 5 minute break it seems to take an hour to get warm again on the bike. As I was cycling through Velika Plana my rear wheel started to wobble and kick massively. I immediately was horrified that a spoke or something had gone on my brand new wheel but was relieved to find that the tyre was just flat and quickly realised my error. I’d left the nut on valve stem of the tube on when I put it on the rim meaning the stem was protruding into the rim and putting weird pressure on the tube which had caused a puncture. The protruding stem was also what caused the kicking once the tyre had gone flat. Annoying but no big deal.
As I’d set about my repair a fisherman, who I’d waved too earlier, rolled up on his bike and insisted on helping. He spoke no English but basically suggested my puny puncture repair kit was useless and he ran off into his house and came back with a knife, some epoxy and a bit of spare bicycle tube. He used the knife to scuff up the rubber and then patched it with the spare tube and epoxy. As we were waiting for it to dry he ran back inside and came out with his young daughter who to my surprise spoke fluent English.
At this point I had no desire to camp and cheekily asked for a “Konac” which translates as somewhere to stay but can also mean “Can I stay here?” i.e. in your house. They took the direct meaning to be my question and said there was hotel just down a little lane to my left next to a McDonalds and that the father would show me the way. I was a little confused as to why would there be a hotel and McDonalds down a tiny lane on the outskirts of a small Serbian town but realised we were actually cycling to a motorway service station from the back entrance.
The hotel wasn’t as cheap as I’d hoped, 30 euros, and worked out as a bit more due to the hotels dubious exchange rate as I didn’t have enough of a single currency to pay (used a mix of Euros and Serbian Dinars). They didn’t have a garage for my bike but the guy working reception seemed to have a good laugh helping me get my bike into the room, thankfully on the ground floor. I couldn’t resist the golden arches in front of the hotel and caved having my third McDonalds of the trip.
As I went to bed I was relieved that, after cycling a cold and hilly 92km, that my fitness hadn’t been affected too much by the time off. I woke up the next day to realisation that my ability to recover overnight had taken a major hit, I felt hungover. I perked myself up thinking today was only 77km as there was a really weird looking hotel I wanted to stay in in Paracin.
The day went by quite eventfully. Much flatter, although quite a few cars were beeping at me. I was getting annoyed as I assumed they having a go but after I noticed someone beeping going the other way whilst giving me a big thumbs up out the window I realised maybe the beeping was mostly encouragement? I also passed a goat farmer with his herd whilst going up the one climb of the day who tried to ask me something but I said I spoke only English and he then ran off a list of the next 5 towns this road goes through, rather thoughtful.
I was happy to see the rather unusual hotel I had wanted to stay in, checked in quickly and went out to stock up on a feast of food from the supermarket, spotting a weird stripy church on the way.
The next morning I once again felt hungover and my thighs were beginning to feel like jelly. I pressed one hoping to reach Nis about 85km away but was immediately hit with bad tarmac and bad terrain. A seemingly endless climb up to about 400m to the town of Razanj was demoralising as I was travelling too slowly. I stopped in a petrol station to get water and some sugary drinks and was met by a girl working there who was keen to chat in English. She was completely unsurprised when I answered about where I’d cycled from saying that they get a lot of cyclists coming through here and then wanted to know why we all go to Istanbul.
After chatting for a bit, whilst I adjusted my front brake, I really had to go and said my goodbyes. The road flattened out for a bit and I was happy to see people drying Paprika outside their homes, I’d seen this in Hungary but the road I had been on was to busy to stop and this meant I could get a photo. Shortly afterwards the road I was on stopped shadowing the motorway and sent me up a huge climb, it was at this point my right knee started to feel a bit funny.
As a carried on it got worse any time I had to do a climb but I was determined to get to the cheap hostel in Nis for a day off. As I reached the last town before Nis I just couldn’t go on, I took a hotel at the bottom of a climb to be a sign. An unusual place but we managed to agree on a price of £18 for the night including breakfast and dinner, not bad. I was worried about my knee but it was improving fast and felt fine in the morning. I headed out the door of the hotel and the owner ran after me and gave me a huge packed lunch containing what I guess to be everything not taken from the breakfast buffet (3 huge jam filled pastries, a load of bread and spread as well as 2 litres of fruit juice). Very nice gesture.
I’d decided last night to not take a day off in Nis as there was only two things I wanted to see and I’d be cycling past both. I thought I’d rather use the time to cycle 50km days instead of 80km until I can figure out what’s going on with my knee. I headed into town first stopping at the fortress and then the “Skull Tower”.
The Skull tower was assembled by the Ottoman empire from the heads of the soldiers involved in a Serbian uprising. The head of this force, once he realised they were overpowered, blew up their supply of gun powder rather than submit to slavery taking out the remains of his force and big chunk of the Turkish force too. The tower was meant to intimidate the Serbs into not repeating their actions but instead served more of the opposite.
I rode east out of Nis through the valley’s with the aim of reaching Bela Palanka planning to get a hotel if my knee plays up again. The scenery on the ride was beautiful interrupted slightly by a serious of unlit tunnels, where despite having every light I owned switched on, I wasn’t sure exactly how visible I was to the fleet of Turkish truck drivers that seem to use this road (e-80).
Just as I was about 5km from the town my knee started to go again, the short day definitely was the right choice but if only the hotel had been a bit earlier. Hopefully it improves by the morning, there is a very cheap hotel 15km away in Pirot that I may take a day off in if I can’t see any progress in the morning. I’ve got a gut feeling Serbia doesn’t want me to leave!
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I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.