I spent my last day in the city of Ohrid, FYROM traveling to the monasteries in the neighboring villages, and cycling to the historic “Island of Bones” a prehistoric human settlement located on the shores lake Ohrid. The weather was beginning to clear and for the first time in weeks I felt the warmth of sun on my skin. Roaming around the city I met a few American women who had stumbled across my blog while preparing for their trip in states. While eating a large gelato ice cream cone they came up to me and asked if I was Julian Wong, what else is there to say. All day I thought about traveling and by night I was ready to hit the road again. After being sick for close to 5 days and traveling minimal distances while recuperating, the snow-capped mountains and open roads instilled a stronger urge to depart.
There are several routes that I could take to Greece, but always looking for the more remote path, I decided to pedal the long route, which would take me back into Albania, through a National Park, and into central Greece. Leaving Ohrid, I followed the lake for 20 km, rolling hills, thick green forests, roaming cattle all under warm 80 degree sunshine. I actually got hot and feeling the urge to lighten the weight on Gaby gave away my rain pants some extra clothes to some farmers along the road. With a false instilled lightness I began a long climb of 3,000 feet, heading to the FYROM border village of Stenje. Slowly, I made my way to the top stopping often to admire the view. My recent stomach sickness had not only removed much of my strength but had almost completely eliminated my appetite. After close to 4 hours of climbing I felt no desire to eat, and felt like I had a stone in my belly. Reaching the top of the mountain, I was offered food from some German hikers but couldn’t eat more than a few bites. I looked down at the reflection of the snow-capped mountains on the lake. In the far distance I could see the snow-capped mountains of Kosovo, and smiled at my previous adventures crossing the border.
Cycling on I met a few locals who pointed me in the direction of a “short cut” that would trim 20 km off my route to Stenje. However without the required language skills to inquire about road conditions, I ended up on a long rough trail, pedaling over thorny bushes and rocky river beds. Half the trail was overgrown with a poison oak like plant which made maneuvering a bit difficult. After a difficult 18 km I arrived in a beautiful meadow overlooking Lake Prespa.
On this trip I have encountered landscape so beautiful that I feel a sense weightlessness, almost like jhana, a level of spiritual concentration. Passing through the meadow, I watched the sun creep behind the mountain and cast shadows on the oak tree limbs, listened to long blades of grass sway in the evening breeze. It was like the world stopped spinning for a few moments.
The next morning, just after dawn I awoke to an Albanian man on a horse asking me what I was doing on his property. I had crossed into Albania after dark and camped at the first available spot. “I am tired let me sleep” I yelled. He spoke Macedonian so I explained doing to him that I was from America and that would be leaving in a few hours. He became cautious after finding out that I was an American and asked me if I had a gun. After declining he loosened up, and left.
50 km of Albanian countryside brought me to the Greek border. Cars were being taken apart and searched for drugs, alcohol and tobacco products were confiscated. The Greek officials kindly greeted me kindly in English, stamped my passport and waved me through. “Greece here I come!!” My last European country till Asia!!
I was now headed through Central Greece to the city of Thessaloniki, where I would meet my Serbian friend Nikola’s girlfriend Emrysini. From the border to Thessaloniki, Greece was all too similar to Central California. Farms, orchards, tractors, and small dusty towns. The all too common remnants of better times, large furniture stores and construction supply warehouses scattered between towns vacant and dilapidated. billboards advertise products from years past, and digital signs displaying the time and date all disagree. Banks and Atm machines are almost impossible to find, and prices now in Euros are similar to those in the states. I sleep in apricot orchards and eat pork Gyros as my appetite slowly returns.
Pedaling the country roads I somehow end up on getting on the major expressway and reaching a toll station was asked to turn around and ride 35 km on the shoulder in the opposite direction to get back on the side roads. “Wait here for the police”, I waited for close to ten minutes then when no one should up pedaled underneath the rising gate blocking the road, and back on to the expressway. The road started going downhill and I begin to take up speed, “What’s so bad about this” I thought I am going close to the speed of traffic. Things were going fine, the shoulder was wide and I was speeding downhill. Few kilometers later I see a sign that reads “17 km tunnel ahead”. “FUCK”!! It is too late to turn around now, so I pull to a stop, turned on my tail light, grabbed my reflected vest and prepared to shred. The descent was steep now and increased as I got closer to the tunnel. “If it keeps up like this” I thought, “I will be through in 20 minutes”. Entering the tunnel, the headwinds vanished and my speed continued to increase, I was soon speeding into the darkness. “I feel alive” I shout into a cacophony of echoes. Soon, I hear the sound of a large truck behind me, honk!!! I was not going fast enough!! Without a shoulder, and two narrow lanes I was taking up close to quarter of the right lane. I dropped into the highest gear and pedal hard, move I tell myself. Pedaling harder I felt as if swimming in a stream were being pulled into a drain. Beeeeeeep!! Cars and trucks seem to think that honking is going to change my current situation. I look down at the cold, slick concrete “if I fall I am a gone for sure” I think to myself. Finally I see light ahead, just give me a few more seconds please, I pray. I can hear another big truck gaining speed behind me, it’s getting closer, I can almost make out the sight of green trees growing on the hills outside. The horn sounds, I hold my breath….beeeeeep!!
Kilometers after exiting the tunnel I see a police car waiting on the shoulder, I try to pass the car nonchalantly, but am waved down. “Riding on expressway 200 euro fine” One cop tells me. “Common man” I say “I wanted to turn around but there was no way for me to do it in the tunnel”. I give him my CA drivers license and he runs my name in the computer. “It’s illegal to cycle on expressways in America, I have been there”. The other cop tells me. After a small lecture on my recent dangerous behavior they let me slide and help me find the side roads to Thessaloniki.
Everything is in bloom, and the sweet clean smell of wildflowers fills my lungs as I pedal into the huge city. Culture shock!! Everyone is young and lively. I almost feel as if I have arrived at some festival. It seems as if half the city is outside walking the streets, drinking coffee or sitting in the sun talking with friends. How different things are here compared to the rest of Europe!! The streets become so busy that I can no longer ride and I push Gaby through streets and streets of restaurants coffee shops and bars. I feel like I am in New Orleans on a warm summer evening. The women here are beautiful! A Mediterranean diet and the humid Aegean sea gives the women tan smooth skin, with big brown eyes and seductive smiles I can see myself settling down here in the future.
I meet Emrysini and the party begins! We hangout with her friends and drink coffee for hours on the cool shaded sidewalk, smoking fine Greek tobacco. She takes me to quaint restaurants in small cobblestone street neighbourhoods. We drink Tipouro (Greek spirits) in local clubs and walk along the harbor. I would love to live here, people are so friendly and the whole city resembles a college campus.
The food is unbelievable!! Fresh tomatoes grilled with feta cheese, herb roasted chicken and warm moist pita bread, Deep fried zucchini, mushroom and cheese balls dipped in seasoned cream, sweet nutella burek with powdered sugar for dessert. And my favorite tzaiki- yogurt, garlic and cucumber dill sauce. This city has everything to offer and caters to all the weary travelers.
Unless something else comes my way I will return and settle here. Tomorrow I head for Turkey!!