Fragrance of Greece

Ohrid lake, view after a 3,000 ft climb

Ohrid lake, view after a 3,000 ft climb

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.

Ohrid city at sunset

Ohrid city at sunset

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.

Off road descent to jhana meadow

Off road descent to jhana meadow

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.

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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.

Camping spot few km into Albania

Camping spot few km into Albania

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.

Local Greek Ouzo vendors

Local Greek Ouzo vendors

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!!

Greek country business

Greek country business

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.

Small quaint neighborhoods

Small quaint neighborhoods

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!!

Flowers in bloom everywhere

Flowers in bloom everywhere

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.

Lookout at Thessaloniki

Lookout at 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.

Local farmers market

Local farmers market

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.

Hanging with Emrysini

Hanging with Emrysini

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.

Late party nights

Late party nights

Unless something else comes my way I will return and settle here. Tomorrow I head for Turkey!!

Julian-Thessaloniki Greece

 

 

Meeting myself in 50 years

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I pedaled away from the Flower Festival and alone again headed into the snowy alps. I felt weak and seemed to have trouble climbing the steeper hills. but blamed my slow progress on the extra weight of handmade, wool traditional Albanian clothes given to me in the village. Towards the end of the day though my stomach started grumbling in an all too familiar way. “FUCK”!! I was a few hours away from coming down with a fever and diarrhea, and was stuck in the cold alps with little food and water.

Cold, windy Albanian Alps are not the desired place to recuperate in a tent

Cold, windy Albanian Alps are not the desired place to recuperate in a tent

A few along the mountainous road I stopped at a small convenient store with an inventory of junk food. Paprika potato chips, lemon juice soda, chocolate flavored crackers and 4 liters of water filled would be my diet until I could get to a bigger town. A fever was starting to take effect and I knew that if I didn’t find a safe place to camp soon I would end up on the side of the road. Other than struggling up steep hills I had spent the majority of the day fighting off Albanian teenagers. From my encounters that day I made the conclusion that Albanians under the age of 18 spend too much time tending sheep. On at least 6 separate occasions kids threw rocks at me, children would often chase and try to push me off my bike, and many kids with long sticks for tending sheep would try to hit me. These were the brattiest kids I have encountered thus far!

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This worried me as I looked for a safe place to camp. The last thing I wanted to deal with was kids trying to steal my gear and throwing rocks at me while fighting off diarrhea in my tent. I pedaled over a grassy field and found a secluded flat area behind a large rock. With great effort I set up camp, and dug the preparatory holes I would need throughout the night. This is the kind of situation where you wish you had a warm hotel room. I ended up camping there for 36 hours and here is the process that I went through throughout both chilly, rainy nights.

Albanian wartime concrete bunkers found throughout the Alps,

Albanian wartime concrete bunkers found throughout the Alps,

1. Wake up to pain in stomach, Unzip and crawl out of warm sleeping bag (hardest step)

2. Slip on rain-soaked cold shoes, and jacket

3. Crawl under rain fly in mud (zipper broken)

4. Relieve bowels in hand dug hole, wash with rain collected water (save all carried water for rehydration)

5. Crawl back into tent, remove wet clothes and return to sleeping bag

Throughout the first night I repeated the above process at least a dozen times, shivering with a fever. The next day the diarrhea stopped but only because there was no food in my stomach, after eating my recently purchased junk food symptoms returned. The problem with a stomach sickness like this is that you become trapped, there is little muscle and strength to pedal to a nearby city or town for refuge. After the second night I forced myself to pedal out of the alps and into the nearest city 35 km away. One of the hardest things to do pedaling with a fever, chills and forcing yourself to pedal up long steep mountains. Frustration can become unbearable and these are the moments where you contemplate returning home.

Frescoes from the 3rd century AD

Frescoes from the 3rd century AD

I landed in the Albanian border town of Peshkopi. Muddy pot holed streets, large polluting trucks, and dozens of punk kids teaming the streets. This was not where I wanted to recuperate and forced myself to pedal another 20 km into Macedonia. The border guards laughed at my composure as I slowly pedaled up to the kiosk, “Heavy huh” they said to me and laughed, “If you only knew” I responded. The Macedonian border city of “Debar” was very much like Albania and had a population of about 90% Albanians, 4 large Mosques and a small downtown strip with vendors.  The city’s sole hotel rented rooms above apartments on the 5th and 6th floor. No elevator, meaning I had to carry all my gear up the stairs and to make matters worse checkout time was at 10 am.

Macedonian flags outside the Orthodox Church

Macedonian flags outside the Orthodox Church

The next day I met a New Yorker on the streets who had recently moved to Debar to work for his fathers concrete business. I learned that most Albanians in New York and Chicago are from the small city of Debar, and he taught me a little bit about how to fabricate a minaret. There are only two large concrete companies in Macedonia and he is soon to be the boss of one, we exchanged emails and I pedaled on somewhat better but still weak. From Debar the road followed the coast of the lake Debar and through a large canyon which feeds water to the nearby lake Ohrid. I passed two touring cyclists along the way, and learned that both of them (Romanian and Dutch) were scared to cycle into Albania.

A few minutes of sun on the boardwalk in Struga

A few minutes of sun on the boardwalk in Struga

I arrived in the city of Struga completely soaked and found a guest house for 7 euros a night. Carrying my gear up a few flights of stairs I met an interesting Englishman by the name of Howard. Howard was close to 80 years old and had spent his entire life traveling on the wealth of his parents. He had never married or fathered any children and was still on the move. He had been to almost every country had spent months on remote islands in the pacific. In the few hours that I spent with him he told me countless stories of the Middle East , Philippines, New Caledonia, and South America. As much as he wanted to impress me with his tales I saw a completely different angle; loneliness. Traveling alone is great but will eventually lead to extreme loneliness, so bad that you are in complete denial.  This man was potentially me in 50 years, and from meeting him I knew right away the direction my current life would lead me in time.

Lake side Christian graves

Lake side Christian graves

Wooden Orthodox door

Wooden Orthodox door

Another rainy day, I pedaled to the historic Orthodox churches in the city and on to the touristy city of Ohrid. Ohrid is a cross between the Croatian city of Pula and Kotor (Montenegro).  An extremely small city built around an ancient fortress, half the city resides on steep hills with narrow cobble stone streets, overlooking the lake which in rough weather resembles a sea. The downtown area consist of several over priced clothing shops, kebab restaurants and a few Alfresco bars. Yesterday while exploring the city I stumbled into a local bar with live Macedonian Polka music.

Ohrid area, a lot smaller than the one in Pula Croatia

Ohrid area, a lot smaller than the one in Pula Croatia

Another day of exploring the city today and tomorrow I am off the mountains again where I will cross into Greece. Though difficult and at many times painful I am embracing every moment of this trip. I must not forget to be honest with myself.

View of Ohrid from the Fortress walls

View of Ohrid from the Fortress walls

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