Archive for July, 2012

Montenegro and Croatia Photos

Monday, July 30th, 2012

Here are our photos from biking Montenegro and Croatia. A description of the route is in the previous post.

[shashin type=”albumphotos” id=”25″ size=”small” crop=”n” columns=”max” caption=”y” order=”source” position=”center”]

Croatia (actually, our second album of Croatia):
[shashin type=”albumphotos” id=”24″ size=”small” crop=”n” columns=”max” caption=”y” order=”source” position=”center”]

Sarajevo to Dubrovnik

Monday, July 30th, 2012

It is hard to end a bicycle journey well. The goal is to travel, and the destination is just an excuse to see everything that is in between. Nonetheless, Croatia’s Dubrovnik and Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor made perhaps the perfect ending to our three and a half week bike trip across Eastern Europe.

Much of this ride has been a haunting history lesson. We didn’t choose this route because we wanted to learn about massacres; we choose it because the biking looked good (it was). Yet we started near Auschwitz, where the Nazis committed genocide on an enormous scale, and we ended near Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Serbs and Croats engaged in ethnic cleansing less than two decades ago. We read history of places as we traveled, and spoke to local people about how this history has played out. It was a valuable lesson in the evil that humans are capable of.

After these stories, it was good to finish the trip on a beach, and be reminded how peaceful and fun life can be.

Below are the day by day accounts of the last few days our trip, as well as maps of our route, as recorded by Strava and my Garmin 500. Photos from this stretch are in the next post.

We spent a full day in Sarajevo, where I spoke with local bicycle advocates, and where Lindsey and I stayed in the apartment of a cyclist who will be biking across California next month. We also spent a lot of time with Mahir, a local who lived through the siege of Sarajevo (although he was only three years old when it began). He told us about how his family would hide in their basement for a few days at a time whenever the city was being shelled, and about how their house was so close to the line between the Serb army and the Bosnian forces that he could hear the soldiers taunt each other. He also explained how they tried to just keep on living.

The cyclist who put us up in Sarajevo, Saed, recommended us a route to Dubrovnik. As we wanted to have at least one day to relax on the beach, we hitchhiked about 40km (~25 miles) on one of the larger roads to save time. (This road, though, had far less traffic than the road we hitchhiked earlier, and it would be okay to bike.) Two different trucks gave us rides. As with my previous bike hitchhiking, we found it extremely easy to find trucks willing to give us a ride.

We then turned off the main road and followed a lonely paved road into a deep canyon, and then climbed a dirt road up the far side to a 1,200 meter (4,000 ft) pass. We camped that night hidden off the road in a large pasture after a local shepherd showed us a spring where we could fill our water bottles.

Below are three segments. The first is leaving Sarajevo, the second is between the first and second truck ride, and the third is after the second truck ride.

The next day was another long one–we biked 135 kilometers, crossing into Montenegro and arriving at Risan on the Bay of Kotor. Most of this day the roads were fantastic. Construction in Montenegro, though, had torn up 10 km of paved road, leaving a very challenging dirt road that may be paved in the near future. The next road, which lead to Risan, wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t wide, had tunnels, the traffic drove at 60 to 70 mph, and cars weren’t used to seeing bicycles on the road. We luckily found a secondary road into Risan for the last few kilometers, which, as the map shows below, involved more than a half dozen switchbacks and dropped about 2,000 feet. This road was amazing–zero cars, and views of the cliffs surrounding the turquoise bay of Kotor. We jumped in the water and got our third hotel room of the trip.

We moved slowly the next day, stopping to swim four times. The main road along the bay is busy. For about 15km we followed a one lane road along the beachfront occupied mostly by slow moving pedestrians in swimsuits. If we had been in a hurry, we would have take the main road. Instead, we rested on the beach and bought Magnum ice cream.

We then entered Croatia, followed another very low traffic road, and arrived at the home of Marko, a Croatian who fled Croatia (then Yugoslavia) in 1956 when he was 17, lived in Canada for a few decades, and has now moved back. He told us about rowing a boat with five others cross the Adriatic, and then stowing away on trains. Now he hosts backpackers and cyclists and grows delicious tomatoes.

Our last day we biked 20 km to Cavtat, went for a swim, got a hotel room, and took a boat to Dubrovnik. The photos show Dubrovnik’s old town and city walls.

Our last ride started at 4:30am the following day, when we biked 6km to the Dubrovnik airport.

Photos from Biking Bosnia

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

We spent a full week in Bosnia and Herzegovena. We were lucky to find local cyclists who showed us good, car-free routes across the small nation. This riding was amazing, though difficult. With due respect to the other six countries we biked in, Bosnia was our favorite of this trip.

The photos below show these mountain roads, as well as some of the destroyed villages from the war, images from Sarajevo, and many of the Bosnians who helped us on our journey (Thank you!). Cick “next” to see the rest:

[shashin type=”albumphotos” id=”23″ size=”small” crop=”n” columns=”max” caption=”y” order=”source” position=”center”]

Banja Luka to Sarajevo by Bike

Friday, July 27th, 2012

At first we weren’t going to visit Banja Luka, which is the largest city in the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But we had four contacts in the city, a place to stay, and a cyclist who we were told we “had to meet.”

We had one of our best days yet in the city. Tihomir, one of the country’s leading cycling advocates, showed us a better route to Sarajevo (outlined below), our host Sasa served us watermelon and Nektar (local beer), and Namanja gave us a tour of the city. Everyone was open to talking about Bosnia’s history. That will require a longer entry. 

The route that Tihomir showed us would add a day or two of travel, meaning that we might have to hitchhike or take a bus to make our final destination (Dubrovnik) on time. We have opted for better biking over transportation purity. 

After a lazy morning, where Sasa cooked us eggs and onions fresh from his garden and his own chickens, we followed route 16 south out of Banja Luka. The road led us through a deep canyon–the first of many that we’d see. Traffic wasn’t bad, but the road was narrow. We swam in the river at lunchtime. 

A few thousand feet of climbing later, largely on secondary roads, we arrived at Boro’s place. Boro is an artist who lives in the woods, has cabins that he rents out, a bar, clean water from a stream that you can drink untreated, and soft grass for free camping. We wish we could have stayed another few nights. 

(Note that there should be a map here. If you see blank space, it is because we are having technical difficulties with Strava, our mapping tool.)

The next day, we started late and took our time. We were forced to stop by a family who was roasting a goat and drinking rakia, a homemade plum liquor very popular here. They made us each take three shots of the rakia, and cut some of the goat and wrapped it for us to eat later. I wish I knew what they were saying. Our Serbo-Croatian (the language here) is not so hot, and neither was their English. 

We then took a big detour. Tihomir had told us to leave the main road to see the source of the Pliva River. We mistakenly turned off the route too early, and instead of following a paved road five km on mostly flat terrain, we biked  eight km and climbed 400 meters on a dirt road. Lindsey wasn’t happy. At least the view at the top was good, and we found some shade by a lookout to eat our goat. 

We camped that night hidden off the road after making sure, through charades and a handful of Serbo-Croatian words, that there were no land mines in area. 

Our third day was one of the most haunting but also one of the most beautiful and fascinating. It had rained the night before, and it was overcast and cool all day. We biked across a high plateau most of the day, staying over 1,000 meters until the afternoon. We passed through numerous towns where the majority of the homes had been destroyed durning the war — evidence of the ethnic cleansing (technically religious cleansing, as everyone was the same “ethnicity”) that occurred here less than two decades ago. Some houses had “HVO,” the initials of the Croatian militia, written on their walls. In those towns, Croatian militias most likely forced Muslims (who spoke the same language and were the same ethnicity as them) from their homes. 

We descended and camped by a reservoir that night, where the people’s house we camped behind served us pita (not the pocket bread, but a delicious pastry filled with cheese, potato, or meat – we’ve become a bit addicted) and tried to get us drunk and married. We didn’t get an early start the next morning. 

The final day of our route to Sarajevo would require riding on a busy, narrow road, climbing over 500 meters, and biking through many long tunnels. Given that we are sadly getting short on time, we pulled over and stuck our thumbs out. After about 40 minutes, a man with a small mayonnaise company truck who spoke almost no English picked us up and drove us 40 km up the hill and through the tunnels. He pointed at the many mosques we passed and said “terrorists.” We guessed that he wasn’t Muslim. 

The following two maps are the riding before and after the hitchhiking. 

We are now in Sarajevo, staying in the apartment of a cyclist who will be biking across California in another month (it’s great to be hosted by someone who we can host so soon.) We have met a few people from the local youth Rotary Club (thanks to Namanja in Banja Luka), who have showed us some of the city, and shared their experiences from the war. Sarajevo endured the longest siege in modern history–almost four years–and bullet and shrapnel holes pocket sidewalks and many buildings. Although unlike the abandoned villages we rode through, though, Sarajevo appears to be thriving. The old town is bustling with tourists, and has mosques, churches, and even a synagogue. New buildings stand next to bombed out ones. We really like this city. 

Crossing the Corners of Serbia and Croatia

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

We spent 1.5 hours and 13 kilometers in Serbia. Here are our copious photos from this stretch.

[shashin type=”albumphotos” id=”22″ size=”small” crop=”n” columns=”max” caption=”y” order=”date” position=”center”]

We then spent one night and about one full day crossing the northeast corner of Croatia. Below are our photos. Route and ride description are in the previous post.

[shashin type=”albumphotos” id=”21″ size=”small” crop=”n” columns=”max” caption=”y” order=”date” position=”center”]

Budapest, Hungary to Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Since Budapest, we  have logged long days on mostly flat terrain, largely as we’ve been eager to get to Bosnia and also have enough time for the beaches of Croatia. We are now in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s second largest city. We’ve been fortunate to have cooler weather and tailwinds. 

Below is the day by day, as recorded by my Garmin 500 and Strava. 
(We’re having some technical difficulties with Strava, so the maps aren’t always displaying below. If there are big blank spaces below, it is because the maps aren’t showing up.)

We left our Budapest flat at about 1 pm (actually, Dora’s flat), stopped by the former Jewish district, visited a Soviet statue park outside of town, and then pedaled south along the Danube. About half an hour before sunset,  we figured we should start thinking about where to camp. We were lucky: in the small town of Szigetsanmiklos, we ran into an American, Bart, who had married a Hungarian woman and was visiting his in-laws. We pitched a tent in grandma’s yard, and Bart told us what it was like to be an American living in Hungary. 

We followed Europe’s official bike route 6 south along the Danube, which was beautiful, but it was dirt more often than not. We went inland and followed the busier, much faster road to cover more distance. Also, tailwinds! Score!

A little before sunset, we returned to the Danube bike trail and found a spot along the river to camp. 

The next day was another long one following the Danube south. We spent 1.5 hours and 13 kilometers in Serbia (which had real border control as it apparently isn’t in the EU). We left without even learning the currency, as we biked into Croatia, where we spent the night on a recently cut hay field. That involved a fun interaction with a local farmer, who gave us permission to camp – but warned us of the wild pigs (more people speak German than English, but with a little snorting and miming it was easy to figure out what “shvine” meant).

We passed through the “overwhelmingly pleasant” Croatian town of Ocijek, took a siesta in Dakovo, and then crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina, another non-EU country. Fortunately, on bikes, we didn’t have to wait in the long line of cars to cross. 

Before crossing, we met a Croat who spoke English and who told us that he used to live in Bosnia, but fled during the war. He said that no more Croats lived across the border; they had all been forced to leave. He also told us that the area along the border had been heavily bombed and that there was “nothing there.” He was right.

The first 20 kilometers in Bosnia felt like biking through a house graveyard–the road was lined by numerous empty brick buildings whose roofs appeared to have been burned away over a decade ago. Many had trees growing inside and gaping holes in their sides. Some had newish, inhabited homes right next to them, but in other areas there were no people or inhabited buildings. It was creepy. 

After biking 130km to Derventa, we got a hotel for the second time this trip. we were tired and dirty and thrilled when the first people we talked to spoke English and pointed us to a guesthouse and market (to buy breakfast in anticipation of an early departure the next day). After showers and laundry we went downstairs to the attached restaurant where, in response to “We are very hungry. Can you make us something delicious? With French fries?” we were served what we are calling Bosnia burgers. They were delicious. As were the fries. 

Getting the earliest start of the trip, we left at 5:30 & biked about 50 miles to Banja Luka along a road that was busier than we would have liked. There were some nice stretches, though, with haystacks and views of the river, and by noon we rolled into Banja Luka where we will meet several contacts from the biking and couch-surfing community. It’s the biggest city we’ve seen since Budapest. It is very hot. 

Photos of Biking Hungary

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

[shashin type=”albumphotos” id=”20″ size=”small” crop=”n” columns=”max” caption=”y” order=”date” position=”center”]

Krakow to Budapest by Bike

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

Thanks to satellites and Strava, we have recorded our riding distance each day. Below is each day of riding from Krakow to Budapest. Photos from Poland are here, and Slovakia are here. So far, we’ve biked about 380 miles, of which about 340 were “on route.”

When I have more time (probably at the end of the ride), I’ll write more about each day–biking through the heat in Poland, learning how to say “tent” and “one night” in Polish so that we could pitch a tent behind a house, riding over the Tatras mountains, taking  a cable car to the top of these mountains, camping in a Slovak national  park, spending our “rest day” with a friendly Slovak who took us on a “short” 40 mile ride, meeting Gypsy children, and riding almost a century to arrive in Budapest. 

We’ve had great hosts so far–Iwo, Maciek, Magda, Stefan, Victoria, and Dora’s mother & brother, Clara and Marci. Not only have these people taken us into their homes, but they’ve also helped us understand what it means to live in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. 

Now, on to Croatia and Bosnia. 

Photos from Biking Slovakia

Friday, July 13th, 2012

[shashin type=”albumphotos” id=”19″ size=”small” crop=”n” columns=”max” caption=”y” order=”date” position=”center”]


Friday, July 13th, 2012

Starting during our flight to Poland, Lindsey and I have been reading The Bloodlands, the history of how Stalin and Hitler murdered 14 million people in the 1930s and 40s. I knew about the horrors of the Holocaust, but I didn't know about how Hitler killed Soviet prisoners of war, or of how the Nazis killed millions of non-combatant civilians, or how Stalin chose to starve a few million Ukrainians in the 1930s. Most of these atrocities occurred in the lands between the Soviet Union and Germany, and most actually happened outside of concentration camps, through shooting or starving.

On our second full day in Poland, we took a bus an hour and a half to visit Auschwitz, the most infamous site of the Holocaust, where more than a million people, mostly Jews, were put to their death in gas chambers and then cremated. By the numbers, more civilians were shot or starved than gassed during World War II, yet I still find the gas chambers the most terrifying part of these years. The civilization of Jews in Eastern Europe was destroyed, partially through the efficiency of these chambers. It is especially disturbing to walk around the former Jewish district of Krakow. Jews were once about a third of the population of the city (and 10 percent of Poland's polulation). Now there are almost none.

Below is a photo of the former gas chamber, which the Nazis blew up before the arrival of Soviet forces. Also pictured is the train tracks, which brought passengers to be gassed.


For my job, I help a foundation with its efforts to fight climate change, largely through education campaigns of the U.S. public. I believe that climate change is a serious threat that we must address. Yet as I look at these death sites, apart from the overwhelming disgust, I feel luck. It is a luxury to worry about problems like climate change in comparison to the horrors of World War II.

Another book I read this year (or read most of) was The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker. It made the argument, somewhat convincingly, that violence has declined remarkably over history. Pinker claims that as a percentage of the population, far fewer people died due to violence or warfare in the last decade than in any decade in history. The decrease is largely cultural–due to education and increased empathy, acts of violence are not acceptable in the way that they once were.

Once, in a land where people were killed in the millions, I can ride my bike safely across borders and my only threat is saddle sores. It seems like a different world entirely. I asked one of our hosts, who is our age, about what people think about the Germans and Russians today. Mostly, he said, people respect the Germans for their economic organization.

Poland was decimated by WWII. It lost its large Jewish population (which settled there partially because the region was slightly less intolerant than the surrounding regions), as well as much of its elite, who were also murdered by Soviets or Nazis. Yet today we can easily cross borders, there is no fear of war, and people are worried about economic issues and not violence. I'd say that's progress. It is as if we have moved, as a society, higher on Malsow's Hierarchy of Needs. Once we figure out (or have mostly figured out) how not to kill each other, we can worry about how to better live together.