My Wandering

 

Triglav, Mussala and the Warm War in Between (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria)

December 2001

PART 3 (BOSNIA, MACEDONIA)

I reached Zagreb and went to the bus station, where I changed money and bought my expensive ticket to Sarajevo. I thought it would be wise to finish my Kunas, as I was leaving Croatia. I first checked whether they charged for entering the platform, like in Beograd, but they did not. Therefore I bought some postcards and a burek sa mesom. When the time came, I went to the coach. The man took my backpack, bent over from the waist, probably cursed me and all my family that he probably thought I had put inside, then he gave me a kind of ticket and asked something: 12 Kuna. They were charging for the luggage. I rushed upstairs to the - thank God - still open exchange office, but the lady there refused to change only 2 dollars. Therefore I had to change 5 and to buy about ton of burek of the remaining money. Then I got on the coach. I had a seat by the window and that was very good. We left Zagreb at about 10 PM and got on a wide highway very well lit. We reached the Croatian customs, well lit again, where the customs officer came and did not even bother to look through the passports, apart from checking whether the pictures and our sleepy faces matched. Then the customs officers on behalf of Republika Srpska came. Apart from me and a Canadian guy, everybody else held a Bosnian or Croatian passport. The Canadian guy needed a visa for Bosnia, which he had. When reaching me and raising his eyes when he saw "Romania" on the cover, the customs officer looked through the passport once, then again. He probably did not know whether Romanians needed a visa or not. Not finding a visa, he drew the conclusion that I maybe needed no visa, as long as I did not have it (and this was true) and handed me back the passport, getting off the coach. He stamped no passport in the whole coach and, sleepy enough, I did neither notice, nor care about that then.


The coach started moving again and the highway remained behind. The night was dark and the coach headlights were flashing on the nearby hills and buildings. Deserted households, ruined buildings, rebuilt homes, some of which bore Christmas lights, impressive churches, destroyed cars and a lot of snow, they all passed in front of my eyes before I fell asleep, just to wake up with them again in my coach window. That night was one of the saddest in my entire life. What I could not see because of the dark, I dreamt of and this was even worse. I did not know much of these places' history and I took nobody's side, but the results of the past few years were stabbing my eyes just like those spikes on Triglav ridge. The coach entered Sarajevo as dawn came. We got off and I wanted to find out where the luggage room was. Then I wanted to find out something about the buses to Belgrade, to be able to freely visit the city afterwards. I went to one of the offices in the bus station and asked about Belgrade.

"No buses to Belgrade", the brief answer came and these were the only English words I could get from the clerk there, he could not or would not tell me whether there was a luggage room.

I knew for a fact that there were buses from Belgrade to Sarajevo, therefore I presumed they did not all stop here without going back. I went to the train station which was very close. They had this huge, brand new train station, and only 8 or 9 trains a day were running from this one. There used to be a train from Banja Luka to Belgrade, but, as I had read on the internet, it had been canceled, therefore I could not use trains. In all that modern flashing station, there was no luggage office.


I noticed that I had the same problem with the Canadian guy I had seen on the coach and we shook hands. His name was James and he had much more fuss to pass through in order to come here than me, as it took him several days until he could get the visa in Zagreb. We went back to the bus station and tried to do things the other way:

"Garderob?" I asked.

The clerk pointed to a door, then showed us his left hand. We immediately found the luggage room. I no longer was in Slovenia or Croatia and it helped to know a few local words. We dropped the luggage and headed to the centre. The city had kept its lovely looks, with many houses spread on the nearby hills. Communist tall blocks of flats were springing from the otherwise serene community. Some buildings which had suffered from the war had remained as a symbol for the present times. The most stunning thing was a tall offices building which had been shot at and had the upper windows broken, as well as the outside structure damaged. However some of the windows had been repaired and bore lights as a sign that people were working there. The city was however moving towards another working day, despite the two tourists that were venturing through it. It had a normality of its own which was hard to be understood, but which was obvious in its Muslim centre. An eternal flame (which was less than eternal with the gas cuts), a brand new cathedral, many mosques, many Western-bound banks, brand new buses, those many small shops in the Turkish Quarter, lots of Turkish pies, as well as the legend of the tunnel they had dug between the city and the "outside world", these things sprung every now and then to the visitor view. James had to stay another day in Sarajevo, despite the fact he did not wish to do so, but there were no night buses returning to Zagreb that day and he had a return ticket (it was a compulsory for getting a visa). When he tried to ask why there were no buses, the answer was simple:

"Now Christmas, New Year holiday, everybody do what want"

He found a guesthouse and we then splat. I wandered for hours in the streets trying to get a glimpse of those people. I tried to notice the "Sarajevo roses", as the guide book authors had called, so commercially and phony, the bomb and bullet holes in the pavement which had been filled with red concrete. I could not notice them, as they were covered by a purifying and forgiving layer of snow. At a certain moment I noticed a big travel agency belonging to a major bus company. I entered and asked about the buses to Belgrade.

"No buses" was the answer the smiling lady gave me.

"What about the buses to Skopje then?"

"On Tuesday only, 75 Convertible Marks"

First, it was Friday and I could not stay there until Tuesday, and then 75 KM meant 75 DEM, which was far too much.


I decided to wander through the city and decide later what to do with the bus. As always, when someone is not looking specifically for something, he/she finds it. Unwillingly I reached a tourist office and they made it clear:

"Buses for Belgrade leave from Lunkavica, not from the main bus station, you know, they leave from the Serbian quarter, which is beyond the international airport; a ride costs 20 KM"

So, after finishing my tour, I changed 25 DEM which should be enough for both the ticket and the expected luggage fee, then I headed to the main bus station, picked my backpack, then took a trolley bus and, 30 minutes later, after leaving the valley where the main part of the city lay, I got in the Serbian quarter. The people looked the same to me, but they did not look the same at war time, seemingly. And nothing, respectively nobody actually is the same with anyone else, disregarding the situation.

This bus station was small and not very crowded. I bought my ticket then waited for an hour until my bus got there. The luggage fee was little and I got more food for the remaining money. I boarded on a bus which soon got very crowded with students going home, as it was Friday afternoon. The bus made a long detour, basically going around the city, then it went to the NE, crossing some low mountain ranges, going up and down many times. As we were getting closer to the Serbian border, there were more and more desolated houses. Some people had only managed to restore one room from the whole house and they were living there, which looked very sad and strange in the same time. We eventually reached the border with Serbia. The customs officer came, saw that everybody else was local and I was the only stranger, so he asked me to come to their office, where they registered my passport and then he looked through it and strangely looked at me in surprise:

"Stamp?"


Indeed there was no stamp stating that I had officially entered Bosnia or Republika Srpska. I explained to him that no passport whatsoever was stamped in the whole bus when coming from Zagreb to Sarajevo; he called some superior, told him something, some more officers came and then everybody started laughing. A month later, back in Bucharest, I was to hear on the radio that the authorities in Sarajevo introduced the visa requirement on Romanian citizens. Maybe I had something to do with it...

Anyway, he gave me the passport and let me go back to the bus where people were mumbling:

"Tourist..."

Indeed, tourist, like always, but I guess that is what we all are, some lousy tourists through life, struggling to find that something and changing our goals so damn fast.

On the other side of the river, there was the Serbian customs. Once again, only because of me the whole coach had to pull over and the customs officer had to go to his office to register my passport. We entered Serbia and soon afterwards the coach stopped in front of a restaurant where people could eat something. People which had dinars and also people that did not have, like me, still 2 pieces of burek from Zagreb.


Eventually we started again and my countdown started too: I had a train from Belgrade to Skopje at 9.15 PM and it was already 7.30 PM. It was a cold, foggy night and one could not see too much through that nowadays frozen window. When I saw the lights from Novi Beograd, I thought I saw heaven: 8.55. Five more minutes to reach the other side of Sava, then a useless (to me) stop, then a traffic jam in front of the train station and then, thank you, God, the final stop in the major bus station in Belgrade. I rushed outside, and grabbed my backpack which did not seem very heavy now: 9.07. I rushed to the station, showed my unfilled railway pass to the guards in front of Belgrade Station, said “Skopje”, they laughed, I ran to the train and saw it packed with people. As I was running along that train, I remembered a situation a few years back, when I had been supposed to go to the mountains in Romania, on a Friday night, and I had had to go around the train, to get on the other side where there had been no platform, to be able to stand in one foot for 6 hours until I had reached Petroșani, at the bottoms of Parâng Mountains. But now there was no time for that. I snatched a door handle, pulled it hard and threw my backpack, then myself. The hall was filled with students going home for the holidays. They all said something and I do not know whether it was "dobro dosli" or "picku materinu", but anyway I did not care at that particular moment. The train immediately started and after a while a guy said something and I realized that I was crushing his foot with my backpack on which someone else was leaning. The hall was filled with young people, there were two even in the toilet and another two in the small luggage niche which I had hoped to use for my backpack. They were some cheerful students and pupils though and I got that feeling I also have when boarding a crowded cheap, local train from Bucharest to the mountains on weekends. Time passed by. The door could no be properly closed and there was a draught. The air on the hall was filled of smoke from the cigarettes, smell from the wine they had and some choking fog from outside. The most difficult thing was when someone wanted to pass through the people there, like the conductor. When the train stopped in some station forgotten by God and few people got off, after a long struggle to pass among us or rather straight through our souls, some even more people would attempt to get on the train and I shall never understand how on earth they succeeded doing so.

We reached Nis which was the final destination for a big number of people and I could move a bit from the doorway towards the wagon hall. I sat on the backpack and fell asleep for half an hour or so, until a man addressed me in Macedonian, pointing to a spare seat in a compartment. I sat down and enjoyed that heavenly place. We arrived in customs and I noticed that a fellow traveller had a Romanian passport as well. He was nicely dressed and was going to spend New Year's Eve in Greece, in Thessalonica or so. He told me how nice it is there. He also gave me the last weather reports from Romania: it seemed to have snowed a lot, which was good for a change. I asked him about Skopje and he answered that he was never tempted to get off the train to visit it and to take another train later, but that he wishes me a pleasant stay. Not quite a stay, but anyway...


We eventually reached Skopje and I had to get off, leaving my newly made friend there, on his way to Greece. The station was very strange, it was suspended above the ground, on a huge and utterly ugly reinforced concrete structure. In order to get in the street which passed under the station, one had to go down, pass through some mis-proportioned halls of which half or more were closed, as they were useless. There was an extreme waste of space and it was very cold as well. I left my luggage there and went out. It seemed that the railway station was everything there was in Skopje, the very thick fog did not allow me to see anything, apart than a street and a mass of white snow which mixed with the sky above to produce a never ending mist. I asked some people where the centre was and they pointed straight. It was cold, the temperature was of about -20C or even lower and there was a dry, biting wind. I passed by some high building, then reached a river quay. I noticed a line of apartment blocks to the left and walked alongside them , finding a bank which was open on that Saturday morning. Then, feeling rich, I walked on the avenues and streets and avenues in the centre. I had no guide about this city, and I knew basically nothing about what there was to see. It had some nice avenues in the centre and, if in the beginning it was not very crowded, around noon it got really crowded with people going for the latest shoppings: after all it was December 29th. Trying to make some pictures which were probably to be called "fog and Skopje", I realized that it was so cold that my camera battery was almost gone.


The fog gave way a bit to the light and I noticed the local fortress on the other side of the river. I walked, passed by a mosque and by the bus station, as crowded and alive as always, and went uphill to the fortress on a well beaten path in the thick layer of snow. I got on the top and noticed the entrance to the fortress: there were some plates all over the place saying that one could only enter the fortress between 10 AM and 9 PM or so, and this was OK. I noticed a guards' kiosk at the entrance and thought of asking them whether I can get in. Actually there wasn't much to see inside, as the fortress itself was nothing but a bunch of low walls which had probably been rebuilt some centuries ago, but it was nicely located and probably provided a nice view over the city and the river.

The guard came out of his cabin and said:

"It is not allowed to go inside", answering my question before it was even asked. Then he asked for my passport, checked my entrance stamp, then wished me a good day and said I have to return. The situation in N Macedonia, at the border with Kosovo, probably made the authorities pay more attention and, as the fortress was kind of strategically located as referred to the city, that is why they did not allow people walk there. After going back home, I was to learn from a tourist website, that an Belgian was beaten by the police for attempting to have a walk in that fortress. Lucky me...


I went down. One could still notice that Turkish-like influence here as well, with that bazaar feeling every now and then. Going back to the centre, I had to cross the bridge. The stone bridge which seemed to be the oldest one around, was filled from end to end with Gipsies selling things which were more or less related to the coming New Year holiday: cracks, chewing gum, petards, napkins, socks, hats, gloves, toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, waffles and so on. This bridge looked, in a way, just like Karluv Most in Prague, only that there was a different kind of junk sold here. While everything in Prague was "neat" and tourist-oriented, here things were more straight and down on earth. The bracelets, necklaces, trinkets, postcards or fake works of art were replaced here by things people used on a daily basis. I walked among those people and reached the other side of the river in a wider square, where there were many people gathered. It was the same kind of thing like in Zagreb, a kind of a "holiday square", but here, once again, just like in Bucharest, things had been reduced to a more materialistic and commercial issue, leaving behind the nice feeling or the atmosphere. Every now and then a petard would make a big noise, making people deaf and the stereo cassette players would fill the air with a silly music I was so used to from home. Slowly time came to go back to the dark station and to wait for my train. It eventually arrived: it had two wagons. Few smugglers got on as well with their typical bags, which seem to be the same all over the area, in Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Macedonia or Turkey. The train eventually started and I was to share the compartment with a couple of young Macedonians. When we reached the Macedonian customs, the customs officers came, took my passport and then they pretended they want to see my luggage. Therefore I took my backpack and followed them to the next compartment which was empty. They briefly looked through it, then wanted to see the money I had with me. When I showed them the money I had, which were about USD 95, they simply took USD 20 and told me to take my backpack and go back to my seat, handing me back the passport. I tried to argue with them, to tell them I had a long way home against me, but they vanished in no time and the train soon started. I remembered once again, willing or not, that I was no longer in one of the so-called "civilized countries", that I had returned to the "wild East" where things are not what they should be and where rules stand for fools. I went back to my compartment and looked quite angrily at the Serbian customs officer that came 5 minutes later. I probably looked that badly at him that, instead of simply taking my passport and going to the customs building to have it registered, as he did with the others, he felt the need to explain to me in an all-languages mix:

"Not problem, passport polizei, 10 minut back"


I almost did not hear what he said... (click here for the sequel)


THE CROATIAN SECTION

THE SLOVENIAN SECTION

THE BOSNIAN / MACEDONIAN (you are here)

SERBIAN / BULGARIAN SECTION

A noisy laughter, a mocking remark, some sad reference to a certain period of the past when things were so much better, a slice of the best burek sa mesom and a sip of rakija... Attempts to describe a way of approaching life, attempts which fade away in front of one of Zdravko Colic's or Dino Merlin's superb songs... The latter's "Supermen" just comes to my mind now.