23rd AUGUST 2018
I was late dropping off to sleep last night due to some appalling singing and loud music from a party downstairs. Traditional Bosnian tunes backed by a techno drum beat proved to be a distressing mix and it was clearly the wrong combination for sleep. I really should pay more attention to the reviews for cheap £12 a night hotels in future.
Kladanj sits in a steep sided valley, so I have to engage climbing mode straight away when I leave town. It’s hot this morning too, so apart from hills, I have the stinging annoyance of sweat running down my forehead and into my eyes. There’s so much sweat that some gets under my contact lenses and I’m constantly blinking to remove it. My eyes feel like I’ve been rubbing them while chopping onions. This section of road continues to inch steadily upwards for a total of 8km. At one point I have a steep drop to my left and a rocky cliff face rising to my right. The cliff has been in direct sunlight all morning, and cycling past I can feel it’s stored heat radiating back at me like the blast from a sauna.
A nine hundred metre long tunnel then takes me through the top part of the mountain, before a speedy downhill cancels out my 8km of climbing in no time. On the descent I’m faced with a deep pothole in the middle of the road, but I’m travelling so quickly that I can’t safely swerve to avoid it. I just grip the handlebars tightly and crunch through the middle of it, jarring me and the bike horribly. This downhill takes me right into the town of Olovo which, like Kladanj, is situated in a valley surrounded by steep hills. And just like Kladanj, I’ll need to climb another big hill to get back out of town.
Once I’m through town I stop in the shade, drink some water and prepare myself for another plodding uphill. What I’m not prepared for is a flat back tyre within fifty metres. Bugger. That was definitely a result of crashing over the pothole earlier. There’s nowhere suitable at the roadside to change the inner tube, so I push the bike into someone’s garden until I’m under a shady tree next to their shed. It takes a little while to unload the bike, get the tyre off and change tubes, so I’m happy that there’s no angry dogs or householders on the premises. My replacement inner tubes both have patches from being repaired three weeks ago, so I choose one and resume my climb. After a few hot, sweaty minutes I’m at vantage point that gives me a great view back down over Olovo, looking like a Swiss Alp legoland below me.
The road just keeps on climbing through forest and past a small cafe that barbeques chickens at the roadside. I’m only 7km from Olovo when I start to feel that weird sensation that tells me my replacement inner tube is also now slowly deflating. What is it with me always getting two punctures on the same day ? This time I pull off onto a little side road, find a shady tree and go through the whole process of changing inner tubes again. In hindsight, choosing the tube with a patch right next to the valve probably wasn’t the smartest move. The valve is always a weak point on inner tubes and it would be far more prone to re-puncturing there. A couple of locals slow down to see if I need help, which is good of them, but I just give them the Thumbs Up sign to tell them I’m OK. I’ve no more spare inner tubes now without resorting to glue and patches, so I’m hoping I make it to Sarajevo without suffering a third flat tyre today.
I carry on gingerly, feeling paranoid about my back tyre deflating again and continuing ever upwards. I’m close to the summit of a high pass when I notice a red sign nailed onto a tree trunk near the roadside, warning that there are still unexploded mines in these forests. They are a remnant of the Bosnian War that haven’t been cleared due to the thickness of the forest and it’s vegetation. Normally I try to get right off the road when I stop to eat, but I think it’s probably wise to shelve that tactic while I’m in Bosnia. I later find out that more than 500 people have died as a result of uncleared landmines since the war ended in 1995.
I’ve been working really hard and sweating my arse off on this hot ascent, climbing solidly for the 15km since Olovo. So much for the cleaner’s advice yesterday that it was all downhill after Kladanj ! However, the next 20km are indeed all downhill and I’m about to drop around five hundred metres in altitude between here and Sarajevo. Even when the road seems to level out, I know that I’m still losing height as I’m following a river downstream.
One thing I’ve noticed is that Bosnia is the first country on the trip where drivers will toot at me for no apparent reason or seemingly just for fun. In Scandinavia the drivers were so polite and law-abiding that they rarely ever needed a car horn, but as I’ve cycled further South the horn use has increased dramatically. Sometimes a driver will sound their horn when approaching from behind just to let you know they will be passing you, but in Bosnia many seem to toot or wave just for the sake of it. Maybe they do it to encourage me when I’m climbing hills, but I find it a nice, friendly trait whatever the reason.
My freewheeling lasts until a river valley, before I arc round a mountainside for my final 15km into Sarajevo. The city seems to have been squashed into a thin area between the surrounding mountains, which gives the route into town a busy, bustling feel. The roads are so narrow though, that there’s barely enough space for two lanes of traffic, without me adding to the mix with a bulky bicycle. When the traffic gets too heavy I take to cycling on the pavement for a while, but I’m having to be extra careful with my tyres on the uneven surfaces. I pick my way along the mountainside, through a few more kilometres of traffic, potholes and pedestrians until I find the street where I’m staying tonight. Unfortunately this road has a sharp little climb with the nastiest gradient I’ve seen for a while. It’s looks so intimidating that I think I’ll have to get off and push, but I surprise myself by reaching the top fairly easily. Two and a half months of pumping pedals have made my legs skinny, but stronger than I thought !
I’m staying in an old, three-storey hotel that appears to be firmly placed in the category of ‘faded grandeur.’ When I go in there’s bloke sitting behind the bar, who also doubles as reception, casually puffing away on a cigarette. I think it will be a long while before any Smoking Ban hits the Balkans. My bike is left in the bar, resting against some bar stools and I’m assured that it doesn’t even need to be locked as ‘Is OK here. I look after.’ Then to my dismay, I find that my room is on the third floor, which is a bit of a cruel joke on my thighs after all the hills and climbing today. I’m taking a Rest Day tomorrow and have booked myself onto a free walking tour of the city, even though I normally prefer to wander round towns and explore on my own. However, on this occasion I don’t mind being guided round the city, as I feel that Sarajevo will have many stories to tell.