Balkan beats: adventures in slow travel

26th October 2011 by

Last month, I packed my bags and temporarily ran away from home. This post is a collection of a few favourite moments on the road. It’s also an ode to two-wheeled travel, local food and the art of hospitality.

Better than a free lunch

In Slovenia, we took a wrong turn out of Ljubljana and suddenly went off our map. Completely lost, we knocked on the door of a house that looked friendly enough. And before we knew it, we were sitting in the kitchen of our new friends, Darja and Frank, drinking coffee, practising our broken Slovenian, looking over maps and talking about their upcoming plans for a trip to Tibet. It turned out that we were on the wrong side of a pretty sizeable hill, so after feeding us lunch, Frank loaded our two-wheeled steeds into his horse trailer and drove us over the mountain, plonking us down in Grosuplje, where we were supposed to be, and pointing us in the right direction.

The next day, we were befriended by a retired couple, Nadja and Marjan, while resting at the side of the road a few kilometers away from the Croatian boarder. They wouldn’t hear of letting us carry on without feeding us some homemade cherry wine and coffee. This, of course, turned into a four hour lunch where we gorged ourselves on fresh walnuts, salad, stuffed peppers and potatoes, all from their garden, and drank delicious local wine. (And then had to cycle up a giant mountain in the fierce afternoon heat- ugh.)

The amazing hospitality of the people we met along the way will stay with me for a long time, as will the amazing food. Time and time again, we found ourselves in front of heaped plates of figs, cheese, vegetables and walnuts, being encouraged to eat as much as we could. As far as I’m concerned, the Balkans are filled with doting grandmothers who feed you till you burst and fun-loving uncles who break out the rakjia (a local kind of schnapps) at every possible occasion, including breakfast. More than once, I had to secretly tip my 8am shot glass into the bushes! Whenever we enthusiastically used our favourite Slovenian-Croatian-Bosnian-Montenegran word, “dobro” (which means “good”), our hosts would invariably point at a tree or plant or cow and explain that the food came from their own land.

In Croatia, we cycled through the interior of the country for three days before hitting the coast. Far away from the tourist path, we passed through amazing desert mountain landscapes and pedalled through tiny villages where tiny old women shelling corn on their front porches would wave and smile, and groups of men sitting in front of cafes would yell hello and good luck, and ask where we were heading (at least we think that’s what they were asking….our Croatian was broken at best). For me, the best moments of the trip were those little interactions – the small moments that reminded me why I love bicycle travel so much. Cars and trains put barriers between you and the places you move through, but on a bike you can talk with everyone as you pedal by.

Our second night in Croatia, we were heading towards the amazingly beautiful (but very overcrowded) Plitvicka lakes. As the clock edged towards 6:30 and the shadows got longer, we started our daily search for somewhere to stay. We’d been advised not to wild camp because of land mines left over from the war in the 90s, so we started looking for signs for sobas, rooms that people rent in their houses. We stopped in a town that was mostly deserted, with trees growing up through abandoned houses and buildings with obvious bullet holes, the first time we’d seen real evidence of the war. We saw a sign for an organic farm and stopped to chat with the farmer. After buying his amazing secret superberry juice and sampling some delicious lavender cookies, we got to talking. It turns out he was a counter-terrorism pilot during the war. He thought that war was madness, but as he put it “when people come at you with guns, you either leave or you fight. I couldn’t leave, so I fought”.

Over the next month, as we travelled down into Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania and finally to Greece, we heard so many different stories of war. I came away convinced that there are as many perspectives as there are people living in the Balkans. This is certainly a complex part of the world, with many surprises and contradictions. One thing is sure – for people who value hospitality so deeply, it must have been excruciating to shut themselves off from so many of their neighbours, schoolmates and bordering countries for all those years during the war.

Their challenges now are different – whether to join the EU, how to fend off cheap agricultural imports, how to keep young people from leaving the country in search of jobs. Like many of us in the UK, the young people we met were uncertain about their future. Our last few days in Greece really brought this message home, with people telling us about 50% salary cuts and mass emigration to other EU countries.

As I packed up my bike and boarded the boat back to London, the thought stuck with me that we’re at an economic turning point and we really are all in this together. And then I came back to find occupied stock exchanges in cities all over the world, but that’s another story for another blog….

Up in the air!

1st July 2011 by

Eluned is travelling to India to volunteer with Performers without Borders. After a month of train travelling and many months of journey planning, Eluned finds herself aboard a plane for the final leg of her journey.

On the plane
As we sit on the runway at Tashkent airport, I look around at the other passengers settling into their seats. Most of them look bored and non-plussed. When we eventually set off, I strain and wriggle in my seat, trying to get a look out of the window from where I´m sitting in the centre aisle. I´m puzzled to see that everyone else is reading magazines, staring at the seat in front of them, or plugging in their headphones and falling asleep.

No one seems to be in the least bit amazed about the fact that we will soon be forging our way through the atmosphere, travelling thousands of feet above the Earth. In fact, the only person who seems remotely as excited as me is the toddler bouncing up and down on their seat in front! The plane tips into the air and my head and stomach fly away momentarily before I rise up to meet them.

It seems a strange place for our society to have reached, and it strikes me as quite sad, where something really quite miraculous is – at least for the richest fraction of the world – taken as commonplace and boring. Part of my problem with this type of transport is that people do it without thinking twice, either about how amazing it is, or about the big impact it will have. Not only that, but people seem to have forgotten the fascination with not just the destination, but the journey. For me, the train ride from London to Tashkent itself was every bit as exciting and as memorable an experience as each country I stepped out into. It was kind of like meeting new friends in a cosy cinema to watch a live documentary of the world going by.

What’s the problem with flying?
Air travel can be uniquely harmful, because it releases gases directly into the upper atmosphere. It is one of the most significant ways a single person can contribute to climate change.

There are three gases emitted by aircraft which contribute to global warming: water vapour, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The combined effect of the gases on global warming can be 2-5 times as bad as carbon dioxide alone. Because they are released high into the atmosphere, they do far more damage than they would on the ground.

To put it in context, on a return trip from the UK to New Zealand you would add approximately 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more than the average British person emits in a whole year. If you flew from London to Paris your emissions would be 244kg of CO2 – to go by train would produce 91% less!

In other words, in a single plane trip you could contribute more to global warming than the total of all your other activities in a whole year. Even if you do all you can to reduce your “carbon footprint” (the amount of carbon emissions you produce) in other areas of your lifestyle, and are careful about the way you choose to eat, power and heat your home, consume and dispose of goods, making a flight can quite easily counteract all of it – just like that.

The big C.C.
It can be hard to make the idea of climate change real, to think how what I am/ you are doing every day, now, relates to the climate of the whole world. But what it means is very real, and can be really quite scary.

For me, there are several reasons why I wanted to try travel to India and back overland. Firstly, because by flying I would contribute way more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than I am comfortable with. I try to do what I can to live in a way which doesn´t harm other people or the world around us. For me, flying to India would undermine a lot of the work I would be doing once I got there. It is all the more pertinent because I am travelling to a developing country. Whilst the richest 7% of the global population (which includes the British) create 50% of global carbon emissions – as well as making the majority of flights – it is the developing world which will be the most vulnerable to climate change. It has been estimated by the UK Department of International Development that climate change will cancel the benefits of western aid and debt relief.
Over all, flying to India and back would produce approximately 5 tonnes of CO2, more than it takes to heat a  UK house for an entire year. The same trip taken directly by train would produce just over 1 tonne of CO2.

Because of bureaucratic obstacles, a tight timetable and safety concerns, sadly I chose to fly part of the way on the outward trip. I therefore estimate my carbon output (including a return journey, hopefully all overland but the long way round) to be 1.7 tonnes of CO2. The carbon saving I will make by traveling this way is therefore in the region of 3.3. tonnes (I would really like to make a comparison between this and other activities to make it more real and show how much it really is, so if anyone has any suggestions of where I can find something like this, please get in touch!!).

I also want to travel overland because – wow, what an experience! Already, I have taken in so much more of the landscape, and made so many more real connections with people than I would by sitting in an air conditioned container making jet trails over their heads. For me travel is not just about a single place to go to and come back from, but about the journey getting there. I want to make the most of the opportunity to discover more about the world, but to do it without causing too much damage. (Also, as I discovered during this flight, although I may love being above the clouds and appreciate the miracle of flying, the whole package of aviation, from the arduous check in, the tedium of sterile airports to the hours without a view for those without window seats can be distinctly boring).

Another Way is Possible
Finally, I wanted to attempt this trip overland because I genuinely believe that lower-carbon travel is a much better way forward than sitting comfortably and watching business as usual mess up things for myself and for people that I love and care about. I really hope that in doing it, maybe someone else´s eyes will be opened to the possibilities, and that a few more minds will become aware of how much difference a flight can make.

If it seems like things are unlikely to change, just consider that only 50 years ago, there were no commercial airlines. Things do change. Internet and global communications make planning overland travel a whole lot more straightforward. Within Europe, efficient train connections make overland travel a very viable option, whilst outside of Europe train cheaper train prices can make long journeys less pricey than you might think. Websites like www.seat61.com make planning a lot more easy, whilst a new system to be released soon on www.loco2.co.uk aims to facilitate train booking for journeys in Europe – and to find the cheapest routes. It would make me so happy to know that my trip and this blog had inspired someone to take on the adventure of riding overland, instead of flying.

Before making your next flight, think about its impact. Ask yourself, “hang on, do I have to take this flight? Or does it just seem more convenient? What about doing things differently?”. It is your choice, and there are alternatives – alternatives that can be really amazing! I hope that reading this blog might inspire you to stop and reconsider. Above all, I have to say, there´s nothing quite like a good long train ride =:0).


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