Hiking the Tallest Mountain in Macedonia – Mt. Korab

The Peaks of Korab

The Peaks of Korab

Two other volunteers contacted me to go for a camping/hiking adventure at Mt. Korab, the tallest mountain in Macedonia, which also happens to be in my backyard (about thirty kilometers away).  I felt a bit of trepidation about the trip as it would be only three of us wondering into the wilderness, I was just getting over being sick, and the temperature was beginning to drop.  Trepidation, cold and wimpiness aside, I packed my backpack Friday night and awoke the next morning (mostly) ready to hike the 2700 meters to the summit of Korab.  Though the mountain is not far from my town, logistics for getting ourselves to it were a bit complicated.  There are no direct kombis (buses) to the trail head, or even to get to the road leading to the trail-head.
We met in Mavrovo, where one of the free roaming, pony-sized mountain dogs befriended us.  I think he was mostly liked us due to the fresh bread I was carrying for our PB&J sandwiches.  Unfortunately, we had to leave him behind in order to catch a ride to the road leading to Mavrovo.  After about two hours of transportation mishaps, which resulted in us traveling back and forth across the same thirty kilolmeter area a few times, we finally ended up at the correct, unlabled road – thanks to the help of some fellow kombi passengers.
We were now at the right place, but how far did we have to hike to the trail-head?  I had read online that it was 19 kilometers from the base of the road to Pobeda police/border station, where the trail-head could be found.  I sincerely hoped that it was not that far.  Comforted by the fact that we were actually at the right place, we began the trek.  It was quite beautiful to walk alongside the river, Radika, and we had the road to ourselves.  At one point we went up the wrong hill, only to be informed by a baba (Macedonian grandmother) sitting on her front porch that we had gone the wrong way and had to go back down the hill and take the other road.  Once we were on the right road, we encountered another baba in the yard with her chickens.  She was dressed in the traditional dress, with a handkerchief wrapped around her head, knit leggings, and a knit dress with fringe at the bottom.  She waved to us, saying “Aјде да пиеме кафе!”, which was an invitation for conversation and  turkish coffee.  We eagerly accepted – it was cold out and some fresh, hot turkish coffee sounded very appealing.
She motioned us into a small stand-alone room with two beds, a cupboard and a stove.  One bed was occupied by drying beans, so we sat in the other.  She was shocked that we were hiking – three females with no men.  Upon discovering that the volunteers I was with spoke more Albanian than Macedonian, she switched from speaking Macedonian to Albanian, asking “A keni ju vellai, kusheri, shoket?”  She was asking where our brothers, cousins and male friends, etc. were – three women hiking and camping, especially without any men, was a very foreign concept to her.  While we might have disagreed about the need for male protection, we enjoyed our conversation and learning more about our hostess, Sveta.  She invited us to stay, shaking her head at our refusal.  We hit the road again, huffing our way up the mountain for another three hours to reach Pobeda.
We think that we are going the right way!
We reached the police station, and the police,curious about three Americans, invited us in for tea and helped us to build a fire outside.  We placed our tent in the shelter that they had for their wood kindling, as it helped to block some of the strong wind blowing around us.  When Kelly (one of the other volunteers) could not get her camp stove to light due to the wind, they let us use their kitchen.  Upon seeing that we were eating packaged ramen, they set about making sure that we had a more nutritious meal.  One policeman, big and smiley, made us a shredded beet salad from the biggest beet that I had ever seen.  The smaller, skinny one offered us bread.  In a poor exchange, we gave them one of our ramen packets.  Two other policemen joined the others – they had been outside and had gathered a bunch of bright yellow mushrooms.  The policemen were all excited to cook them and insisted that we try some as well.  Against my better judgement and fear of mushroom poisoning, I did.  It was delicious!  The small, skinny policeman regaled us with stories of his service twenty years earlier – when there had not been any electricity, this meant no phones and no light in a very isolated place subject to cold, snowy winters.  He also warned us to be careful of bears in the area.  Just what you want to hear whilst camping and hiking!
We bid them goodnight, promising that we would find them if we had any problems.  We proceeded to squeeze into Kelly’s two person tent. Alarms were set for 5 am the next morning, and snugly squished together, we fell asleep.  When we woke the next morning, the sky was still dark.  We filtered water, made our PB&Js and waited for the sun to rise.  At 6 am, we hit the trail.  Out of shape, I wheezed along for the first hour, and eagerly sat down for our breakfast of granola bars an hour later.
 Breakfast Break
The road split, with one way appearing to peter out by an abandoned house, and the other continuing in the opposite direction.  We chose to head in the direction away from the house. After walking for about two hours, we noticed that the road seemed to be one of the most indirect hiking trails that we had ever taken.  It would dip down and then rise back up, challenging our mostly unused hiking muscles.
Kelly happened to notice a footprint in one of the muddy sections of the road, and called us over.  It appeared to be a bear footprint.  The sight set us on edge, but as the print was pointing in the direction from which we had come, it seemed that the bear must have heard us and run back into the forest below.  We continued walking, passing a pile of fresh bear scat on the way.  Britt bravely temperature tested the scat, and told us that it had residual warmth.  Not the words that you want to hear about predator scat.  After a quick powow, we decided to continue on – as the bear had been going in the opposite direction – and reassess if we passed any additional signs of bears.  The next hour passed without incident.
The views along our walk were gorgeous, and the landscape was like nothing I had seen before.  Above the treeline, only golden grass was visible, and occasional mountain streams. The only other sign of human life came in the form of a small homestead type structure that we passed on the way.
The Climb
We finally came up amidst the peaks after two more hours of hiking.  Our trailed ended at the site of an old foundation – perhaps for a shelter.  Kelly was determined to find the summit, but we were all uncertain of where exactly the summit was, or whether we had already reached it.  We pressed on for another thirty minutes or so, until the foot trail that we stumbled upon disappeared.  We sat down to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and decided that it was time to turn back.  It was ten o’clock and we had a good 8-10 more hours of hiking ahead of us, and buses to catch back to our homes.
We were pretty well exhausted already, and trekked in silence back the way that we had come.  When we arrived at the police station, we were greeted by a new group of policemen – the day before the policemen had been Macedonian.  This day they were Albanian.  They complimented us on our Albanian and we chatted for a little while.  We pulled down our tent and grabbed our bags, and waving goodbye to our new friends, we began the rest of the journey back to the main road.  On our return we called out to Sveta as we passed her house to let her know that we had safely made it back down from the mountain.  She must have been inside, as we weren’t able to find her.  At the bottom of the road, we said our goodbyes – I left for Debar, while Britt and Kelly walked to the nearby Communist monument to wait for their kombi.  We hugged, and agreed to meet again for another hiking adventure soon.

 

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Ramazan in Macedonia

Ramazan officially began this past Saturday, which means that the majority of my friends and colleagues are fasting from about 2 am in the morning until 8:30 pm at night.  No food, no water or other drinks.  I was in Skopje for the weekend and returned on Monday night to the sound of drums and a large iftar meal (the meal eaten to break the fast). Children play the drums, walking from neighborhood to neighborhood.  They are provided with some gifts (money) as go.  Sounds like a pretty good gig , right?

Onions are the prominent vegetable in the iftar meal.  The most traditional dish is made of onions that have been cooked down for at least four hours, ground beef is added, and once the four hours have passed, eggs are cracked over the hot mixture.  My host mom purchased 15 kilograms of onions to prepare this dish – which will be served at every iftar meal.  I was hesitant to try it at first, given my stomach issues, but I threw caution to the wind and prayed that the water had not been shut off (it usually is shut off for a few hours every day in the summer) in case I had a need for the toilet *ahem*. It was absolutely delicious – the taste reminded me a bit of sloppy joe filling.

After dinner, my host mom offered me coffee as she joked that she had not missed eating food all day, but missed coffee. I politely declined as I was uncertain of how my stomach might respond to this volatile combination.

It is interesting how the dynamic of the town changes during Ramazan.  The coffee bars and sidewalks are usually packed with people during the day, but during Ramazan the streets are empty.  Most people are relaxing and sleeping at home.  The real party begins after the sun sets – after the iftar meal families, children and teens spill out of their homes to walk around town and to meet with their friends for coffee.  During Ramazan the activities of day and night are almost reversed.

This morning, I decided that I would try to fast, which was a short lived experiment.  The office that I work in does not have air conditioning, and while the floor to ceiling windows surrounding the office are beautiful, they also insulate the room – creating the sensation that you are baking in an oven.  I admitted defeat, filled my water bottle and grabbed a banana.  I am impressed by those of my Muslim friends and coworkers that do observe the fast for Ramazan – it is an especially difficult time of year to abstain from drinking water.

I should mention that not every Muslim fasts for Ramazan, for a variety of reasons, and the fasting portion of Ramazan (to my understanding) is only one facet of observance.  Indeed, it seems that this month is a period of particular spiritual and religious observance for Muslims, when expectations for striving to follow the tenets of the Islamic faith are high.

Now, I am off to meet with some friends to go out for coffee after finishing my vezë dhe qepë (eggs and onions).  Gezuar Ramazani!  Happy Ramazan!

çokollatë e plasma

The Lake

I woke up this past Saturday feeling unusually carefree.  My attitude remained unaffected even after making tea incorrectly for the umpteenth time (prior to coming to Macedonia, I was blissfully unaware that there is an art to making tea, and that my skills are sorely lacking).  My host cousin and sister kindly overlooked the tea incident and joined me for coffee at one of the more popular coffee bars downtown.   After  overindulging in coffee and çokollatë e plasma – a combination of hot chocolate and cookie crumbles – we decided to take a walk down to the lake that lies beneath the town.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and unusually warm, and perfect for admiring the amazing beauty of this area.  After having visited Tetovo and Skopje recently,  this view reminded me to be thankful that Diber is not cloaked in the pollution smog that plagues some of the larger cities in Macedonia.  Trash and pollution is a major problem across the country, unfortunately, which makes me worry that the (mostly) pristine beauty of Diber and the surrounding national park, Mavrovo, will not last.