It didn’t take long for things to get tougher on the Peaks of the Balkans trek! I woke up around 6:30 a.m. on the second day, with breakfast scheduled for 7:30 a.m. and a departure time of 8:00 a.m. Given how hot it was on the first day, I wanted to get an early start to try to avoid the heat as much as possible. Really, I would have been happy leaving even earlier, but Mentor (my guide) seemed reluctant.
As it turned out, heat was not an issue on day two. The sky was completely overcast when I woke up and as we got ready to head out through the backyard of Mustafa’s guesthouse, a light drizzle began. Less than thirty minutes later, the drizzle turned into rain and I stopped to throw on my backpack cover and poncho, tying my windbreaker around my waist so I wouldn’t get too warm (it was quite humid and still felt warm when we left).
We trudged slowly uphill, through tall grass and then into the forest, following no particular trail that I could see. I couldn’t help but think there was no way I would know which way to go if I did not have a guide with me. Indeed, when we got to one junction, Mentor placed sticks on the ground in the shape of an arrow to serve as a guide to the Belgian men who were likely about an hour behind us. They were traveling without a guide, relying only on maps and GPS, and had already gotten lost numerous times.
After an hour and a half, we had made it to a small wooden shelter. It was so foggy that I didn’t even see the shelter until it was almost right in front of us! We sat down and took off our packs and I chugged some water and ate half a granola bar. As I started to gather my things to get going again, I started to feel a chill and went to grab my windbreaker to put back on. But it wasn’t there! I realized that at some point it must have slipped off my waist. My heart sunk a bit as I immediately figured it was a lost cause to try to find it.
Mentor had other ideas, though. He jumped up and set off back the way we came, determined to retrieve the windbreaker. For the next hour, I waited patiently for him to return. The rain and wind picked up and I grew colder and colder. I retrieved a lightweight pullover from my pack and wrapped a shawl around me in an attempt to stay warm. Once the rain died down, I took advantage of being completely alone to find a nearby bush to pee behind – toilet facilities didn’t really exist on the trail and to that point I hadn’t spotted too many convenient bushes or trees for squatting.
A while later, the Belgians came by, saying they saw Mentor quite a ways back and that they had not seen my windbreaker at all (I was hoping perhaps they had seen it and picked it up, so he could just retrieve it from them). Finally, Mentor reappeared from the fog, with my very wet and muddy windbreaker in hand. It was completely useless for the rest of the day, but at least I could wash it and hang it to dry at the guesthouse that night.
The rain eventually ceased altogether and the clouds cleared slightly, although the day remained cool and overcast. The rest of the hike was mostly flat or downhill, which was nice, but with my feet soaking wet from the rain, I could feel blisters forming between my small toes. We ran into the Belgians a couple more times and stopped for a short break for lunch (which was leftover corn bread, a tomato and a cucumber). After about five hours of hiking, we reached our destination: the village of Drelaj.
After arriving at the guesthouse in Drelaj, I was ushered into the living room for a cup of Turkish coffee. The daughter of the owner and her cousin, both teenagers, study English in school and were eager to practice with me, asking a bunch of questions and then sometimes just sitting and staring at me when we had a pause in the conversation. To my surprise, they also had a flat screen TV, which had a music video channel running in the background. One video ran repeatedly that featured the Albanian flag, football team and other Albanian nationalist images. I found it interesting that, even though we were in Kosovo, the girls clearly identified as Albanian, even referring to the Albanian flag as “our flag.” This was a theme I would encounter throughout the trek: how ethnic identity in the region transcended state borders.
The guesthouse was really nice, with the upper level where I stayed still under construction. I stayed alone in a dorm room while the seven Belgian men stayed together in an adjacent building. We all had dinner together around 5:30 – another huge meal, with soup, salad, rice, chicken and yogurt. While they didn’t have any cornbread for me at dinner, they did make some for breakfast in the morning and lunch the next day. After having dinner so early, I made it another early night to bed, as things would only be getting tougher!
Total distance hiked: 10 kilometers (about 6 miles)
Total hours hiked: about 5 hours
Total ascent: 520 meters; Total descent: 700 meters