11:45 AM, altitude 1600 meters: There were about 15 of us trudging steadily across a snow-covered meadow. Maybe six inches of snow? Enough that you'd prefer to walk on a path that someone had already trodden. So we walked in single file.
About 50 meters off to our left, the meadow stopped at a fairly sheer cliff face, dropping maybe 150 meters down into an impressive canyon. Every few minutes a big roller of cloud would break over the cliff edge like a wave and pour slowly across the meadow. When that happened, visibility would drop to the point where you could see two, maybe three people in front of you or behind. You keep walking, of course, and hope the guys in front breaking trail know where they're going.
One guy had a little MP3 player with an endless supply of classic rock. We kept trudging across the meadow to Dire Straits' "Industrial Disease".
* * * * *
I'm alone in Pristina all this month.
Alan had to have his tonsils out. (He really, really did. When the doctor went in, he found there was already scarring. The adenoids went too.) He can't fly for a while after. So, Claudia and the kids are in Germany until early February, while I'm at work here in Kosovo.
We've done this before. The usual pattern is, I'm good for a week or two -- more sleep, unlimited internet time, read in bed all I like -- then I start to miss my family and mope. This time I cut straight to the moping. Something about the big empty house? Anyway.
I have a colleague from the office who goes out every weekend with the Prizren Mountaineers Club. Which is a club of mountaineers based in, yes, Prizren. Prizren is a small city in southern Kosovo. Historically it was one of the most diverse corners of the province, with Serbs, Albanians, Turks, Bosniaks and Roma all mixed together. It's a lot less diverse today, but there are still members of various different groups down there, and it's still an interesing corner of Kosovo with a very distinct identity.
My colleague is considerably younger than I, and she and her husband exercise regularly and are very fit. So I had my doubts. On the other hand, spending another Sunday moping around the empty house didn't really appeal. So, okay, I'll give it a try.
* * * * *
0805 AM, Prizren, 480 meters: Getting to Prizren from Pristina takes about an hour and a quarter, on a Sunday morning with no traffic. And then you wait for a bit in a crowded, smoky, steamy little coffee shop, drinking tea and eating [i]burek[/i] while the other members of the Mountaineer's Club drift in. There was a nice little wood-burning stove which reminded me nostalgically of our stove back in Germany, with a black iron pipe snaking endlessly up into darkness below the roof. There was a lot of smoking, which is technically not allowed in coffee shops in Kosovo any more. After a few minutes there was a fender-bender outside -- Prizren has very narrow, cobbled streets. (Not the mountaineers. Two random people trying to navigate the streets on a Sunday morning.) I was wondering how people would handle that. Very politely, it turns out.
* * * * *
The Mountaineers began as a Yugoslav thing, way back in 1951. The current leader is the son of the man who founded it. They climb mostly around Prizren, but with excursions around the region -- Albania, Macedonia -- and occasional trips by small groups abroad, flying the Prizren Mountaineers flag on peaks from Ararat to Kilimanjaro.
There's a mix of ages, but the average age is surprisingly high -- there are a lot of older guys. ("Older" here meaning older than my fortysomething self.) Very fit, tough older guys. At one point I was thinking to myself, I wonder if any of these guys were involved with the KLA during the war? Sure enough -- at least one of them was. He would have been about 40 then, and already deeply familiar with every goat trail, side canyon, shepherd's hut, sheltering overhang, and crevasse suitable for hiding (say) a weapons cache within a 20 kilometer radius.
And at the same time several of the older members expressed nostalgia for Yugoslavia. They used to travel regularly to Serbia, Bosnia, the Julian Alps. Kosovo has a lot of mountains, but it's not the same.
* * * * *
1030 AM, ~1300 meters: We were hiking in a state park. Like a lot of state parks in the region, it has problems. Some the Mountaineers were ready to talk about, some could simply be seen. Illegal logging has been a big problem, and there are gashes of erosion down several of the slopes. Overhunting and poaching... we encountered one group of hunters walking past us, and later heard shots in the far distance. The park is not very well funded. The Mountaineers love it, but they don't have a lot of resources. "Shar Mountain State Park in Kosovo"... man, that's obscure. Not a lot of tourists, even in summer.
And yet it's beautiful up there. This January day, the sun kept coming in and out of banks of thick, cold fog. The snow got deeper as we went higher. In the distance, the peak of Mount Ljuboten drifted in and out of visibility like a dream. It's said that Sari Saltik, the legendary dervish, is buried up there. But then, Sari Saltik is supposedly buried in seven different places.
* * * * *
Some of the Mountaineers have some English. We managed to communicate. They took a lot of pictures. They were pretty relaxed. This was -- literally -- a walk in the park for them, a fairly easy 17 km trek through snow a mile or so up. They do harder hikes than this most weekends, and most of them have been doing so for years. I nodded a lot and smiled a lot and did my best to keep up.
* * * * *
12:30 PM, ~1650 meters: The last peak was what I think of as a stairmaster, just walking up and up through the snow. It wasn't a peak so much as a saddleback ridge, with a slope on one side and a sheer dropoff on the other, going several hundred feet down into a deep, narrow valley. Big masses of cloud or fog drifted slowly up the valley, every so often boiling over the edge. We spread out in a line and held up the Mountaineers' banner and took pictures of it and each other. My legs were trembling a little. I hoped nobody noticed.
* * * * *
The hike started at the village of Novo Selo, which is a village of "Bosniaks", which is to say people who speak Serbian but are Muslim. I don't know if they have any connection to the Bosniaks of Bosnia, or if they're just people who happened to speak Serbian and be Muslim. The Balkans are full of these sorts of things. An Albanian told me the story of a Serb family that lived in Peja: apparently the ancestor was an Albanian who was a senior and respected servant at the great Orthodox monastery there. When the Serbs took over Kosovo in 1912, the monks went to him and said, Enver, you've been our loyal servant for many years. Now Kosovo is Serbia. Why don't you become a Christian? Enver thought about it and agreed, and he and his whole family -- sons, grandsons -- got baptized and took Serbicized names. Everyone knew they were originally Albanians, of course. I asked what happened to the family three generations later when the war came. The person I was talking to shrugged, and changed the subject.
* * * * *
2:30 pm, 1300 meters -- We ate at a hunters' lodge. A couple of mountaineers stayed behind and made a fire in the stove, so it was comfortably warm by the time we got back from the peak. Everyone insisted that I sit near the stove, which I'm pretty sure was one of those Balkan hospitality things that outsiders have to guess at. People pulled out sandwiches and cans of tuna bars of chocolate and plastic bottles with new wine in them. It got very cosy. I had to struggle not to wolf down my apple, sandwich, and chocolate Hobbit biscuits. A discussion about politics broke out, got loud, died down. The lodge used to be the summer house of an important politician, back in Yugoslav times. There was an empty concrete tank below it that used to hold a fish pond. At the end the Mountaineers cleaned up meticulously, wiped down the table.
* * * * *
I walked alongside one of the Mountaineers for a while and we talked about deforestation. "It started in Ottoman times. Caravans came through the valley, and the Ottomans were worried about... robbers?"
"Yes, bandits. So they cut down all the trees for a long way on either side of the road, so the bandits would have nowhere to hide."
The Ottomans did the same thing in Jordan, cutting down the country's only belt of forest to get at the bandits that infested the region around the turn of the last century. As a bonus, they got timber for the sleepers for the railroad to Mecca, later made famous by T.E. Lawrence. That was the end of Jordan's forest; the topsoil washed down off the hills into the Dead Sea a hundred years ago, and that was that. The Shar Mountain Park has problems but you can see how with care it could come back. Things could be worse.
* * * * *
4:00 pm, ~600 meters: Back down to Novo Selo with the day rapidly greying around us. There had been no birds up on the mountain -- too cold? -- but in the little village there were jays, songbirds, magpies. I counted six, which I suppose means "gold". Something was keeping them active around the village. There didn't seem to be any people out and around, so it was hard to guess what.
And that was my Sunday with the Prizren Mountaineers.