On leaving Dubrovnik, i did something that i had been meaning to do for years. Previously, i had always entered Dubrovnik by boat, but had always wanted to do the land journey. The reason for that is Neum. As a concession to the Bosnian people in the, guessing, 50's, Bosnia had been granted a short stretch of coastline off Croatia in order to give it access to the sea and for trade. This means that theere is no connected land route between Dubrovnik and the rest of Croatia to the North. And because of the mountains behind, in order to get from BiH proper to Neum, the main road takes you through Croatia anyway...
In actuality, much of the coast is of no use for a port, and Bosnia is not exactly world reknowned for the vast numbers of things it exports. All that has really happened there is the growth of a resort town (Neum) which has Bosnian taxes, and so attracts daytrippers from Croatia etc due to its cheaper prices.
The bus ride itself was uneventful, but i kind of had to do it once. At the southern end, there was a cursory passport check (he looked at my cover and ignored it), and the northern end, the guy did at least take it and have a quick flick, but thats it. Wasn't overly exciting, but another random quest ticked off!
Stopped in Ploce to change. Ploce is another place i've been curious about, despite it being essentially a sh1thole. It's got the only railway station between Split and Bar, so in Yugoslav times, was well used with holiday makers going to the resorts, or onwards to some of the islands. Now it kind of functions as the Bosnian port that Neum should have been. Had a coffee in one of the many coffee houses, all empty and underneath concrete tower blocks, in the centre, and wandered around the station, impressively large for the number of people around (i.e. me).
At 4pm, got one of only 2 international trains a day onwards to Mostar, in Herzogovina. Border control was non existent (nobody), so i entered Bosnia proper with no checks, but Neum with at least somebody having a brief look, which seemed odd. Between Ploce and the border, all of the local stations had been newly rebuilt, lit and 3 or 4 even had perfectly rebuilt station houses, with station staff. Bearing in mind the 8 (all local) trains a day and lack of passengers, that seems a little overkill, and i would put them forward as the most boring or waste of money jobs in Croatia!
Virtually as soon as the border had been crossed, we started winding up along the river valley. For some reason, i never seem to think (or remember) BiH as being green, but huge chunks of it are. So we wandered alongside the river up a very pleasant valley amongst lots and lots of green and some rocky outcrops as the terrain got hillier. Got to Mostar a bit later (huge, rebuilt concrete/glass station and just 4 trains a day, total) and was picked up by the only old lady there. As she was the only one, and i the only traveller, it wasnt a hugely difficult choice to make!
After checking out the room and leaving my bags, i wandered into town, wondering what i would find and how it had changed. I had been here once before, but it was several years ago, and only limited clearing work had been redone then, so it was a horrible dour mess, and the felling in the town had been one of despair and regret more than hope. Now, the central areas has been fully cleaned up, and the friendship bridge and old quarter, brilliantly rebuilt. The central street was filled with pavement cafes (the whole BiH/Srpska area is big on their coffee and cafes), but just looking above, there were several old buildings which had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair which were just sitting there, falling apart due to lack of money/will, or perhaps, as a reminder of the sheer destructiveness of it all. Outside of the central core, more and more sign damaged buildings existed, some with big holes in, others riddled bullet holes.
The first thing you notice about Bosnia, is the sheer numbers of (mostly late 80's model) VW golfs which are around. Its not an exaggeration to say that maybe half of all cars are VW golfs, and if you include the whole VW family (VW, Audi, Seat, Skoda etc), it covers probably 80+% of all vehicles. Whoever had the import rights must have made an absolute killing. In mostar in particular, the number of armoured vehicles and 'peace keeping' forces around was quite substantial, and forces from Italy, Chile, Croatia, Germany, Austria, Ireland and Portugal amongst others were in evidence, although mostly doing very little. A relatively high amount of police cars/officers were also on view, whilst the Croatian broken arm curse was also in effect here.
Because of its proximity to the tourist hub of Dubrovnik, it attracts a fairly large number of daytrippers and coach parties, but few who actualkly stay the night, so by the time i had arrived, they had all left, and the number of tourists around was few. As such, just sitting having a coffee or beer, it was easy to strike up conversation with the locals, which despite my lack of Bosnian (i.e. essentially Serbo-Croat) were not too difficult.
I really like Mostar. The general feel and buzz there now is one of hope, friendship and unity (again), and despite the fragile nature of the country and area, very little hostility, which was great to see and be a part of, albeit briefly. In addition, the fact that so many buildings, even central ones, are in a perilous state, and obviously because of war, you are never far from a reminder of how quickly it can all fall apart, and the sheer human suffering and tragedy behind it.
The following afternoon, i took a bus on the 2 and a bit hour trek to Sarajevo. Again, lots of green and mountains, and we followed the same snaking valley until climbing up over the mountains about 2/3rds of the way through, in the hands of a routinely-balkan (i.e. psychotic) bus driver. The trip, although hot, was wonderful in itself. As many of you are aware, I'm a sucker for mountains anyway and the trees, river and occassional gorge or small lake etc did me just fine.
Arrived in the adopted home of Bolero (1984) and found the hostel i had reserved after walking around it twice. I hadn't needed to bother, as i was the only guest, and had my pick of 30 or so beds. The member of staff working insisted i take a private room (no odds to me), although the traditional charge for sheets in hostel - i carry my own to avoid this - in this case included the pillow and blanket so i was forced to shell out the extra. I was on the 5th floor of a large tower block near the station, it was all brand new (or refurbed, i don't know) and included such interesting quirks as a bomb proof door, large windows which opened fully - perfect for that suicide or drunken attempts to fly to the concrete floor below - and hot water which had to be turned on 90mins before use to heat, but turned itself off after 60mins of heating...
Central Sarajevo is split into 3 distinct sections, whch literally start and end just like that with no overlap. The West end with the station (and where i was staying) is the business district, with a few glass high rises and some banks and stuff (which stay open until 8pm - why cant we do that in the west??!!!); then comes the old Autro-Hungarian sector, with a big cafe culture and streets and hapsburg architecture which would be in no way out of place in Wien or Budapest etc. Finally is the stunning old town, which includes lots of alleyways and wooden shops not dissimilar in style to those in German cities Xmas markets, plus a large mosque, lots of small restaurants and little local shops, and with a smell of cooked food not entirely dissimilar to a Morrocan Bazar.
As with Mostar, Sarajevo has a really relaxed feel to it, and a huge coffee culture, which means that even around midnight there are still loads of people just milling around drinking coffee, beer or just walking, which i think is great. Spent a couple o fdays wandering around being touristy. Went to a couple of the 1984 sites, the site of the Archdukes assassination in 1914 (museum shut), the stunning but derelict old town hall and just wandered at random. Again, Cevapici was the thing, with whole restaurants in the old town serving nothing but.
Left Sarajevo on the 5am bus (to all those at T-K in particular, i know the idea of me being up at that hour is laughable, but honestly, it is true), heading towards the Republic of Srpska. Srpska is a strange entity. Not quite a breakawy republic, but covering a large chunk of the North and East 'Bosnian' country. They are essentially more Serb than Bosnian, and use the Cyrillic alphabet instead of Roman (the Serb-Croat-Bosnian language uses both alphabets in different parts of the region). About half way through the 5 hour trek towards Banja Luka (and 5 hours on Bosnian roads is quite a trek - driving standards tend to be quite, urm, idiosyncratic), the signs suddenly started changing to Cyrillic text, whilst the cars on the rods suddenly contained huge numbers of foreign reghistered vehicles, as opposed to the Bosnian/Corp Diplomatique of Sarajevo.
Was met at Banja Luka by Ivana, a CSer i'd been talking to for months, and who had kindly offered to put me up and show me around. I have been fascinated (or, at least, intrigued) by the idea of Srpska for a while and Banja Luka is a strange place. The capital of a self proclainmed region, with a democratically - more or less - goverment of its own which isnt recognised by the Sarajevo/Bosnian central government.
The city itself is not insubstantial - 400,000 or so - but missed out on all of the fighting and shelling and so is essentially unscathed. Partly because of that, it doesnt fit the profile of how you imagine a Bosnian city to be like. The outskirts were filled with large annonymous aluminium sheds/out of town style stores which kind of seemed wrong to me, but also didn't feel as if it was in quite the right place. It did have an eastern feel to it, but if you ignored the Cyrillic writing, it could just as easily been a random town in, say, France, as in the Balkans. It just feels kind of annonymous, which interested me in itself.
Despite more rain during the couple of days, had a great time in Banja Luka. After the inevitable but still very tasty Cevapi (Banja Luka instead of normal, meaning they are blocks instead of sausage shape). Got to take a wander with Ivana over to her work on the Sat afternoon, so got to see the delights of where our taxmoney is going. Ivana works for a former British forces radio station, oxsigen fm, and still works on the EUFOR base there. As she was presenting a film show for a couple of hours, i had a bit of time to wander around and see what was going on. Security screening wasn't up to much - i realised after we'd left that i'd been carrying a camera around the whole time - and as with my visit to Miha's station in Ljubljana i was struck by just how small and seemingly insignificant a place radio stations are - it was 2 porter cabins squashed against the side of the storage terminal with a couple of antenae. Was given the low down yet again on the evil Sarajevo based bitch woman intent on closing them down, had a coffee in the nafi where i got to see a bit of sky sport cricket coverage, which was surreally both for the glorious British sun it was being played in, and for the fact that England+Wales were well on top and winning, and talked to a some random Bosnians and Brits for a while. And i didn't break anything or even start a new war.
We had a wander around Friday night B-L, visiting the Roman castle - huge area, so of definite importance - a couple of random riverside bars reached down an assortment of twists and turns that i never managed to follow (even by the end, i manage to acquire not even a basic orientation of the city. I was always coming out somewhere unexpected) and ended in the inevitable yet funny Irish bar. I tend to enjoy experiementing Irish bars abroad, just to see how they work (or otherwise) and how Irish they feel (not at all in this case).
This one had huge Budweiser adverts all over, a huge Russian flag pinned to the ceiling and band playing a combination of Croat and Serb folk songs with the occassional western (but never Irish) song chucked in for no apparent reason. Indulged my normal fascination of ordering a Guinness so i could watch somebody with no idea what they are doing pouring it very badly. In fairness, it didnt taste too bad at all, but whatever was served wasn't Guinness...
The following day saw the inevitable rain for most of the day, so we kind of wandered around, drifting between coffee places and just watching the world. For probably the dozenth time on my trip, i started pondering long and hard about calling it quits and buying an appartment or house. I really need to stop paying an interest in house prices on my travels or i'll end up with several by the time my trip is over. That evening, her family had returned, so i got introduced to parents and grandfather, who were extremely friendly if slightly bemused by the random foreigner, and who's mother did the same as every other mother (and host) i was subsequently to meet did - try furiously to shovel as much food and drink into me as humanly possible. During a break in the clouds, I cheated utterly (it wasn't my fault - i was quite happy to walk) on my hill quest and we were driven up to the top of the local hill to look at the world at a strangely communist looking concrete structure with helpful graffiti writen all over it (e.g. Go Scotland).
With all the family returned and a lack of sleeping space, i spent the night at another CSer's place and one of Ivana's DJ colleagues, Alex, who had just got back from playing a gig in Srebrenica, which i typically only found out about after it had happened. Predictable to a flaw. Unfortunately a lack of time between his return and him also having the lucky position of Breakfast DJ meant we didnt get a huge amount of time to talk, which as he seemed a really interesting guy was a shame.
And so Bosnian-Srpskan time comes to an end. Yet again i say the same thing, in that I really wish i could spend a proper amount of time in the country as it is utterly fascinating to me. Any country where everybody drives the same (and foreign) car, they eat Burek and Cevapi (which NEED to be brought to the wider worlds attention), buildings have big holes in them and a huge number of people have broken arms deserves more time. Unfortunately, i don't believe that Sten has plans to open T-Kartor Bosnia-Herzogovina just yet...
It is a stunning and utterly misunderstood country with some amazing people, but unfortunately, i think only a matter of time before it collapses in on itself once again. The hodge-podge of alphabets, ethnicities and religions can work together, but the people seem to have a great need for leadership of some description, and as such can be susceptible to the wrong kind of person coming in and "leading" them.
Oh well. Next stop wherever the heck i end up. Probably a Bosnian immigration jail cell.