Finding a route over the mountains in Macedonia

I couldn’t see any path. This new landscape wasn’t as I’d imagined it from looking at the map. Perhaps the track I was looking for started further down the road. I must have looked confused because a man called out to me: “the path is there!” I hadn’t noticed the sign because it was just a stick in the ground at the side of the road with two small marks painted onto it: a red stripe and a white stripe. This indicated the starting point: not really a path as such, but the beginning point of a route. After some hesitation, bordering on procrastination, I took a deep breath, stepped off the road and headed uphill.

The mountainside was rocky with dry scrub, the afternoon hot but cloudy. My breathing became heavier as I pushed uphill. The man had told me not to expect a path, just occasional markers. With no path in sight, my direction was nevertheless clear. I simply headed for the next high point on the horizon, then the next, climbing steadily, heading northwards.

When I reached the high point I had the magnificent view I’d expected. Two lakes were visible from here. Lake Ohrid to the west, Lake Prespa to the east. I was close to the Macedonia-Albania border and able to see far into each country. Across Lake Prespa to the south east was Greece.

I was now high but my route from here was less clear. A choice of mountain ridges lay ahead. Despite the paths marked on the map, there were none to be seen on the ground. I had to reach the town of Ohrid but there were several hours of light before sunset and even then enough light to see my way before real darkness would fall. Enjoying the views but also watching my step, at the back of my mind I was calculating the distance and time ahead of me. I pushed on, making good progress.

The direction I had to take was obvious most of the time but at certain points there were various options. It was at these moments that I saw the signs. Just when I needed them, small thumb-sized paint marks appeared on rocks ahead of me, the same red and white stripes I’d seen on that marker post hours before. When the route was clear, these marks were few and far between, but sometimes they were closer together, indicating a particular way through the rocks and boulders on more hazardous sections.

Alone high in the mountains I had plenty of time for reflection. I thought back over the days I’d travelled from Serbia to Montenegro by train then into Albania by bus. Lodging at hostels and with some flexibility in my schedule, I had often stayed longer than first planned. In some places the highlights were the Balkan scenery or culture; in other places it was the inspiration from other backpackers that had made the greatest impression on me. Sometimes these fellow travellers were a source of information about places to go and how best to get there. At other times their insights were more abstract, not so much information but different ways of seeing. These people had provided travel information at each stage of my journey across the map. Equally, they stimulated my thinking about wider matters with their insights about life. My journey had continued from Albania into Kosovo then into Macedonia’s south west corner.

On the mountains I thought of the people I’d met and what each had gently taught me. Backpackers from Australia, inter-railing students from Sweden, older tourists from Spain, a couple on holiday from the Netherlands, a young woman travelling solo from Estonia; they had each helped in their own ways. Somehow, these conversations had offered ideas, new perspectives or inspiration at just the right time. Occasionally short witty remarks could enliven my thinking whilst longer conversations could transform my outlook entirely. Sometimes I was influenced by a conversation in a restaurant, a remark made in a hostel kitchen, or a chat in a shared dorm.

Just as the paint marks had appeared just when needed to show the way across the mountain, the thoughts of fellow travellers had offered a new line of thinking. As I walked over the mountains I realised that the words of people who had appeared in my life down there on the road are just like the subtle painted marks on the mountain. They are there if you want to notice them. When making your unique way through life you can decide to use them to get to the places you choose.

Copyright © David Parrish 2018.

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