If you’re traveling through the Balkans by bus, there a few things you should know. The most important thing is that the people here are late for everything, they cannot sit on a bus for more than an hour at a time and timetables seem to be a mere suggestion and not something anyone takes seriously.
By the time we took the seven hour bus ride from Sarajevo to Belgrade, we had armed ourselves with blog posts about this ride. Some lamented the seven hour ride which actually ended up taking nine+ hours, while others talked about the driver nodding off as he maneuvered himself around curvy, narrow mountain paths. We mentally prepared ourselves to never get to Belgrade alive, bravely approached the surly woman behind the ticket sales counter and bought 20 euro tickets for the old-school Transprodukt bus.
We left late, but at least it was only by about 15 minutes. It was a cold Wednesday morning and we handed our backpacks to the driver, a towering man (did we mention that the Balkan people are enormously tall?) who gruffly threw our stuff under the bus. We settled into the cold bus with seven other passengers and we were off.
We stopped constantly. I mean, we stopped after about 10 minutes to pick up a couple of girls off the side of the road, and then again 10 minutes later to pick up a few more people. We stopped an hour into the ride for 30 minutes at some random bus station, where N had to deal with the “Turkish style” (squat) toilets. After another hour, we stopped again by a restaurant on top of a mountain for a 30-minute lunch break. I needed to use the bathroom, and of course, there was no toilet on this bus. I watched as an older man went inside the restaurant, came back out and ambled over to a wooden shack perched on the edge of the road with the letters “WC” painted on two of its barely-hinged doors. Oh hell no.
Fortunately, there was an English-speaking Serbian guy from Ottowa on the bus, and he led me to the bathroom on the side of the restaurant. It was a squat toilet but at least it had a door that locked. Thank you, friendly Canadian guy! I owe you my life.
The bus felt like it was getting colder and colder, and it was only after I harassed the driver that he turned on the heat. The bus was so old that you could hear the crackling of the radiator as it warmed up. The man sitting in front of me stopped shivering and huddling in his jacket for warmth, and I stopped wondering if we were all going to freeze to death in this meatlocker of a bus.
When we first crossed the border into Serbia, I finally saw what I’ve been looking for after weeks of plastering my face to bus windows and scouring the landscape: landmine signs. I had heard that these skull and crossbone signs were fortunately becoming more of a rare thing, but I was surprised to not have come across even one during my time in Croatia, which is still full of landmines. Anyway, I saw a bunch posted on trees bordering a wooded area in Serbia.
I wouldn’t call the ride scenic (the ride from Mostar to Sarajevo certainly is), but we went up and down some pretty mountains and past small farms where sheep and pigs were grazing. The Serbian countryside isn’t as idyllic as the French one, but it has gently sloping hills and small towns dotting the rocky landscape. It’s definitely a good glimpse into the non-touristy side of Bosnia and Serbia.
After we stopped for the thousandth time in front of yet another restaurant for a long bathroom/coffee break, we watched as a passenger clutched her baby in one arm and smoked with the other.
Smoking is a big thing in the Balkans, and smokers themselves probably contribute pretty heavily to the region’s pollution. At least the driver of our bus was nice enough to crack open his window when he needed a cigarette in the middle of a 15-minute drive from one small-town bus station to another.
The bus shockingly got to Belgrade early, by about 30 minutes. I still can’t believe it. All in all, it was a decent ride, but mostly because the bus wasn’t even a third full and we were able to spread out. We’ve had our fair share of interesting rides, from the rollercoaster-like marshrutka rides in Russia to the restless 14-hour overnight bus ride from Vilnius to Krakow. But we can’t complain about the prices, and they also allow us to get a glimpse of the more local side of these places. We got off the bus and braced ourselves for our next obstacle course of shady cab drivers aggressively offering their services, and walked to our apartment in Belgrade.