Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Day 269 – An unavoidable toll booth and a Communist-era hotel. (Border crossing Bosnia Herzegovina to Serbia)

We should have only had 200km to the Serbian border, but we mistakenly took the advice of the guy working at our hostel in Sarajevo, and took a ridiculous detour. He warned us that the roads would be very very icy and it would actually be quicker to take the motorway despite the fact that it was much further. On his suggested route though we still ended up driving on some of the iciest and steepest roads we’ve encountered on this trip, on top of doubling back heinously, and realised that we would have been better off just going on the roads that we had originally planned. Well you live and learn – we will never take that guy’s driving advice again.

Annoyingly, because of this completely useless detour we ended up on one of the most – if not the most – exhausting and dangerous long drives we’ve done. The road was narrow and ever so steep and windy, ravelling itself around the Bosnian mountains. Although it was evident that part of the surface had been cleared of snow at some point, it was still completely covered in several centimetres and we had to stop and engage 4WD several times to make it up slopes. We’ve driven on plenty of roads like this, but what set this drive apart was the sheer distance that these conditions went on for. On one stretch of road where we were descending, a line of trucks travelling in the opposite direction were parked on the road, blocking the way for a stream of cars behind them. As if it wasn’t challenging enough to control the car already, this was an extra obstacle made un-necessarily more difficult by the fact that a lot of the drivers had decided to step onto the road for a breath of fresh air. Despite the fact that as drivers they should have a pretty good idea of how driving in these conditions is, they failed to move out the way as we approached. Fortunately nothing came of it, but it was exhausting and strenuous to avoid this dangerous scenario. A kilometre or so down the road a snow clearer passed us and we realised that they were all awaiting his arrival to ease their driving conditions.

After all this we didn’t make it to the border until after 8pm. We breathed a sigh of relief when nobody asked for our Bosnian insurance documents and therefore didn’t notice that we had overstayed our insurance by one day. After being waved through the Bosnian side of the border we crossed a bridge, which seeing as a lot of borders are drawn through rivers is quite normal in no man’s lands. What was amusing in a pathetic sort of way though was that at the other side of the bridge we were stopped at a booth. Assuming that this was some sort of official border post (well, as official as they get), we presented our passports, to which the man manning the booth snorted and presented us with a receipt for 2. We realised that this was in fact a toll booth for the bridge, situated in the unavoidable location of no man’s land. It’s not like we could go back or take another route is it? Baffled we paid the nominal fee. It’s an interesting way of presenting it, but I suppose this is their version of the small, not-worth-fighting-over “service fee” that we’ve come across so many times before.

At the Serbian part of the crossing we were of course asked the inevitable green card question. This time Ben went for a more “please take pity on us” method than we usually go in for, resignedly acknowledging the fact that we would have to pay more money yet again, even though we have already paid so much. “We wouldn’t expect you to go out of your way to check that our insurance is valid, I know you’re just doing your job, we don’t blame you, I don’t want to cause you any trouble, etc.” After being told several times that we would have to pay regardless, the lady who was mainly dealing with us disappeared for a while, and returned with the good news. They were going to accept our own insurance and didn’t require us to buy theirs! For the first time in this part of the trip, Ben had managed to wriggle us out of buying the useless and entirely bureaucratic insurance that we were becoming quite sick of. Taking only half an hour in total, and costing us a total amount of 2, we left this particular crossing pretty satisfied.

The next challenge – which we didn’t anticipate to be a challenge – was the search for accommodation. Apparently rural Serbian towns, and in fact anywhere other than Belgrade, don’t have any accommodation. We spent the next three hours looking for somewhere and in all that time only found a couple of very expensive hotels. As it approached midnight it seemed as if we’d be arriving in Belgrade that night. It was obviously much too late to try and meet up with our Couch Surfing host, and finding a hostel in the wee hours is far from ideal, but it seemed we would have no choice.

Just 40 km from Belgrade though we found a typically run-down Communist-era hotel called Hotel Obrenovac. It cost a bit more than we were hoping to pay, but we settled anyway, and spent the night in the type of hotel that we haven’t really come across since Central Asia. Built in the usual Soviet architectural style, with several floors, hundreds of rooms, a bar which I’m sure was classy, or at least expensive, at some point in time, but is now just a smelly and seedy reminder of days gone past, a full reception and two disturbingly ancient elevators, this establishment, like all the similar ones we’ve come across, scream out-dated and un-used extravagance. Wandering the ghost-like corridors and staring at the building from the state-of-the-art-50-years-ago balconies, you can imagine a time when the rooms were booked out, the bar was buzzing and the lobby was jostling and lively. It’s hard to know though whether that really was every the case, or whether these hotels – especially ones like this which aren’t located near to anything of note – ever had a hay-day. Were they just plonked in a spot that someone in an office decided looked like a good spot on the map, as is the case with so many things, including towns? “There aren’t any hotels here, that looks like a good spot. It will have 1,000 beds.”

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