I had come to northeastern Montenegro from Novi Pazar because I wanted to take the 1849 meter high Čakor mountain pass from Montenegro into Kosovo, winding through the Rugova gorge and ending up in Peć, Peja in Albanian, or Ipek as it was called in Turkish times. In 1915 a retreating and exhausted Serb army had passed over it in the dead of winter, a confused herd of famished desperadoes wound in rags like mummies, limping their way through mud and snow. The latest account I had read of traveling the pass, unpaved in parts and at its roughest only accessible with packhorses, came from a German travel book published in 1989. Since then there had been a war in Kosovo and I wasn’t sure how accessible the pass was now, but I wanted to give it a crack.

Leaving the bus station in Berane, I walked up a country road several hours to the village of Murino, stopping along the way for beer and ćevapčići at a roadside restaurant where hard drinking Montenegrins loudly hailed passers-by. “Here comes our junak [hero],” one shouted out at a lanky Montenegrin crossing the dusty road, just casually sauntering along. He was a pretty striking figure, in his mid-fifties, tall, wearing the traditional Montenegrin headdress: black with the top red and a segment worked in gold. The black in mourning for Kosovo, the historic battle of 1389 which led to Turkish domination; the red for the blood of heroes slain there, while the gold signified the invincibility of Montenegro. I didn’t think people wore such headdresses anymore in the Balkans, but there you are; there were still old hold-outs.

The men sitting there at the roadside kafana then began to belt out folk songs at the top of their voices in back and forth refrains full of Oriental melismatics, the words drawn out in overlong trills and quaverings that seemed more Turkish than anything. It was a reminder that in olden days singing national ballads was for nearly all Balkan folk – Montenegrins, Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians – one of the few pastimes.

It was late in the day as I walked up the winding road which was supposed to take me over the Čakor pass into Kosovo. Ahead of me loomed radiantly gleaming – snow capped in July – the Prokletja Planina, the Accursed Mountains, on the Montenegrin border – so named by the inhabitants on the other side in Albania because it was over them that the Turk came into High Albania. That was one story.  The Serbs and Montenegrins just called them the Prokletijama – “the Damned”. 

A man drew up in a car and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was headed to Peć, in Kosovo.

“Peć? On foot? Where will you sleep? Perhaps you should see Zoki. Go to the next village and you will find him in his field. He will offer you a place to sleep,” the man said.

Following his advice I walked up the road to the next village, the last village on the way to Kosovo, and found a farmer scything weeds behind a thatched wooden fence.

“You may stay here with us,” he said. “But I must first ask my brother.”

A little while later a car pulled up, out of which stepped a police officer, a big husky Montenegrin with meaty hands and a gun in his holster.

“This man is an American and wishes to spend the night with us,” said the farmer.

Zoki conferred with his cop brother for a few minutes, the cop looking me up and down, and then finally he asked for my credentials. I gave him my passport, which he caressed reverently, leafing through the pages and nodding, seeing it was a genuine American passport, the first he had ever seen. But before they would put me up the cop wanted to know, was I married? That I wasn’t troubled him for a moment. That I had two brothers and a sister, he decided was a point in my favor. He crunched my hand, and Zoki took me to a little barn under the house where he showed me the byre where I would be sleeping which stood next to a trough for animals. Then he brought me into a sparsely furnished neighboring room and sat me down at a wooden table.

“Wait here,” he said.

A moment later Zoki’s wife had arrived with pasule (bean soup), smoked meat and bread. Coffee was prepared, rakija of their own manufacture poured and I was made to eat and drink while parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and children – in short, three generations who lived there in that farmhouse on the hill – sat around me and stared at me intently. The whole clan lived aloof and undisturbed, seldom meeting strangers, and everyone wanted to see the American, indulging me like a new pet. I wanted to sleep for a bit after eating, but the first American in the village was too great a novelty to be wasted and they mobbed me, happy they had a new amusement.

“Where are you going, American?” asked Zoki.

“I am walking over the Čakor pass to Kosovo,” I said.

Zoki and his brother exchanged glances. This plainly wasn’t a good idea. None of them had actually been that way, but they were full of foreboding. There were Albanian bandits hiding out in the rocks who would pick off anyone trying to cross over that way into Kosovo, they said.

‘Yes, it is very dangerous,” said the cop. “The best thing for you to do would be to take a bus back the way you have come, back to Berane, and from there over the mountains into Kosovo. It is much safer.”

Zoki thought for a moment. “I have something for you,” he said, and he left and came back with a red baseball cap with a heart on it that said “Da!” – Yes – yes for Montenegrin independence. 

The independence referendum had just taken place earlier that year with the result that Montenegro, with a population of around 600,000, was now its own country. The election had not been without irregularities. While diaspora Montenegrins in favor of independence from Serbia had been flown in from abroad to vote, Serb Montenegrins living in Serbia had not been allowed to cross the border to Montenegro to cast their ballot. It was a narrow victory for the Milo Đukanović party and it had been said that the decisive factor in the referendum was the vote of the Albanians, who at five per cent constitute the fourth biggest minority in Montenegro and who had voted to a man for independence. Perhaps for this reason Zoki had given me this cap to wear.

“You will come across all sorts of people in Kosovo. But if you wear this hat no one will touch you,” said Zoki.

The night was hot and I drank a hell of a lot of  rakija with the cop, whose name was Nešo. Then we got in his car, Nešo handing me his gun, and we hauled down the mountain, faster and faster, the trees whipping by, only the cop wasn’t looking at the road, or really holding onto the wheel. His right hand was flipping the dial on the radio. One old kafana number was honed in on – Šaban Bajramović raunching and rheuming in full throated Romanes – Me sem gova chavroro, Khelav mange majlacho… Then another one on the dial, Mile Kitić, Koliko duše imas kad baš si ovde došla. Ko da sam ti bilo ko kraj mene s njim si prošla…All the time the cop was whamming out the beat on the steering wheel with the heel of his left hand and the whole car seemed to be shuddering with it, until we finally hit the village of Murino, stopping in a cloud of dust in front of the local kafana – a real Montenegrin honky-tonk – where inside we drank more shots of slivovitz with Nešo’s cronies who wanted to know all about life in Germany, how much money I made and why I wasn’t married with at least four kids.

In turn, they answered questions about village life. It was same all over, said Nešo. The hardest thing was finding a woman. The girls as soon as they were old enough headed to the city.

Da, da,” said Nešo. “They prefer to work as a waitress in the city rather than live in the village.”

At twelve o’clock I held my breath as Nešo drove like a stuntman, bouncing and flying up winding switchbacks at breakneck speed, back to the farmhouse, the headlights lighting up the trees and bushes and startling a few stray chickens. Back in the barn there was no electricity as I reeled in and bumped my way to my bed with the help of the moonlight and flopped down dead drunk on the bales of straw that was my bed wrapped in itchy woolen horse blankets. The cattle through the wall chomped and stamped, snuffled and knocked their wooden stalls. The next morning I bathed in the trough for animals.

That morning a horrible nausea had me in its grip. Nešo grinned and mimed a sore head. I nodded. Da, da. What I needed, he said, producing a bottle of slivovitz, was a nice drop of rakija to put me on my feet. The very thought of it made me dash for the trough and put my head under the pump.

I said my quick goodbyes to the family and then Nešo drove me back down to Murino, where bleary eyed and hung-over I boarded a bus for Peć in Kosovo, but not before Nešo made a touching farewell speech, saying I was welcome to stay the whole year, begging me to write from Berlin and if possible to find him a job there. He wrote out his address in my notebook with solemn care as the bus poised to depart. As I stepped on the bus he patted my arm and told me to be on my guard in Kosovo.

“You must watch out, “ he said. “Kosovo is full of robbers and bandits. If you change your mind you must come back here.”

Of course, nothing ever happened to me in Kosovo. I found accommodation among friendly people, who even didn’t mind speaking Serbian to me. I traveled from Peć to Prizren and then to Prishtina and found everyone straight and kind. But for a year it bugged me that I didn’t take the Rugova pass. It was an itch I couldn’t scratch.

So, the next year I found myself again in the Balkans, again in Kosovo, at the foot of the Rugova pass, but this time from the opposite direction, in the town of Peć in Kosovo with the same wall of granite mountains separating Kosovo from Montenegro in front of me. I wanted finally to hike this road and set off in the early morning up the narrow gorge after visiting the ancient Serbian monastery of Peć at its base.

Peć is a beautiful little town, lying at the opening of a gorge where the river Pećka Bistrica passes through the mountains. Little streams run along beside the streets.

The monastery was for many centuries the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch, head of the Orthodox Church. It was St Sava who emancipated the Serbian church from Greek authority. He became the first autonomous Archbishop of Serbia and Peć became as a result the seat of the Archbishopric. In 1346 when King Dušan took the title of Emperor, the Archbishopric of Peć was transformed into a Patriarch. Some forty years later came the defeat at Kosovo Polje and Turkish occupation.

The old Patriarchate lies at the western edge of town, almost at the mouth of the gorge. There are three churches side by side, dedicated to St Savior, The Mother of God and St Demetrius. The oldest dates from the thirteenth century.

There is a military checkpoint outside the monastery walls where Italian KFOR soldiers took my passport and let me through into the grounds where a couple of black robed monks strolled in the garden, lost in their meditations. Inside the church of St Savior it was cool and dark. I stood there drinking up the massive, gloomy interior and luminescent frescoes until a black-clad wizened old crone, finding me loitering under the iconostasis, approached me and tried to order me off. “This is not a museum,” she said coldly  and scolded me for profanely perusing the frescoes. Her dress swished angrily as she turned on her heels and stalked out of the church. Sightseers evidently were few and far between in the Patriarchate of Peć.

Disconcerted, I left the monastery and up in the mountains entered a strange country, remote, out of contact; a no-man’s land and a disputed district. In the time of King Dušan fat flocks and herds were driven up here every summer. Under the Turks it became the demesne of solitary nomads. Traversing the road running along the side of the gorge, the only man I came across in the gloom was a fanatic looking Wahhabi Muslim with a full beard who drove a beat Mercedes and wanted to know if the road into Montenegro was passable. I thought not.

Wild and rugged, under eternal snows, Rebecca West and her entourage travelled this way en route to Montenegro before the Second World War. She called it “another Switzerland” and mused that like Switzerland, it had the potential of attracting alpine tourists, if the people round here could ever get their act together. It was only a matter of time, she felt, till rock-climbers and guided tours and chalets catering to the tourists established themselves. It’s been seventy years now and still nothing of the sort has happened. But maybe still….

I spent the night under beech trees on grass grown short and thick by grazing cows, in a tent nearly trampled by cows as they came in to munch the grass. The next morning I made the long footsore journey up a high dirt switchback road absolutely devoid of human habitation with war-time tank traps set in the middle of the road, obstructing even the most rudimentary form of traffic. I was wearing unsuitable footwear and was tired from walking.

But what must it have been like almost a hundred years ago, here, in 1915 when Serb soldiers making their epic retreat had traveled this very road?

German, Austria-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces had encircled the Serb forces, pushing down from Hungary, bombarding the Serbian front along the Sava and the Danube and firing fifty thousand shells on Belgrade in two days, streaming through Serbia in dense masses. Bulgaria, allied with Germany and vying for Macedonia, had fallen upon Serbia from behind, so that Serbia had found itself in a death-trap. With and army of 250,000 they had to oppose 300,000 Austro-Germans and more than that number of Bulgarians, with no hope of Allied help.

The Serb forces retreated from the Šumadija to Niš to Kraljevo and then to the Kosovo plain with enemy armies closing in relentlessly on three sides. They had no provision; no uniforms, no arms, no food, no transport. Rations could not be supplied to all the troops. The cold was getting bitter. The continuous rain began to turn to driving snow. Overhead enemy airplanes wheeled. Stragglers were picked off by Turks and Albanians. The Serbs were now at their last gasp and pushed into a corner from which there didn’t seem to be any prospect of escape.

But instead of surrendering, and without letting the enemy take prisoner of a single unit, they began what would be a long and terrible retreat through Albania, crossing the Albanian Alps, the most savage and inhospitable region of Europe, across these barren and precipitous mountains, climbing over  5,000 feet, reaching all limits of human endurance as they traveled this narrow, nearly impassible road, which became littered with bodies of the fallen and the carcasses of animals, on to which the soldiers flung themselves gnawing the raw flesh. The rags, which were all that was left of their uniforms, they traded for bread and rakija in miserable villages through which they passed. The men ate their boots and trudged on with naked and bleeding feet. Around could be heard the wolves waiting for those that fell by the wayside. Now and then a hostile airplane circled overheard.

Serb accounts make an issue about the fact that Albanian peasants withheld  food to the starving Serb army. And yet, how could it have been otherwise? It is estimated that 25,000 Albanians were killed by the Serbs in their attempt to take over Kosovo in the preceding years. According to Edith Durham, “That they (the Serbs) suffered great hardships on the way, is because they fled through districts which had been completely pillaged and devastated barely two years before. That the Albanians spared the lives of the retreating Serbs who had previously shown them no mercy, is to their honor”.

And so the Serbs  struggled on, for in Montenegro there would be food and rest….but there  was nothing….the troops had to go on to Podgorica and Scutari, a ghost of an army of dying men.

The Serbs later transformed this punishing retreat in their epic fantasy into something terrible and glorious, like the defeat by the Turks at Kosovo Polje, the Field of the Blackbirds, in 1389. They had been soundly defeated, but they had not surrendered. Rather than give up their arms to the enemy, they had opted to forsake their country.

The dirt road hairpinnned across the slope too high for trees. Crossing over the pass separating Kosovo from Montenegro, the old Turkish frontier, a knot of three Montenegrin border police began shouting at me. Where the hell did I think I was going? They asked me for my passport and quizzed me on where I was coming from and what I was doing. It blew their minds that I had walked all the way from Peć. They couldn’t figure me out. I asked them if they could give me a ride into the valley, but they said they were posted there the whole day, looking for smugglers.

The dirt road turned to asphalt, but so old and deserted the pavement was half broken up. I hobbled on alone painfully totally hell west of nowhere, until I came to a man mixing concrete at the roadside. He had short grizzled grey hair and wrinkles around his crystal clear blue eyes. Upon learning that I was American the man chewed my head off for fifteen minutes about all the injustices done to the Serbs since WWI. It was difficult to follow his wild talk. Austrians. Nazis. Americans. NATO. Clinton. Šiptari. He cursed them all. He smacked his hand and went on with his salvo, working himself up into a real state, and shaking his fist towards the invisible enemy.

“Devils! The dragon…..the old dragon….devilish force….Satan….the evil ghost.”

“Listen,” I cut in. “Give me a ride down to Murino and I’ll pay you.”

“20 euro,” the man said, suddenly all friendly and cool.

After a bit of haggling, the man agreed to do it for fifteen. But we had to break a twenty somewhere. The man had an old Tito-era Zastava with the right-side door unhinged and tied to the frame. We got in his rickety Yugo and drove down the mountain, the car door nearly falling off, wooden crosses dangling from the rear view mirror, Orthodox devotional pictures of saints on the dashboard.

“Here we will stop so you may change money,” said the man, ten kilometers down the road.

There was something oddly familiar about the village – if you could call it that; it was really just a huddle of roofs, a cluster of houses perched there like swallows’ nests on the slope overlooking the valley.

Jebi ga,” I said to the driver. “I’ve been to this little village before!”

In fact – here was where I had spent the night the year before with Zoki and Nešo the cop. Inside the grocery shop where I had sat on a wooden bench gesticulating and drinking schnapps a new Radovan Karadžić poster hung on the wall. Aside from that nothing had changed. The lady behind the counter who had brought me pasul soup the year before remembered me.

 “Look!” she exclaimed to her husband. “The American is back!”

 My driver was flabbergasted.

“Does the American devil has friends here?” he exclaimed. “I don’t believe it!”

After I changed my money and bid the lady and her husband farewell we got back in the car and drove down to Murino. I was finding my Balkan paths criss-crossing.