How Sunday trips to the mountains became the country’s favorite pastime.
Dawn was just breaking over a springtime Prishtina skyline when Gonxhe’s alarm went off at 6am, early for any day but especially for a Sunday. She got up and packed her bags with provisions and water, as she had a long journey ahead of her. It was time to climb her first ever mountain, and her sister and cousin were joining her.
She met up with three busloads of fellow hikers in Prishtina’s Sunny Hill neighborhood, before travelling deep into the Sharri mountains. There, the approximately 200 people would climb the 2,528m high summit of Kobilica, one of the mountain peaks that forms the border between Kosovo and Macedonia.
"Once you got to the top, all your struggles were forgotten.”
After the first few meters, dark grey cloud cover stretched over the top of the Sharri mountains. It didn’t take long before the first rain showers hit the hikers, as thunderstorms and strong winds made the climb even tougher. Raincoats were hastily adorned and hiking boots tightened, as the hikers scrambled over the slippery, stony and steep paths.
At the peak, the rain gradually stopped and the beautiful vista was revealed to the mountaineers. Relief and joy passed over the faces of the hikers, who were overwhelmed by the panorama. “It was a hard way to get there: to reach the summit I mean,” Gonxhe reveals. “But once you got to the top, all your struggles were forgotten.”
It was Gonxhe’s first ever hike with Kosovo Hiking Trips, an organization that promotes hiking in Kosovo through excursions and other promotional projects. It was difficult conditions for a first hiking experience, but one that she will never forget. As Gonxhe puts it, hiking trips are a “good way to test yourself, to see if you can do it. Don’t give up. Then when you reach the top, you will see the beauty.”
Photo courtesy of OSE.
Since that first hike, Gonxhe has walked and climbed over various mountains across Kosovo, making at least one trip every month, and often two or three. She believes that hiking can provide an education as well as an escape. “I was born and raised in Prishtina and hiking let me know my country better,” she explains, adding that feeling part of a community with shared values, where you have to support each other to reach the peak also enriches the experience.
The trips have become an important part of her life; time that she can spend with her friends and where she can forget everyday life for a moment and clear her mind. “Hiking takes you away from your comfort zone,” Gonxhe insists. “When you are not in your comfort zone you become more flexible and more creative.”
A growing group
Since 2014, there have been more and more organizations arranging hiking trips in Kosovo and the amount of hikers joining the excursions has been continually rising, especially for Gonxhe’s group, Kosovo Hiking Trips, more colloquially known as Hiking Njeri (Hiking Man!).
“I see sometimes negative energy in Kosovo and I want to change that with hiking.”
The group was created almost entirely through serendipity. In April 2004, a snow sports team, Snow Njeri, including Arben Islami (or Beni to his friends) went on on a ski trip to Brezovica ski center in the Sharri mountains, only to discover the ski lift unoperational. Instead of skiing, Beni and his friends decided to hike to the top of the ski run, and Hiking Njeri was born.
Over the last few years Beni has hiked over every mountain in Kosovo and through social media and photography has involved more and more young people. “After 2014, the hiking trips went viral.” Beni tells K2.0 “It has revolutionised the life of young people.”
For Beni, trying to encourage more outdoor sports was partly about changing a culture in Kosovo. “I see sometimes negative energy in Kosovo and I want to change that with hiking,” he reveals. “Now it is the most important activity in Kosovo.”
Photo: Julia Kirner.
Every weekend, Kosovo’s now numerous outdoor organizations arrange trips. They are not only to help meet friends or new people; it is also a chance to see Kosovo in a new light. “Unfortunately, most of the people don’t know how Kosovo looks,” Beni states. “We are pushing people to see their country.”
Walking with purpose
Another hiking organisation is the OSE (the Outdoor Sports Experts), who, unlike Hiking Njeri, focus on offering hiking opportunities outside of Kosovo. Alongside organizing hiking trips, the OSE aim to raise awareness of the value of nature, environmentalism, and exploring neighbouring countries.
The group was established at the end of 2016 by a small team of enthusiasts, including Besnik Vasolli who fell in love with hiking and the idea of bringing people together. He also wants to support Kosovo in one of its political aims: fewer travel restrictions on its citizens. “Our intention was to raise awareness about the visa liberalisation process for Kosovo,” he explains. “Kosovo is the only country in the region that doesn’t have visa free travel opportunities [in the Schengen Zone].” With their activities, the group hope to demonstrate that “Kosovars would like to be able to travel without visas for [tourism], not just to migrate.”
Their decision to plan trips abroad also has a social dimension. “We try to connect with people in the region, bringing people together to understand things differently,” Besnik states. “Looking into our past, there is much more that can bring us together than separate us.”
The OSE also hope to improve people’s quality of life by reducing stress and finding a work-life balance; as well as enjoying and appreciating Kosovo’s nature. “It is not just the cities; it is not just the villages,” Besnik points out. “If you just walk a little bit further away, you will experience amazing views and you will meet interesting and nice people.”
Photo courtesy of OSE.
When it comes to tourism in Kosovo both organizations agree that hiking could be used to promote tourism and provide economic opportunities in Kosovo. For Beni, one future goal is to make the hiking trips international and attract more people to visit Kosovo. “I try to make a difference in Kosovo, [to] get Kosovo known in the world as a country for hiking” he says. To help push that form of tourism forward; his idea is to form a public board that specialises in outdoor tourism.
Besnik meanwhile believes that any increase in tourism must be done in a sustainable way that protects the environment. His environmentalism is partly a result of hiking itself. “Once you see the beautiful nature, you are much more careful with your environment and waste,” he states.
Overall though, it is the universality of hiking that Besnik believes distinguishes it from other pursuits: “It is not just for the young or the old, or only the businessman or the government official. It is for everybody.”