TEXT IN YELLOW WRITTEN BY KRISTINA; TEXT IN BLUE WRITTEN BY TYLER
“Are you the Americans?” echoed from around the bend, as we hastily panicked to board the višna-colored (cherry red) bus that parked itself at a station in Niš. Outside, a cacophony of voices ricocheted from the walls, sending a wave of anxiety throughout my disposition. Tyler and I had made it to Niš, unaware of where the small village we were staying was or how we would navigate to said village— Jelašnica.
Because of that, the four words uttered above were a godsend. The woman who approached us, Jelena, was a fellow climber that would later show us the crag and become a trusty friend during our short stay in Serbia.“Well, before I say anything, I can see you are,” I claimed, smiling wide. The indicator? Her strong physique and bulbous forearms eluded to the fact that she was herself familiar with the sport. I was a bit shocked to have been approached by her, as I didn’t expect to bump into another climber in such a small town. I immediately looked over at Tyler, who mirrored my sentiment— relief.
We boarded the packed bus and stood firmly in the middle, stretching out our arms for added stability. We exchanged a bit of our history, as well as future plans during the short, bumpy ride. We found out that Jelena was actually our friend Nemana’s cousin. Nemana is a key player in organizing our stay in Jelašnica, and helped us find suitable room and board at the base of the crag.
There is a bit of a backstory as to why we had our hearts set on Jelašnica. It was through a cascade of events that we met Nenad, the owner of Adrenalinska, a climbing gym in Novi Sad, who later disclosed that there was a climbing-related event happening in Belgrade that very night. Sure enough, we decided to frequent it, and found ourselves in a tiny room with a sizable crowd, all eagerly anticipating a talk delivered by two sponsored athletes, Charlotte Durif from France and Josh Larson from Boston. The event focused around sponsorships and climbing— mostly the necessary steps one must take to achieve such a goal.
When the event wrapped up, I eagerly approached Josh and Charlotte with the tenacity of a small child that yearns to learn more. We exchanged the basics—where we are from, the motive of our trip, etc. We learned that they are a couple who are climbing their way throughout Europe and Australia. We also learned that Josh and Charlotte share a few mutual friends with us in both the east and west coast.
I’m constantly in awe when I see just how small the climbing community is around the world, and how interconnected we all are. Afterwards, we joined the large group at a burrito bar and joked about 1. the awkward misspellings on the menu and 2. how painfully long it was taking to receive our order. Grr. Josh kindly offered that we join them in Niš that weekend, as they were bolting a few new routes at a cave near Jelašnica. We happily agreed to make it a priority and parted ways. So that was the backstory.
Back to Jelašnica. Tyler, Jelena and I arrived to a cute little home at the corner of the village, displaying a very prominent flag by O’Neil. “Did we arrive at a surf camp?” I thought to myself. This was our accommodation for the next few days. We entered past the burnished red gates and were immediately greeted by the Popovich family. Nesho eagerly shook our hand and introduced us to his wife Gaga. I jokingly referred to her as Lady Gaga in private because she wasn’t a fan of being compared to the fancy pants singer.
We were overjoyed to find out we’d be staying in a small private home, adjacent to their house. The following day, eight climbers, including Nenad and Igor from Belgrade would arrive to hit up the crag in Jela. This place felt like a welcome retreat and very familiar. I felt a strong sense of nostalgia staying in a tiny village, as I used to spend time with my grandparents who were tobacco farmers in Macedonia. Contrary to the boredom I felt in small villages as a child, I had a newfound appreciation to the slow lifestyle I encountered as an adult.
Tyler and I really liked Nesho, Gaga and their young son. Their hospitality was unwavering and we felt like one of their own. Gaga even presented us with a jar of her homemade ajvar and “energy mix,” honey adorned with layers of pistachio’s, walnuts, peanuts, almonds, and dried fruit. Tyler was all about that. I don’t blame him. Really. One night we were treated to a delicious bbq and with it, an amazing story told by Nesho.
With a heavy heart and three or four shots of rakija deep, Nesho began to recount his jaw-dropping account. A few years back, he was relaxing in his backyard when two German women, one younger and one of age, arrived by taxi and proceeded to ask where Nesho was. He simply thought they were two guests looking for a room. He never anticipated what he’d hear next. Turns out the elderly woman was his aunt, there to inquire about his grandfather (her father). She had dug up several sheets of correspondence between her father and mother and uncovered that her father was once a solider in the Yugoslavian army, and that when he was stationed in Germany during WWII, he had relations with her mother.
Because of the high mortality rate amongst the German soldiers, it was common that many women became privy to the idea of carrying on sexual partnerships with the international soldiers. Apparently when Hitler got word of this, he ordered that any woman who is caught with or bearing the child of an international soldier be ridiculed in the form of a shaven head. If they continued to see the man or deliver to term, they would be killed. Nesho’s aunt was considered a bastard child and was secretly smuggled out of the country to ensure her safety. As the story came to a close, I felt my eyes welling up and tried to swallow back my salty tears. It was really powerful stuff.
Josh and Charlotte arrived the following morning bringing all the stoke. We headed to their new stomping ground— a deeply set cave lined with massive tufas, protruding edges and opposing holds. Josh and Char had arrived there a few days prior to blaze the trail and setup a fun lil’ tyrollean as a means of crossing the river. Props to them for setting up a solid warmup. And what an approach! The hike up wasn’t more than a half hour and flew by. When we arrived in the dome, I felt as though we were center stage, all eyes glued inside of the amphitheater.
Relaxed and efficient, I watched Charlotte dance up the wall, not a grin in her face. By comparison, Josh delivered, flowing effortlessly with audible grunts. Totally fit his style. The limestone rock bore a similar resemblance to Ceüse, with a cascade of yellowish and blue streaks painted on vertically. The cave exhibited two stories, and would have made an excellent stomping ground for a midnight partayy. Jelena, Tyler and I all took turns on First rule of fightclub 7a+, though it kicked our ass. And let’s just say that that particular climb was a walk in the park for both Josh and Char. I mean, they were warming up on a 5.14 after some hang board time in the cave. Badasses. Be sure to follow Josh and Char on their adventures at @joshlrsn and @chadurif
For the remainder of the time, we did some climbing in Jelašnica with the entire crew. It really was an entire crew— every climber in Serbia showed up. Or at least it felt like that. My fondest memory of our time there was centered around the completion of my first lead outdoors on Krastavac 5.?? (I don’t remember). It was a fun route, balance(y) with a few traverses. The anchor at the top was super sketch, so Tyler offered to go up and clean. Best part? He did it in chaco’s. Our new tagline then became: Chaco’s. Because Fuck It.
This was my third visit to Serbia, but the first time I got to play on rock in the balkans. The land is imbued with some sadness, a residue of Yugoslavia’s collapse, but it remains full of jovial people, kind souls, yummy food and breathtaking regions. To all the amazing people we met and exchanged laughs with, thank you. Until next time, Serbia.
Quick update: Charlotte posted her vlog about our adventures together. Check it out!
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Thursday morning we packed up and prepared to be on our way. Nesha drove us into Niš to catch the bus. We went a bit early in order to check out the Skull Tower. Back in 1809 the Turks came to Niš to vanquish a group of Serbian rebels. The Turks were victorious but only at a substantial cost. They outnumbered the Serbs 3-1 and still suffered significant casualties. As an effort to deter further rebellion, the Turks gruesomely beheaded the Serbian corpses and skinned the skulls. Some of the skulls were sent back to Istanbul as proof of Turkish victory. The remainder of the skulls were built into a massive tower used as a warning to those considering future rebellion. Many of the skulls fell out of the tower from exposure to the elements, and were buried by the locals but the tower still stands and has some real human skulls in it. If you’re interested in a bit more eloquent and detailed of a story you can read it here.
Nowadays there is a chapel surrounding the tower and it is preserved as a memory to the suffering of the people and the pride in their rebelling, a positive spin on what the turks initially wanted to be a warding off of future rebellions. Nesha and I paid a nominal fee to enter the chapel and see the tower. It was crazy seeing the real skulls. I don’t think I’ve ever seen real human skulls like this before. One of the odd things I noticed was that the eye sockets were different from what I typically think of. They are shallower than I would expect and were filled by three main converging panels.
On the way out of the tower another group of people was just entering. I looked at one of the guys in the group and it triggered a memory. No. I’m in Serbia. Who the hell do I know here. I checked again, and then he started speaking in english. Sure enough it was Bora from the EE grad program at University of Washington. It turns out that he is Serbian, and he was visiting some relatives in Niš with his mother and sister before returning to Seattle. Small world!