08/01/2011 10:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mongol Rally: A Defense of Backroads

The roads from London to Split - all 1,800 miles of them - were extremely straight forward. M20 to E40 to A4 and so on and so forth.

While quick and convenient, the continuity of the motorways distanced us from the diversity of the countries we drove through. At 120km per hour, the E50 through Nuremberg looked not unlike the E65 through Slovakia or even the M1 across western Hungary. It felt disingenuous to say that I have "been" to a country if my only unique experience there was the different brands of snack food I purchased at rest stops and the currency in which I paid for my petrol, both of which are becoming increasingly uniform. Our evening soirees into city centers have thankfully provided brief respite from the billboarded monotony of the highways system.

It came then as a great pleasure when we departed Split in the direction of Mostar and the modern highway as we know it came to an abrupt end after about 30 miles of driving. Beyond the smooth tarmac lay limestone cut for future passersby, and day by day the concrete slowly worked its way down towards Dubrovnik. We dutifully exited the highway and began the winding road down towards the shore.

Local travel affords the viewer simple pleasures that a highway relegates to obscurity. From the multitude of fruit stands we stopped at to the Serbian BMW who refused to pass us for half an hour so they could take photos of our bus from every possible angle, backroads dutifully enforce the mantra 'it's not about the destination but the journey. As we continued along, I noted the foundations of the new highway haunting us from the hills. Like concrete ribs of a skeleton, the bridge columns were meticulously staggered. Holes blasted through rock and machinery larger than my apartment worried me for the future of backroads. What will become of villages like Vina and Umpozi and Drazecitici when modern infrastructure relegates them to a pit stop on an inconvenient detour?

To whom will the fruit ladies of Stacavica and Spillica sell their apricots and plums when nobody bothers to pass through?

Our backroad tour through the Balkans has resulted in adventures that never would occur on a superhighway. Our 16 hour drive on Saturday from Sarajevo took us in and around towns that would have been little more than blurs at 120 km/hour. Rising through the morning mist in the mountains east of Sarajevo, our bus passed through the old front lines of the war before slowly descending down into Republika Srpska. Later in the morning we found ourselves accidently on a 20km dirt path with single lane tunnels carved into the riverside stone. We didn't pass another car for nearly two hours the road took to drive. We did, however, manage to see some of the most beautiful rugged terrain the Balkans has to offer at a speed in which it can be fully appreciated.

We detoured through Montenegro due to recent skirmishes at the Serbian/Kosovar border and managed to climb and descend a dozen mountain passes. We slowly made our way down the final pass, through the Montenegrin/Kosovar interzone at sunset and were rewarded with thumping parties in Prizren celebrating the last night of the Documentary Film Festival.

I do not mean to sound as if I am launching an impossible argument against modern transportation. The new highway will open up beautiful cities to people who would otherwise never see it. I only offer an alternative. If not in a rush, don't be afraid to get off the highway. A flight or a drive down a superhighway provides no context between Point A and Point B.

Driving from Split to Mostar, we were able to witness the tops of Catholic churches transition slowly to the tips of minarets. The sound of belltowers slowly gave way to the muezzin's evening call to prayer and when we arrived we felt at least some level of communal knowledge that would have been lost via a two hour jaunt on the soon-to-be highway from Split.

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