Airport Rating ****
Reception of locals *
Skiing is for rich people
Growing up I figured that skiing was for rich people. I remember watching an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that showed a bunch of rich kids having fun in ski chalets and enjoying the parties in ski resorts known as Apres-Ski. It looked amazing and I always wanted to give it a try but figured it wasn't made for people like me.
I remember my school and university organising trips to skiing and they were always so expensive. People would come back with the most incredible stories and the photos looked insane - pure white landscapes, tall mountains and people enjoying themselves.
As I got older, I just assumed it was one of those things I'd never experience. So when a couple of old friends of mine who can from tough backgrounds too said they were going skiing in Serbia for a fraction of the price it would cost in France or Austria, I jumped at the opportunity.
Another thing I remember from childhood, albeit not with much clarity, were the Yugoslav Wars. My first love was football, and my favourite player in the late 90's was actually from Serbia, so although I didn't grasp the enormity of the politics I knew something was happening from the few interviews he would give. It was about the time that the Yugoslavia team was banned from international football.
The Balkans have been the flashpoint of conflict for centuries, it was the spark that lit the First World War when a Serbian revolutionary assassinated the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Slavic people of the Balkans banded together and created a Federal State called Yugoslavia after the Second World War, and under an authoritarian dictator called Josep Tito it actually did very well, not aligning itself with either side during the Cold War and forging and relatively successful path for itself.
However, following his death, nationalism and religion tore Yugoslavia apart. The 90's were characterised by a long war which ended the Serb dominated Yugoslavia and created a number of smaller independent states. That war lowered standards of living, ended tourism and destroyed infrastructure.
It took over a decade for these states to return to some prosperity and Croatia led the way with a thriving tourism sector based on its Adriatic coast. But the rest of the Balkans still doesn't see much tourism, and although the economy is growing, it remains substantially smaller than other parts of Europe. This means the cost of living for western Europeans coming out here is relatively low - basically, things are cheaper here.
In the years following the Yugoslav Wars, Serbia was further partitioned with Montenegro and Kosovo seceding, but the latter remains particularly contentious. Serbs see Kosovo as the birthplace of their people, but the area is mostly inhabited by Albanian Muslims and its independence is recognised by most of the world's major powers. This has led to a lot of tensions. Kopaonik, the ski resort that I went to, just so happens to be on the border between Serbia and Kosovo.
I landed in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. The airport was relatively small and quite rundown. While everyone seemed to fly through immigration, me and my friend were stopped for a fair bit of time and questioned somewhat robustly. We were firm in our replies (what we were doing, where we were staying, how long we were here for etc.) and found the whole thing a little funny.
I was in Belgrade with two friends I knew from the Midlands; one is 6ft 3 with South Sudanese ancestry, and the other has black South African ancestry. Two black guys, and a Singh, and that was about the extent of diversity I saw. I could count on less than one hand the number of non-white people I saw in either Belgrade or Kopaonik.
Everywhere we went, we were just stared at. We all got attention, good and bad, but my friend of South Sudanese decent probably got the most. One of my friends lives in Belgrade and told us most of the looks are nothing but curiosity, but admitted there would be some resentment too.
We weren't in Belgrade long on the first day as we needed to head to Kopaonik and spent our time in 'New Belgrade'. Both the Danube and Sava rivers flow through Belgrade and the waterways split the two parts of the city.
The older part of the city is more densely populated, architecturally more beautiful and houses the main business and cultural areas. It has the same rawness that Naples has, and while it has some architectural similarities with countries in southern Europe like Italy, Portugal and Spain, it still manages to feel a little different. It sounds obvious from a geographic perspective, but it does feel like eastern Europe and southern Europe meeting.
The so-called newer part of the city was built in the 1960s when the country was under communist rule. The architecture reflects the brutalism you can see in other cities on the eastern side of the 'Iron Curtain' and is straight up ugly. That being said, I thought the Western City Gate, aka the Genex Tower was insane - something that managed to look like an old school view of what the future looks like. I don't know why, but considering I hate Brutalist architecture, I actually quite liked this.
We went to a shopping centre in the new town, and the couple of hours we spent were some of the most surreal in my life. Everyone was staring. Literally everyone. And not slightly - I mean full on eyes popping out of their heads. Little kids were jaw dropped looking on in fascination, teenagers would laugh - it felt like we had tentacles or something. Interestingly, the girls stared the most - and while I'd love to say it was all me, a 6ft 3 black guy probably got the most looks. People were even asking for selfies.
I spent a little more time in Belgrade on my last side, staying at a friends house in the old city and then visiting St Sava's Church - the main Serbian Orthodox Church. Built in the 1930s its a stunning bit of architecture and although the main church was closed for refurbishment, we managed to go into crypto downstairs. Opulently decorated, it was unbelievably beautiful but again got me thinking whether spending what was undoubtedly millions on a place of worship is what religion should be. That being said, it's well worth the visit.
The ski resort of Kopaonik is a four hour drive from Belgrade and it's a really nice journey. The roads were in better condition than the ones back home, and when you hit the base of the mountain, the scenery turns from flat countryside into beautiful mountainous terrain - and you can see why its designated as a national park.
It's weird - Belgrade, the journey and most of the mountain were snow-free but as soon as we got closer to our accommodation the roads first turned icy and then out of nowhere we were surrounded by snow - some of it as tall as I am! The change was as sudden as it was surprising and I've never experienced anything like it.
It's also a little crazy to think that on the other side of the mountains is the territory of Kosovo, a border that the Serbs don't believe exists, but much of the international community does.
The journey up was good, but the journey down a couple days later was intense. About 5 minutes after leaving all the cars on the way down stopped as visibility went down to zero. We pulled up to the side of the road to put chains on wheels to stop us skidding and in that time we saw cars sliding everywhere.
A car behind us had a baby inside and the parents were quite panicked. They asked whether we could put our visibility triangle behind their car, which we did, but within seconds a van came sliding down the road, crushing the triangle. Within minutes we had workers coming helping everyone put chains on their wheels (in exchange for a bit of money, of course). I walked up the road to see a car had careered off the road straight into a pile of snow on the roadside. It was absolute madness.
Setting up and struggling
The reason we came to Serbia to ski was because with flights, accommodations and lessons the cost of skiing here was about £250 - much cheaper than anything we'd find elsewhere. We stayed in a really nice apartment, all of three of us were in one large flat that had a living room, kitchen and a bedroom. It was cheap (£40 per night) and clean, and the host was welcoming.
We kicked off with some breakfast and then grabbed our ski passes (£45 for the weekend). The food in Serbia was generally quite good, but very meat heavy. One of my favourite meals was in a pretty undercover restaurant in Belgrade, but Kopaonik had good food too.
I'd never been skiing before so the first thing was to get ski equipment. Luckily a friend in England lent me their jacket, helmet and ski trousers, which saved me a bunch of money. I ended up buying some gloves and goggles in Belgrade.
We hired some skiing equipment (£15) from a vendor that my friend was familiar with. Despite looking very different (and probably because he was very different), they'd built up an excellent relationship and people called him snesko belic, or, the snowman, which I thought was kind of cool. They took good care of us, giving us food and drink for free and were very accommodating. It was a little bubble of familiarity where the stares weren't so strong.
Obviously being on a mountain, the air is a little thinner. It didn't affect me too much, but walking up stairs felt a bit more challenging than usual.
Considering I've never being skiing before, the first stop was to get some ski lessons from an instructor (£20 per hour). I had three hours worth of lessons split across two morning sessions and three different types of slopes. The first hour was set on a very slight slope and got us comfortable with our skis including how to stop, it was pretty straight forward. The second hour was on a slightly more steep slope and got us to understand how to turn corners, again I found this straight forward.
We took an hour off for lunch and then headed up to an actual slope. Up until this moment, everything was fine, but as soon as I got on the slope and started heading toward a cliff edge, everything became difficult. I forgot everything I learned and was basically falling every few metres. It got so bad, that I began just throwing myself down the mountain and falling off at high speed just to get to the bottom of the mountain. A few times my skis went flying and people just stopped to see if I was ok. It's weird, after the first fall, I didn't mind falling, in fact I learned how to fall and it was getting back up which was the harder bit.
I ended the first day feeling a little sore, and very frustrated - but certain that I'd come back and try to improve.
And it all makes sense...
While the first day was frustrating, the second day was much better. Our third lesson was on the actual slopes and something just clicked, and from out of nowhere I had figured out how to ski. It was such a good feeling.
I learned that different ski slopes have different colours - green for beginners, blue for intermediate, red for experienced and black for the very best. Kopaonik didn't have any green slopes, but on the second day I found myself doing blue slopes fairly comfortably - but the best part was doing a section of a red slope which massively increased my confidence.
It's so weird. Everything in your brain tells you to pull back to stop, but you need to keep leaning forward and making a 'pizza' shape with your skis. Once that became natural, everything else just fell into place.
The full on energy of making our way down the slopes was broken up by peaceful minutes on the chairlifts which sometimes felt they were going up forever. Skiing is physically intensive so those moments were a nice break for my body too. Looking down from the chairlifts was amazing, seeing people skiing and snowboarding below. It's just so different to anything I've seen or felt before.
One of the things I was really looking forward to was Apres-Ski. From everything that I had seen on TV it just looked like fun, but I guess you get what you pay for. I'm not saying the Apres-Ski was bad, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.
Firstly, we had booked a table at one place, but when we get there were told the table wouldn't be available and that they couldn't find our reservation. We went to a few other places, and were turned around at the door. My friends were trying to keep me calm, reminding me that the resort was busy and you have to book. I'm not sure I was convinces an made my feelings clear.
We finally found a place and it was obvious there were a few people who wished we weren't there. We got into heated exchanges with two groups of people, although it didn't get further than words and few shoulder barges. We ended up seeing a mixed race guy who we found out was a British solider training the Serbian army and hung out with him for a while. Seeing two black guys, a mixed race guy and and brown dude made a few of the older men feel uneasy and it was obvious. People fear what they don't know.
And that's the thing. I have no doubt that a lot of the people who stared were simply curious, and the look on kids faces when they saw us was really nice to see. But there were undertones of resentment throughout. People would stare as we walked past, and every so often I'd turn around to catch them laughing.
As usual no one said anything to our faces, they didn't want that - but that didn't mean they didn't say things behind our backs when they felt safe enough.
In any case, we weren't about to let insecure middle-aged men ruin our time, and we stayed as long as we wanted to, eventually taking a short taxi back to our accommodation.
Would I recommend skiing in Serbia?
It's a strange trip to summarise. I really enjoyed being on the ski slopes, particularly once I got the hang of it. There was a constant party atmosphere and having lunch each day while a DJ played next to us was pretty cool. My favourite part was a lunch break at a hut on day 2.
We were on a red slope (which is for more experienced skiers) and my friend said he knew there was a good food place on the mountain nearby, about a quarter of the way down the slope. However, visibility was really bad and we could barely see in front of us. We kept going and finally started hearing some music and just headed toward it - we didn't actually see the place until we were right outside.
We walked in and the whole place looked at us. It had a warm cosy feel, including an open fire. The bartender started talking to us and offered us all free drinks. We had a fantastic meal, while looking at metres thick snow right outside the window. We left and headed back to slope on our skis. As we began to move off, we looked back and despite being only a few metres from the hut, we couldn't see a single thing, all we could hear was golden age hip-hop music.
We were standing there, the three of us, barely able to make each other out, with no one else around us, and just listening to Slick Rick rapping in the background. It was incredibly surreal, but an absolute perfect moment.
Is it safe for Sikhs?
If you're out here, people will stare and that's just how it is. If you go in accepting that, then chances are you'll have fun out in Belgrade and Kopaonik because the truth is, other than a couple of exchanges and shoulder barges at Apres-Ski, no-one said or did anything.
At times I felt like a celebrity and the look of wonder on kids' faces is something I enjoyed. Even with the adults, I think a lot of it was just curiosity.
It's probably not the first place I'd say a Sikh should visit if you're an inexperienced traveller. But I never feel threatened and managed to enjoy myself. I'll probably come back. I want to ski again, and I want to see Belgrade in the summer sun and see a little more of it.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.