1 12 2007

This could also be titled:
Don’t cry for me.  or
On the road again. or
Half way!

Either way I have finally made it Argentina. The road was horrible, since just before Atoche to before Tupiza, and corrugated all the way today. I think, in hindsight, the train from Uyuni is not a bad idea. I just wanted to ride it though. Three very big days on the bike, or 8 hours in a comfortable train…

Tupiza ended up holding me hostage for 5 days. I didn’t even see much of the city, but I did read five Terry Pratchett books. So all was not lost.

As a welcome back present, it rained on me today. A dark cloud hanging over my head? It’d better move fast to keep up in the next few days then!

At the border between Bolivia and Argentina there is a sign that reads Ushuaia: 5121km. My odometer reads 5610km! So, even though I wont be going straight down (Chile and the Caraterra Austral we be where I spend a lot of time aas well) , it looks like this is more or less half way. Yippee!

Now, to settle this stomach down, and get into some Argentinian steak. I’ve been waiting months for this… Converting to vegeteneriasm will have to wait.

To Tupiza

28 11 2007

Well, something went wrong there… I decided to complete the rest of Bolivia overland, while Joerg and Rahel decided to take the train. I must say, in hindsight, the train may have been a good option…

The train turned out to be easy enough, but there was literally some confusion about which day it left – not helped by a departure at around (this is Bolivia, nothing is too exact) 2:30am.

I waited until I was sure Joerg and Rahel had a ticket for the train before I left. The ticket office operated on Bolivian time, so I wasn’t able to get away until 11am – not an ideal start time when there is 100km of dirt road between you and the next size-able town. I hadn’t worried about a proper breakfast as the two Llama steaks from the night before were still propping me up. Being alone again I took the opportunity to bash my way along the road as fast as I could – I’m much faster that the others without front panniers and with suspension. Nothing went wrong until I got to Atoche – a small mining town in the middle of … nowhere? I asked around for a room and was cheerily told that all the rooms were taken because there was a sporting tournament on tomorrow. In all four hostels. Bugger. So bought some water and headed out into the desert for a night camping on the altiplano. The hammock was a little difficult to erect (I haven’t seen a single tree for weeks, let alone two!), but I managed in a very narrow, dry, stream bed. It worked. The only problem was I had ridden until dark, was exhausted and in no mood to cook and eat. So I didn’t.

The next day I slept in a little. Well, the map said it was 51km to the next town, and only 80km to Tupiza, and I had just done 8km past Atoche last night. I had plently of time, right? I lay there listening to nothing. I mean there wasn’t a single sound. I only really noticed how quiet it was when I heard a fly buzz past (some distance away). No wind, no insects, (no people). Nada. Tranquillo. The sky was a perfect blue, and the sun rapidly warmed the air (still at around 4000m altitude remember), could it get better?

I saddled up, and hit the first unmarked junction of the day 2km later. Luckily I had been prewarned about this one, and turned right (not at all obvious, I assure you). After 30km I was starting to realise that this section has a bad reputation for a reason, the road met a series of rivers, all perpendicular to the direction the road wanted to take. The outcome is a day of riding very very slowly up a hill, only to roll down the other side, and repeat. The very very slowly comes from altitude (always between 3900 and 4200m), heat and steep and corrugated road. Plus for me tiredness and hunger. At 60km I was wondering where my town, and breakfast and lunch, was. I hit a very small town and was told the town I was after was still 20km away? No, it couldn’t be, surely there must be a mistake. On I pressed. More hills. Real Wild West country. Somewhere around here Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their famous (last?) robbery and met their demise. (Hi Sundance, Hi Larissa, Hi Wendy, Hi Stoyan – I’m sure none of you are reading this, but the Sundance reference jogged the memory there).

I was starting to wonder where this town was, when the biggest valley of the day appeared in front of me. The road dropped down a long way (to about 3000m) into a huge valley, with towering red mud cliffs that have been formed into wierd shapes. Quite spectacular, but difficult to appreciate on an empty stomach. Salo (the town I was after) was in this valley, as the map said it would be, but fully 30km further than it should have been. Grrr, German maps.

I pressed onto Tupiza, a rather nice (somewhat touristy) town which was down the valley (read: no more hills today!). I bought supplies to get me to the border (allegedly 104km on the map, but I have other sources that say it is closer to 90km), and then, relatively famished, sought food. A nice steak was found, and I though my food problems were over until Argentina. Well…

That night I didn’t sleep a wink as my stomach complained bitterly about the food in it. The next morning I was so weak and tired, it took a considerable effort to meet the train that Joerg and Rahel were on (it stopped in Tupiza on the way to the border). But I had wish Joerg a happy 40th Birthday! I staggered back to the hostel, and didn’t leave the room all day, especially not to eat. The next night I also couldn’t sleep (I’ve never had such a pain in my stomach  – the rest of me was fine, just weak, but I couldn’t lie in any position without pain). Next day, same story. What is going on here? Despite the crippling weakness (I’d now eaten one slab of meat and some bread in four days + cycled over 200km) I managed to buy some vegetables from the market and cook up a simple soup for dinner. I started to feel better almost straight away. For some reason my body had gone from rumbling and cramping stomach from too much food at once, to rumbling and cramping stomach from lack of food without a pause in the middle to let me know what was going on. And there I was trying to starve myself to get the wretched steak out of my system. And I’d been taking drugs to try to sleep (which didn’t work).

Stupid body. One day it will be able to keep up.

So, I hope, I’ll be back to something approaching normal strength tomorrow (I’m still hesitant to eat anything too solid in case the stomach rebels again). And then, finally (please!?!?) I’ll be able to get into Argentina. Phew. But no steak, not for a few days at least!

South West Bolivia

23 11 2007

After much scratching of heads, knashing of teeth and pondering over maps, the three of us decided that riding through the Bolivian south west to Chile would be:

  • Lots of effort
  • A long way to see little       and most impotantly
  • Too hard for us.

So we opted for the warm duche option (that’s the soft option), and took a three day tour by 4 wheel drive. This allowed us to see the magnificent Lagunas of the south west, without the logistical challenge of getting water in some of the desert (and deserted) places. It turns out it isn’t impossible (after talking to a lone cyclist we met along the way), but it is very difficult – so we’re not entirely unhappy that we decided to skip the section (by bike).

The Lagunas and other tourist attractions were definately worth a look, but we’ve been cooped up in a car for the best part of a thousand kilometers in the last 2.5 days and I’m looking forward to a sleep tonight, followed by working out what is going on with the trains – Joerg and Rahel would like to train to Argentina; but Bolivia is Bolivia and it isn’t clear actually which day the trains depart. Hopefully we’ll suss it out tomorrow, and I can get on with the last few hundred kilometers of Bolivia (which by all reports are on shocking quality road).

Ten Billion tonnes of Salt

19 11 2007

Every cycle tour across South America includes some reference to the Salar de Uyuni. So it was with some anticipation that we approached. We stayed in Oruro an extra day to make sure everyone was healthy, or at least not too sick.

Then followed a big day of over 130km to Huari, and the end of the asphalt. It has been a good (and relatively fast) 1300km with only a small amount of dirt. Back on the bumpy road for a while.

From Huari to the northern edge of the Salar hasn’t raised a mention in most travel reports, although this turned out to be more of a challenge than the Salar itself. It took us two days to get to Salinas de Mendoza, mostly riding on corrugated roads, or along the side of the road on tracks of varying surface quality (from decent … to deep sand). The road is currently being worked on extensively, with a good chance that there will be asphalt most of the way at some point. Some sections are like riding in the Aussie outback – hot, dry and seemingly a million miles from anywhere. The tiny pueblas along the way don’t help to dispell the illusion – they would be called ‘abandonded’ or ‘derelict’ anywhere else. But people live there, and they will occasionaly sell you horrible tasting soft drink and point you in the direction of the town well if you inquire about water. I declined their offer.

The Bolivian towns are also increadibly confusingly named, with Santiago de Huari, Hauri, Santuario de Quillacas and Quillacas all in the same area. To make it even more fun, the residents of each town drop the first part of the name, and don’t seem to appreciate that there is a similar sounding town only around the next corner. Luckily we had been pre-warned and didn’t get turned around at every junction. Although if we were following the map this surely would have happened – the roads are completely different to what the map suggests, and when I tried to use the GPS for a bit of help, we found the map grid was half a degree out (that’s a fairly long way). So we just kept riding in what we thought / hoped was the right way and possibly we’d stumble across the right town. We did; just follow the biggest road to Salinas – it’s easy.

In Salinas we stumbled across the best and worst of Bolivia. The first ‘restaurant’ (on the plaza if you’re interested) we asked for food served up a soup that was quite nice, followed by the most evil smelling concoction I have smelt. I couldn’t eat it. Then, slightly up the hill, we found a very nice, new, hotel with restaurant. Possibly the nicest place we have stayed, especially considering it is way out in the middle of nowhere. They served up a good Llama steak.

We stocked up on water and food, and headed toward the Salar and Volcan Thunupa (we could see both from the nice hotel bedroom window). My bike was as heavy as it’s been, with 7L of water on top (literally) of all the other gear.

And so came the sand. With a heavy bike, sand isn’t much fun. We pushed. Luckily it wasn’t all that far.

Over a small hill, and then… A thumping great salt lake. Of course we were expecting that. On the edge of the Salar (in the north) is the small town of Jirir. We were expecting a hospedaje, a small shop and signs of life. What we got was a ghost town. We ate lunch in the church garden, under the only tree with decent shade for miles around. There was electricity here, but no people. It was Sunday, so we thought they may have all gone on a drinking session in Uyuni. But the houses with windows not bordered over were clearly abandoned – nothing except dirt inside. It’s still a conundrum, because we did find a few people living there eventually, after a lone (local) cyclist came riding through and pointed us at was an unlikely shop. We raised hell until someone came to the door and sold us some water and chocolate.

And then the salt lake. It seems made for photos in stupid poses (some to be posted in a few days). It’s not as white as I was expecting, although that could be because it is almost the end of the dry season, and lots of dirt has been blown onto it, giving it a brown tinge.

It is flat. Ridiculously so… overall. But on a bike it can be a little bumpy – the small ridges between the flat tiles and the other lumps of salt make for a bumpy ride. Nothing like the corrugations of the road in, however.

With nothing to get in its way, the wind is more of a concern. The first day it came from the side, limiting our speed to about 13km/h, the second day we had a glorious tail wind, which allowed us to average over 24km/h (faster than we get on the asphalt normally), and I hit a maximum of 47km/h in one burst of stupidity. I was going for 50, but the thin air (we are still at 3600m!) meant that getting oxygen in is still a challenge.

The only night we spent on the salt was by a big lump of rock called Isla Pescado (or other things, by different people). Found using the GPS – you can only see about 6-10km across the salt (due to earth curvature), although we could see the Isla for 30km because it is high (15km from the edge). They have an overpriced refugio for self powered travellers, but tried to charge us for everything from entering the isla, to overpriced water. Gringo central. So we camped on the salt, in what is in effect the car park for the island.

The sunset was glorious. Amazing orange glow on the horizon for some time. The wind was cold.

The night was surprisingly warm, when I got up for sunrise (out of the hammock, yes you can bivvy in a hammock on a salt lake) the temperature was 12°C. Other reports of -20°C I think are slightly exaggerated (or we had exceptional weather). Then the Gringoness of the place hit me – 2 cars full of tourist arrived before sunrise, with another 6 or so very shortly after. It was horrible. Spending so long alone has really given us a dread for this kind of thing. The rest of the day was a mix of cycling alone across 70km of salt, and being passed by hordes of 4 wheel drives full of tourists.

We will be one of those now – we are embarking on a 3 day tour to see the lakes of South West Bolivia – it’s too hard to get there by bike.

Stuck in Oruro

14 11 2007

We arrived here with Rahel sick from the food the day before. It seemed sensible to stay for a day to allow her to recuperate.

Joerg had a bit of a cold. This has now developed into a fever and diarreah. Day two for recovery.

I have Joerg’s cold. So tomorrow? Will we ever leave?

Luckily they have internet… And today the transport drivers are on strike, so the pedestrians have the city.
Normally I have not much time and lots to write. Today I have lots of time and nothing to write. Sorry.


13 11 2007

The climb out of La Paz wasn’t as bad as I feared. 500m vertically is turning into a morning warm-up.  Although it looks like this may be the end of it – the last two days have been very flat. It’s a strange feeling being on a flat plain, almost 4000m above sea level. I half expect to see the sea around any corner. In fact it looks (a bit) similar to the drive from Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges – pretty flat near the road, with a line of hills in the middle distance. Of course on the other side of the road is more mountains and a distinct lack of sea, so it’s not quite the same.

The first night out of La Paz saw us reach our target of Patacamaya. And what a target it was… The only noteworthy feature of the place is that it was on the map. The only remarkable feature was why they bothered to put it on the map. We ate, Rahel got sick, and we slept in a very, err, basic hostel. We left early. I guess this is how Bolivia will be in the small towns, although so far Bolivia has shown a very pleasant face. It’s clearly poor, but the people don’t seem to do as many stupid things as their northwestern neighbours.

Oruro is another long days ride south, but we were all determined to reach it after the Pataca-hell hole-maya experience. We did, despite sick Rahel. We’re now taking a day to recharge, which is cyclisto speak for eatting everything in sight. We cooked up a good Ratatoulie last night.

The next target is the Salar de Uyuni, the big white patch on the map (if you’re keeping tabs on where I am on the map page). We’re hoping for good weather.


9 11 2007

Well, we made it. Peru was getting a little frustrating toward the end. In my head I have written several posts that have been quite scathing toward the Peruvians, but luckily there was no computer handy. In time they may be compared with the Bolivians. We’ll see.

We took the ‘short cut’ through Copa – Copacabana (I’m now listening to the Barry Manilow song I may have stolen a line from – every time we mentioned the towns name). The town was ok, full of gringos. The most noteworthy item of the day was we failed to realise that Bolivian time is one hour ahead of Peruvian time. And hence we literally missed the boat out to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun, and the legendary birthplace of the Incas). So instead I rode out along the peninsular, saw the island and a few other impressive views as well. When we did make the boat (for the very brief – 1 hr – afternoon tour), I was glad I’d ridden around. The township on the south of the island is now very touristy.

The road out of Copa – Copacabana, was in fact very picturesque. The views of the lake on the left, and then the right, and then on both sides was slightly dampened by the snow falling on us. I guess this is really a different Copa (copacabana – you’re sick of it? think how Rahel and Joerg feel!!!) to the one in the song. The snow went away, the sun came out and the views returned. Then the road ended.

Luckily there was a barge (or several) waiting to take us across the short section of lake. We rode on, as do the buses. I can tell you it looks odd seeing a bus float across a lake.

Another day and a bit on increasingly flat road and we are in La Paz. Or very close to it. One policeman we asked sent us down a rather grand road, in, it turns out, completely the wrong direction. After about 5km we smelt the rat, turned around and rode back up the hill. And then saw it from above. This place is huge!

La Paz. Bolivias de-facto capital. Lots of people here. Lots. I don’t mind that, but for so long it’s been me, or us, a road (or dirt track), the infinite sky (or rain clouds) and mountains (or a few times a lake or altiplano). Ok, lots of variety, but a distinct lack of crowds.

A day or so here, and then off south again – we’ve already found the road to follow (courtesy of the nice policeman mentioned above). The major problem is the road is 500m above us. Another morning climb.