Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Thursday 1 July 2010

The Other Cyclists Took the Train

We had been warned.  The various websites and local accounts we had paid attention to had told us in no uncertain terms that the "road" from Tupiza to Uyuni was a brute.  Indeed, one blog, written by a man who had been cycling for 4 years, said it was the worst road he had experienced.  So we shouldn´t really have been surprised.  But the last five days have been Tough.  If we are tested any more sternly than the last 300km, we might just hang up our cycling shoes.  Or just take the train, like most other cyclists we´ve met going this way.
The first couple of days in Bolivia, as described by Liz last time, had already been a harsh introduction to the realities of life on the road on two wheels in a country that is definitely not Argentina.  We spent a relaxed day in Tupiza to prepare for the onslaught to come.  Tupiza is a pleasant, low key town, surrounded by yet more stunning rock formations of every hue imaginable.  This basin-like position makes it a sun trap during the day, and keeps temperatures mercifully above freezing at night.  The ice cream on the plaza is passably good; the set $1.50 set lunches of llama stew at the market, ladled out of bubbling cauldrons by the smiley, dentally-challenged ladies in their bowler hats, similarly sustaining; and the covered market is a positive department store of useful things, ranging from waist high sacks of pasta through bike forks to fake Lego.  But the inevitable highlight was the little lady installed in a corner with her sewing machine, who breathed fresh life into my favourite cycling shorts with an outstanding patching job on the bum.

And so we set out hesitantly on the first morning, fuelled with by an excellent dinner ($11 for 4 of us) with our new friends Marvin and Trish, the most charming of Californians now based in Paris, whose exotic retirement travels make our few months abroad seem like small fry (try walking every street in Paris, for a start!).  We had made what transpired to be the best decision of our trip so far: to take the heroic Fernando with his trusty 17-year old Toyota Landcruiser as vehicle support.  The Landcruiser can scarcely have ever driven on tarmac in its 147,000 miles, so we felt confident that it should be up to the task even if we weren´t.

The task, since you ask, was to coax our trusty steeds over 215km of the roughest roads this side of the River Styx.  We were hoping to cover the first half of the route over two days, using Fernando to shuttle us and our paniers to a dank little hovel of a hostel in mid-point Atocha.  It soon became clear, however, following a bone-shaking, steadily-uphill-into-a-headwind grind during the morning to the tumbledown adobe village of Salo, that this might be optimistic.  If confirmation was needed, the afternoon provided it.  On the rare stretches when we could actually look up from the track immediately under our noses, the morning had offered some glorious views across the wide, flat glacial valley that we were juddering up: spectacular columns of rust-red rock and distant crags the other side from pale gold grasses.  That first afternoon, however, removed any illusions that we might be able to cover 28km in 3 hours again.

We did 7km in two hours.  And that was an achievement.  We climbed from Salo, at 3250m, to just over 4000m, an average of 11% gradient, with plenty of stretches pushing towards 15%.  By the time we dared to look down at where we´d come from, Salo was a toytown splodge in the bottom of the valley, and were looking down on the mighty mountains on the other side.  The climb looked like one of those comedy ´S´-shaped efforts drawn up a mountain by a 6-year old.  The roads were - and continued to be - simply shocking.  People have been quick to assure us that Evo Morales, the people´s hero President, is on the case with tarmacing Bolivia´s roads.  Well, not this one.  Not by a long shot.  In many spots, we had to wheel the bikes simply to find an area of gravel where the back wheel would find any grip at all.  On most of the hairpins, we had the joy of deep sand patches, which would swallow the front tyre to a depth of 6 inches or so, and stop you dead in your tracks.  The pebbles strewn across every yard were the size of generously cut roast potatoes, so that each time you went over one the whole bike would hop to one side or the other.

And then there was the ´washboard´...  this satanic natural phenomenon was surely dreamt up by some arch-anticyclist whilst he was sharpening his pitchfork and pondering ways to destroy bicycles and their riders.  Fernando explained that the roads are graded every few months, and admittedly we enjoyed a couple of graders quite literally building our road for us, but we also learnt fast that the smooth graded bits only last a week or two.  They quickly become ribbed with natural speed humps, spaced precisely the distance between two bike wheels apart, so as to optimise the chances of rattling out the unwary cyclist´s false teeth.  They are created by the massive, rusting hulks of trucks lugging cargos of minerals from the local mines and ancient buses decorated with bizarre fantasy scenes and propped up on superhigh suspension to stand any chance on these routes.  These were our fellow road users, along with other 4x4s trying to recreate the old jokes about how many elephants you can get in a telephone box - packed to the gunwales with Bolivian humanity of every age.

Needless to say, we were mightily relieved, and continued to be so throughout this journey within a journey, by the presence of Fernando and the Landcruiser.  But far from having broken the back of it, we had managed just 35km that first day.  Day two was even worse.  We were ferried back to the point of collapse the previous evening, with the bikes precariously bungeed onto the roofrack.  And there we restarted.  More climbing.  Starting this time at 4000m.  The altitude has been intriguing - after my early headaches and dizziness at 3000m, and Liz´s oxygen mask adventure at 3500m, we have both been fine on the bikes.  Yes, a bit more puffing and panting for both of us on the more extreme slopes, and as we crested several consecutive passes above 4400m things did start to feel just a little surreal.  But then looking down on the high Andean cordillera is bound to have that effect.  Overall, our bodies are behaving well, although the odd deep breath at night is quite hard work.

But back to those consecutive passes.  The fact that there were several meant - you guessed it - some hefty descents as well, to undo all that good work on the climbs.  And frankly, the downhills weren´t even much fun.  You are constantly hanging onto the brakes as if trying to control an overloaded and willful supermarket trolley on cobbles.  And every metre down means another one up.  We endured this for the whole of days two and three, rarely dipping below 4000m in altitude.  Often we would see the next climb or descent unreeling itself several kms ahead.  The battle was mental as much as physical - like the test batsman looking to break an innings into manageable sessions, we had to stay true to the old cliche of playing it one ball at a time.  And somehow adjust our expectations to accept that 30-40km a day on this was a minor triumph.  We were averaging 7-8kph, including the downhills.

When we did pause, the scenery was... well, actually, how do you describe a land so savagely, hauntingly remote and huge?  Quite why humanity lives here at all is a mystery.  The waterfalls and streams we saw at this altidude were solid ice.  There are no trees and barely any grass or shrubbery to graze a llama.  This mountainous wilderness looks as though a blindfolded celestial lumberjack has downed four expressos and then spent the day flailing around with his axe.  Frankly, no road has any right to be here.  And most probably nor did we.  For that reason, we were constantly relieved to have the safety net of Fernando and the Landcruiser to back up our high altitude trapeze act and drive us to some form of civilisation each night.

Such claims to civilisation in the European sense are debatable, mind you.  Atocha, where we spent two nights, is a mining town par excellence. It is built into the side of a steep valley, and is almost entirely the same dust colour that we ended up each day.  The ´alternative´ route driven by Fernando into town when we first arrived was straight down the river (largely dried up during the winter), plunging through axle deep fords.  That was the first indication that Atocha is not on the tourist map.  Another clue came when we walked into the empty restaurant suggested by our hostal host Jorge - we asked what was for dinner and were curtly told ´nada´.  Persistence led to the more senior Señora coming to sit at our table and asking what we fancied.  We ended up witnessing her fishing chops of indeterminate origin out of the freezer and cobbling together a solid dinner that wouldn´t have impressed cholesterol experts one iota.  The closest Atocha came to a tourist feature was an ancient Cessna plane propped up as a monument in the main plaza.  Random, or what?

The route from Atocha to Uyuni, we had been promised, was flatter.  Oh really?  After 18km of unrelenting steep undulations that had me issuing the line "I hate Bolivia" and Liz throwing rocks at the mountain and issuing even less warm utterances, we reached a turning point.  The Broom of God was back.  The same irresistible gale force headwind that had forced us out of Tierra del Fuego four months ago.  And so it came to pass that Miss Hurran came up with a moment of genius: "Why don´t we do it the other way round?".  Brilliant.  Poor Fernando didn´t know what was in store.  "Por favor, Fernando, if it´s not too much trouble...".  It wasn´t - Fernando was still feeling a trifle sheepish after his monstrous hangover of the previous day courtesy of his Atocha-based brother-in-law.  With the bikes once again secured to the roofrack, we drove 35km up the road into a driving desert sandstorm, through drifting sand dunes and post-apocalyptically pale sunlight.  Then, at the 50km to Uyuni marker, we stopped and, in true British fashion, had a picnic.

Admittedly, we didn´t step out of the car for fear of the doors being ripped off their hinges or getting sand in our sardine sandwiches.  But by the time we did, we were able to put up the mainsail and rattle through the 35km downwind by the time the sun began to set at 4.30 and the desert freezer started turning down its dial towards its usual nocturnal -10 to -20c.  By now, the flatness predictions were coming true.  The next day, having overnighted in freezing Uyuni under six heavy blankets, we rode for the remaining 50km across impossibly huge plains.  Finally, we were able to appreciate the scenery properly.  Inevitably, Murphy´s Law being what it is, the tailwind we had hoped for had dropped so completely that when we stopped to listen our ears rang with the kind of silence that you can only hear in a entirely windless Andean desert.

Flat it may have been, but the scenery evolved constantly during the day.  Now an arid wilderness with 100 ethnically diverse llamas being herded on the horizon, now 10m sand dunes on either side; suddenly a miner´s cemetery with simple adobe tombs being eroded away by the elements, or a mini maintenance train beetling along the parallel Uyuni to Tupiza railway, or a frozen stream fringed with salt crust.  And those famous altiplano skies - almost navy blue, setting off the irridescent yellows of the grasses, deep greens of the shrubs and brick red of the rocks.  For a time, we almost forgot that that pesky road was doing its damnedest to judder us to a complete standstill, thanks to almost unrelenting washboard.  We finally finished the road to Uyuni yesterday afternoon.  Liz admitted it was the hardest physical thing she had ever done.  It wasn´t hard to understand how.  It was a mighty relief to climb into the Landcruiser to rumble our way back to Uyuni for the night, and to be able to bid farewell to the crucial third leg to our stool, Fernando.

Today we have been in Uyuni.  De-dusting paniers, chiselling coagulated dust off the chains and gearing of the bikes, and giving our legs a rest.  It was market day in town today, and so we cruised up and down Avenida Potosi, enjoying the vendors of piles of oranges, giant aluminium pots and nylon clothing.  And finding ourselves constantly amazed by the proliferation of the traditional ´chola´ dress of the pint sized ladies here.  One part of us admires it, another part feels somewhat saddened by how a supposed tradition was originally imposed on its wearers by the Spanish conquistadores.  And another part simply can´t come up with a less elegant way to dress than knee length skirts, thick woolly stockings and bowler hats.  One way or another, it plays a big part in making us realise that we are well and truly in Bolivia.  And for all the lack of creature comforts here (like any kind of fire or heating in -10c), we cannot complain in any way about the reception we have received.

Tomorrow, we head to the Salar de Uyuni.  This is one of the Earth´s great natural phenomena, and should be one of the highlights of our entire trip.  And the best bit about it?  Salt plains are flat and smooth.

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