Thursday, 1 October 2015

Bolivian Altiplano and La Paz

(Previous post: San Pedro to Uyuni)

This post is long overdue - over six months. I just simply couldn't be bothered to write it at the time. However it is interesting to reflect on events after so much time has passed. So I'll start up where I finished off.

Uyuni - Bolivian Altiplano
After a near disaster getting lost in a high altitude desert (see previous post) I hitched a lift to the nearest town, then paid a jeep to take me the rest of the way to Uyuni.

I was both physically and mentally spent by the time I arrived in Uyuni. I was also starting to develop stomach problems. That probably comes as no surprise to some of those who know me. I was pretty excited to see the Bolivian salt plains. It is one of the places that anybody who goes to South America would like to see. A magnificent and awe-inspiring landscape. Well, that's what they tell you.

Truth be told, it is an incredibly beautiful place, but my mind was not in the right place to appreciate it. I chose not to cycle on the salt plains as it was still flooded. During the summer months it essentially turns into the world's largest puddle. I have read accounts of people cycling across it in these conditions, but I decided against it. I wasn't really that confident enough to do it and after taking a wrong turn in the desert on the previous leg of my trip I really couldn't be dealing with any more hiccups.

Uyuni itself is not a particularly interesting place. It is very tourist-centric. It is very expensive by Bolivian standards and all of the restaurants are geared towards selling western food. After spending carnaval partying with a Bolivian family I found my new location very underwhelming. My guts were really not in a good way, so I spent a day moping around, mostly in bed, feeling knackered and decided to sign on to a tour of the salt plains on day two.

I should have been blown away by the landscape, but it was quite the opposite. The ride to the plain was a boneshaker. I was struggling to contain the contents of my stomach and guts. With each bump I really worried that I might vomit or shit my pants. Miraculously my body didn't fail me! I was incredibly relieved to get the hell out of that jeep. It didn't help that I had the most sickening Argentine/Bolivian couple eating each others faces off next to me and a bunch of 17 year old Chilean girls who happened to be selfie addicts sat in the front.

When I finally got over the jeep I ride I got to soak up the views. I just couldn't muster up any enthusiasm. I felt like I was staring out across an infinite white car park that stretched for as far as the eye could see. Clearly I had become jaded by my travels.

Uyuni was chock full of an unbelievable amount of Korean tourists. I had some fun conversations with these girls from Seoul. The Chileans and Bolivians in my jeep were not big fans of the Asians.

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I only took a few photos on the Salar de Uyuni. Mostly because in every direction all I could see were people taking selfies and doing poses that make things look out of perspective. We were parked on the salt plains for hours under the most intense sunlight.

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It was at Uyuni that I started to feel like I was finished with this trip and it was time to make decisions about when I would return to the UK. What suddenly triggered this? Well first I must must tell you about an encounter I had made a few days before...

When I was cycling out of San Pedro de Atacama up towards the Lagunas I took a break by the side of the road for some snacks and some water. A woman in a giant camper van pulled up a few hundred metres down the road. She emerged from the vehicle followed by her pet dog whom she proceeded to walk in my direction.

I got chatting to the lady who originated from France. Initially I was quite captivated about her story and her life. She had been travelling a long time and explained how San Pedro had changed over the past thirty years. The conversation quickly took a sour turn and she leaped into a diatribe against tourists and tourism in general. While I had a certain understanding of where she was coming from and I was quite sympathetic with what she was saying, I didn't like the overall negative tone of the conversation. This woman clearly thought that she was better than other 'travellers' and because I was on a bicycle she clearly viewed me as being better than other tourists. I was very uncomfortable with this. I am quite happy to label myself as a tourist and despite the fact that tourist hotspots can be dreadful places I hold nothing against other tourists. Ultimately no matter how hard one might think they are different from the crowd, you are a tourist as well.

Yes, she may have got there years before all these tourists around her, but it's quite clear why. She's decades older than them! It is frustrating to see how tourism can potentially contaminate a place, but for westerner to rock up in a country and be frustrated by the tourism which they have created reeks of hypocrisy...

...and that's why I started to question my journey. I had started to see elements of that woman in myself. Here I was at the Salar de Uyuni, a truly magnificent landscape incomparable to anything I have ever had the good grace of seeing and I'm comparing it to a car park. Something had clearly gone wrong. I put it down to a combination of things. It could have been from being so exhausted having cycled at such high altitude on such unforgiving terrain. It could have been that I had seen so many amazing things that I had simply raised the bar too high. Or it could have be the fact that I was so used to my own company and interaction with local people that tourists were simply getting on my nerves. Either way, I didn't like what I saw in myself. I decided that I would cycle to La Paz and make a decision from there.

Uyuni to Rio Mulato (approx 100 km)

I can't remember the exact distance I covered that day, but it was slightly over 100km. After the incredibly tough ride up from San Pedro, I thought that this ride would be much easier as it was alongside the altiplano. It was actually way tougher than I could have imagined. Uyuni is about 3,700 metres in altitude. The road was initially a horrendous washboard texture. I spent my time either juddering up and down, or my wheels would be swimming around in the sand. The effort was knackering.

After a few kilometres I spotted that the were building a new highway. Cars weren't allowed on it as it was not finished. Eventually it will be a seal road all the way to Oruro. It goes with out saying that I was straight up there the moment that I saw it. In the photo above you can see the crappy old road to the right. It was a massive relief to be riding on a smooth surface again.

My guts were feeling a lot better but I still had to stop for an explosive dump on the side of the road. Fortunately I was able to get out of sight unlike my experiences in the Atacama. Maybe my bowels are allergic to the desert?

Somehow I had managed to avoid any real problems with dogs on this trip. I had heard nothing but bad things about dogs in South America. Well that was about to change. I saw a handful of people working out here in this desert landscape, and this one woman's dog was not all that keen on my bicycle. At first it seemed quite playful, despite its bark. I came up with the idea of using my water to spray the dog. Initially it seemed to work, but he continued to chase after me when he realised that the water was harmless. I pedalled faster, but the faster I seemed to move the more agitated and aggressive the dog became. I squirted more of my water at the dog, but this had little effect (it was also a terrible idea to waste any water in this environment - but my immediate concern was to not get mauled by a fierce canine). I had only one option left. Pedal like a crazy man.

I spent every last bit of energy trying to out-cycle the dog and eventually got away from it. It seemed that there was a correlation between the speed of my bike and the ferocity of the dogs snarl. He was gnashing away, getting ever so close to my ankles. Once I was far away and in complete safety I stopped to gather my breath. I was crippled with exhaustion - my tank completely empty.

Later on I came across another angry dog. This time I changed tactics. I stopped cycling and got off the bike. The dog quickly lost interest and I walked my bike until I was well out of its range of curiosity. So that's my top tip. Don't try to out-cycle a crazy dog. Worst case scenario, it's time to throw stones.

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Shortly before sunset I rolled up into Rio Mulato. I couldn't be bothered to cycle any further beyond here, so I headed to the station to find out about trains to Oruro. As I approached there was a full band playing. Carnaval celebrations were still in full swing! I got forced to pose in photos with a host of locals.

It turned out that there were no trains for a few days - shit - but there were buses to Oruro around midnight. I had a lot of time to kill until then. I got chatting to an engineer who was working on the new highway and his wife. Somehow we managed to have a relatively coherent conversation in spite of my broken Spanish. They offered to buy me dinner and I gratefully accepted the offer. My belly welcomed the fried chicken feast.

The bus to Oruro was three hours of total hell. When it arrived there was a huge frenzy as dozen as people battled to get on the bus. I was panicking trying to get my kit loaded under the bus. In the end I settled for a seat on the back of the bus. This turned out to be a serious error. I experienced what was easily the most reckless driving in existence. I think the driver thought he was in the Dakar rally. The roads were seriously bumpy and I frequently found myself thrown about a foot out of my seat. I had to endure an entire hour of that bullshit before we got onto sealed roads, then I managed to get some sleep.

I spent the night in Oruro in a stinky hotel by the bus station. The sheets smelled unwashed like old saliva. Have you ever smelled the end of a pen that someone has chewed on? Yeah, that was the smell. In the morning I decided that I couldn't be bothered to cycle to La Paz, so I took the bus... and guess what?

I left my passport at the hotel in Oruro. Bollocks.

La Paz
I spent the next day on the bus because I had to go and fetch my passport. After that false start I booked my flights back to London which left me with a week to kill in La Paz. I had heard bad things about La Paz, but I thought that it was in fact a really fun city with the most incredibly cityscape you could possibly see.

The house of democracy is in a state of disrepair.

This is Kurt. He was touring as well. He spotted me in the street, so we arranged to cycle out of town for the day.

It was a long uphill cycle (about 500 metres elevation) on the autopista before we got up El Alto.

Epically contrasting clouds. Somehow we avoided a soaking.

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I had the theme tune to Airwolf stuck in my head after seeing this bus. It was the perfect tune to have in my head on the descent back down into La Paz.

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This ride was possibly my favourite descent ever, despite the traffic and the near misses.

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I may have ended my trip much earlier than anticipated, but I genuinely didn't see the point in continuing for the sake of it. Enjoyment was my primary motive, so once that had disappeared there was no reason to go further.  I don't really understand the point of pushing yourself through misery if it is going to have such a negative impact on the way you view things. It effectively taints your interaction with the culture and your surroundings. Travelling is supposed to be an uplifting thing. I do enjoy pushing myself with cycling. I love challenges, especially cycling in the mountains. I quite enjoy suffering on the bike, but after three months, it was time for a break.

I hope to return to Bolivia. I would even like to have another go at riding across the altiplano and through the Lagunas again, but not at the end of a three month trip and I would certainly prefer to do that with another cyclist for motivation. Sometimes it's good to ride solo. Other times it's the worst!

(Previous post: San Pedro to Uyuni)