July 2016 archive

Suspended between Heaven and Hell on the salar

The Salar de Uyuni had been on our minds for the past couple of weeks. We were excited to spend a day riding 50 miles west to east across the gigantic salt flat. Aside from the obvious pure beauty, it somehow represented to me a Rubicon, where we would have climbed as high as we would go, left the south of the continent way behind and crossed into new, totally different cultures and stories.

But first we had to get from the border to the edge of the salt.

Soon after leaving the rudimentary, friendly border crossing, we had our first taste of Bolivian life: a herd of 20 or 30 lamas blocking the road ahead, happy to take their time, clearly unfazed by human presence.

Border crossing

Border crossing

The time didn’t slow us down: we could only go at walking pace as the sandy road caused Sophie’s slim tyres to slip into deep divots, making riding impossible.

What could have been a short jaunt of around 70 miles to the salar became a tiring three days of alternating riding and pushing the bikes. The thinness of the air at high altitude and the lack of sleep due to biting cold exacerbated the feeling of exhaustion, so when we finally reached a hostel at the edge of the salar, we were ready to chow down some lama meat before hitting the hay.

Cemetery near the salts

Cemetery near the salts

Pushing past huge cacti

Pushing past huge cacti

Pushing further

Pushing further

The hostel itself was built from salt blocks: huge squares that had been cut from the surrounding landscape. The beds too were sculpted from salt, and the floors were coated in rough crystals. The novelty and ingenuity was a welcome surprise, though the dry nostrils and throat in the morning reminded us that it doesn’t make the most comfortable choice.

After our scrambled eggs and coca mates the next morning, we were ready for the flats. It’s a strange feeling when you make your first pedal stroke on the salt. Everything you’ve taught yourself in the past tells you that riding on what looks exactly like a frozen lake is dumb: you’ll either slip or crack the surface and fall into freezing water. But of course you do neither. The tyres grip tight to the crystals, making slipping impossible. There’s so much friction, in fact, that our ideas of riding 15mph were quickly quashed.

Deep into the white desert and we were pedalling through an ocean, riding on water, far from land or noise, pulling ourselves through space. And through the day nothing changed. After three or four hours on the clean monotony of the flats, it occurred to me: perhaps I was in limbo, a purgatory suspended between Heaven and Hell where there was no pain but no pleasure also; only an endless ride across the icy white under a paper thin baby blue sky.

Evening sun sparkling

Evening sun sparkling

It was late in the evening when we pulled into Colchani, our faces hot and dry from the relentless reflection. We found a room and turned in. I fell asleep immediately, dreaming of fruit salads and explosions in the sky.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)

Ceremony beneath the volcanoes

I didn’t expect fireworks the night we’d reach the border, or litres of milk punch, dancing around a fire and a gigantic birthday cake, but the best things are always the unexpected.

It was the fiesta of the birth of Carmen, the Virgin Mary. Eduardo, our host in Ollagüe was deeply involved in the organisation and soon after inviting us to stay at his home he asked if we’d like to come along.

Cebolla is even smaller than the tiny two-road frontier village of Ollagüe . Built on the flats by a salar and defined on all sides by volcanoes, there are few huts, a communal toilet block, pick up trucks dotted around the dusty landscape and of course the chapel, decorated with jaunty bunting in the colours of the Chilean flag. When we arrived, a large crucifix was lit outside the chapel with splendid fairy lights flashing red, green, white, blue.

As the single-room stone hut adjacent to the chapel began to fill with people, we watched their actions to learn what behaviour we should copy: kneel in front of a table covered with lilies and carnations, then blow smoke from a pan of charcoal over the flowers as a lady fuelled the burning briquettes with incense.

We in turn covered the flowers with blessings – mint liquor, coca leaves, red wine and blue confetti – while repeating the refrain:

“Es una Buena hora”. “It’s a good hour”.

When the offering was ready, we carried it to the chapel where prayers and blessings were said before the statue of the Virgin. And then a parade around the village, holding the statue high and proud as firecrackers and fireworks were set alight, whizzing and sparkling into the blackness of the cold night.

There was wine and feasting before a cauldron of milk punch was brought outside by an abuela and set aside the wood fire that we – the happy congregation – danced around to keep warm.

“Es una Buena hora”.

“Buena hora”.

And music into the night: a live band that continued the same infectious cumbia beat for hours, as the party danced harder, messier, drunker into the morning.

In a remote mountain village where fun is hard to come by, an excuse to meet your friends, feast on meat and alcohol and dance all night is as welcome as sleep and old as society. And the next morning, our heads throbbing from dryness and altitude, when Eduardo offered us a parrilla and hair-of-the-dog in another remote village, we could hardly say no. Grilled meat, cold beer, Chilean red and clean Andean air is, as I understand it, the best remedy for any night-before.

Our final days in Chile were a success. Time to leave our home for the past three months and open a new chapter: Bolivia. Es una Buena hora.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

looking along the tracks

Looking along the tracks

Ollagüe, under the volcano

Ollagüe, under the volcano

the chapel

The chapel

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)

Huge skies and deserted spaces

Our time in Chile is nearly at an end. Lying in bed in the northern Atacaman town of Calama, I’m looking back and remembering the scenery we’ve passed, the people we’ve met, the many sleep deprived nights we’ve had on the road.

After leaving Santiago, we cycled along the Pan-American Highway heading north, past the cactus forests, aside the misty Pacific and through the dusty dry desert. We had a wonderful time in the capital, forging a strong friendship with Daniel and Luz as they showed us their town and surrounding areas (Valparaíso and San José de Maipo both deserve blog posts – the cycling and subsequent tiredness make regular updates a challenge for me) but Sophie and I both feel leaving the busyness of the city brought us back to the feeling of freedom we first found in Argentine Patagonia. The huge skies and open deserted spaces – unpunctuated by the manmade – brought a calm to our minds. Calling it Zen may be a little pretentious, but it would be on the right track. Sky and rock. Deep blue and a thousand shades of copper brown.

‘Desert compliments city, as wilderness compliments and completes civilization.” – Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey.

Drawings in the sand

Drawings in the sand

Arid in the Atacama

Arid in the Atacama

After an all night sand storm

After an all night sand storm

There are hardly any non-human animals. We’ve seldom seen animal life outside of town. It’s too arid to make a comfortable home for many. One night though, we were settling down to sleep when we heard a rustling and a scratching on the trash bag we’d tied to the bikes. In the darkness, everything sounds larger than the reality and we could only imagine it to be some starving wild dog, or maybe human intruders? I unzipped the tent and sprang out, full of bravado to find out what was going on. Nothing. Not even footprints. Whatever it was, it had vanished into the rock. Back in the tent though and the sound started again, louder. Trying a different tactic, I unzipped the vestibule slowly, silently to see – not 2 foot from my face – a Darwin’s leaf-eared mouse studiously working through the remaining food in the bag. Pasta sauce smears from inside the pack, a little tuna water from the tin. Probably the best meal it had enjoyed in days. I moved the bag 20 metres from the tent so the noise wouldn’t be so bothersome, tossed some cracker crumbs around it and let the little mite feast.

Another memorable night we camped not 2 metres from train tracks – the best place we could find under the circumstances. The trains continued all night long. Hearing the gigantic beasts crawl past us every couple of hours, screeching metal on metal, flashing lights and thundering the earth beneath us, our dreams were laced with the apocalyptic.

The south of the country is far away from this glorious open Martian landscape – both physically and in our headspace. Chile is 2,653 miles long, bringing the overlander through glacial mountains, temperate rainforest, fertile farmland and into the desert, and each ecosystem here provides the traveller with different natural wonders and fresh beauty. Our memories of the south are usually set against the backdrop of constant rain. North of the capital and rain comes only very rarely. We’ve come a long way since Torres del Paine and the Carretera Austral.

We've come a long way

We’ve come a long way

We’ve been in Chile for the best part of three months now. I love this country. But we both feel it’s time to move on. We’ll be climbing now, up to the frontier pass at 3,703 metres. We hope to be in Bolivia within four days.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)