Writing on Tuesday, July 13th: It turned out that there was not gas to be had in Uyuni or nearby. The three gas stations were out and no gas was expected until the next day. I rode around asking questions hoping that I would find someone’s stash but I did not. Eventually I decided that I was to head out on the Salar with what little gas I had. I figured that I could at least get an hour’s trip out of it. And so I did. It was like riding on ice or snow by appearance but traction was excellent. I spent a little time taking photographs and collecting samples. It was a pretty impressive sight but unfortunately I didn’t spend as much time there as I would have like.
Upon returning to Uyuni, and realizing that I had lost my Leatherman (multi-tool), I went in search of a new hotel. The previous one just didn’t cut it. I found what would be considered Uyuni’s five star hotel, and although they offered me lobby parking, the cheaper hotel allowed me to park right side my room which is always a bonus — and at a quarter of the cost. It was laundry time. I bought a bar of laundry soap for about a buck and proceded to do my laundery outside. Take note that it was about 10 degrees outside dropping to 5 and the water out of the tap was frigid. I managed to get all of my clothes washed by my hands were absolutely number — like ice fishing numb. With two hours of day light most of my clothes (quick dry) managed to dry. What didn’t dry froze.
I knew I had a long day coming up so I hit the hay fairly early. I was mostly sound asleep when a bus load of jack ass Argentinian kids showed up at 3:30am. Surely I can empathize that you get off of a bus and you are “excited to get on with it”. That said, yelling and dragging wheeled luggage around like it was the noon hour was just completely inconsiderate. I could have strangled the little shits. Thinking that I would be getting up earlier than them, it turned out that they were up early as well and hogged most of the facilities and still couldn’t keep their little yaps shut — all of this delaying my early start.
I finally packed up, had my breakfast and went for the gas queue. I arrived at the gas station at ahout 9am. There were already some 30 cars ahead of me or so. I use “cars” loosely as most of the vehicles were 4x4s used for Salar expeditions, most with 3-4 40 litre gas cans on their roofs. The expected wait was 2 hours before the gas tanker was to show up and another hour in queue. I met some Argentinian men who were heading up to the La Paz area to do some mountain climbing. I shared a little Yerba Mate with them as we looked over maps and tried to hold a conversation. After seeing several people bud in line, namely a Lexus truck, I started to get frustrated. After all, I was the only two wheeled vehicle and I had to stand in what was virtual a sand storm. Eventually people started showing up in cabs with jerry cans. It turned out that if you had no vehicle, you could jump the queue. The Express Lane. Once the gas started flowing, the Argentines suggested that try to go to the front of the line. I figured that I too had a jerry can and that I would wait in the “express lane” with the other jerry can holders. Shortly into this I was ushered in front of the cars. Multiple people felt it proper that I just receive my 20 litre fill plus my 10 litre spare tank. In a flash I was done. And nobody seemed to mind — I have a feeling that these gas queues are common.
Having gathered some provisions I headed headed south. The first bit of the route was flat hardpack road with some corregation. It was passable. I was told that this road would be very difficult. Eventually there were alternate options to taking the “autopiste”. While heavy trucks tear up these roads, it seems that lighter vehicles made alternate routes in parallel to the main road. I attempted to follow these. Oftern they were useful but sometimes just as rough as the main route. At one time I hit some dusty sand. I blew up so much red dust that litterly could not see where I was going (zero viz) and had slow down as I hit the embankment (no harm done). Enough of that. Back to the main road.
I played aroud with the alternates a little more and eventually ran into llamas and alpacas — photo time. The landscape was in continual change. It went went from tundra looking stuff, to desert and shrub, to full on sandy desert with dunes and mild sand storms. Eventuallly the flat earth made way for the Andes with most of the features of previous routes and none of the sealed surfaces. There were also some small river crossings with ice — yes, it appears if you are taking a tour bus from the south, you drive through water. I spent quite some time curve up the Andes again which was a lot of fun to do with gravel and dirt surface — fairly challenging.
That said, certain moments drove home the point that Bolivians, in general, are shitty drivers. There is often no rhyme or reason to actions. For example, I am heading around a curve. Suddenly a bus shows up. There is no time for me to stop — and not purpose for it even if I could — I am as far over to the right as I can go and with enough clearance for the bus. The bus is honking away as if I shouldn’t be there or as if I should have given him more room by crashing into the ditch or riding my bike into a rock face. Apparent expectation are often absurd. I could go on an on about the confusing driving patterns…wait, and pattern would indicate consistency. As my Colombian friend Jorge mentioned, many of the drivers in South America are first generation, and to many (most?) driver education as we know it in North America and Europe does not exist. I have long since ditched the idea that I must adapt to “different” cultural norms — different styles of driving — with few exceptions, there just is no point.
For example — driving with lights off — I was told that this is the cultural norm in many areas. I have tired riding with my lights on (arguable safer) — I get flashed. Lights off. I get flashed. Apparently getting flashed can mean: “danger”, “you have your lights on”, “hello”, “you are an asshole” or anything else you can make up. What else? It doesn’t seem like there is much of a right of way. When arriving at a four-way intersection (the common type without stops or yields) right of way seems to be defined by who’s face has greater intent or who has the louder horn. The concept of “yield to the right”…well forget it. The driving at night with the lights off thing still baffles me…
Sorry for the digression, but sometimes these things need to be said. As I headed towards Tupiza I headed into some of the most beautiful country yet. It, like Lonely Planet suggests, is reminiscent of a old western town. It is what I expected some of the US south and Mexico to look like. Adobe houses, cactus, red earthen rock features — some wind carved like Monument Valley in the States. I tried not to let the fact that two attempts to wave at people were met with one kid trying to throw a rock at me, and a guy (I believe) angrily shouting at me and giving me the finger. Whatever, most people ignore me or wave back.
I thought about staying in Tupiza but did not. Finding the route out was tricky. It would not have surprised me if part of the Pan-American was tractor trail, dual track stuff. In the end, I followed something like this along a railroad track — map and GPS not offering much — and saw a bus on the other side of the partially dry river. I either had to turn around or wait for a bridge. I waiting until I saw a water crossing which I did. Tracks went down a steep embankment and through the river. This was to be my route. I kind of threw caution into the wind and just went for it without investigating the water features too much. Barring a sink hole or big rocks, if a 4×4 can make it through, chances are, so can I — so I went for it and made it up the bank easily. Here lay the Pan-Americana. The next hour and something were stretches of very good asphalt mixed with diversions through gravel stretches — basically much of the road was laid but bridges and drainage pipes were not complete.
Darkness came and I arrived in Villazon. As soon as I realized that La Quiaca on the Argentina side was right there I crossed the border. This was a pretty easy border crossing, with the exception that it was one of the few that required me to open a pannier. So in the respect crossing into Bolivia was slightly easier than crossing to Argentina. I found a acceptable hotel that took bikes.
In the morning it was rather cold. Zero. Starting the bike was a little tricky. Bad gas. Cold. High altitude. Dirty air filter. But it started. I wasn’t an hour outside of La Quiaca when I went over a reverse speed bump and found that my steering was off. Yup, my front tire was soft. I turned around and headed back to the gas station I saw earlier. While it had working pumps, the “servicio” was now a bakery — go figure. With the help of an innocent by-stander who I grabbed from a car at the pumps, I managed to get my half-loaded bike on the centre stand. I managed to replace th front tube fairly easily. Looks like the valve started to rust out. I adjusted a few other things and headed on my way.
I rode well into darkness to find San Miguel de Tucuman where I found a good hostel. Continuing my writing on Thursday July 15th, I should be in Cordoba tonight and Buenos Aires tomorrow. The KM by KM markers are rather taunting. BA some 2000km, 1999km, 1998km and so forth. I must be close to the 1300km market by now but it was dark. Well, time to pack up and head to Cordoba. I am feeling like I am developing a cold but can’t tell if it is that or just coughing up Bolivian dust and Argentinian road side grass burning smoke. Later.