When I told an Argentinian guy in the Salta hostel that I planned to spend a month in Bolivia, he asked me quite surprised what I was going to do there so long. Now that I have already left the country, I can definitely say that even two months wouldn’t be enough to see everything I wanted to see, which is much less than everything worth seeing.

Some quick references show that Bolivia is a comparatively small country (South-American standards considered), with territory spreading over about seven climate zones, suggesting great variety in nature. It is also the poorest country, with more than 60 pct of the population indigenes, i.e. unaffected by settlers. These small pieces of preliminary information gave me the hunch that my stay was going to be interesting.

My last story left you in La Quiaca, the border Argentine town which was a bridge’s distance from Villazon in Bolivia. A bridge that divided two worlds.

One could see from afar that the border was bubbling with traffic. People loaded with bags and sacks wandered in all directions despite the presence of several policemen. It was as if the border didn’t exist. Unlike the desert Argentine border post, a huge queue was winding in front of the Bolivian one. Even queues from communist times in Bulgaria could not measure up to this one. Actually the word queue was weak to describe the over 50-meter-long multi-row column reaching the next street corner. Just when I despaired at the thought of having to wait all day, I learned the queue was only for those leaving the country, so I made my way through to the front. A few policemen were sitting in a small, stuffy room with three bureaus and a wall portrait of Evo Morales, dressed up with all his president attributes. They were stamping the documents of the crowd which was pushing and shoving its way in. Of course, there was no sign of computers - extras like that did not fit the era Bolivia lived in.

The policeman asked me how long I was going to stay and what I was planning to do in Bolivia, gave me a 30-day stamp and then I was plunged into a different world.

My first impression of the place was that it was alive and buzzing, unlike most Argentinian towns, including La Quiaca. On both sides of the main street there were shops resembling our “One lev” shops. Everything on earth was sold there – from wash basins, shoes and clothes, to electronics. The shops themselves served more as warehouses, while the goods were mostly piled on the pavement in front. Because of the obstacles, wretched pedestrians had no choice but to walk on the roadway, where they mixed up with the variety of traffic - people pushing carts with luggage, ice-cream and juice sellers and all other kinds of two-legged and wheeled vermin. Amidst all this cacophony, taxis with obscured windows and stickers with various texts on them rode through with blaring horns. Yesss, the country looked promising right from its entrance.

There were exchange offices on both sides of the street, some 20 meters from one another. They had a nowhere announced, yet commonly accepted exchange rate, at which I traded my 100 Argentinian pesos left.

The town itself was quite ugly and tourists usually boarded the bus directly and left for Tupiza, but I needed to get used to the new surroundings so I quartered in the cheapest and most miserable hostel I managed to find. There I could use a single room for less than half the money I would have paid for a bed in a common room in the cheapest hotel and the cheapest area of Argentina. As I already wrote, the town looked alive but it was only in the evening I saw how alive it could be. Female food sellers went out in the street and the picture was fully finished. Here is what one could see in the street at evening hours.

A woman with one or two huge baskets full of small loafs of bread, covered with a white sheet, and a small portable glass case beside her, displaying pastries and other goodies. Further down there was a cart selling orange, tangarine and grapefruit fresh juice, where one could get a glass of hand-squeezed juice for 70 stotinki (0.4 euro cents), However, what was definately more attractive were the carts with compote. The compotes themselves could usually be seen in some plastic pails, beside which there were also two pails of water, used to wash the few glasses the compote seller had. The washing procedure consisted of three steps: rough rinsing in pail number 1, delicate rinsing in pail number 2 and final wiping in a towel of questionable cleanness. As I really wanted to try these compotes but had some distrust in the washing system, I nipped over to the hostel to get my pannikin and washed it in advance. When I handed the pannikin to the woman, she grabbed it and directly applied the normal procedure, only missing pail 1. Welcome to the world of hygiene!

The biggest attraction though were definitely the street kitchens. There, you could see an aunty standing behind a gas hot-plate and frying something in a tremendous pan, surrounded by pots of different size. The pan content could vary a lot, but most often it was either some parts of chicken, or other meat of unknown and very doubtful origin. The whole installation was surrounded by customers, sitting with small bowls in their hands. Sometimes the lack of bowls was compensated by nylon bags.

However, what made me happy were the cakes and pastries which were really cheap. My happiness during my two-day stay was though disturbed by two problems. The first one was upset digestion – again - which I don’t think deserves much attention. The second problem was that the only cash machine in town did not work with my card. The situation didn’t look nice, as my money was close to nothing and I needed to urgently figure something out. Heading for the next town was no solution, as I was not sure there would be a cash machine there whatsoever. That’s why I decided to do the only thing remaining as an option – go back to La Quiaca. I didn’t like the prospect of passing the border formalities though, especially remembering the exit queue, so I decided to cross the border illegally. I stood by the bridge, looked at the free moving crowd and rushed into the pell-mell. I had heard that the Argentines watched closely incomers for import of drugs, so I decided to ask the Argentine policeman, just in case. After my explanations he said No problem. An hour later I passed the two border points with no one paying attention to me. They watched closely? Yeah, right… After a two-day acclimatization period it was time to continue to the north. I still lived with the notion that I would hitchhike in Bolivia as well so I started to sneak out of town. It was quite difficult to find the exit, and the process involved continuous walking and wandering on dusty unpaved streets. When I got there I stood face to face with the tough truth. Even in the town I had noticed only taxis and mini-buses moving in the streets, while private cars were hardly seen at all.

However, this observation was absolutely confirmed now. Only three trucks and a bus passed by in the course of two hours. Some dumpers were shuttling around, loaded with rubble for planned asphalt laying. I was quite surprised when the driver of one of these waved at me and proposed to drop me 18 kilometers away, where he was driving the rubble. I learned from him that Bolivia was the most beautiful country in the world and it was really rich as well, but politicians were stealing from it. He left me in the middle of nowhere but soon a pick-up truck passed by, loaded with packets of rice and macaroni, and I jumped into the back. In the cabin there were two men and an old woman - the latter seemingly a passenger like me. The 80-km “international” highway to Tupiza was actually a narrow unpaved road, on which we swept in clouds of dust at less than 40 km/h, surrounding - sometimes successfully, other times not quite – ditches, pits and all other sorts of obstacles. This trip marked the start of my observations on the Bolivian road network. Only about ten of the main roads in Bolivia are paved, the rest are dirt roads which usually climb, descend and wind on hills and mountains overlooking bottomless abysses. This makes you contemplate on whether the driver is good enough and when last the vehicle has passed inspection. Of course, all this comes to your mind only if you are capable of not thinking about danger. One of these roads is even knows as the Death Road, because of the many trucks falling down into the abyss. And while these roads are dangerous in dry weather, I can hardly imagine what happens during the rain season, when landslides occur everywhere. The most eloquent example though is the fact that Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the second-largest town in Bolivia, is not connected to the other towns by paved roads. It is yet hard to put the blame on the state, as most of Bolivia’s populated area is mountainous, with extremely difficult terrain which would require colossal amounts of money for the construction of normal roads.

But let’s go back to the pick-up truck. After more than two hours and white with dust, I descended into Tupiza. It seemed like the driver expected me to pay, but was obviously embarrassed to ask a foreigner, so I got off cheap. This was though rather an exception. The Bolivians are poor and the few people, who manage to get a car, use it to earn money, i.e. as a taxi. For this reason ordinary cars are hardly ever seen on the roads. All the traffic - usually almost invisible – consists of taxis, buses, mini-buses and trucks. Shortly, all these are forms of paid public transport. It is absolutely normal to see peasants’ heads sticking out of a truck carosserie. Dressed in many-colored clothes, they are sitting on sacks and all other sorts of luggage. Trucks are the cheapest transport. Buses are a bit more expensive and the dearest transport is of course taxis, which are in all cases full to the maximum. Hitchhiking is certainly known, but everyone expects payment for the lift. People know that well and even the poorest peasant pulls a coin out of his empty pocket.

Despite all, transport is cheap, and because of the above described condition of the road network, the length of the travel is measured in hours. If you ask about the distance between Kochabamba and La Paz, everyone will answer six-seven hours, but no one will know how many kilometers that is.

Tupiza was a quiet town settled in the middle of an erosive canyon, which resembled the canyons around Purmamarca and Argentina. The streets were considerably calmer and emptier compared to Villazon. The hundreds of shops were missing in that place, and the food sellers were concentrated mainly around the two markets. A nice garden with high trees showed green in the centre, and behind the trees a big and beautiful cathedral was rising. I stayed there for two days, during which a couple of important things happened. The first was my discovery of one of the main Bolivian dishes - chicken a la broaster. Honestly, I had no idea what broaster meant but everywhere one could see the shops behind whose windows pieces of fried chicken and fried potatoes were heating under lamps. It almost looked like this was the only food to find. Similar mini-restaurants for chicken, or polleria in Spanish, were spread everywhere, in every town and this was one of the cheapest, though not the tastiest, foods.

The second important event was that I met the French guy Florian (Flo), with whom we shared a room in the hostel and later travelled together for some ten days. Flo planned to make a tour in Altiplano with a tour agency. At first I didn’t have such intentions, but several considerations changed my mind. The main one was the almost complete lack of transport, which made independent travel possible only by bike, motor or 4×4. As I had none of these and Altiplano was an area with no equivalent in the whole world, I decided to join Florian despite the considerable prices the agencies asked.

So next day Flo, two Canadian girls, an American guy and me piled up into a jeep, together with our driver Kentin and his wife Ada who was going to cook for us. There was food and water for the next four days in the trunk and several tanks of water and petrol tied to the roof. Conveniences were scarce; there were no doors by the backest seats and to get there, we had to vault over the front ones, which was only possible with the passengers sitting there out of the car. But as they say, good things come to those who endure. This was particularly valid for one of the Canadian girls, who was quite high and her legs were terribly pressed against the back of the front seat. In the following days we changed places so that no one should feel screwed.

The first day we passed some not quite interesting places on the way to Altiplano. They revealed though whole new dimensions of the concept of road. Only someone with a really vivid imagination could refer to the thing we were driving on with this word. It was definitely impossible for any vehicle to cross this area, unless it was a high-mountain 4×4. The only reference point I saw the whole day was a small stone with something written on it, obviously serving as a signboard. Totally exhausted from the shaking, after two flat tyres changed, we welcomed the evening in a small village at the foot of an amazingly beautiful mountain whose snowy peak glittered under the last sun beams against the background of the yellow steppe, adorned with motley clothes spread for drying.

The second day started at 4 a.m., when we had a quick breakfast and jumped into the cars. That day we were going to see the most beautiful part of Altiplano.

But what is actually Altiplano? This is a high-mountain plateau, part of the Andes, at an altitude of more than 3,000 m. What is most characteristic of it is that its water doen’t flow into any of the oceans. The water from the few falling rains gathers in salty lakes whose saltiness is caused by the high percentage of salts in the soil, which is due to the still present volcanic activity in the area.

It sounds quite dry and academic, right?

What is really Altipano?

This is a huge magical place where the wind reigns over the barren desert plains, drifting salty dust kilometers away; a place where wild vicunas and tame llamas bite at the yellow tuffs of grass at the foot of conic volcanoes by lakes, in whose many-colour salty waters there are pink flamingoes walking. A place just as hostile as splendid, with tens and hundreds of kilometers with no fresh water. Only here and there people dared to build small villages of adobe houses with roofs of grass, fighting the harsh conditions of nature. The Altipano landscape has been often described as moonlike, but I have never been to the moon so I don’t know if that’s true. What I know for sure is that there is no other place on earth with nature and scenery like this. It is probably pointless to list the names of the lagoons, volcanoes and salars we saw that day and the days to follow. I think the pictures of these places speak for themselves.

On the evening of the third day we reached the beach of Salar de Uyuni – a more than 160 km long flat surface of a rock-solid snow-white salt plain. In Chile, Argentina and Bolivia there were other similar salars, but this was the biggest one. We spent the night at a hostel, almost entirely made of salt blocks, obtained from the salar. The doors and window frames were made of the inner wood porous part of the huge cacti growing on the rocks of the salar beach, as well as on the several small islands there.

It was namely one of these islands we headed for in the morning, before dawn. For orientation, Kentin turned the headlights off to see in the darkness the silhouette of the island at the centre of the salar. The sunrise among cacti in the middle of the vast white desert was a memorable view.

Later on we finished crossing the salar, passing a strip of several kilometers, still flooded, with shuttling people and trucks obtaining salt. On the very beach of the small village of Kolchani a woman demonstrated for us how the salt was processed once the trucks had delivered it from the salar. It was first spread to dry up in the sun for three days. Then it was further dried on some iron sheets for about 40 minutes, with fire burning below. The fire was lit with small bushes – the only burning material found in the area. Once fully dried, the salt went through an electrical mincer, where a spoon of iodine was added to each ton of salt. Finally, the nylon bags were filled by eye measure from the heap on the ground and were sealed.

Come on now and give a boliviano or two for assistance.

The answer to my question of how much salt was processed a day was about three tons. It only remained unclear to me who and when processed these three tons, as there was neither salt spread for drying, nor anyone working nearby at the moment.

Finally we reached Uyuni – a relatively small town near the salar, which was the end point of our journey. As a last attraction though we went to the train graveyard which was a bit outside the town. The remains of the old steam locomotives, once used by the Bolivian Railways, rotted in that graveyard. I expected the place to be nice, as I had seen a lot of pictures of it, but in reality it turned out to be over-polluted with all kinds of rubbish. On top of all we lunched there with the company of many flies.

In the end, it was pay-time. This was actually supposed to come earlier, in Tupiza, but because of the expected lack of a cash machine, the agency said I could pay in Uyuni, where there was one. No more than one. And it wouldn’t accept my card. I shook out my pockets and gathered almost the whole amount, but in order to continue, Florian lent me 200 Bolivianos so I had no choice but to go on with him.

One can hardly say anything interesting about Uyuni. A plain town where we only spent one night, in a hostel with hot water running only between 5 and 8 p.m. Here is the time to mention, in parenthesis, the water in hostels. While in white countries hot water is taken for granted, in Bolivia it is almost a luxury one needs to ask explicitly about. Quite often you would hear the answer that there is only “normal” water (i.e. cold). Often you would have to pay extra for it, and sometimes they would say proudly that it runs 24 hours a day. On the occasions where there was hot water, it came from an instant electric shower of doubtful safety and quality, with semi-insulated cables hanging towards it from the wall. The top of security was a completely uncovered circuit-breaker which you had to switch on and what is worse – off - in order to bathe. These showers usually offered a light electric shock as an extra, when the tubes were made of metal and you caught the tab.

Our next stop was planned to be Potosi and we were going there by bus – my first bus in Bolivia. To get a bus ticket, you just need to find the bus station or the place from where the bus leaves and to lend an ear. You can even skip the last part, as quite soon somebody will probably find you shouting “Potosi, Potosi”, “Oruro, Oruro” or any other town. You only need to identify the person with the right destination and try to haggle on the price. Drivers are basically firm, but when leaving time approaches and the bus is still emplty, they suddently get softer. This way we lowered the price from 30 to 25 and we perched ourselves, waiting by the bus. In the meantime we helped a man lift a cupboard and a few empty crates onto the bus roof where they were tied together with other bundles and bags. I had the feeling it was going to be an interesting journey.

/to be continued/

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