21. Bolivia - Oxygen deprivation!

Irrelevant of the long climb out of Aiquile, now back on a sealed road I was enjoying the pedals steady rhythm, halfway up, now starting to sweat I stop to remove my waterproof trousers normally used as a wind shield. A while later after a few twisty sections the road starts to descend and I'm freewheeling down at 45 km/h.
As it levels out, up ahead coming toward me I notice another tourer and new straight away who it was, Russ!! one of the three Manchester lads I'd previously met on my London - Singapore tour and rode with during the first month in China. Russ had left Ushuaia a month before me and taken a similar route although entering Bolivia from the south, also heading to Alaska. We'd been close to one another around Chile's Santiago area but not enough to meet up but new along this route we'd pass each other, just not sure where. Here in the middle of nowhere heading in opposite directions we wanted to have a good chat so decide (for myself) to head back to Aiquile, not wanting to climb the 5 kilometre hill I'd just zipped down we patiently wait for a pick-up truck, both of us with thumbs out we're soon in the back of one! Bikes and bags lifted in as-one - here we're both straddling over our bikes while cruising along in the pick-up!

Back in town we're soon booked into a hostal continuing our stories, it was strange to think we'd both used the same (only!) road out from Ushuaia, thousands of kilometres away, meandering across Argentina and Chile (and me Paraguay!) to find ourselves both here! In the evening we go out for some dinner and a celebratory beer!
As the morning arrives it was time to split, taking totally different routes we still hoped to meet-up further along again. As I headed back up the climb out of town I at least new I'd soon be whizzing back down the other side.
In Bolivia having almost retired my tent from use maybe Russ had re-ignited my desire to camp again. The road I'd been on followed a river and toward the end of the day spot a suitable place to camp. Across a suspension pedestrian-bridge lay a nice area to pitch and soon I'm set for the night, it felt really good to free-camp again. 
Fabio, the Brazilian cyclist I'd camped with a few days back informed me about the white table-clothed tables outside of people house and shops. It basically means they have bread to sell! Quite quirky how different country's have their own little ways of doing things..I expect England has them but they go unnoticed as we're similarly accustomed to them.    
Passing this I was tempted to use the slide but think they'd forgotten something?? 
Table football appeared quite popular in Bolivia, I'd noticed them in several villages.
Sucre would be reached today, sitting at 2,810 metres altitude I certainly had my work cut out. On a touring bike, the simplest of things can help pass the time of day..so what does this altitude reading correlate to?
We've all heard of sheep dogs, but how about goat dogs? Guarding the free-ranging roadside grass-grazing goats (what a mouthful!), no shepherd required, just the dog. Offering this one a fuss he was having none of it, snarling as I got close, reading dogs quite well I new he meant it, so retreated.
Taking a quick break at one point I hear the approaching groan of a truck's engine ...excellent! Thirty seconds later with a quick power-sprint I'm latched onto his side ladder, being quite a steep climb after several minutes my wrist starts to ache but where there's no-pain, there's no-gain, and I was certainly gaining, altitude! As the road levelled out I let go...but rounding the next corner I so regretted it..unbeknown to me the climb continued and continued. Here, looking back at what I'd been climbing.

Arriving at Sucre I soon get the feeling of being in yet another sprawling, chaotic, messy city. My negative feelings sustained by the initial greeting of a huge, smog-churning cement/chemical works company - not the most attractive of sights for a mountainous city...in fact i'd seen it from many kilometres away!
Pleasantly, not so easy to miss were the road-side [and roundabout] dinosaur figures - researching these it turns out Sucre is home to one of the world's largest collections of dinosaur footprints.
I liked this old car..reminded me of one from my Lesney Matchbox-75 collection.
Soon finding a well-priced hostal I wander around the historic central area. The main plaza was awash with tourists, locals and snack-food sellers, a small congregation of choir and band were out practising.
Oi doggy, shouldn't you be cat??
Looking west from the hostal's roof-top terrace.
I think If I was travelling with company a city would be more engaging, they're places where one's solitude is magnified even more-so, especially with a language barrier. Typically the tourist attractions are all signed in Spanish - why should they be in English? So a couple of days proved long enough before my legs were keen to get going again. Potosi is the world's highest city, perched up at 4090 metres (13,418 feet) so certainly new the expected two day's ride would include a few (!) climbs.
The killer of the climbs started around mid-day, up until then I'd been meandering up and down. Crossing any river's bridge in these mountains usually means one thing, up!  The long bridge can just about be seen in the picture's centre. 
As I continually climb, at each switchback the bridge gets further away, soon struggling with the altitude, cycling at just 6 km/h, walking proved to be more efficient, although a tad slower at 5 km/h. Slowly the switchback section straightened, furthering the ever-present bridge permanently out of sight, but the road was far from levelling out, climbing and climbing.
Clearly seen, I had a long walk, but as every string has it's end, the climb eventually levelled out onto a huge wide open plateau-like area. Back on the Brooks I effortlessly moved forward, although forced to ride slower due to oxygen deprivation.
As the Sun started to drop the temperature followed so arriving at the first village I ask about accommodation...but not a chance, half the buildings looked deserted so luckily finding one to pitch within out of the wind was quite easy, as pointed out by the kiosk-shop proprietor. It was clearly once a busy farming village so I assumed the farmer had died and the villagers fled, leaving many of the adobe houses empty.
As I ride off I noticed my rear wheel's tyre was a bit soft so pumped it up hoping it would last a while. Being so high up the thin morning's air was quite fresh but as the sun rose over the clear sky it nicely warmed up, the road was mine as few vehicles passed by.
Nearing the next village my tyre was soft again so I conveniently stop at a garage to repair it, never a quick job as all panniers need unclipping, water bottles removing, handlebar box removing and then digging the tools out from one of the panniers, but at least here I'd got a tap to clean my hands after the job.
Some interesting roadside 'company' sights along the way.
By early afternoon Potosi came into sight, another sprawling chaotic city nestled with in the mountains. I was certainly struggling at the 4000+ metre altitude, the slightest exertion such as a flight of stairs meant pausing halfway for a breather, several times I'd awoke early morning gasping for air, it felt like someone had been trying to suffocate me.
One day-off proved sufficient enough and with Uyuni now just 200 kilometres away I estimated to reach it within three days.
Meeting two cyclist just out from Potosi they informed me of a suitable village to stay at that was a manageable day's ride away. The road snaked up, down and around the mountain peaks and occasionally across the weaving railway line, at one point about to ride across it I heard this coming, it certainly made me laugh, the vast expanse of openness and this noddy-like theme-park style wagon trundles past with several rail workers inside!
Luckily half way up a long climb I was rescued by a truck that I'd heard coming, now higher up, the necessary quick sprint I had to do to latch on to it was quite hard hard due to the deprived oxygen. 
By mid afternoon passing the brow of a hill Chaquilla comes into sight (just at the bottom of the middle mound), it didn't look that far but the plateau-like openness is quite distance-deceiving.
A ghoslty-like village, the centre piece being it's run down plaza with the expected complementary dogs ambling around, corrugated tin roofed buildings - one being a kiosk shop along with accommodation at the rear. Sitting in the plaza sipping on a coke whilst befriending the K9's a village-hoping bus pulls in, low on fuel they buy some from the kiosk shop whist blaring his horn to inform their arrival to potential customers. Pouring the purchased fuel from the 25 litre cans into the bus using a cut-down 2-litre coke bottle+ hose as a funnel, generous drops here n there splash down onto the road - all under the watchful eye of the men performing the task, one of them smoking a fag.  A cat jumps down onto the pavement, spotted by a dog it's off like a rocket as chase gets underway, with additional passengers board, the bus is also underway, ambling into the distance down a dirt road tapering into the mountains, wondering where t'was of to. I now felt my arrival time was quite lucky, I mean, ten minutes later and I'd have missed it all. There was a certain charm about the place, I imagined living here, how long would I last? No pleasantly green bridle-ways to ride down, no internet, just basic food, a village where the smallest of happenings is the biggest of events.
Booked in at the accommodation I wander around the village, 7 minutes later I'm on visual repeat as I'm back at the start, a shepherd rounds a herd of lamas up, crossing the main road and up across a hill. As the Sun starts to plummet I retreat to my lodgings as the temperature would soon likewise.
At least the tin roof above my room wouldn't rattle in the night as its securely fixed in place with [the south American standard] big stones.
The following day much the same, up's and downs along the cold, quiet, never ending tarmac.
In Bolivia one's never far from politically daubed buildings, bus-stops, kerbs, drainage gulleys or even mountainsides. Quite ugly, yet somehow not out of pace, they love it!
'Hands off!' 
A mountain mug-shot, or at least a justified reason to use my camera's tripod..that gets used maybe once every 1000 kilometres! This was atop a mountain pass that I'd been walking for two hours, this lack of oxygen was a killer!
More decorated lamas, in a split second their twitchy nervousness sees them running.
As I start the descent I stop for a brief chat to a couple of motorbike tourers, one had been on the road for nearly two years. Levelling out in Tica Tica after just fifty four kilometres I was tempted to carry on - especially with a tail wind now blowing but decide to play it safe and stay put. Another riverside dusty village, again I think "what do people do here?" but also wondering if they visited Milton Keynes whether they'd think the same??
The following day I was looking forward that tailwind...damn! It'd changed and now a constant headwind. Struggling even more so I crept forward, even gentle hills that I wouldn't consider a climb had me walking, did I swear and curse, me?? naaa honest guv!
Stopping for a few rests here n there I was becoming quite moody so decided the best option, put Mr. Thumb to good use. With just an occasional passing vehicle I new it would take time, the first few cars were not suitable, or if they were they didn't stop. Soon a truck comes into view, nothing ventured nothing gained so I stick my thumb out! Sure enough he comes to a stop, stepping down from his cab - from behind his 'wind shield' he's now faced with its gust, experiencing its strength clearly understanding my need. Although pulling a flat-bed trailer his load made it quite easy to fix my bike to!!

Next up, I'm in Uyuni, ready to  
face the awesome 'Salar de Uyuni'!
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