Snowed into Hell - Uyuni

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Uyuni
July 7th 2011
Published: August 14th 2011
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Some places simply don’t deserve to exist. The town of Uyuni barely qualifies. As the 4x4 had pulled up into this dusty town with wide streets a feeling of disappointment struck. The town looked dirty, dusty and seemed to lack human life. We checked out several hostels and eventually settled on Hostal Cacti, where the furniture was made from cacti. We had comfy beds and hot showers which is all I really wanted after 5 days during which time the only washes we had were the dirty hot tub and with wet wipes.

We had all planned on spending two nights here, simply to enjoy not being in transit and so we could get laundry done and catch up with the world via the internet. I wish we had left the first day. Within a short amount of time we had seen the whole town which doesn't consist of much more than a backpacker strip of crappy hostels and overpriced lousy Italian restaurants. One of which provided me with the worst burger me or Mark had ever eaten and which led me to throw up shortly after. Another street was home to the station which was surprisingly well kept, albeit somewhat pointlessly as there are very few trains and even fewer which actually take passengers. This street has several statues of workers in honour of the rails and the salt flat workers who make the railway necessary.

Nothing of note really happened during the two days before we left for Potosi, definitely nothing of note, the only thing to do in Uyuni is exist and survive. The town is the main jumping off point for tours to the Salar de Uyuni, more so than Tupiza and yet even the tour agents barely seemed to have the energy or life to bother trying to sell us anything.

On the third morning I was first out of any of the rooms and as I made my way to the shower, the window caught my eye and I headed over. Something wasn’t right. The ground appeared to be white, increasingly so due to some form of white powder falling from the sky. I was stunned to see the snow settling, covering this dirty town, making it look mildly more appealing. I told the others, who had to see it to believe it and whilst everyone else packed, Ciaran and I went out to take our first photos of the town after three days.

We walked to the bus station and booked our bus to Potosi which was due to leave at 9:30am. Before boarding we ate a fried pastry which was covered in an incredibly sugary and delicious apple sauce, maybe Bolivian food isn't all bad. The bus didn’t leave at 9:30am, but eventually at 10:30am in the ever increasing snow fall. We didn’t get very far outside Uyuni before the bus stopped in the snowy tracks on the road and turned back round to Uyuni. We got off the bus and re-entered the ticket office. The women in charge disappeared numerous occasions, probably hiding and on occasion provided mixed and somewhat useless reports of when the bus would leave for a second time. She obviously had no idea when it would leave and against my thoughts, we remained, staying stupidly in hope of the road being cleared (which was suggested), despite the continuing snow-fall.

We finally boarded once more and left at 1:00pm. I honestly don’t know why we bothered with this bus, of course it was going to be doomed. The only excuse that I can provide is the tremendous extent to which no-one wanted to stay in Uyuni anymore. We got around 20km from town before the bus stopped. We were towards the back but we did not need to look forward for the reason why we had stopped. We couldn’t even see out of our windows, all that was outside was white. The snow covered road and countryside were barely visible through the blizzard that had engulfed us.

We waited for a long time, two of three hours of absolutely no movement and no engine sound. At some point Ciaran and I got off the bus for a bathroom break. We stepped from where we could vaguely tell the road ended onto the side and almost fell into the snow before turning to try to see up the road. Through gaps in the storm we could see plenty of vehicles, a couple of buses, a lorry and a couple of smaller vehicles as well. We weren’t outside for long, desperate after only a few minutes to get back into the comparative warmth.

As the minutes passed massively varied news came down the aisle; we would leave shortly for Potosi, the roads were being cleared, we were going to have to wait for a few more hours, the bus was going to turn around and head back to Uyuni and the worst report, we were going to have to spend the night stuck on the bus there. That last rumour was terrifying, even on the bus the temperature was several degrees below zero and whilst we were relatively well dressed, none of us could possibly survive the night when the temperature would drop even further. It was on hearing this news that Sarah asked how far out from town we were. We genuinely considered walking the 20km back to down but the conductor begged us not to try. By 5:30pm we were hugely fed up, along with everyone else. People had spoken at numerous points about the road being ploughed, but it seemed a joke that no one had seemed to have even considered salting it - we were right next to the salt flats after all! For the past hour the engine had been switched on and every once in a while, the driver would rev the engine and our hopes of leaving would raise slightly, only to be disappointed when the revs dropped back off again. It ground on my brain and was quickly drove me to the point of insanity, which to save I decided that I had to see what was going on and so I climbed off the bus once more.

I was greeted by a sight I hope to never witness again. As I walked round the front of the bus a small fireball flung itself outside of the engine grill. Beneath it lay the driver, in the snow, holding a stick, on the end of which was a flaming glove. The endless revving made sense now, the gearbox had completely frozen over, the fire was to melt it and the revving was in an attempt to pass some more heat and to test the possibility of changing gear. As disturbing as the sight was, it was a huge positive that they were actually attempting to do something and I went to side of the bus to pass on the good news and to borrow Ciaran’s camera to take some photos.

I spent a fair amount of time outside the bus and witnessed some of the passengers being picked up by people with 4x4’s, all of which were heading in the direction of Uyuni. I walked round the back of the bus, accidentally disturbing some of the women from the bus who were using the area as a bathroom. Continuing my wander going back round the other side to where my companions were sitting on the bus, I encountered another strange sight. The driver was here now and attempting to open a large hatch on the side of the bus, underneath which the diesel cap was hidden. Of course, due to the insane weather he wasn’t having much luck as it had completely frozen over, a thick layer of ice covering the panel. I offered my assistance and spent the next ten minutes with him in the freezing cold chipping away at the ice until the panel finally opened. He needed to siphon off more diesel from the bus to provide more fuel for the fire her required to melt the gearbox and I held the bottle in place as he sucked the pipe, causing the diesel to slowly flow from the tank.

I think at this point the driver was as fed up as the rest of us and there was no more messing around with sticks and burning gloves, he simply poured the full two litres of diesel underneath the vehicle and set it alight causing much more fire underneath a bus containing 30 odd people, than there should ever be.

It worked. With a cheer from those watching in the freezing outside, there was a mighty clunking sound as the gear was finally shifted into reverse and the driver quickly called everyone back aboard. Back in our seats the bus slowly reversed to turn round for Uyuni. One final moment of drama struck as the bus suddenly leaned to the right violently - we had been driven into a ditch. I have never felt closer to toppling whilst on a form of road transport and every single person went silent as we hovered in the air on tipping point. The driver stopped the bus and quickly switched back into first and we moved forward, the bus righting itself.

Ciaran’s camera with my photos was passed around the bus to the interest of the locals, it seemed strange to me that almost no-one had bothered helping the driver to fix the gearbox. We arrived in Uyuni for the third time in 3 days, probably a record for those who leave surely never return, and for the first time the town looked good to us. We got off the bus almost ten hours after we first got on and after much arguing over getting a refund we checked into Avenida Hotel just off the main grotty backpacker street. We celebrated being off the bus by going to the only bar in town, The Extreme Fun Pub.

The inside of the bar was mostly made from salt and we attempted to make a fifteen man pyramid for the first time. We felt we needed to achieve this win to break the record from Cafayate and to make up for the day. It was a good night out, but the day had taken its toll and I enjoyed a lazy morning after.

We endured two more night in Uyuni, struggling to find anything remotely good to eat, especially not for a sensible price. The best thing to eat were super greasy burgers, lomitos, from stalls outside the station which cost fifty pence each - much better than a poorly produced pizza for five pound. The only thing we could think to do in Uyuni was to walk to the train cemetery a couple of kilometres out from town.

Following the lines from the station we passed under a pointless bridge which no person would ever use to cross rails where trains rarely pass and exited the town, which slowly fell away, turning the landscape into a literal dump. In and amongst the snow was a tremendous amount of litter and we witnessed a couple squatting opposite each other, enjoying a bowel movement, true love perhaps. We persisted through this wretched area and made it the train cemetery which is basically a section of rail dedicated to dumped old locomotives and their carriages. We climbed and wandered around this creepy area admiring the rusting hulks from England and France. The couple of hours we spent on this excursion seemed to sum up Uyuni nicely. We left a dump, walked through a landscape of garbage on our way to a cemetery.

The next morning we finally left thanks to the sun braving a visit to a Uyuni and melting enough of the snow for the bus to slowly trudge out and up into the mountains. Eventually we arrived, thankfully, at the worlds highest city, Potosi.


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