Breathless in Bolivia

Greetings from La Paz, the seat of Bolivia’s government and, at an elevation of around 3,650 meters/11,975 feet, the world’s highest de facto capital city! Phew!

We’re both literally and figuratively out of breath. We’re having a whirlwind journey through Bolivia. We’re only in the country for a week (if we manage to book the bus ticket that we are hoping to this afternoon, that is. Fingers crossed!).

The trip that took us from the edge of Chile and through the barren, rugged and mind-blowing landscapes of Bolivia’s southwestern corner was, in a word, awesome. Three jam-packed but peaceful days. Time got stretchy. We saw SO much, but also managed to just sit and attempt to absorb the mind-bending vastness and awesomeness of nature.

This map is actually oriented west-east, instead of south-north, but I like it cause it gives you a sense of the altitude. 🙂 Source: http://www.boliviabella.com/geography.html

We’ve been battling colds and dryness and dust and the altitude. Nothing like a few extra thousand meters to make a girl REALLY feel out of shape. 😉 The temperature shifts in the elevated desert have been extreme and I’ve actually had to wear MORE layers than I did when we were down in Patagonia and Tierre del Fuego, relatively close to the South Pole. Roman makes fun of me but if it takes three layers of pants, four pairs of socks and as many shirts as I can while maintaining a degree of mobility to keep warm, that’s what I’m gonna be wearing. Yes, I am a wimp. 🙂

Mostly we’ve been laughing about the insanity of it all, including the truly insane amount of tissues we have been and still are going through a day. Gross. 😉

An overnight bus ride from the dusty town of Uyuni dropped us off at La Paz early yesterday morning. I’m quickly and easily falling for this small, scrappy city, clinging defiantly to the rugged mountain peaks. I’m grateful that we have at least a bit of time here.

Tons to write about (as per usual……), but not today – it’s our only full day in La Paz and we have loads to see and do. If all goes well we will be in Peru by tomorrow night.

But I will take advantage of having internet again to share these few photos from our time in the desert. These are some of my panoramic shots, so click for a larger view. See why I’m in awe? 🙂

 

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A quick “where we’ve been, where we’re going” post

And suddenly here we are at the end of our time in Chile. It feels like just yesterday that we were crossing the border from Argentina on refrigerator posing as a bus down in Tierra del Fuego, but we’ve been in Chile for over a month now already.

It’s been a full time, and the past days have been among the busiest. We’ve been rambling all around Atacama, the massive (we’re talking 40,600 square miles massive) plateau desert in northern Chile. The driest desert in the world. A place of extreme and harsh and incredibly beautiful nature. It’s been just awesome, and a lot to take in. The vastness of this place, the isolation, the stark beauty. The immense valleys that grow to sky scraping mountain and volcanic peaks in the far distance. The endless sky. The powerful sun that roasts us even as the chill of morning lingers in the shadows. The clarity of light and sound in the dry, clear air. The milky way swirling above our heads at night.

We’ve done and seen as much as we could fit into our time here without totally exhausting ourselves before our next adventure – Uyuni.

We are leaving Chile for a quick foray into Bolivia. We opted to travel to Peru overland, rather than by plane (would have involved returning to Santiago), and going through Bolivia seems like a good way to do it.

We’ll be leaving the extremes of Atacama for another insane and awesome environment – the world’s largest salt flat. We’re going with a driver and the journey from here in San Pedro de Atacama to the town of Uyuni, not far from the flats in Bolivia, is going to be three days of travel with what promises to be rough conditions. Basic accommodation and nights that go down to about -10 degrees Celsius/14 degrees Fahrenheit. This may require even more layers than Patagonia! 🙂

There’s loads more I want to share about Atacama when I have time, but until then, here are just some visual impressions from our time in this amazing place:

 

Silk Road Tour days four and five

The first parts of our tour were so full and so spectacular, it felt like we’d already been traveling for a couple of weeks when we woke up that next morning, rather than only a few days. Our last night on the tour promised to be a good one though, so we wrenched ourselves out of bed and bundled ourselves and our gear into the VW one more time: We were heading to the desert!

The Taklamakan Desert, bounded at its northern and southern borders by two branches of the ancient Silk Road, is the second largest shifting sand desert. Located farther from the ocean than almost any other place on Earth, it is China’s largest and driest desert and was a hazardous place to travel for those brave souls traversing the Silk Road back in the day. (Thanks Wikipedia and eoearth.org)

From Wikipedia: “The name is probably an Uyghur borrowing of Arabic tark, “to leave alone/out/behind, relinquish, abandon” + makan, “place”. Another plausible explanation is that it is derived from Turki taqlar makan, which means “the place of ruins”. Either way, it’s all terribly romantic and intriguing!

But I think the poor Taklamakan got a raw deal. I’d already left my heart back in the mountainous landscape along the Karakorum highway. The weather there was over-cast and damp and our time was very limited; we couldn’t travel all that far into it at all. For me there was no way it could compete with the those massive, awe-inspiring mountains glimmering in that clean, crisp, sun-filled air. I think we’ll have to visit it again in more favorable conditions!

Still, spending the night camping in the desert was pretty cool, I loved getting a bit more familiar with camels – cute with attitude! – and we made a few fun stops on the way there and back. Here are some of the highlights from day four and five of the tour.

Tombs and furry friends

We made a stop at one point at a simple road-side farm. Yusef knew of some traditional Uighur tombs close by that he wanted to show us. Simple, long, clay tombs covered an entire hillside behind the farmstead. Yusef told us that Uighurs prefer to keep their final resting place simple, opting instead to spend money on decorating their earthly homes (as opposed to Tajiks, who apparently keep their homes simple but have elaborately decorated tombs).

Just as interesting to me was seeing the farm-house we had to walk around, made of the same sand-colored mud bricks. We also met a young, inquisitive donkey and its mother while poking around. Super cute! 🙂

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Scenes from Yarkand

We took a small detour to the city of Yarkand, where we stopped for lunch and visited the mausoleum of Ammanisahan, an Uighur queen who is renowned for collecting the “muqam” (more about muqam on Wikipedia). The mausoleum was lovely and peaceful, but what I really enjoyed was the sights of every day life around town.

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The bike seat covers that looked like mini-carpets were everywhere and I got such a kick out of them! Someone in Yarkand mixed things up though with the faux zebra skin! 😉

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Outside Altun Mosque

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Ironmonger/blacksmith shop in the old town

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Yarn for sale

Taklamakan nights

The endless sand dunes were cloaked under thick clouds when we arrived at the desert’s edge. I can only imagine how cool it must be when the skies are clear! We had a team of three camels and two camel drivers – two young men who are cotton farmers in the area, but who work the camel treks part-time for extra income. Abled and Iziz spoke only a bit of English, but with Yusef’s interpretation, we got to learn a bit about their lives and they about ours. They were soft-spoken but inquisitive and kind and it was lovely to get to know them at least a little bit.

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The night out on the dunes was cold but peaceful. I loved toasting myself by the fire in the otherwise pitch black night before it was time to turn in. We all woke early in the hopes of seeing a desert sunrise, but things were still overcast unfortunately. We had another surprise though. After breaking camp and heading back to town, Yusef let us know that Abled had invited us to stop by his home, which was nearby, for breakfast before we headed back to Kashgar.

Abled lives in a traditional Uighur farmhouse – simple but spacious and decorated with richly covered carpets everywhere. He invited us to make ourselves comfortable in the main room and served us tea and bread. We got to meet his father too, who was sweet and gracious.

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Our camel guide, Abled

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Bags of cotton inside Abled’s home

The main crop in the area seems to be cotton, which Abled also farms. We saw many massive trucks, full to bursting with the white, fluffy stuff, along the road to the desert and the next day, when it was time to return to Kashgar and for our whirlwind-intro-to-Xinjiang tour to come to an end…

Pics from Jaisalmer

I had only a half day to explore Jaisalmer, but still managed to see so much beauty!

In town below the fort

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View of the fort from the hotel rooftop restaurant

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Rooftop laundry on a cloudy morning

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Walking the road up to the fort

Inside the fort

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Cow surveying the action in the main square within the fort

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Building detail with pigeons

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Paintings like this of Ganesh were on many of the buildings

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View from the fort wall

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Inside the Jain temple

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Workers in the temple

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Desert mis-adventure

I had expected to write at least a post about Diwali by now, but part of travel is plans changing and most of my plans for the past days got entirely sidelined by getting ‘traveler’s illness’ – the standard fever and less-than-elegant stomach issues that I had happily and amazingly had managed to avoid till now but that I kind of figured would catch up with me at some point. 🙂 Now we’re already in Jodhpur, and Diwali is feeling ages away. So, I’ll catch up on Diwali later on.

The timing of falling ill was actually quite good. If you have to be sick, it’s better that it start right after you arrive at the hotel rather than just before or during travel and it was a decent place to be sick – clean, good room, helpful staff. And I am lucky to have such a sweet and patient travel companion too. Roman took great care of me!

We’d left Delhi on Sunday. A short and easy flight brought us to Jodhpur where we decided to go cushy and get a taxi to take us for the long drive to Jaisalmer. We’d been up late and got up early so Roman slept for a lot of the journey but after a short nap, I was up and I loved the ride and was just glued to the window the whole time.

Rajasthan is in the northwest of India, and has a whole different climate and landscape from anything else I’ve seen so far here.

Heading westward toward Jaisalmer, we were driving into a flat landscape of desert scrub. The towns we passed were small but colorful, with women in vibrant clothing and men topped with bright, loosely tied turbans. Between towns we came up behind a cart being drawn on the road. I was confused by the back view of the creature pulling it – the height didn’t seem at all right – until I realized it wasn’t a cow or horse but a camel!

The villages became scrappier and less frequent as we went along. Driving after sunset, there would be periodic dots of light off of the side of the road and less often another small village comprising a handful of buildings, but mostly there was just darkness.

After about six hours, we arrived, found our hotel down a narrow, quiet stone-paved street, had a meal and got ready for bed, which is when the chills started, and after that I was out for the count. We were meant to go on a camel desert safari while we were there, but I was only feeling well again on our last day, so there is so much that we didn’t get to see.

Even for the little time that I did end up spending outside the hotel, I was totally charmed by Jaisalmer. It’s an incredible little city – like something out of another century.

All the buildings and streets are made out of thick blocks of yellow sandstone. Even from my sickroom, it was impossible not to be impressed by the view from my window when the sun lit the place up – you can easily understand why it’s called the golden city. The place looks ancient, like time decided to stand still a thousand years ago. This feeling is reinforced by things like the lack of street lights (it is pretty dark at night, at least where we were staying), the sound of bleating goats being kept outside of people’s homes, and minimal vehicle traffic (due to narrow roads).

The place also has some of the worst smells I’ve experienced in India. Maybe this is due in part to heightened sensitivity to smell from being sick. That being said, I think getting a full on waft from the open sewers might make anyone feel queasy. They also burned a really unattractive incense around the hotel – smelled like a cross between something a really cheap psychic would use and a stuffy old woman’s house. Delightful. 😉

So, I may have been sick and missed out on the desert safari, but I still loved Jaisalmer (despite the smells! 😉 ). I only had time and strength to spend a morning wandering around inside the hilltop fort and seeing the Jain temple within its walls, but I’m really glad I saw at least that. Being inside the fort felt a bit like being in a medieval walled city in Italy, where everything you see is beautiful and every photo you take looks like a post card.

Pictures in the next post… 🙂