Ted Simon in Bolivia: Wrecked on the rainbow rocks

There's no AA Recovery service in Bolivia, but if you're lucky, you may get a tow from a passing oil tanker. In the latest dispatch from his round-the-world motorcycle tour, Ted Simon breaks down on the way to La Paz
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The Independent Travel

There could hardly be a more beautiful road than the one that crosses the Bolivian altiplano from Argentina to Potosi. The fact that it is also a very difficult road actually makes it better. You have to stay on it a lot longer. A good deal of the road is at 13,000 or 14,000 feet, and most of what you see is bare rock, but this is fairy-tale rock, designer rock, rock-a-bye-baby rock. Brilliant strata of red, green, blue, brown, black, purple and ochre minerals sling silicon rainbows across the horizon, and behind them is a sky so intensely blue that it should happen only on picture postcards.

Twice the road plunges down – although the descent itself is slow and tortuous – to a river-bed 3,000 feet below, and at the lower levels there is life. But up above it is stark, and for the first half of the journey there is barely even a llama to be seen. The distance is about 300 miles, and it took me a day and a half to ride it. There were few hazards. Just one rather deep ford to splash through, which I managed more by luck than judgement, and a tricky bit of sand that almost got me. Otherwise the road is just an unending bed of stones. Not since Ethiopia has the bike had to endure so much shattering vibration, and it was that which eventually worked out my fate.

Potosi is the world's highest major city, and is built next to a famous mountain that was the source of almost half the silver ever mined anywhere during past centuries. The stories and relics of those times are fascinating and gruesome, and the town has some lovely colonial buildings. The handsome plaza is set at an appropriately giddy angle, and the only major difference I saw in 27 years is that there was much less coca leaf for sale.

Pleased as I am with having recovered my nerve for dirt, I was hoping there might be a bit less of it on the road to the capital, La Paz, and I started asking around. I got a bewildering array of authoritative reports that the road was either all dirt, or almost all tar, or everything in between. So I gave up thinking about it, and set off.

In the event, there was some tar that petered out after 10 miles, followed by dirt that took me over a more populated altiplano of scrub desert, with herds of llama, alpaca, sheep and a scattering of donkeys. People were few but their handiwork was everywhere. The hillsides are laced with stone walls, either forming enclosures or seeming to go on for ever; far more of them, it would seem, than could ever be justified by the number of animals I saw. Then after 60 miles I came to a crossroads town which I was soon to know well. I paid my 40p toll (for what? You may well ask) and was told there was indeed tar ahead, either 15 or 30 miles away, according to whom I chose to believe. I rode on blithely for another 12 miles when a catastrophic whirring sound happened behind me. I stood the bike up hastily by the side of the road, and just had time to see that something important had fallen out of it, before a gust of wind blew the bike upside down in the ditch.

There is a kind of poetry to these events. The immediate need to stop 30 litres of petrol from falling out of the tank made the transition from going somewhere to not going anywhere somehow easier to accept. I scrambled desperately to reach the taps, shut them off, and tied a knot in the breather tube. As I stood there, breathless, a carload of people arrived to help me to get all 600lb of it upright again. Unfortunately that was all they could do. They wished me luck, and went on their way. I won't bore you with mechanical details. Suffice it to say there was no way I could use the engine to power the rear wheel. Somehow I would have to be carried out of there.

I was sanguine. It was early afternoon and I was sure that before long, a big truck would be going my way. Heaven knows I'd had enough trouble overtaking them through their private dust storms. But nothing came. After an hour and a half, I felt the first chill in the air, and recalled that I was above 13,000 feet in the middle of nowhere (as usual).

A rain cloud formed, pelted me with hail, and moved on. Still no one came. What happens at night at 13,000 feet, I asked myself. How cold does it get? There was an infinite supply of rocks. I could build a windbreak. I moved a few, and was breathless again. At 70, I'm finding it harder to adjust to altitude and it's a funny thing; just as panic induces breathlessness, so does breathlessness induce panic. I calmed myself down, and sat some more. At 4.30pm a long white oil tanker appeared over the brow of the hill, going where I had come from. I stopped the driver, more to talk than for any other reason. He was a nice fellow, with a plug of coca leaf in his cheek, and he suggested towing me back to the crossroads. I thought the idea was insane.

A private car with a family in it drew up alongside. The driver was one of those paterfamilias types who brook no contradictions. "You shouldn't stay out here at night," he said firmly. "Let him help you." If my Spanish had been better I might have talked them out of it. I might have been able to explain the lethal risk of being dragged over rocks behind a behemoth by a 10ft cord (that was all we had) which could not be disconnected if I fell. As it was my protests sounded feeble, even to me, so I said I'd give it a try. Daddy drove on, and the tanker guy and I started to figure it out. How to tie myself on so that the wheel didn't get jerked round? How to let him know if I was in trouble? How fast to go?

We solved the hitching problem. He couldn't really hear the horn, so I rode out to the side a bit so he could see my indicator. And we settled on 20km an hour. The whole desperate enterprise took well over an hour, and I was scared most of the time. The bouncing that is bad enough under power is twice as bad when you're being towed, and I couldn't see far enough ahead to avoid the bigger rocks.

I got to know José Luis Balderas Illeseas very well, and almost came to love the man. He was infinitely cheerful, careful, and willing. He must have stopped that huge vehicle a dozen times, either to let me roll down an incline alone, or because I signalled him. Once when we started up, the bike just flipped right over on a rock. He saw it immediately and stopped dead. Brilliant. When we arrived I was wiped out. He helped me to find a place and move my stuff. At no time did he ever look like asking for money. So in the end I gave him a lot of it, enough to surprise him, and I felt very good about that.

Cruce Culta, as the junction was called, is made of mud. Mud bricks cemented with mud. There is one whimsical telephone and no electricity. I stayed at the Hotel Copacabana, which seemed gloomy and dirty at first, but I got used to it during the three days I was there. The bed cost 80p a night and the weight of the woven wool blankets was formidable. Meals were good and you could have soup and a main dish for 50p.

I fell in with a seriously religious young truck driver called Nestor. I was waiting for a truck that never came. He had a broken truck full of ore, mostly zinc with some tin and silver, that he'd brought down from a 17,000ft mine near by. Buses came through all the time, and the ladies of the village rushed up with wheelbarrows carrying meals of llama meat and a dish made from frozen potatoes called chuni that I never took to. Their clothing is picturesque and they seem to be the guardians of the culture. The rest of Bolivia appears to be dressed by Wal-Mart and Nike, with a smattering of Gap.

Nestor and I agreed that when his friend Tomas came with a bigger truck to tow him to Oruro, my bike could sit comfortably in the bed of ore, and we would get there together. And that is what happened. It was a long journey, full of incident, and I was struck by the two truck drivers' tough and cheerful approach to vicissitude. When something went wrong and they jumped out of their respective trucks to consult, they always met with broad smiles as though they were having the biggest fun in the world.

I didn't really get to know the Bolivians last time I came through. I like them a lot. And I'd like to wish them all a very Happy Christmas.

For more information on Ted Simon's journey, go to www.jupitalia.com. 'Jupiter's Travels', Ted Simon's account of his original journey around the world, is published by Penguin, price £7.99, ISBN 0140054103.