For us, it was an easy ride here, in the Andes. I was nearly last man, as usual and behind me the support vehicle followed, of course, driven by Jim. As we climbed higher to the alto-plano, what small stubby vegetation existed became smaller. Tufts of grasses like transplanted hair became more sporadic and base layers of broken rock were scattered between the fauna. On the top, the cone-shaped volcano Cotahue sat splendidly, her head covered in snow, her peak dormant. The road climbed to 3600 metres and the surface alternated between broken tarmac and piste.
We exited Chile and crossed into Bolivia without fuss whereby the road to La Paz was surfaced well, weaving and undulating across the short tundra. Here, on the alto-plano life takes on a distant turn. Hunched women carry loads on their backs to homes you simply cannot see. To us it is an invisible life, one not touched by our Dallas-like cosmetic culture, and to them we ride past and I am sure these carriers of firewood and children have no idea where we are from.
At the Pachamama turn you can go right into the small dirty town or left for La Paz. The Plurinational State of Bolivia, conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century was known as Upper Peru and is one of South America’s poorest countries with pockets of enormous affluence in the Amazon basin. Most of us were together, riding easily in the sparse traffic. Run down farms dotted the undulating landscape and women and children washed their colourful cottons in sweet looking streams. The air was cool and caught our lungs but the sun was warm. Such moments incite you to feel comfortably in control, as if all the buttons have been pressed in the right order. There are times when all the components of an expedition like this begin to sing and hum, when suddenly a queue of vehicles started to line up. We started to skirt down the opposite lane up which there was no movement of traffic. Truckers and motorists waved us to stop but we carried on. Police patrols signalled that we could continue but soon bricks and rocks started to appear, strewn orderly with the intention of bringing all traffic to a halt, when at the head of the queue a violent demonstration of people brought us to a standstill. From opposing embankments, rocks were thrown at riot police, each supporting different sides of the government. President Evo Morales was no longer unanimously supported by the indigenous Indian population who originally voted him into office. His reforms had not brought the benefits they had hoped for. A rock narrowly missed my head and a chap with a bolas and stone came forward menacingly when a series of individuals told us to leave immediately. That did seem like a good idea. So I turned round to the chaps and lady pillions and suggested we make a getaway.
The road was covered in rubble making the heaving of heavy bikes difficult but soon we rode back fifty metres the way we’d come. Paul Truelove shouted he’d spotted a bus being driven across a field and indicated that was our only chance, so without a moments breath we turned off-road, all 22 of us. In a storm of dust we rode gracelessly but effectively across patches of turnips and potatoes. I caught a carrot bounce off my windscreen whilst the leaves of a yucca plant were kicked up by Paul’s back wheel. The protestors didn’t pursue us; in fact, a new group applauded us when we popped out through a field of alfalfa and onto the road leading to La Paz.
At nearly 12 000 ft La Paz is the highest capital city in the world and sits in a bowl surrounded by the mountains of the alto-plano and the towering triple-peaked Illimani. Under the shadow of this mighty mountain, the autopista led down to the city centre, which was emptied of traffic. The strikers had prevented anyone driving into La Paz unless they were capable of motoring over poor peoples allotments and to rub salt into the wound, 40 police armed with CS gas canisters riding 650 singles, escorted us into town. The journey continues.