It's a month since I wrote from Puno in Peru and I can't remember if I mentioned what a filthy hole it is. The locals genuinely think that all the tourists go there because its beautiful, when in reality they go because it’s on Lake Titicaca, and until they arrive they don’t know what a dump it is. Anyway, the road around the West side of Titicaca is paved and very scenic, although the bike was running really badly - a combination of 13,000 ft altitude and 83-octane petrol. I think I understand what they meant in the old days when they talked about 'coaxing' an engine up to speed. If you just open the throttle it dies, but if you can coax it ever so gently you can gradually get above 3000rpm, which is the flat spot on my engine, and eventually up to 4 or 5 thou. If you come to a hill though forget it - its back to second or bottom and below 3000rpm it just won't run. I crossed the lake into Bolivia via the peninsular to Coporabana and then the ferry to the Bolivian mainland. Coporabana is just how I imagine most of the people who go to Puno expect it to be there. It's friendly, clean and generally jolly nice. After Peru, Bolivia just feels much more comfortable, although its still very poor and you are regarded as a rich gringo, so you still have to be a bit careful.
Next I went to La Paz, which is quite a nice city, so I stayed there for a week. Bumped into quite a few people I knew from earlier including three people who were on the same boat on the Amazon and an English couple who remembered me from Pelenque in the Mexican jungle last March. It's a small world when you travel. On the way into La Paz, when I was having my documents checked by yet another police "control", I met an Englishman on a BMW R80GS. He was travelling with a friend on another 80GS, and had been in South America 5 months after buying the bikes new in England, and flying them over to somewhere (I forget where). They are the other extreme from me: I like to think that whatever goes wrong with the bike, I can fix it - although getting parts may be a problem. This feller knows absolutely nothing mechanical and asked me to check his timing, which I couldn't without a strobe (I'm assuming electronic Bee-Ems are adjustable - my Yam isn't). When we took the front cover off he asked if all the screws turn the same way to undo them or did you have to remember which was which?! Ignorance is bliss, for a limited time anyway. While I was in La Paz I had my eyes tested and bought new glasses to replace the ones that were stolen in Cuzco. I also bought a pair of good quality, comfortable shoes.
When I tried to leave I only got to the top of the hill (1,200ft above the city) back onto the Altiplano (La paz is in a hole at 12,000ft) when the bike died. Right in the middle of a junction in a busy suburb, surrounded by some of the poorer Bolivians (the ones that its best not to spend too much time with if you've got an obvious sign of wealth like a bright blue and yellow Yamaha). I thought it was the plug, which I'd been expecting with the bad petrol, but when I changed it - nothing. I couldn't get a spark at the H.T. lead, so started checking all the electrics. I pushed it away from the crowds and played on the footpath away from the junction where there were less people. I never did like electronic ignition and set about changing all the little sealed boxes, one by one. I've no idea what half of them do, but I carry a spare one of each for obvious reasons. Anyway, when I'd changed all of them I still didn't have a spark at the plug, and you could hold the H.T. lead, turn the engine over and only get a small shock. It eventually turned out to be a fuel problem, and I never did get a spark at the plug, although it starts and runs perfectly. Like I said, I never did like electronic ignition.
So I went back to La Paz and left the next day, this time without problems. After 50 miles or so of 'coaxing' it along at 50-60 mph I saw Peter and Ruth's bikes outside a restaurant (the Swiss couple I travelled through the Amazon jungle with) so obviously I stopped for a chat. They had travelled south through Brazil and up to Columbia and Bolivia and were heading North to Titicaca before turning back South, and then going the same way as me to Arica in Chile. The owners of the restaurant spoke English and invited us into the house to see the preparations for Todos Santos, a Catholic religious festival which they take very seriously. When we left they couldn't understand why I went south and Peter and Ruth went north - they thought we were all together.
I had seriously considered putting the bike on the train to Arica, but heard about all sorts of problems crossing the border, and having to change trains etc. So decided the road couldn't possibly be as bad as some of the previous ones and set off full of innocent enthusiasm. To be fair, the road wasn't that bad. On the worst parts I was able to do 10 mph, which was twice as fast as long sections on the road from Maldonado to Cuzco. You probably can't imagine what its like setting off into the desert at 13,000ft, knowing that the next town is only 200 miles away, but not knowing whether you can do it in one day, two days, or whether the road is impassable because they had some unexpected rain. The scenery is amazing. There's no point in trying to describe it, because it’s just not possible. I met two articulated car transporters coming the other way; so assumed the road must be good. I cannot imagine how they can possibly get over the rocks and up and down some of the hills, but they do!
I spent the first night in a village in the middle of nowhere. Just beyond it, the road was blocked by a muddy river crossing, which the trucks couldn't get through. They were lined up on either side waiting for a dozer, which was pushing rocks into the mud. I managed to get round it and carried on. At 14,000 ft in deep, soft sand, I met a truck driver who asked me for water. His truck was jacked up, and resting on its spare wheels and it had no back axle. His mate had hitched a lift the previous day, taken the axle with him to have it repaired, and hadn't come back yet. Like I said in an earlier letter, British "truckers" are cissies.
The next day it was Todos Santos, when everybody goes to the cemetery to celebrate with the dead. I was fortunate enough to be in the mountains, where things are unspoilt. I was frequently stopped by Indians and forced to drink their homemade liquor. When I say "forced" I mean I thought it might be impolite to say no. It really is quite good.
Going over the top is quite spectacular. Surrounded by snow-covered volcanoes, which don't look that big, but are over 21,000 ft high, the road is at 16,500ft. On the final hill passing over the border into Chile, the bike almost died of altitude sickness, but just managed to crawl along at 15mph. Then its downhill for 16,500 feet and after 40 miles itstarmac. Hardly any hairpins, just 60 miles of long, fast, sweeping, downhill bends on a beautiful smooth new tarmac. Luxury!
It is nice to have brakes again. When I was in La Paz trying to buy some car pads and borrow a vice and hacksaw in a brake shop, the man was saying no, and trying to explain something which I didn't understand. Eventually I twigged he was saying he could re-line the old ones. Two hours later I had four new brake pads for a total of £3. They cost £12 a pair in England. Wish I hadn't thrown the other old ones away. I also bought new bolts, borrowed a drill to sort out a stripped thread, (I had to drill right through the frame, and put a long bolt through with a nut on the back) I also straightened out the centre-stand and brackets which were all bent and twisted from the rocks in Peru.
Back to Chile. The North of the country is desert. Real desert apart from the occasional oasis, not a tree or blade of grass for 1000 miles. But its not flat, there are spectacular mountains, all different shades of brown and purple depending on the position of the sun. When I got to the coast, somebody nicked-all my cooking gear from the tank panniers. I'm getting careless, although it was parked inside a hotel lobby. Everything was all bashed about anyway from falling on rocks, so it needed replacing, but I can't get another petrol stove. I've had to resort to camping gaz - bloody useless stuff. When I got onto the good roads, I suddenly got the urge to go motorcycling. Apart from a few detours to the more interesting places, and a few days here and there to look around, I just headed south and kept going. A lot of the country is fairly monotonous so I did almost 2000 miles down to the Lake District fairly quickly. Suddenly I'm 1,500 miles out of the tropics, the evenings are light again and you can't rely on the sun every morning. The weather is decidedly European, and at the moment it’s pissing it down.
Chile is relatively expensive, although cheaper than Europe, so I'm back in the tent these days. Its great to hear wind in the trees again and camp in the mountains beside lakes, with snow on the mountain tops, and to wear thermal long Johns - all the things you miss in the tropics. The best thing of all is that its November, it's light until after 9pm, that it's spring, and summer is coming. I want to catch a boat for 300 miles South, because the road that goes there has three ferry crossings which won't be in operation until the Summer season, so its not possible to drive. I could go over to Argentina, but want to stay as far West as I can and then go back up the East side. (Further South I have to go into Argentina as there is no road in Chile). The best glaciers and scenery are in Chile anyway. I had the address of a shipping company, so with my usual flair for planning, wandered into the office to find out the next boat is in December (2 weeks away). But I've found another one that leaves on Friday (2 days away). Maybe it'll stop raining by then. After that its mostly gravel roads again for the last 1000 miles or so to Tierra del Fuego. Then I've got to start looking for a way to get to Australia. I'll have to start drinking in seedy bars and chatting up sailors. Should be fun (Some things never change).