tkitching (tkitching) wrote,

Across the great salt

The night-bus from La Paz is cold and leaky, and we wish we'd worn more jackets. Awake before the proper hour, the sun starts to rise over the Altiplano, revealing little besides open, empty spaces, and we will it upwards to warm our freezing bones. Even the driver has stopped swearing now, and pushes on to Uyuni with the determination of a man who wants his bed.

Uyuni is a frontier town, shabby, stale, dilapidated, full of shagging dogs and not much else. The main drag has the oddest collection of public art I've ever seen. From the mighty working class hero atop a giant anvil, past a mounted railway wagon, to the seemingly abandoned hulk of a steam boiler, it's hard to know where the art ends and the broken relics of a dead industry start.

This is a railway town, and it died with the railway. When the line expired, they dragged all the engines and rolling stock a couple of miles into the desert and abandoned them to the hollow Atacaman winds. This is the train graveyard, and our first stop. The four of us are now joined by two Chilean ladies, and a local lad called Moises, who is our guide and driver, and together we make a good team, full of humour and adventure.

The engines are well rotted now, all the brass and maker's plates long since stripped, just the steel sheets of construction and the basic riveted shapes remain. Having seen pictures of this before, I try to take lonely photographs showing engines forgotten in the desert, but soon realise I'm totally missing the point of this place. People are crawling all over them, hundreds of joyful souls, laughing, climbing cabs, in and out of boilers, dangling from smoke boxes. It's a huge playground, and I search out busy engines, covered in delighted children and childish adults. Smiling faces peer from inside fireboxes, boiler hoops are now monkey bars. The gaiety of the place is quite at odds with what I was expecting. I'm particularly pleased to see the bones of three Beyer-Garratts, built in Manchester, and pat them warmly on the side as a fellow Mancunian. This is a celebration, not a graveyard.

We leave Uyuni and head for the famous salt flats, stopping first to have our wallets professionally drained at a market on the edge of the salt. Finally, we hit the whiteness. 4000sq miles of unbroken salt. After a few miles, a feature appears. We see salt mounded, ready to bag. The locals strip the top inch to expose the water table, mound it up, let it dry, and then bag it for export. The water is just an inch below the surface. Does it rain much here? Not since January we're told. The surface dries into hexagons, unequal, but always 6 sides. Moises has brought a plastic dinosaur, with which he is able to demonstrate how the white uniformity allows crazy perspective photos to be taken. We all dutifully line up to be eaten by 'Dino', before continuing our journey towards nothing.

Mid afternoon, we hit an island in the salt. Covered in tall, stoical cacti, we pay 30 Bolivars to climb to the ruined temple on top. It's worth it, for here you are a miniaturised speck on the last cornflake floating in an infinite bowl of milk. The whiteness is absolute, other than the darkened tracks of 4 by 4s heading in from all angles. Mirages bold and solid, the distance mistruthful. You doubt there is any point leaving this island as it is clearly all that remains of the world that is not now salt. We might as well make the best of it here. The island ticket price includes a visit to the loo, so we go on principle, irrespective of need. It's good to be in a cubicle where the walls are tangible and the world comprehensible.

Shadows lengthening, we head further into the vastness, the only point of reference another vehicle some hundreds of meters in front. Comically, it indicates right, and with real purpose, slowly turns off the path. This causes great hilarity, and we speculate that on some karmic level it is compensating for an Audi driver.

This is not a place for events to happen, but a physical manifestation of a lack of drama. Most of the day has been spent driving at a constant speed over a constant flatness, shorn of features. Hours pass without a single thing worth reporting, but it's never boring, as our little bubble of happy travelers can clear our minds in space that deprives the brain of surplus stimulation. It's a rare treat to be somewhere so utterly simple, with so little to process or respond to. We don't resent it or need it to end.

We stop and watch the sun set. Behind us, the longest shadows we will ever cast. Darkening, we head for the 'Hotel de Sal', now a distant light on an emerging shore. Moises decides it's time for Gangster rap on the stereo, and we rumble along to 'I'm Slim Shady' at full volume. I joke that I never can remember whether it's Gilbert or Sullivan that wrote the lyrics. It loses something in translation.

After miles, the salt blackens with soil, thickens, and our progress slows to allow the climb out of the lake that isn't. Our hostel is here, made entirely of salt blocks. It's a grand affair, with salt tables, salt beds, salt chairs. I don't think this is a gimmick. It's just the obvious building material, particularly when we're fifty miles from the nearest town. We have a dinner of llama steaks and quinoa, and I immediately fall into one of the best night's sleep I've had in years, fully surrounded by the salt's dry embrace.
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