27 February 2011

Back to Rio Grande

I left Tolhuin early and it was cloudy and windless. It was Sunday morning and there was little traffic along Ruta 3. There were the climbs through the smaller mountains that I remembered and the forests of twisted trees and I passed the spot where I had stopped a week earlier to eat lunch with the Canadians. A few tour buses passed me and I wondered if they were on one of them, their bikes in the luggage hold, catching a glimpse of me riding as they passed. At 50 kilometers a cold wind from the northeast began to blow. It would increase in strength as I neared the Argentine Sea and followed the coast up to Rio Grande.

A cyclist couple from Switzerland stopped and we talked. They were heading to Ushuaia from Bariloche and would fly back to Buenos Aires. As we talked two other cyclists heading south approached and stopped. One was a tall German on a huge, fully-loaded recumbent and the other an Argentine. The group of them marveled at the folding bike and I had to go through my explanations of wheel size and even had to defend the size of tires as being suitable for ripio. The German was convinced that a larger diameter wheel was best for riding on gravel. Discussions of wheel size and gearing are something I have tired of, though it is something anyone riding a Bike Friday should be continually prepared to discuss.

I made Rio Grande around 3pm and had lunch at the YPF petrol station. Then I rode down to the southernmost part of town to the Club Nautico and was happily greeted there by Norma. The place was empty now, she said. In two weeks it would close as a campsite. Everyone I had known had gone during the last week with the changing of the weather. The tourist season for Tierra del Fuego was basically over and I had the place to myself. I put up my tent on the hardwood floor upstairs and took a hot shower to warm up. I looked out over the bay where the Rio Grande met the Argentine Sea. The tide had come in. I made a coffee and sat down to research ways to get to Punta Arenas.

26 February 2011

Back to Tolhuin

The morning I left Ushuaia it was cloudy and cold, very cold. I had arrived on a beautiful sunny day but then the summer seemed to have ended suddenly a few days later. I rode slowly along the port and started back up into the mountains. My legs were heavy and I had no proper warm-up as the climbing began immediately outside the city. I began to get loose at the Paso Garibaldi and climbing the cutbacks up the forested mountain a headwind started to blow and I crawled up the pass, head down, making myself small to the wind. Then at the top I stopped, and looked down across Lago Escondido and beyond Lago Fagnano, and the range of smaller mountains beyond it. Even on a dark, cloudy day it is a beautiful ride from Ushuaia to Tolhuin and I was happy to do it again.

It was mid-afternoon when I arrived at the panaderia La Union in Tolhuin. At the bakery storage warehouse in the room for touring cyclists I met Edgar from Colombia. We talked and he affirmed with great certainty that Colombians were the finest people in South America and that Colombia was the continent’s most beautiful country. It was good to talk to a Colombian and of Colombia, a place that right now was very warm, and it made me start wishing to get back there sooner. It was becoming too cold for me in Patagonia.

Later two other touring cyclists arrived, one from Lithuania, the other northern England. We each examined each other’s bikes and setups and talked about the roads and places we had ridden. I asked Edgar where his panniers were. He had none. The Colombian carried only a single water bottle, a sleeping bag, and a small bag containing a pair of shorts, his tools and a spare tube. He had ridden from Colombia down the Atlantic coast and was now riding back along the Pacific. The Colombian made the three of us with our panniers and tents and other baggage seem ridiculous.

The Lithuanian and Englishman had been riding together and had come through Punta Arenas and across the Chilean ripio to Rio Grande using a different provincial route than the one I was planning to ride. They encouraged me to go this longer route. The ripio was very good on the Chilean side, they said, and there was a colony of King Penguins along the Bahia Inutil you could reach by leaving your bike at the roadside and crossing a stream and a long field. The problems with the route would be the additional 150km I would need to ride (bringing the total to over 300km), the absence of towns between Rio Grande and Punta Arenas, and that I would be riding into the wind the entire way. The Lithuanian and Englishman had had the wind at their backs blowing them across the ripio. The weather forecasts for the coming week indicated rain and heavy winds across Tierra del Fuego. I would need to make a decision when I arrived at Rio Grande.

25 February 2011

Leaving Ushuaia

The problem with Ushuaia is leaving. Ruta 3 is the only road in and out and if you have come by bicycle you will need to ride at least 300 kilometers back the way you came. To leave Tierra del Fuego from Rio Grande is at least another 200 kilometers, much of it across ripio through Chile. The fall weather has come suddenly and with it very uncertain winds and rain across the island. To go north and west will mean riding directly into a powerful wind.

I want to go to Mendoza but a flight there from Ushuaia would cost more than $700. The cheapest way to get north is through Punta Arenas. It is a large and active shipping port and I will first try to find a cargo boat to take me up the Chilean coast to Valparaiso, Chile. Should that not work out there are flights for under $200 from Punta Arenas to Santiago. From Santiago I will cycle over the Andes, back into Argentina and down into Mendoza. I will miss the vendimia--the wine festival--but it is still warm in the north and in Mendoza it does not rain. But I must first get to Punta Arenas. I leave tomorrow.

24 February 2011

Ushuaia 4

23 February 2011

Ushuaia 3 (Maxim)

                        Maxim Olegovich Morozov

The upstairs of the lodge looked down over the city to the port and in the west there were jagged mountains, some snow-covered. Across the Beagle Channel we could see the mountains that protected the harbor and they shown brightly in the sun. I was sitting with the Swede from Gothenberg at one of the stained wooden tables and we were drinking beer. A tall, thin guy with a long beard that I had seen around the campground sits down at the table beside ours. He leans over and asks in a thick accent where we are from.

“Where I am from does not exist,” he tells us.

“What are you?”

“I am Russian.”

“But Russia exists,” the Swede says.

“Where I am from does not exist. I am from Tashkent.”

“That is Uzbekistan. You are an Uzbek.”

“I am Russian," he says. "The muslims have taken Tashkent. But it was Russia and in the years ‘86 to’88 Tashkent was the greatest city in the world.”

“Where do you live now,” I ask him.

“I live in a tent on that hill over there.”

“We are neighbors then," I say. "I live there too.”

“How old are you?” the Russian asks me.

“How old do you think.”

“I think 44.”

I smiled. “How old are you?”

“You guess.”


“You are right. But I will not be 29 anymore.”

“It will be your birthday?”

“No, not really.”

The Swede laughs. “How will you turn 30 then?”

“You only have one birthday. Think about it.”

“What are you doing here?” asks the Swede.

“I am looking for a wife.”

“Here in Ushuaia?”

“I am looking here, but also other places. I am looking for two things. She must not live in a city.”

“What’s the other thing?”

“She must be a virgin.”

“How will you know that?”

“I will know.”

“How will you be sure? Sometimes you cannot be completely sure.”

“I will take her when she is thirteen.”

The Swede laughs.

“I will grow her up.”

“There is only one thing better than a thirteen year old girl,” says the Russian.

“What’s that?”

“A twelve year old girl.”

The Swede is still laughing.

“I will take her to live in the forest in Siberia. We will have nine children. That is the number Russian women gave birth to a century before. She will give birth to them in the home. Hospitals rush the birth and make women not want more children. Before only prostitutes gave birth in hospitals.”

The Russian goes on to tell us that he is a priest but he is learning to become a warrior. He tells me that he thinks that I am mostly a warrior. The Swede is neither priest nor warrior. Vlad the Impaler was also a warrior, he says. He was in constant war with everyone and slept outside the royal palace on the grass. He won every battle until they ambushed him and cut his throat, cut off his head and drank wine from his warm skull. I think it’s a compliment to be a warrior, but I don’t question him further.

The Russian has a bag next to him and as he’s talking he takes two long purple potatoes, three jalapeno peppers, and a cup of yogurt and arranges them on a napkin.

“I eat uncooked vegetables,” he says. “I do not eat meat and I do not eat mushrooms. Once I lived on uncooked corn for 3 months. But I lost 28 kilos. I had to stop and to eat dairy. It frightened me. I was very scared. I eat dairy now but slowly I will eat less.”

The Russian takes a clove of garlic from the bag.

“Garlic is a cure, it is not a food. I can clean the lungs by chewing and by breathing. If I am cut I rub the garlic on the wound to clean it. If I begin to be sick I will eat it. It is not a food.”

He produces an onion from the bag and continues, “The cheapest source of vitamin C is onions. That is how we survive, we Russians. Onions. That is not a food too. If you use everyday it does not make sense.”

The Russian holds up a green jalapeno pepper. “This I use to expand my diaphragm. It is not a food too. I like the experience when you eat a pepper and you just explode. You have been a normal guy, and now you don’t know what to do,” he smiles broadly. “Tomorrow I will not eat on the bus. It is 14 hours. If I eat the immune system will be needed to digest the badness in the food and it will not protect me from the germs. If you could practice my breathing exercises you would not need to eat so much. But you must have a pure conscience to practice my breathing exercises. Without a pure conscience you would die.”

The Russian stops talking to eat. The Swede and I are quiet. A strong wind is blowing through the trees from the southwest and I see storm clouds covering the mountains beyond the channel. It's raining hard in the mountains and soon the rain is at the campground, pounding against the windows. The Russian has finished eating his two potatoes and his peppers and yogurt. He stands and addresses us.

“I have to go now,” the Russian says. “But do not forget this. If a good man dies you put a stone. But if a great man dies you must build a hill.”

The Russian turns and pushes through the door of the lodge and goes down the stairs. The Swede and I watch him walk slowly up the hill in the heavy rain.

22 February 2011

Open House

21 February 2011

Ushuaia 2

Beagle Channel from the campground lodge

20 February 2011


The Italians were gone before I woke and the Canadians were still sleeping when I rode out of Tolhuin. It was windless and bright and cloudless and the sun was hot. It would be 105km into the high mountains to reach Ushuaia.

Lago Fagnano

Ruta 3 ascended and descended gently along Lago Fagnano and then the rode slowly began to ascend and beyond the lake through the valley I could see snow on the far mountains to the south. At 50km into the ride at kilometer marker 3000 I began the 400m climb over the Paso Garibaldi. It was hot climbing the winding road cut into the face of the mountainside, slowly climbing along the little guardrail, the mountain dropping straight down to the lake. It was 15km to the top of the pass and I stopped to look back over the lake. Then it was long, fast descent into the valley between the next range of mountains. I saw a couple of fully loaded cyclists coming the other way up the pass, probably having just begun their tours in Ushuaia.

Lago Escondido

Paso Garibaldi

There was more climbing but I only once needed to drop into my smallest chain ring. It was very busy on the road with tourist buses and cars and camions and off the road in the valleys along the streams there were many people who had stopped to picnic or to camp. All the travelers heading south had been funneled down onto a single road to the last city on the continent.

Monte Olivia

I made one final climb before the city and at the top saw below the port and there were cruise ships in the harbor and mountains behind it. I rode into the center of town and stopped at the tourist office for a map and directions to the campground at Club Andino.

It was a very steep climb north up the mountainside to the campground and I was tired and sat down in the bar beside the hot stove and had a coffee. From the window you looked out across the city and the harbor and the mountains that protected it. It was 25 pesos a night to put up a tent and I had a large plate of pasta for dinner. Tomorrow I would walk down to the port and inquire about passage on a freighter to Valparaiso, Chile. Tonight I would go to sleep at the end of the world.

19 February 2011


It was late morning when I left the Club Nautico at Rio Grande. There was sun coming through the clouds and it was windy but not so cold. It was 110km to Tolhuin and I would have the wind with me for much of it. Outside the city I crossed the Rio Grande and its tributary streams. There looked to be very good trout fishing in them but I did not see anyone working the waters.

The country was flat with grassy fields and some rolling hills until Ruta 3 went to the sea and then I was riding along green cliffs and the water. The tide was out and the shore was very exposed. It became more mountainous and I began to see strange trees, twisted and dead looking, and then there were thick forests of them and pine forests too covering the mountains, though the valleys remained cleared as pastureland. I had not seen any trees since I had entered Patagonia weeks ago.

Two cyclists were having lunch on the roadside and I pulled over and joined them. They were a young Canadian couple and had begun cycling two weeks ago at El Calafate. Today to Tolhuin was to be their first 100km day. The girl offered me a sandwich and while I ate it I looked and on the horizon I could just see the high mountains. They were blue gray against the sky and you almost did not think you were really seeing them. They were the big mountains at Ushuaia and they excited me. I ate quickly and told the Canadians we would meet later at the campground in Tolhuin or at the famous panaderia and got back on the road.

I rode hard through the forested mountains and at the top of each ascent the distant high mountains, jagged and some snowy, became closer. Then it was down, down on fast descents through the valleys and pasture and across streams in the lower lying areas. There were horses and cattle in the valleys and because of the forested mountains the winds were lessened. The riding was fast and it was late afternoon when I made Tolhuin.

Tolhuin is a small town located on Lake Fagnano with the high mountains above it and I rode down the one paved street towards the Panaderia La Union. The owner of the bakery is known widely as a friend of touring cyclists and will provide a free place to stay inside the bakery, with a bathroom and hot showers, and cyclists are often given as many empanadas and pastries as they can eat. Some cyclists have stayed a month or more here and were given jobs.

For such a small town the bakery was much larger than I imagined, and there were many people inside waiting to purchase pastries at the long counter and you had to take a number. The owner was not in and I talked with one of the bakers and followed him back through the ovens and across the street to a smaller building where they stored baking ingredients. Inside there was a small room with four mattresses for touring cyclists.

Also staying there were two Italians from Bologna who had ridden the Carretera Austral and were flying back to Italy in a few days from Ushuaia. I made some coffee for us and we talked about the places we had ridden and we talked of terrible winds and ripio. The Italians had met Ian from Vancouver a day after I had seen him in Chile and they had taken his advice and seen Mauricio and stayed at the gas facility in Cullen.

After the Canadians appeared I walked down the dirt road behind the bakery and at a mercado bought a bottle of vermouth to share between us. I figured the Italians would be very keen on drinking Cinzano. But when I returned the Italians and the Canadian girl had gone to bed and it was only the young Canadian who would have a drink with me. His name was Caleb and he was from a town near Toronto and we sat on bags of flour and talked of cycling and Canada and things we had seen and done, and he discovered that he quite liked vermouth. He was very young but like most who decide to ride bicycles long distances he had a fine outlook on things and I liked him. Later, after we said goodnight, I put my ground pad and sleeping bag down beside the stacked bags of flour. I did not want to sleep in the small room with the others and maybe be kept up during the night if one of them snored.
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