My nose bore the brunt of the beating, my face contorted and my eyes streamed as the violent hail stones raged at us unrelenting. It had been a long tough climb on a rough dirt track to the pass we now crossed, and at five thousand metres the air was thin and dry and breathing was strained.
The weather hitherto had been kind to us, just about, but the threat of rain had been omnipresent with clouds following us up the valley, driving us on each time we stopped to eat.
Crossing the pass the hail relented, only to be replaced by an ever strengthening wind. As we wrapped up warm for the descent the temperature began to fall and ominous black clouds loomed in on us from the south. We ate a little bread and cheese and sipped from our frigid water bottles before releasing our brakes and letting gravity take us on.
The road this side of the pass was rougher, strewn with rocks and mud and patches of loose sand. We passed streams of water fresh from the snow melt just above us, we stopped to refill our bottles before it had a chance to freeze, and then the hail returned.
With our faces screwed up tight against the stinging pellets of water, we nearly missed the tent and two bicycles just a few metres from the road. We pulled up and hailed the tent’s occupants. “Hello! Good afternoon. Hellooooo”. Our words apparently fell on deaf ears, so we edged a little closer to the tent. The bicycles laying outside were without doubt European. “Ola ciclistas”, cried Sebastian. He was, without a doubt, becoming rather efficient in Spanish I thought, and with that, the door of the tent popped open and out popped a smiling female face, “ola’” she said. “We too are cyclists” Sebastian explained to her in what to my ears was impeccable Spanish. At this, she seemed quite surprised, which struck us as odd, after all, we were both holding bicycles heavily ladened with luggage and were clearly not from these parts. Sebastian spoke a little more Spanish, the girl looked even more puzzled and I began to wonder if his mastery of Spanish needed a little polishing after all.
We decided to dispense with the intricacies of the spoken word and gave them some bread, wished them a good evening, and moved on down the valley to where the land lay flatter and a stream flowed, it was time to stop for the night.
It was a little after sunrise and by the time we woke. I opened the tent’s inner door and still laying on my back reached for the zip to the tent's outer door. I gave it a pull, it didn't budge. I rolled onto my front to allow myself a better angle of attack and gave the zip another tug, it gave a little before once more resisting. Deciding to really put my back into the task now I grasped it firmly with both hands and, as though I meant business, gave the zip a vigorous yank, the ice in the zip gave up it’s grip, the door opened, and frosted condensation fluttered into the tent like a little snow flurry - it was a chilly morning.
Peering out of the tent we were met with a joyous sight. The day had dawned bright and the scenery was breathtaking. With the door open and still wrapped in the warmth of our down filled sleeping bags we took our time drinking coffee and bathing in the beauty of our surroundings as we waited for the sun to rise and dry the tent and warm the earth. What a perfect start to the day.
Tent dry and packed we set off. We crossed a five thousand metre pass that gave way to a spectacular gravel road descent through stunning scenery where the occasional horse rider would disappear along loose scree trails, and small herds of lama would graze. At the bottom of the hill legs that thought their work was done were rudely awakened with five hundred vertical metres of winding tarmac climb through a rarified atmosphere to a where a beautiful new valley, fresh and green greeted us.
We picked up a dirt track and rode on dropping to a slowly flowing river where the grass on the bank, kept short by grazing sheep, cried out for the company of a tent. Awestruck by the beauty I felt sure that were we to camp here we would soon have the company of hobbits to share our wine with.
Alas, camping was not an option, food was needed, and so we pressed on to La Union, a dusty ramshackle middle of nowhere sort of town seemingly in the midst of mighty celebration. Quite what it was that was so worthy of this fiesta we could not ascertain, but a tireless New Orleans style jazz band that played with far more enthusiasm and volume than skill had the town in a frenzy. La Union may not have been the most perfect of towns to overnight, but it sure had been a most perfect day.