There is nothing easy about leaving Uyuni. All of the trains and buses in just about every direction (of which there are not many) seem to leave at ridiculous hours of the night. In the case of the buses, it's the fact that most companies like to travel at night because there is less traffic, and also, many backpackers prefer to travel at night to avoid the cost of accommodation, and to not "lose" a day. Well, that's sure not flashpacking! So, our choices were a little limited for our northern journey to Oruro, but we eventually settled on taking the Wara Wara train which leaves Uyuni bright and early at 1:45 am. That's because it starts out earlier in the evening at the Argentina border and makes it's way north to Oruro.
Actually, the railway story here is pretty significant. Although not that extensive, Bolivia's rail system extends from Oruro in the north (the tracks actually go to La Paz, but they are no longer used for passenger trains - freight only) to Uyuni and Villazon in the south, to Potosi in the east, and out to Calama in the west in Chile. This railway was used extensively in colonial times, mainly by the Spanish, to extract an enormous amount of wealth from Bolivia in the form of silver. Most of the silver came from Potosi. Even with the decay, the railway heritage is strong as indicated by the many statues and railway type sights in and around these Bolivian towns. It's too bad that it was all really about raping Bolivia for it's resources, and probably led to many of the socio-political problems that exist today when the silver finally ran dry. Yet another story of colonialism gone wrong.
Nevertheless, a Bolivian train journey sounded romantic at the very least! We were on the exact same route that Michael Palin did on his epic journey "Full Circle", where he circumnavigated the Pacific Ocean. The train pulled into the Oruro station at 9 30 am, only about a half hour later than planned. As we exited the station, we were immediately ambushed by hundreds of taxi drivers offering rides up to the bus station. You see, many travelers simply get up to the bus station, and catch a bus on through to La Paz, as there is not meant to be much to see or do in Oruro. Indeed, the guy at the information centre in Uyuni was wondering why we would stop there at all. Well, we usually need a day to recover from these overnighters, so we had always planned a couple of nights stay in Oruro, and we were glad we did. Everywhere has something to offer, after all.
You can't always go rushing around from sight to sight in a country, and simply forget about everything else. Oruro is the kind of place where you see how the country actually functions, because there are no tourists around. In a whole 2 days of walking the streets, we saw no other backpackers. Not even at the bus station! And that made the place super interesting. Around every corner, there are markets selling everything on the streets. I mean everything! You can even buy a kitchen sink, right off the street. All the merchants intermingle with the food sellers (who make fantastic deep fried chicken I might add...), and little old ladies with carts sell ice cream and freshly squeezed juices. The local economy seems to hum. And there are some modern building mixed with old colonial charm where the banks and government services are located. The squares are treed and lined with comfortable benches where old men smoke and solve the country's numerous problems.
Actually, Oruro makes a great place to understand Bolivian social culture. It's a place where the traditional and the more progressive meet. All the women are dressed traditionally, wearing crinoline supported skirts, and tiny little boler hats, that are much too small, atop their heads. Long braids reach for the ground only to be tied off with colourful ribbons and various sparkling jewels. Children are carried on their backs in multicoloured blankets - who needs fancy car seats and Baby Bjorns anyway? And these same women walk into the ATM (Yes, there are ATM's in Bolivia) to draw some money for the week. That's Bolivia today. The country does suffer though from being landlocked.
Many give the example of Switzerland to demonstrate why being landlocked should be no reason for economic difficulty. However, when looking at Switzerland, you have to understand that all of it's neighbours are relatively well off, creating strong supportive interaction; not to mention the fact that being raped by colonial forces was never a part of Swiss history. Quite the opposite, Bolivia has struggled with it's neighbours, particularly Chile, having lost it's access to the sea long ago. The US has recently commented that Bolivia's troubles are not based on being landlocked (thinking it relates more to political instability and corruption), and they used the example of Switzerland as justification, but I believe the conditions between the two countries are just too different, and the countries cannot be compared. And Bolivia is very rich in mineral resources, and more recently natural gas, so with decent sea access, things could be much better here.
Yet the people remain friendly, and very politically active. There are often demonstrations and protests in the streets (we've already seen a few), but they are peaceful and they have the goal of better conditions for the people. Bolivia is a very socialist country with high levels of unionization, and education and healthcare seem to figure prominently on the government's agenda if the buildings you see are any indicator. But things are still very simple in nature, and a lot of improvement could be made simply if the government had some more money. Bolivia I think, is a classic example of how being landlocked can hamper development. All it would take is a tax free, cost free corridor back to the sea. I understand the Chileans are in discussion with the Bolivians on just such a corridor. Even if the US is right, there is no denying the economic strengthener of trade, and ease of trade. That great equalizer exists regardless of the Government; if they could only just ship their stuff!
Anyway, walking the streets of a city like this really gives us a feel for how things really are. And I think it's a good idea to make these stops now and again so that you can add things to all the tourist attractions.