Issue - August 2010

August 2010


In this edition, Rutter gives a review of the Cementerio de los Elefantes film; Will Dowlin tell us about the most dangerous road in the world, The Ekeko, a Bolivian tradition by Lena Midrez; and ultimately Walter Sanchez lets us know about Violin in Boliviaread more...

august 2010

Don't Push Me 'Cause I am Close to the Edge

Fresh from cycling down Death Road in Bolivia, Will Dowling decided to find out about other dangerous roads from around the world. As you do.

Will Dowlin
Projects Abroad
Gloucestershire - United Kingdom

There are five roads which have gained infamy in the world because of their danger and their history. All of them claim many lives each year; however all are still used in excess as they are often the only road to and from their destinations. They are made all the more dangerous because of their status, which attracts tourists to them and makes them busier.

North Yungas Road, Bolivia

The first and most dangerous road is the North Yungas Road in Bolivia. It is also called El Camino del Muerte (Road of Death) by the locals. It is the most dangerous because it claims the most lives per year; 200-300, which works out as one every two weeks. It was first called the Most Dangerous Road in the World by the Inter- American Development Bank in 1995. It leads from the capital La Paz to Coroico.

It is also called El Camino del Muerte (Road of Death) by the locals

It was built in the 1930’s by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the Chaco War to connect the capital La Paz to the Amazon rainforest region, in the North. It measures 43 miles in length and starts 35 miles northeast of La Paz. It starts just below three miles above sea level where both the cars and the drivers start struggling. It also means they start their descent above the clouds and as they come down through the clouds, visibility decreases. This can cause havoc when trying to see other vehicles and a safe position for your wheels.

The reasons that this road is so dangerous are numerous. The most obvious reason is because of the sheer drops one on side of you as you drive along the road. At one point, the drop is 600 metres down if your wheels slip. There’s a quite big chance of that happening too; in winter the surface is a loose gravel road and in summer the rainforest downpours create waterfalls that turn the surface to slush.

The rules for driving also appear to be backwards because the cars travelling downhill, and therefore faster, are told to pass on the left where there is a gaping chasm! However, if there isn’t enough room to manoeuvre on the road, the downhill car has to reverse back up the hill to find a safe spot. This can cause trouble for the driver if they are already near the edge and they are driving a big truck (it happens). There have been stories of cars and trucks falling off the edge because they went one or two inches further than they were supposed to. There’s very little room for error on this road! The reason that the downhill driver has to drive on the left is so that they can see where to put their wheels and so they can see what’s coming up the hill – if visibility allows.

As this road is the only way to the town of Coroico the drivers have no choice but to take it. This means they will make an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) by pouring beer into the earth at the start of the road to grant them safe travel.

Guoliang Tunnel in Taihang Mountains, China

Our second dangerous road is called the Guoliang Tunnel in China. This tunnel is located in the Taihang Mountains in the Henan province. It is named after the village that the builders were from. It measures 1.2kilometres long, five metres tall and four metres wide. It took five years to complete, starting in 1972, opening on May 1 1977.

The project was lead by a villager called Shen Mingxin who led a group of thirteen men to build the tunnel. They used basic tools (and maybe a bit of dynamite) which they bought by selling basically all of their animals and herbs. Also, they didn’t tend their crops while they were building, so that gives you an idea of how big this venture was for them.

They chose to complete this project because the only way in and out of the village was via a precariously placed ladder on the side of the mountain, called the Sky Ladder. Also, the village needed contact with the outside world, so that they could trade. They didn’t have electricity when the build started, so there were no telephones either. It paid off in the end because as China gradually started to let tourists in, the government officials visited the site and decided that it would be a perfect tourism site, so the village and the road often get many travellers from far and wide.

The road’s name translates as “The road that does not tolerate any mistakes”. This is because of its small size, only allowing one car at a time. Also, there are 30 windows along the road all carved out by the villagers that give a sheer drop into the valley below which doesn’t leave much room for mistakes if you’re trying to pass a car at that point. Also, it’s quite impossible to hear or see a car approaching you if you’re walking along the trail, so you don’t have much time to dodge unless you jump out of one of the windows.

Most Dangerous Tourist Hiking Trail, China.

Technically it’s not a road, but it’s still very dangerous! The trail is located on Mount Huashan in the Shaanxi Provence in China. It is one of the five sacred mountains in China because of its roots in the Taoist religion. Its name comes from the fact that it lies to the South of Huayin City and ‘Shan’ means mountain in Chinese. There are five peaks on the mountain and you can climb all of them. The trail is a pilgrimage that was and still is made by Taoist monks to pray and make sacrifices to the God of the mountain.

They used basic tools (and maybe a bit of dynamite) which they bought by selling basically all of their animals and herbs.

Of the five peaks in this range, the tallest and most dangerous is the South Peak. It is also called ‘Monarch of Mt. Huashan’ by the ancients as it is the most impressive. You can only get there by taking a cable car from the West Peak. All faces are steep cliffs, with barely anything to hold onto. The most dangerous part of this trail is the “Changong Zhandao” a 13 feet long, 1 foot wide plank path along a vertical cliff, with only a chain to hold onto. On this wooden plank if the wind picks up, you could fall; if the rain picks up, you could fall; if something comes loose, you could fall.

Good news if you survive this, there are some steps. This isn’t much consolation because they are very narrow and slippery, and if someone slips on ice everyone below will fall too. Before you ask, people do climb this in winter so ice is entirely possible. These steps are called the ‘Heavenly Steps’, which either means you ascend to heaven when you climb them or if you fall, that’s where you go.

Russian Siberian Road to Yakutsk (M56), Russia

This road is Russia’s Lena Highway, which is the last 600 miles of the Russian Federal Highway. The Federal Highway runs from Moscow to Yakutsk in Siberia, the last 600 miles of which runs alongside the Lena River. It was built in stages between 1925 and 1964. It is also called the Highway from Hell because of what happens to it in summer.

For most of the year it is frozen solid, as you would expect from being in the middle of Russia. At this time it is better than most soil roads and cars can easily go 45mph down it. They can also cross over the Lena River which is a solid block of ice because of the -43oC that reach the area that time of year. That’s the coldest recorded temperature outside of Antarctica.

Unfortunately, for two or three months in summer the road becomes impassable because the temperature can rise to 32oC. This means the mud is no longer solid and then the rains come. The rain makes the road a treacherous quagmire where cars can become stuck for days. There have been stories of a woman giving birth because her car was stuck and she couldn’t get to a hospital. The reason that the road becomes so bad is because the road is built on permafrost which means the road melts by about one metre every summer. At this point there is no hope for vehicles. People still have to drive down it because it is the only route through to Yakutsk.

However when the road ends, there is a town is on the other side of the Lena River. This is not a problem in winter, when you can drive over the frozen river. For the rest of the year, it’s a different story; there is no bridge to the town so the river is nigh on impossible to cross. Cars either have to chance the semi-thawed ice, or give up because of the flooding or ice floes.

El Camino del Rey (The King’s Pathway), Spain

This walkway is located in the El Chorro gorge in Spain, close to Malaga. It was constructed in 1901 and was officially opened by King Alfonso XIII of Spain, which is where its name comes from. It is only three feet wide. The drop is over 700 feet below. Some parts of the route have fallen away so there is just a metal bar between you and the abyss. This walkway was made famous by a video on YouTube when someone filmed them self walking the entire route.

It was built so that workers near the two waterfalls (Chorro Falls and Gaitanejo Falls) didn’t have to climb down the cliff and climb back up the other side.

After the workers moved on, it was used as access to the Makinodromo climbing range in the gorge. However, when a tourist died trying to cross it in 2000, the government made it illegal to cross.

El Ekeko: how peace and happiness defeated the conquistadors

El Ekeko, the god of abundance is the figurehead of the festival of Las Alasitas. Each year, on the 24th January, many thousands of people go to La Paz for this festival. Once they are there, they buy small images of the objects or aspirations they hope obtaining during the New Year. According to tradition, El Ekeko has to receive a cigarette once a year, alcohol, and other tiny donations. If he does, he will bring prosperity and abundance to the donors, and will realize their wishes and expectations. Other than the elementary needs which are brought by most people (a bag of rice to have food all year, good luck frogs, small monopoly notes to have money, …),

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