Across the Andes, to Buenos Aires

About two hundred kilometres south of the flight path of my plane, on the Argentinian side of the border with Chile, had occurred one of the most tragic air disasters and an amazing tale of human survival.  A chartered Uruguayan Air Force plane carrying 45 people, including a rugby team, had hit the mountains and crashed here on 13 October 1972.

More than a quarter of the passengers died immediately and several others soon succumbed to cold and injury. Of the 29 who were alive a few days after the accident, another eight were killed by an avalanche that swept over their shelter. The 16 survivors had little food and no way to beat the cold in the harsh conditions at over 3,600 metres altitude.

Faced with starvation, they decided to feed on their dead mates corpses, which had been well preserved in the snow. Rescuers did not learn of the survivors until 72 days after the crash when two of them, after a 10-day trek across the Andes, found a Chilean who gave them food and then alerted authorities about their ordeal. “Alive: The Miracle of the Andes (1993)” is one of many films made and books written about this incident.

I was now to cross the Andes by road, just about 300 km to the north of the scene of this horrific tragedy.  The overland crossing was more breathtaking than I had expected.  On the Chilean side the road begins to climb rather abruptly, negotiating perhaps no fewer than two dozen hairpin bends wide enough to allow large freight trucks to travel.  On the Argentinian side, the road descends gradually. Most of Chile is sandwiched between this formidable mountain range and the deep sea!

Andes is the highest mountain range outside Asia. But at 6,962 metres, its highest peak, Mt Aconcagua in Argentina, close to the Chilean border not far to the north of the road crossing, is no match for Mt Everest which towers at 8,848 m.  The Himalayas include over a hundred mountains exceeding 7,200 m in height.  But what the Andes lacks in height, compared to the Himalayas, Hindukush and Karakorums, it makes up in other areas.

Andes is 7,000 km long, compared to 2,400 km for the Himalayas (Rockies rank second at 4,800 km). Andes average height is a formidable 4,000 m and it is 200 to 700 km wide.  The Himalayas width varies from 400 kilometres in the west to 150 kilometres in the east.

The Andes extends through seven of the 12 South American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela.  Much of the border between Chile and Argentina runs along the length of the Andes. It is also only one of two major mountain ranges than run north-south, the other being the Rockies.  All others run east-west.

The Andes is the location of several high plateaux – on which are situated some major cities such as Quito, Bogotá, Arequipa, Medellín, Sucre, Mérida, and La Paz. The Altiplano plateau is the world’s second-highest plateau after the Tibet.

The bus took us to the Argentinian town of Mendoza on the eastern side of the mighty Andes.  Mendoza is the launching pad for tours to Mt Aconcagua as well as to the many wine-growing areas nearby.  Here, as elsewhere in much of the world, tourism based on visits to wineries are big business.

We enjoyed a free music ensemble of the Mendoza police force in the central park very close to our hotel.  For the two evenings we were there, the police band would play all afternoon and evening. Everyone, men, women and children, some experienced dancers, others novices, would join in Tango. What a contrast to South Asia, where the police swagger about like emperors and the women look forlorn and withdrawn.  In Mendoza, too, we had our first taste of the legendary Argentinian steak, so soft as to make the knife unnecessary!

From here, we flew to Buenos Aires, a city known to many Pakistanis thanks to one or more of the following: hockey, Messi, Maradona (whose soccer skills were superb, though his life was messy) and Gabriela Sabatini (whose looks were better than her tennis).  One of the great cities of South America, the best days of Buenos Aires are in the past, although this has done nothing to puncture the notorious arrogance of its inhabitants.

Argentina is a good example of how even a prosperous country can be ruined by bad leadership.  At the beginning of the last century, the country was in the top league in terms of economic prosperity and living standards, but has since gone downhill to the point that it has defaulted on its debt repayments and its currency has been in free fall more than once in the last few decades.

Meanwhile, it has had a string of inept leaders, man and wife, then generals and admirals, followed by another man and wife set. They were not good in either peace or war.  There is a comparison to be made with Pakistan not only in terms of inept leadership, both political and military, but also an effort to distract the public by territorial bogeys, we in Kashmir, they in Malvinas (Falklands).  Both countries have fought and lost wars in respect of these claims (we in 1965, they in 1982), we under a field marshal, and they under a bunch of generals and admirals.

While the people struggle to make ends meet, with the government’s encouragement there are daily protests in the city centre demanding the return of Malvinas (which is under British control), complete with flags, maps and lessons in history.  My next stop was Ushuaia, the capital of the administrative region to which the Malvinas would belong if they were to return to Argentinian control.  

By Razi Azmi

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