Argentina’s Clever Orcas: Part Two

Poster of Orcas in Peninsula Valdes

Poster of Orcas in Peninsula Valdes

Seeing the clever Orca “Killer Whales” of Peninsula Valdes has long been on our bucket list of things to do.  Our last blog talked about visiting the Southern Right Whales’ breeding grounds around Peninsula Valdes, and this second part centers on another fascinating whale-watching reason to stop here – – its unique Orca population.


Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia.

In addition to Southern Right Whales and Orcas, the Peninsula Valdes  marine nature reserve, which is the highlight of the Atlantic coast of Patagonia, is also home to other beautiful creatures, such as elephant seals, fur seals, sea lions, Magellanic penguins, as well as the rhea (relative of the ostrich), the guanaco (related to the llama), the mare (like a large hare) and many more on the peninsula.  This is not even to mention the birdlife in the area.


Fred Enjoying the View. © Sharon Lundahl

We stayed in the most amazing hotel in the Puerto Madryn area, the Territorio, which had stunning  sea views out across the bay from the bedroom and the bathroom.   Located out at the end of the bay on a road out of town, our hotel was convenient to the modern Puerto Madryn Eco Centro Whale Museum with its imaginative displays.

Orcas are found in every ocean in the world, and many populations have evolved hunting behaviors suited to their environment.


Eco Centro at Puerto Madryn. © David Stanley/flickr

For example, some Orcas in Antarctic waters have figured out how to move together to generate enough of a wave to knock a seal or sea lion off a small ice floe.

Nowhere, however, have orcas developed a more fascinating way to hunt than in Peninsula Valdes, where about a dozen Orcas have figured out how to intentionally beach themselves to grab unsuspecting seals, sea lions and penguins.  Then, more importantly, they unbeach themselves and subsequently share their meal with other family members.


Seals on the Beach. © familia catalono / flickr

Filmed scenes of this incredible sight — a full-grown Orca driving itself up through the surf and onto a beach crowded with unsuspecting meals and then wiggling itself back off the beach into the water with a struggling seal in its mouth — are certainly some of the most exciting wildlife films that we have ever seen.

Magellan Penguin. © Sharon Lundahl

Magellan Penguin. © Sharon Lundahl

After Right Whale watching, we spent a fascinating, but fruitless, day visiting all of the locations on the Atlantic beaches of the peninsula where these Orcas are known to do their often-filmed beaching and unbeaching exploits.

We saw hundred of penguins on one beach, sea lions on another, and seals on a third, all crowded around the water’s edge, oblivious of the danger of becoming an Orca’s meal.  But alas, the local Orcas had been absent that week and didn’t appear that day just for two Orca-lovers from Whidbey Island.


Mural in Eco Centro.

Our guide showed us the exact spots that the famous Orca photographers Andres Bonetti and Alberto Patrian  set their cameras up to record this incredible behavior …and gently reminded us that any 15 minutes of exciting wildlife film usually is edited from 15 days or more of sitting in one place waiting for some action to happen.  Shucks, we had forgotten that.



Pretty Argentinian Girls. Sharon Lundahl

We did get to see lots of film of these unique behaviors at the Eco Centro and hear how these behaviors had developed among a select few male and female members of the larger local Orca population.

We mused at what possessed the first Orca to think it could launch itself out of the ocean and onto the beach to grab a meal…and then get itself back into the water.  Perhaps natural selection played a part, and the Orcas that remained stranded after grabbing a meal did not survive to pass on the behavior to the next generation.  All of these Orcas seem very comfortable in shallow water, but only a few routinely engage in this unique beaching behavior.


Sea Lion. © Paul Burnett/flickr

Finally we had to leave, missing another unique experience–that of meeting the famous Park Ranger Roberto Bubas, who has made friends with these Orcas.  He can be seen in innumerable videos standing waist deep in water stroking and talking to Orcas that hang around him like a pack of puppies.  He happened to actually be up in Washington State visiting our own Orca specialist Ken Balcom when we were down there.  The most memorable video of Roberto is of him standing in the water playing his harmonica to a bunch of entranced Orcas.

To see Roberto playing with his harmonica, dancing with the Orcas, and his comments on the communication between Orcas and humans, please click here:

We just will have to return again to Peninsula Valdes.

Whales in Patagonia – Part One

Southern Right Whale at Peninsula Valdes. © Richard Towell/flickr

Southern Right Whale at Peninsula Valdes. © Richard Towell/flickr

We love whales.  We live in Langley on Whidbey Island and regularly see both Orcas (Killer Whales) and Gray Whales from the deck of our house.


A Guanaco on the Road to Peninsula Valdes. © Fred Lundahl

We are involved in Orca Network’s Langley Whale Center, and haven’t hesitated to travel to see whales in Maui, Mexico, Oregon and Maritime Canada.  So it will be no surprise that one of the reasons for the Lundahls visiting Patagonia was for the chance to see whales on the Peninsula Valdes.

Tourism Office. © Fred Lundahl

Tourism Office. © Fred Lundahl

Seeing whales is all about catching them at the right spot during their annual migrations.  Unfortunately our November time frame was too early in the year to visit the humpbacks who frequent the Cape Horn area in austral summer (our winter), but we hope to go back sometime in January-February.  Also especially interesting for the future was news of the Chilean government establishing the world’s first Blue Whale sanctuary in southern Chile.  In a couple of years it ought to be possible to take whale watching trips into that area to see the world’s biggest creatures.

Southern Right Whale. © Titus Hageman/flickr

Southern Right Whale. © Titus Hageman/flickr

Our biggest delight on this whole trip, however, was the chance to visit the world-famous (at least to whale lovers like us) whale sanctuary at Peninsula Valdes on Argentina’s south Atlantic coast.  Here is the gathering place for the world’s last remaining population of Southern Right Whales.  The huge bays on either side of this big peninsula are home from June to December of hundreds of those whales who mate and give birth in the area’s tranquil waters.

Picture in the Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

Picture in the Puerto Madryn Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

These whales, larger than humpbacks or grays, were so named because whalers considered them to be the “right” whales to kill…as they are more buoyant than other whales and float, rather than sink, when killed.  This biological trait led them to be hunted almost to extinction.  These Southern Right Whales are the only Right Whales left.  There are none in the northern hemisphere.

Happy Beach Guy. © Sharon Lundahl

Happy Beach Guy. © Sharon Lundahl

Famed whale researcher Roger Payne (who discovered while doing research in Hawaii that Humpback Whales sing)   was the first to set up a research station here to study Southern Right Whales.

Although mating season was over, and most of the boy whales had departed for their feeding grounds further south towards Antarctica, a number of mothers with calves were still milling around the bay when we were there.  We saw a couple of dozen whales with their distinctive social and feeding behaviors.

Where We Ate in Puerto Pyramides. © Sharon Lundahl

Where We Ate in Puerto Piramide. © Sharon Lundahl

They feed on prey near the surface, so they don’t lunge feed like the krill-eating Humpbacks, nor bottom feed like Whidbey’s Gray Whales.  These whales breach almost as much as Humpbacks, and–being bigger and heavier than Humpbacks–they are even more spectacular when they launch themselves out of the water.


Jumping Southern Right Whale. © Willem/flickr

One of the oddest behaviors engaged in by these Right Whales is “sailing” in which they stick their tails straight up out of the water, with their buoyant bodies enabling them to raise the tail quite high.  With their tails held high and stationary, the wind catches the tail surface and actually moves the whale along through the water like a sailboat.

Sharon at the Puerto Madryn Museo . © Fred Lundahl

Sharon at the Puerto Madryn Eco Center . © Fred Lundahl

No one knows for sure why they do this.  At first the researchers thought it was some sort of play activity, but more recently they have discovered that it is only pregnant females who engage in this activity.  Perhaps holding the tail out of the water for so long might help regulating body temperature prior to giving birth?

The other reason that Peninsula Valdes is a mecca for whale watchers will be covered in Part Two – Orcas who beach themselves to catch prey.  Tune in for the next blog!map2

map peninsula valdes

Patagonian Cowboys and their Rodeos


Argentinian Cowboys and their kids. © Sharon Lundahl

Argentina’s vast plains–the green pampas in the north, and drier steppes in the south–are similar in many ways to the American west.  They have spawned a historic horseman culture not unlike our own.

Leader of Traditional Dance . © Sharon Lundahl

Leader of Traditional Dance . © Sharon Lundahl

Before we visited Patagonia, we knew a little of the Argentine gaucho culture, horsemen who herded cattle and other animals, using weighted ropes called bolos, rather than lassos, and who had their own unique costumes and horse tack.

We were charmed by this vibrant culture.  We had the chance to watch both great feats of horsemanship, as well as their special dancing and singing.  Their costumes have changed little over the two centuries the culture has evolved.  They wear knee-high leather boots tucked into baggy “gaucho pants” and wide belts with sheath knives tucked in the back.


Typical Cowboy Meal. © Sharon

The cowboys ride in their own type of saddles that don’t have the pommel of American western saddles.  Their crops are huge paddle-type riding crops call “guechas”, in place of our smaller types they call “justas”.  Their stirrups, bridles and elaborate spurs are often beautifully crafted in silver.

Interestingly, we found that their flat-brimmed felt cowboy hats – a bit similar to our own older type pre-Stetson cowboy hats –  have largely given way to a knit beret called a “boina”, which they usually wear like our golf hats, rather than like French berets.


Youngster Competing in Gaucho Competition.

We watched some wonderful line dancing in traditional costumes and saw some amazing horsemanship contests in Argentina.  Participants of all ages raced along a course with a stick in one hand with which they tried to spear a small ring hung on a string.

Most unique and different from our own rodeos were the gaucho’s traditional “Jineteadas” horsemanship shows that are put on around the country in rural areas.  These rodeos are all about horses.  There is none of the calf-roping or bull riding of our own.  Instead there are incredible rides on unbroken broncos.

blog guys

Modern-Day Gauchos. © Fred Lundahl

In these horse contests there is a sliding scale of increasingly difficult events in which riders attempt to stay on wildly bucking horses.  These events range from contests with full saddles, stirrups, bridles, and bits…to less and less horse tack…and to finally bareback riding with no tack.  The gaucho clings to the horse’s mane for dear life.


Gauchito Gil Flag. © Fred Lundahl

Now there is a push by many aficionados to make the jineteadas a national Argentine sport on par with soccer.

Not to be overlooked, in Chile the skilled horseman, similar to the American cowboy and the Argentine gaucho, is called the “huaso.”   They are found all over southern Chile and have become a symbolic character of the Chilean countryside.   The main difference between the gaucho and the huaso seems to be that the huaso is involved in farming as well as cattle herding.

Huasos also are important in Chilean culture and folklore.  Travelers can see them in fiestas and parades, as well as at work on their ranches.

Another ubiquitous gaucho one sees everywhere in Argentine countryside is at the roadside shrines to “Guachito Gil”!   He was a mid-19th century cowboy who, legend has it, kindly healed the sick daughter of the man who was putting him to death.


Roadside Shrine for Gauchito Gil! © Fred Lundahl

These roadside shrines are filled with small gifts and requests for Gauchito Gil’s intervention and help in everything from speeding tickets to school exams.

We seldom saw a car, truck or bus in the countryside that did not have a Gauchito Gill talisman hanging from the rearview mirror.  We now hang one in our own truck on Whidbey Island…and have not had a repetition of earlier deer collisions…thank you Gauchito Gill.


Traditional Dance with Costumes. © Fred Lundahl


Chile & Argentina

Argentina,Blue Massif

The Blue Massif–Torres del Paine National Park. © Fred Lundahl

During our recent trip to Patagonia, we visited both Chile and Argentina.  We liked the flora, fauna and folks in both countries, but wondered why they have had so much trouble getting along throughout their history.


Pretty Argentinian Girl. © Sharon Lundahl

Looking closely at a map–you notice that there is a section of their joint border in the southern Patagonian ice field, the third largest hunk of ice in the world, where they can’t agree on where the border lies…even today.   Friends in both countries explained that this odd fact is because the mile-deep ice field moves.  Thus no one can demarcate a border line on the ground below it…and neither neighbor will give an inch to the other.


Minefield on Border. © Fred Lundahl

The last time they almost came to blows was in the 1990’s.  It was over ownership of three small islands at the very southern tip of the continent, and the Pope had to intervene to calm things down.  We saw the continuing results of that latest of skirmishes as we drove by signs warning of active minefields along the border, where livestock and guanacos (wild llamas) regularly continue to be blown up by land mines.


Argentina’s Pope. © Fred Lundahl

Although the two neighbors have not been in a shooting war for awhile, their joint history is full of conflict.  Both countries had nasty dictatorships for years who regularly hurled insults at each other, if not bullets.

When Argentina’s dictators went to war with the UK (another blog), Chile’s dictators secretly helped the UK.  While the dislike has quieted from violence to surly jokes about each other, travelers remark how Chile’s border guards can harass travelers coming from Argentina…and Argentina’s guards do the same in return.

blog ccA friend of ours who works on cruise ships out of Ushuaia, Argentina’s southern-most town, told us that the Chileans routinely hold up truck shipments of supplies that must pass through a small section of highway in Chile to return to Argentine territory.  And so it goes.

When volcanoes erupt in the Chilean Andes, as they regularly do, the strong Pacific Ocean winds blow all the ash over into western Argentina, where sometimes it winds up a foot deep.  Airports must be closed for months.  Both countries have pointed jokes about what this proves about whose side God is on.  Chile’s victory, finally, in soccer over powerhouse Argentina also stoked those feelings.


Sharon and Fred in Windy Patagonia.

The two countries’ competition even extends to Antarctica, where both have the only bases where families are stationed along with the researchers.  Argentina founded its “Esperanza” base at the bottom of the world in 1953 in an effort to bolster territorial claims


Magellan’s Ship at His Straits. © Sharon Lundahl

there, and in 1978 the dictators even flew in a pregnant woman so that they could claim the first baby born in Antarctica.

Not to be undone, in 1984, Chile’s dictatorship set up their base, “Villa Las Estrellas”, on the British-claimed South Shetland Islands.  To add further insult to Argentina’s injury, chile claimed the birth there of the first baby “conceived and born” in Antarctica.  And  so it goes…


Chilean Volcano We Hiked. © Fred Lundahl

Why Patagonia?


Near Bariloche in Argentina. © Sharon Lundahl

Fred and Sharon spent November of this year in Patagonia–that windswept expanse of flat lands and high mountains of southern Argentina and Chile.


Bus Blown over by Harsh Argentinian Winds. © Fred Lundahl

Why, our friends asked, did you go to a place not known for rugs or textiles and where, uncharacteristically, you can drink the water out of the tap?

Yes, Argentina is less “exotic” than our usual travel destinations, as Europe has been the main source of immigration and influence on the area.   Even though the population does look pretty much like Europe, and the food centers around red meat and potatoes, Argentinians have a special character of their own and they embrace this uniqueness with a passion.


Pretty Girl in Traditional Dance. © Sharon Lundahl

We traveled to Patagonia because we were curious … having never been to South America.   Second, there was spectacular scenery and wildlife to see, including some very unique whale-watching. (Whales are near and dear to our hearts, living on Whidbey Island).  We did find handicrafts to purchase and even managed to spot local textiles–horse saddle pads–to bring back to our store.


Tango Dancers in Buenos Aires. © Sharon Lundahl

Argentina is a vast country, with terrain including the Andes Mountains, glacial lakes and vast grassland.  It is known for its tango, steak and football.  Although a high-income country, Argentina is now still recovering from political instability and economic crisis of past decades.


Artistic Barrio in Buenos Aires. © Sharon Lundahl

Chile is quite different from Argentina, due in part to the fact that their European settlers failed to conquer the independent Mapuche locals;  the immigrants have since assimilated those natives into their blood and population.   After years of bloody dictatorship, Chile is now a prosperous and stable democracy.

Our itinerary included some time in Buenos Aires at the beginning and end of our trip.  It’s an amazing place just to wander, among the different barrios (neighborhoods), ranging from historically old-fashioned, to exuberantly artistic, and to high-style modern.

The culture and music of this great city was just as impressive as expected, even if Fred’s usual routine purchase of a local musical instrument had to wind up being an indigenous flute from the Andes.


Fred Playing Bandoneon He Couldn’t Buy. © Sharon Lundahl

His hoped-for Bandoneon Tango accordion turned out to be just too expensive; the few examples we tracked down all cost in the thousands of dollars.

Our time in Argentina encompassed the presidential run-off elections, and we think the politics we observed there merit another blog.

As we sometimes will do when we have no knowledge about what is best to see in an area, we signed on with a small-group “Overseas Adventure Travel” (OAT) tour.  After that trip, we slipped away on our own to fly down to Argentina’s remote Peninsula Valdez for several days of whale watching.  This is the site of one of the first whale research stations set up in the late 1960’s to study endangered Southern Right Whales.  We had the opportunity to watch dozens of those amazing sea mammals.


Puma We Saw in Patagonia. © Fred Lundahl

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is also famous for its resident orcas.  A bunch of these killer whales have learned to intentionally beach themselves (and, more importantly, unbeach themselves) to snatch seals and sea lions to eat.  We saw lots of the latter but none of the former during our short visit.  We will cover this in a later blog.

Patagonia, itself, in both Argentina and Chile, was simply amazing.  The southern Andes peaks and glaciers were breath-taking, as was the wildlife.  We even had the rare treat to see one of the few remaining Patagonia pumas up close…very close.  By the end of the trip we began to wonder why we had never volunteered to work in U.S. embassies in South America during our diplomatic careers.


Sharon in Patagonia. Fred Lundahl

By Rail in Mongolia


Gas Station Seen from Train in North Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

Fred loves train travel.  You meet an interesting cross-section of a population and get to peer into a country’s backyards as the train passes.  Wherever we go, we take train trips, and Mongolia was no exception.


Trans-Siberian Passing Fred’s Train. © Fred Lundahl

The vast country has relatively few kilometers of rail–all built for them by the Soviet Union.  Besides a few spur lines to mining towns, the only rail line in the country is the one that connects Beijing with Moscow.  The fancy Chinese spur to the Russian Trans-Siberian zips people straight through Mongolia, but Fred took instead the local that stops at every village along the way.


Fred’s Train Companion. © Fred Lundahl

On the way north, Fred’s cabin companion was an elderly pistol-toting mine policeman.  He spoke no common language with Fred, and spent all of his time on a smart phone.  (Interestingly, there is cell coverage in a lot of the country.)

As Fred was the only foreigner on the train, people passing down the corridor always stopped to gawk and say hello.  Several of the young people had traveled and studied in the U.S.   The generational divide between English speakers and Russian speakers was especially apparent.  Virtually everyone under 25 spoke English, and most older people spoke only Russian.  A further reminder of the old days were the women in Soviet-style uniforms with big hats, while they were also wearing patterned tights and spike heels.


Soviet-Era Propaganda in North Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

This trip ended in the city of Darkhan, where the Soviet-era buildings and art work were being quickly subsumed by huge billboards advertising American Express cards and Japanese cars…often in English.  A huge outdoor market was a fascinating mix of these old and new faces of the country.

During a stroll there, Fred noted two interesting Mongolian customs.  Women meeting female friends on the street often gave each other chaste, quick kisses on the lips in greeting.  Another interesting custom, noted by accident in a restaurant, is the requirement to shake hands with someone whose foot you accidentally touch with yours under the table. If anyone can explain the origin of these two practices, please let us know.


Ad for Amex Card in Northern Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

The scenery along the rail line was also interesting.  There were no roads–only tracks in the grass connecting the settlements, and it was odd to see gas stations in the middle of grasslands.  The small villages where the train stopped bristled with satellite dishes and cell towers…and basketball courts with kids shooting hoops.  Villages that once would have glorified communist heroes now sported basketball mascots.

Basketball Mascot Lawn Art. © Fred Lundahl

Basketball Mascot Lawn Art. © Fred Lundahl

On the way back to Ulaan Bataar, the train was suddenly overwhelmed at one stop by a couple hundred young boy and girl scouts returning from camp.  Every scout who stuck his or her head in Fred’s compartment spoke English.  Interestingly, for a country whose official writing script is the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, all the rank, merit badges and troops’ insignia on these kids’ uniforms were in English.  With their baseball caps and uniforms identical to scouts in the U.S., it was an amazing sight.  It was even more fascinating to realize that the parents who came to the train station to pick up their children  would have worn red “Young Pioneer’ kerchiefs and Lenin badges when they were young.


Swarm of Scouts. © Fred Lundahl

One odd thing about the Mongolian rail system is that the gauge or width of the track is the Russian standard rather than the Chinese standard, which requires that every rail car crossing the Chinese-Mongolian border be lifted off its Chinese wheels by a crane and placed on Russian/Mongolian wheels.  China, hungry for


English Sign with Smart Phone Assist. © Fred Lundahl

Mongolia’s natural resources, has offered to build the country a whole new set of rail lines for free on the Chinese standard.  This would, of course, facilitate the Chinese export of Mongolia’s mineral wealth.

Mongolia, unlike most countries in the Third World, has said, “No thanks.”

Mongolia is a country that tore down its Communist-era statues and erected a memorial to the Beatles, joking that they had simply replaced one Lenin for another Lennon.  You gotta love them.

Scene from Train Window in North Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

Scene in North Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

The Far Corner of Mongolia

Our Base Camp after the Blizzard. © Fred Lundahl

Our Base Camp after the Blizzard. © Fred Lundahl

People who have been visiting our shop since our trip to Mongolia this June have been happily shopping for our unusual felt slippers,


Our Camel Driver. © Fred Lundahl

as well as colorful purses and bags decorated with elaborate hand-embroidery.  Where are they from?  They are all made by Kazakh-ethnic women who live in the mountainous far-western corner of Mongolia.

Fred and his friend Jeff visited this Mongolian corner and spent almost a week in the Kazakh-majority far-western province of Bayan Olgii.  They went trekking in Tavan Bogd (the “five saints”) national park in the Altai Mountains.  This park contains the highest mountains (over 14,000 feet) in Mongolia, massive glaciers, and beautiful lakes fed by rivers running from these glaciers.

Downtown Bayan Olgii. © Fred Lundahl

Downtown Bayan Olgii. © Fred Lundahl

It took a 3 1/2 hour flight from the national capital to reach Bayan Olgii, the little capital of this far flung province, and we landed at an airport nestled in grasslands with mountains all around.  We stayed at a new small hotel run by our tour company.   There we were reminded what an adventure travel destination Mongolia has become when we met a variety of foreigners…including U.S. Peace Corps volunteers and their visiting parents who knew about the whale advocacy organization “Orca Network” in which Fred is actively involved.

Our Kazakh Guide. © Fred Lundahl.

Our Kazakh Guide. © Fred Lundahl.

Our wonderful young woman guide was also an English teacher in a small town nearby.  We drove up the road-less white river valley to the base of the Tavan Bogd mountains and spent several days trekking up to the base camp from which climbing expeditions are launched.  In addition to Israeli horse trekkers, and a fellow Washington-state woman traveling solo on a camel, we ran across a group of French tourists who had just climbed the most accessible of the five peaks.

Fred at Base Camp with Orca Hat.

Fred at Base Camp with Orca Hat.

Unfortunately our plan to climb the same peak was cut short by an unexpected late June blizzard that dumped snow on our camp.  The snow covered the crevasses in the glaciers, making it too dangerous to try an ascent.

Instead, we moved south to visit the glacier-fed lakes of the national park, driving for hours on meandering rough tracks through roadless valleys totally devoid of any living thing.

In addition to the Kazakh people who make up the majority of the population in this area, there are a variety of other minority groups, including many Tuvan people whose homeland, famous for its throat singers, lies across the border in Russia.  Like Nobel-prize-winner Richard Feynman, author of “Tuva or Bust”, we also were prevented from crossing to Russia because of poor relations between Russia and the U.S.

Blizzard Coming Over the Glacier. © Fred Lundahl

Blizzard Coming Over the Glacier. © Fred Lundahl

We did meet Tuvan weathermen at the Tavan Bogd base camp who accurately warned us about a coming blizzard.  They welcomed us into their “ger” made toasty warm with a camel-dung-fired iron stove.  Their detailed explanation of the heating qualities of various animals’ dung made us understand the bumper sticker we saw that said, “You can never have too much camel dung.”



Our Producers of Camel Dung. © Fred Lundahl

Still, the majority ethnic group in this province is the wonderful Kazakh, many of whom have ties to Kazakhstan.  They taught us both the Mongolian AND the Kazakh national anthems.  As we pointed out in our last blog on Kazakh yurts, these folks decorate their dwellings with beautiful embroidered textiles called “tuzkiiz.”

Sharon Holding a Kazakh Tuzkiiz. © Fred Lundahl

Sharon Holding a Kazakh Tuzkiiz. © Fred Lundahl

Our Fair Trade partners, “Mary and Martha” in Ulaan Bataar, use fragments of vintage tuzkiiz embroidery and encourage Kazakh women to make new embroidery for their products.  In addition, the Kazakh tradition of felt making, originally for yurt coverings and rugs for warmth, has morphed into the making of wonderful felt slippers and small figures that have proved popular in our shop.

This far corner of Mongolia, sandwiched between China and Russia, is very different in many ways from the rest of the country.  Everyone we met there was very happy to call himself Mongolian.  These people were pleased to be part of a democratic country, rather than a part of any of their authoritarian neighbors.  And their handicrafts!  Their wonderful handicrafts!

The Tallest Mountain in Mongolia.  © Fred Lundahl

The Tallest Mountain in Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

“Gers” and “Yurts” in Mongolia


Village of Mongolian Gers. © Fred Lundahl

Mongolia is a wonderful country whose vast landscapes are scattered with round portable nomad tents.  The majority of the Mongolian population call theirs “gers”, but the minority Kazakh people in far western Mongolia call theirs “yurts”.  Kazakh yurts, however, should not be mistaken for Mongolian gers.  There are a number of differences.


Ger Girls!

The two nomadic dwellings rang from the same sources, but have developed differences over the centuries.  In contemporary Mongolia, you often see a mix of gers and yurts in tourist camps.  During my June visit, for example, I stayed in Kazakh yurts in camps around Ulan Bataar, and I stayed in Mongolian gers in camps in the far western Kazakh areas of the country.

At first seeing the two dwellings side by side they seem identical.  The most significant difference between the two is that the wagon wheel-like center roof support of the ger is held aloft by two wooden poles extending from the floor of the ger to the roof wheel.  These two poles support the weight of the roof.


Setting up a Kazakh Yurt. © Fred Lundahl.

A yurt, however, has no center poles, so the entire weight of the roof is carried to the lattice walls by the wooden spoke-like ribs from the center roof wheel.  This means that the slope of the yurt roof is more steeply pitched than its ger cousin.  This difference is immediately noticeable from a distance by the different slopes of the roofs.


Interior of Mongolian Ger. © Fred Lundahl

Traditional interior decoration is quite different as well.  The Kazakhs make a wide variety of embroidered items and colorful hand-rolled felt rugs and other handicrafts.  The Mongolians prefer to decorate their roof ribs and center poles.

Another interesting difference is the door:  a ger door opens to the right and a yurt door opens to the left.  No one could explain why.

Why was the construction of the yurts and gers different?  The only explanation I heard was that Genghis Khan’s army hauled huge gers on wheeled platforms pulled by dozens of oxen, and such large dwellings HAD to have had roof supports.


Israeli Tourists Ger Camping. © Fred Lundahl

In modern times, the sizes are the same, and each ethnic group naturally swears that theirs are the better design.  During my trip, I helped set up both kinds.  In my humble opinion, the  ger, with its two center poles, is easier to set up.  The Kazakhs are right, though, that those same center poles can become a hazard to an American tourist like me trying to exit in the night after drinking too much fermented mare’s milk.


American Yurt Innovation. © Fred Lundahl

We also have gers/yurts in America.  Numerous state parks offer rental yurts.  We exhibit a full-size yurt in the summer in the driveway by our shop on Whidbey Island.

The American design has the fantastic innovation of a steel cable along the lattice wall that bears the weight evenly.  It is so efficient that I can set up ours by myself in less than 30 minutes.  In contrast, it takes a crew of 6 or 8 to set up a Mongolian ger or yurt.


American Yurt at our Shop. © Fred Lundahl

To exhibit American yurt technology to the Mongolians, The U.S. Embassy in Ulan Bataar has a U.S.-made yurt on display in the embassy courtyard.  Oddly, no Mongolians seemed the least bit interested in its technological  improvements.  The viewpoint seemed to be, “What was good enough for Genghis Khan is good enough for us.”

Virtually every ger and yurt on the steppes in Mongolia seemed to have a solar panel to generate electricity and a satellite dish antenna for the kids to watch international TV.  I wonder what Genghis Khan would think of his forebears watching Sesame Street and the Muppets on satellite TV, rather than getting on with conquering the world.

Mongolian Yurt with Dish TV and Solar Panels. © Fred Lundahl

Mongolian Yurt with Dish TV and Solar Panels. © Fred Lundahl

Driving in Mongolia


Traffic in Ulaan Bataar. © Fred Lundahl

Traffic in Ulaan Bataar. © Fred Lundahl

Mongolia is a vast country–13th largest in the world–with a small population–3 million.  Of interest to the driver, is that it has fewer kilometers of road per person than any country in the world, and some of the worst urban traffic.


Yak Milk Fermenting on Russian Truck. © Fred Lundahl

Until the 1990’s virtually all vehicles, and there weren’t many, were of Russian manufacture.  Now those old and patched-up Russian vehicles have migrated to the far corners of the country.

They have been replaced in most places by foreign, mainly Japanese-made, vehicles…often driven by people who are more comfortable on a horse or camel on the steppe than driving a vehicle in city traffic.  Most of the auto mechanics in the country are, interestingly, Vietnamese.


Horse Parked by Parking Sign. © Fred Lundahl

Traffic in the capital, Ulaan Bataar, is the absolute worst that Fred has seen anywhere in the world.  It is not just the press of thousands of cars trying to navigate a city of 1 1/2 million people with no freeways…but it is also the lack of awareness of drivers more at home on wide open steppes than on clogged city streets.  Many drivers believe that traffic lights are advisory only, and no one thinks twice about driving down the wrong way on a one-way street.


Jeff and Fred on Road Trip in Mongolia.

Walking to town one day, Fred watched a driver on a crowded street decide to do a U-turn on the middle of a crowded two-lane bridge.  His efforts to change directions, of course, caused chaos.  There was remarkably little horn-honking or anger from the other drivers…probably because they saw nothing odd about such a maneuver.

The traffic police in Ulaan Bataar must have the most stressful job in the world.  On several occasions, Fred saw police cars chasing drivers who blithely ignored all demands to stop their cars.  The police have begun to use “French boots” to immobilize parking violators, and even that has had limited success.  Fred witnessed an SUV driving down the street, showering sparks and rubber from the “French boot”-immobilized front tire.


French Boot for Traffic Control. © Fred Lundahl

Other than some paved roads connecting major cities, the country has virtually no roads at all.  Not dirt roads…no roads.  With vast steppes consisting of often quite smooth grasslands, no one has seen the need for roads.  If you want to go to visit a neighboring town, you just take off in that direction across the steppes just like your ancestors have done for centuries.

The gas stations just sit on the grassland.  There are vehicle tracks that meander across the steppes between towns.  If the ruts become too deep for your vehicle, just move 10 feet over and begin a new track.  When that gets too rough, move over another few feet and begin again.


Driving Between Towns in Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

The one place where those tracks tend to come back together is at stream and river crossings.  Some ofd the bigger and deeper rivers have rickety wood plank bridges built across the, but most smaller rivers and streams are crossed by driving your vehicle through shallow sections.

Fred was usually in a four-wheel-drive Toyota Landcruiser SUV with a huge plastic snorkel running up the side of the windshield to bring air to the carburetor from above the roof of the vehicle.  With such a rig it was quite easy to ford a river of two to three feet of water…if you were careful.


Fording River in Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

One thing a tourist immediately notices in Ulaan Bataar is a large number of Toyota Prius hybrids which look just like those in the U.S.  These vehicles are frequently seen out on the steppe too…which was puzzling at first.  Then while getting ready to ford a river far from any urban area with our massive SUV, a Prius with a Mongolian family drove down the opposite river bank and stopped at the water.

As Fred thought, “Boy, has this guy made a mistake!” the driver got out, walked to the water’s edge, gauged the depth of the water (about two feet), got back in his car and drove it slowly but successfully through the river.


All-Terrain Prius. © Fred Lundahl

As Fred gaped in surprise, our driver explained that Mongolian Priuses are all manual transmission vehicles.  In first gear, the car runs on its electric motor rather than its gas engine; Mongolians have discovered that the batteries are sealed well enough that it can be immersed in water for short periods of time.

Watching that Prius push through the water with a bow-wake of water up to the windshield was certainly one of the most unexpected sights of the entire trip.  But, folks, don’t try this at home!


Gas Station with No Road. © Fred Lundahl

Why Travel to Mongolia?


Woman Herding Sheep in Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

Fred and Sharon, former diplomats, have never lived in Mongolia.  As a long-time repressive client state of the former Soviet Union, the U.S. didn’t even formally recognize the country until the late 1980’s.  As a result, there was no U.S. Embassy in Ulaan Baatar (Red Hero) at which they could serve until too late in their careers.


Old and New Buildings in Ulaan Baatar. © Fred Lundahl

Fast forward into the 21st century, and the country had turned into a multi-party democratic country more quickly AND more peaceably than any other former communist state.  Fast becoming a major adventure-tourism destination with its vast steppes, deserts and high mountains, the country also produces fair trade handicrafts of the type sold in our shop.

Couple this with an invitation to visit from a friend working at the American Embassy there, Fred said, Mongolia here I come!  Sharon, on the other hand, decided that camping in blizzards on long mountain treks and eating boiled mutton best remain in her past.


Mongolian Kids with their Smart Phone. © Fred Lundahl

Fred spent most of June in Mongolia and was charmed by the quickly westernized, friendly, increasingly English speaking, internet-and-cell-phone wired, basketball loving, yet still nomadic-culture-embracing country of a scant three million people with 30 million horses, camels and yaks.

The contrast between the capital city crammed with half the country’s population and the worst driving habits in the world, and the countryside with almost no roads between towns (linked only by multiple tracks spreading across the steppes) was greater than any other country Fred has visited.  The urban-rural contrasts were many, some of which we can describe in later blogs.


Satellite Reception and Solar Panels in a Ger. © Fred Lundahl.

The U.S.A. is just about the Mongolians’ favorite country.   The U.S. stepped in to assist with food aid during times of hunger and hardship after Russian aid–which had made up 1/3 of their GNP–stopped cold when democracy began.  In addition, hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers over more than two decades have taught English in the most far-flung villages across the country.  People remember that the U.S. helped them, and now most people under the age of 25 speak English.

Most amazing to see was that in virtually every location with two or more huts or “yurts” (“gers” in Mongolian), there would be a basketball court or half court.  Often the hoops had no nets, and the backboard was just rough planks, but kids would be out shooting baskets at all hours.

Kids Playing Basketball in Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

Kids Playing Basketball in Mongolia. © Fred Lundahl

It seemed that every family living in a ger in the most remote location had a solar panel and a satellite dish.  The kids were often watching Sesame Street on Dish TV when you looked inside.  In a country where 50 percent of the population is under 35, all this education bodes well for the future.

The country is not without its economic problems.  Mongolia only allows western countries to be involved in exploiting their vast natural resources of coal, copper, and other metals from the land.


Fred after Blizzard. © Fred Lundahl

The Mongolians have, however, sometimes reneged on contracts and tried to re-negotiate with those international companies, causing economic uncertainty.

Climate change and harsh winters have killed vast numbers of livestock and have driven many families into spreading ger camps around the capital, leading to new social problems.

Still, you must admire their spunk.  The entire country seems to detest China, for both historic and contemporary reasons.  They are gleefully awaiting the first visit of the Dalai Lama to the only independent country that practices Tibetan Buddhism.  Proudly noting that the first Dalai Lama cam from Mongolia, and hoping that the next reincarnation might too, everyone seems to revel in the discomfort the Chinese government is exhibiting over the upcoming visit.


Horseman with Mongolian Lasso.© Fred Lundahl