Visiting Turkey and (NOT) Gobeklitepe

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. © Flickr/Pedro Szekely

Fred and Sharon spent a week in Turkey on this latest trip.

Sharon Loved Jewelry Shopping.

Luckily we had easily obtained online visas some time before the current low point in relations between our two countries.  The political impasse means that Turkey had stopped airport and online visas, thus hindering touristic travel.  We can only hope that both countries come to their senses, because we have many Turkish friends and love traveling to this fascinating ancient land.

An expectant Fred in Urfa

This time in Istanbul there were no cruise ships in port and no tour buses filled with western tourists.  Tourism hasn’t totally dried up, however.  We saw many Arab and Russian visitors, and even more Chinese groups.

Still, many of our friends are not doing well.  Well-known and respected carpet stores are empty of customers, and some places are already bankrupt and closed.  Further, although we felt totally safe, the political atmosphere is as highly charged as in the U.S. with “fake news” affecting people’s political views…just like here.

The Site We Didn’t See.

 

We bought lots of neat stuff for our shop during our stay, and made many new friends.

While Sharon managed the shopping, Fred was determined to travel to see an archeological site we had missed during our last trip–the 12,000 year-old temple at Gobeklitepe near Urfa in southeast Turkey.

We were last in Urfa, near the Syrian border, five years ago.  We had visited a number of ancient sites, including the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world.  We had then heard about excavations at another site where a farmer plowing a field had pulled up a tall

A Highway Reproduction.

thin rock that had damaged his plow…only to find it was covered with animal carvings.  Scientists had uncovered a temple complex there which, according to initial reports, was four or five thousand years old, like many in Turkey.  We skipped it.

A short while after returning home, we picked up a National Geographic to find the cover story explained that revised carbon dating had proved that the temple site we skipped, Gobeklitepe, was now confirmed to have been constructed about 10,000 B.C.  !!!  This new time-frame so pre-dates any known settlements in the world that its very existence has thrown all theories of how humans used religion to moved from hunter-gatherers to settled life out the window.

It Was Supposed To Be Open.

Fred wasn’t going to miss this again, so he set off on a trip to the area with our best Turkish friend, Ali, who was coincidentally from the Urfa area.  They flew down to the region where every tourist-related business and rental car company bragged that Urfa was the “Gateway to Gobeklitepe.”  A new museum was to have been built in 2016, along with a large roof to protect the temple.

After some trial and error, the two adventurers arrived at the site full of excitement and expectation.

As Close As We Were Allowed To Get.

It was closed.  A watchman with big ferocious dogs would not even allow them to approach the site.  Whaaaat ????   The museum and roof, which were to have been finished by July 2017, remained unfinished, and the complex was deserted… closed to visitors.  Devastated and disappointed, they drove back to town and then noticed a small sign in Turkish that said the site was closed.  An even smaller sign in English cited the construction project of June 2016-July 2017.

The Sacred Pool Where The Prophet Abraham Fell To Earth

No one anywhere, either in Istanbul or Urfa, had told us it this.  Later in the day, we told local tourist-related people and they were amazed.  Apparently none had been there,  and no one seemed aware it was closed.

So the closest Fred got to photographing those temple carvings was photographing cement copies of the carvings in the roundabout on the highway leading up to the site.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul. © Flickr/Pedro Szekely

 

 

 

Morocco and the Berber Language

The City of Fez in Morocco. © Sharon Lundahl.

As our friends know, we love Morocco and go there a lot.

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The King of Morocco. © AECreations@flickr

We believe that one of the main reasons for the country’s peace and prosperity is their young king, Muhammad VI, who took over when his father died almost two decades ago.  Photos of this “Justin Trudeau” of kings, as one Moroccan described him, are seen everywhere in Morocco.  He is usually in very informal poses in casual clothes…playing with his kids, drinking a latte, or even taking selfies with his subjects.

Early on, the King pondered how NOT to let Morocco fall into the chaos of the Arab spring that affected so many other countries.  One source of potential discontent was the second-class citizen status of Morocco’s indigenous people, the Berbers.

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Berber Friends. © Sharon Lundahl.

The Berbers, who make up around half of the population, are the Indo-European-origin people who were in the country when the Arabs–with their new religion of Islam–swept into Morocco.  The Berbers accepted Islam and the Arabic language, but continued to the present to speak their own language among themselves.

Berber culture and history was not prized as a significant part of Morocco’s heritage.  Although there has been considerable intermarriage between Arabs and Berbers, the latter remained a significant underclass.  They are among the poorest of the country’s citizens.

Shopping in Marrakech. ©. Sharon Lundahl

The young king was the first authority figure in Moroccan history to ask the question “Why should being proud of being Berber make you any less patriotic a Moroccan?  Shouldn’t we encourage Berber pride?”  As he was king, after listening to squabbling advisors debate the question, he could simply say, “Make it so!”

In 2011 laws were initiated to encourage the teaching of Berber culture and history in the schools. Most significantly, they made the Berber language co-equal with Arabic as a national language.  A timeframe was set for this huge project with a deadline of 2025 for everything to be in place.

The big problem that arose was that the Berber language was a spoken language with no written form in recent centuries.

It was easy enough to pick which of the several dialects of the spoken language to choose as the official language….but what about an alphabet with which to write it?

The Berber language in schoolbooks. © Fred Lundahl.

Scholars had to go back a number of centuries to find a phonetic pictograph alphabet that had once been used by the Berbers to write their language.  Interestingly, the alphabet reads from left to right like European languages, not from right to left like Arabic.

The next problem was how to get people to use the new written language.  The government decreed that ALL government signs, billboards, highway markings and such, which were previously written in Arabic and French, should also be written in Berber.

Not only do we now see official signs in Berber, but there are even elementary school textbooks, teaching Berber to Arabic-speaking children.   Berber-language TV children’s programs are being developed along the lines of Sesame Street.

Arabic, Berber and French Languages on Sign. © Fred Lundahl.

But what about the adults?  Some Moroccans complained to us that adding yet another language for kids to learn in school would be confusing for them and make less time for other things, such as science, math and tech.

A Berber Village. © Sharon Lundahl.

The Berbers we met, however, were very proud of their language.  One driver proudly pointed to a highway toll booth sign in Arabic, French and Berber and said, “That is MY language!”  When asked if he could read the Berber script, he said, “Of course not. I read the Arabic to see what it says.”  Then he added, “My kids WILL be able to read their language!”

The encouragement of Berber pride, however, has not been without its side effects.  Recent protests against government corruption and elitism have been seen as largely Berber-led efforts.  The new blue, green and yellow striped Berber flag is seen as often as the red and green Moroccan flag at rallies.  The. The King, however, seems to believe if you finally give a people their voice, then you shouldn’t be surprised when they use it.  He regularly orders the release of many of those arrested in the protests.

Sharon in Berber Flag Hat. © Fred Lundahl.

Interestingly, the one group that hasn’t embraced the Berber wave is the souvenir sellers.  Their Berber-language products are few and far between.  Our prize this trip was a single Berber flag baseball cap nestled among dozens of American and European sports team baseball caps.

Essaouira, City on the Moroccan Coast. © Sharon Lundahl

Morocco — Better and Better!

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A Moroccan Village, Ftizaghte, South of Marrakesh. © Sharon Lundahl

Sharon and Fred  just completed another tourism and shopping trip to Morocco in June.  We are just amazed by the fact that Morocco seems to get better and better in every way.

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A Moroccan Musician at the Berber Market. © Sharon Lundahl

The first time Fred visited, back during the current king’s father’s reign, there was just one international airport at Casablanca.  Although tourism was always great (remember Jimmi Hendrix), you had to work hard to travel in what was still a third-world country.  How things have changed, for the better, in two or three decades.

Besides good quality highways and toll roads linking major and minor cities, there are now about a dozen international airports.  With the rise of budget airlines like Ryan Air or Jet Airways in Europe with incredibly cheap fares, Europeans are flocking to Morocco.

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Fred in a Shopping Street in Marrakesh. © Sharon Lundahl

We spoke with many tourists who had “popped down for a couple of days” from Northern England, for example, because airfares on those no-frills airlines were less than $ 100.00 a round trip.  Amazing.

There is no prohibition against foreign ownership of businesses, so almost every B & B seemed to be owned by a European.

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Tourist Shopping from a Covered-up Moroccan Woman. © Sharon Lundahl

The country itself is still traditional in many ways and, of course, is Islamic.  The Moroccans, however, don’t impose their religious views on visitors.  This leads to some interesting scenes…scantily clad, heavily tattooed foreign tourists with bare midriffs and short shorts walking through crowded shopping alleys in the sook brushing shoulders with conservatively dressed Moroccan women, some in full face veils.  No one making a fuss.

A Mural in Marrakesh. © Sharon Lundahl

We were there during the fasting month of Ramadan and found it an educational, not unpleasant experience.  Although most Moroccans fast, they don’t mind if foreigners eat during daylight hours.  The cafes and restaurants are full of tourists as usual, although the Moroccan staff does not eat or drink.  After serving foreigners all day, the restaurants close for an hour at the Iftar, the breaking of fast prayer, to allow the staff to eat, and then they open again for customers.

Local Moroccan Shopkeepers. ©. Sharon Lundahl

This time, we did one thing right, and two things wrong.  The right thing was to NOT rent a car.  The headaches of trying to find parking and drive through narrow twisting streets in the old walled cities had always been a problem.  This time we hired a car and driver to travel between cities, and it was GREAT.

One wrong thing was to go for the month of June.  It was just too hot, with temps from 104 to 108 degrees for our last week in Marrakesh.  May and October are much better months for tourism.

Pretty Girl from Fez in Morocco. © Sharon Lundahl

The other wrong thing was to travel with a suitcase decorated with an “illegal map” of Morocco.  Sharon’s favorite roller bag has a map of the world on it that includes Morocco and, further south, the words “Western Sahara.”

Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975 when Morocco unilaterally annexed the area, causing a 15-year war between Morocco and an Algerian and Soviet-sponsored liberation group called the Polisario.

Sharon’s suitcase with illegal map. © Sharon Lundahl

A UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991 is still in place, but the issue of who owns the resource-rich territory remains a contentious subject.  It is one of the impediments to good relations between Morocco and Algeria.  To the Moroccan authorities, Western Sahara does not exist, and any map that shows it is illegal.

Upon entering the country, an eagle-eyed customs agent spotted the illegal map on Sharon’s suitcase.  It first caused laughter and then consternation among the customs agents.  The problem was finally solved by putting a piece of masking tape over the offending name.  Another example of Morocco welcoming foreigners!

Locals Selling Jewelry at the Market. © Sharon Lundahl

 

 

 

The Dzongs (?) of Bhutan

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Pungthan Deichen Dzong of Punakha. © Goran Hoglund/flickr

Our earlier blog talked a bit about Bhutan and how to get there. The latest government pro-tourism project is called, “Why not Bhutan?” The tiny country is now pretty well set up for “high value” (or high cost) and low-impact tourism.
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Bhutanese Men’s Dress. © Sharon Lundahl

A variety of tour companies run treks in the country, though no mountaineering is allowed…in respect for the deities who inhabit the 7,000 meter peaks.

We decided on the more usual visit of hitting the three main tourist spots, all centered around western Bhutan. Although the three–Paro, Thimphu and Punakha–look on the map as close as Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Florida, the serpentine mountain roads connecting the three means it takes hours to get from one to the other.

Monks Enjoying a Dance Performance. © Sharon Lundahl

Monks Enjoying a Dance Performance. © Sharon Lundahl

The sites to see are temples, monasteries, stupas, palaces and fortresses, as well as the various locations where famous holy men fought demons over the centuries. Bhutanese names, titles and words in general are at first almost indecipherable to outsiders. The Tibetan-like language of Drukba is written in Sanskrit letters, but even in English script is still confusing.

The dozens of “dzongs”, the often huge ancient buildings spread around the country, begin to look similar with their massive battlements and uniquely Bhutanese architecture. These have always served dual purposes of religious centers and administrative centers due to centuries of attacks between neighbors and from Tibetans and other invaders.

Pretty Bhutanese Girl. © Sharon Lundahl

Pretty Bhutanese Girl. © Sharon Lundahl

What makes them most interesting is that they are not empty antiques, but are living, purposeful places filled with Bhutanese government workers, religious workers or simple local people doing business. In Paro we saw what we thought was a huge dzong, along with a big watchtower which now houses the national museum. Turns out it was the smallest dzong we saw.

Driving to Thimphu, the 100,000 population capital city, we found a burgeoning city filled with new apartment buildings, all built with Bhutanese architectural shapes, along with new buildings for modern democratic institutions like the parliament and supreme court.

Masked Dancer. © Sharon Lundahl

Masked Dancer. © Sharon Lundahl

Still there, however, and still impressive, was the largest dzong of all, which is the Bhutanese white House, Washington Cathedral and government office buildings all rolled into one. There were lots of tourists, many of them local Bhutanese in national dress, who watched dance performances of the elaborate costumed mask dances in the huge courtyards.

We moved on over rough and muddy mountain roads and one high pass to Punakha, the old capital where the dzong was almost as impressive as Thimphu’s. With the government activities moved elsewhere, this dzong was primarily used for religious activities and was filled with chanting monks. Nearby we watched an impromptu archery contest between three teams of men which served as much a social activity as a sporting activity.

Carrying Baby with National Dress.  © Sharon Lundahl

Carrying Baby with National Dress. © Sharon Lundahl

We did see strictly religious locations as well. In Punakha we visited a famous temple, the Chimi Lamphang, where childless women have gone for centuries to pray for a child. A recent “Modern Love” story in the New York Times recounted a New York woman’s successful visit there.

In Thimphu we spent an hour at the newish Memorial Chorten where dozens of elderly locals came every day to do a few perambulations of the stupa and hang out with their friends. Free lunches are served, and the place seemed as much like a community center and park as a religious site.

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Fred Hiked up to the “Tiger’s Nest”. © Fred Lundahl

The Last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom: Bhutan

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Bhutan–Docula Pass. ©Goran Hoglund/flickr

Our trip this October took us back to South Asia to visit old friends in both India and Nepal and to make new friends in Bhutan, a country we had never visited before. We found Delhi and Kathmandu as chaotic, bustling, polluted and wonderful as ever, and this made our stay in bucolic and unique Bhutan especially fun as a contrast.
Monks in Bhutan.  © Sharon Lundahl.

Monks in Bhutan. © Sharon Lundahl.

We had read a lot about this last of the Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms, where every policy decision is judged for its contribution to the “Gross National Happiness” of the Bhutanese people. Still, we were unprepared to find such a quiet and tranquil…and easygoing…place in the middle of Asia. In many ways, it reminded us of the difference between rural, wooded and tranquil Whidbey Island where we live, in contrast to the bustling Seattle metro area on the mainland.

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Contemporary Religious Art. © Sharon Lundahl

Bhutan is an ancient land with a very short modern history. The Switzerland-sized country, with a small population of 700,000, has participated in the spread of Buddhism and engaged in centuries of Tibetan influences, as well as Hindu Nepali pressures.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Bhutan’s location, sandwiched between giant India and China, has defined its world view. After centuries of strife between regional feudal warlords, the Bhutanese established a dynastic monarchy in the early 1900’s. Since then they have been lucky to have had a progression of five enlightened monarchs. The 21st century constitution, which enshrines the “Gross National Happiness” concept and requires the country to remain more than 60% forest, even allows for the impeachment of the king…and requires him to retire at age 65.

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Fred on Trek to monastery.

Coming into the modern age only in the late 20th century, the country’s monarchs have managed change very carefully. They have been intent on preserving their culture AND bringing their citizens in the modern age at the same time. This has led to charming contrasts where the traditional dress for men and women is still required in almost all public venues, but even the smallest child…and almost all monks..now seem to have smart phones.

Father Carrying Child in National Dress. © Sharon Lundahl

Father Carrying Child in National Dress. © Sharon Lundahl

This is a country that bans smoking in public and bans the sale of any tobacco products, bans plastic bags, bans all billboards and tightly controls tourism (7,000 tourists last year) to preserve its traditional culture. This all is in stark contrast to Nepal next door which has done the opposite (700,000 tourists last year). Bhutan had no motor roads until the 1960’s and still has no stoplights. It did not allow any tourism until the 1990’s, did not allow television until 1999, and did not allow the internet until the early 2000’s. It became a constitutional monarch with a parliament only in 2008.

Making a trip to Bhutan is not just a matter of jumping on a plane and backpacking around. To obtain a visa you must pay a tour company in advance a minimum of $ 250 per day per person ($ 200 in the winter off season).

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Bhutanese Chorten. © Sharon Lundahl

With that receipt, the government will give you a visa that is limited to the amount of days you have paid for, and even gives the dates of arrival and departure. You also receive a route permit that lists the towns you will visit and the hotels you will stay in on each day. You must be accompanied by a guide and driver who have to register you through each district’s checkpoints with your route permit. In some ways it reminded us of traveling with Intourist in the old USSR, though with more smiles and good humor.

Bhutan

Happy Bhutanese Girl. © Sharon Lundahl

The $250 per day actually includes a $ 50 tax for tourism infrastructure, and includes the costs of your guide, your car and driver, your hotel, any trekking gear, and all of your meals. Taking this into consideration, the daily amount is not as outlandish as it first seems. We also paid a daily “small group” surcharge, as we were a group of two.

We did see lots of tour groups, ranging from Seattle-based REI trekking groups to familiar names like Overseas Adventure Travel and Roads Scholar. Interestingly for a country who has had to fend off Chinese expansionism for centuries, Bhutan now hosts numerous Chinese tourists. Our own guide had been studying the Chinese language so he could lead the increasing numbers of Chinese tour groups.

Bhutan

Jejekangphu Kang. © Andrew Purdam/flickr

The New “Great Game” on the Silk Road

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Site of the First Great Game. © Fred Lundahl

The 19th century “Great Game”,  the subject of Kipling’s classic book “Kim,”  referred to the geopolitical jousting between Czarist Russia,  busy expanding into Central Asia, and Great Britain, long established on the Indian subcontinent.

Fred and Pamiri Friends.

Fred and Pamiri Friends.

The two great powers almost came to blows along their common border in the high Pamir Mountains.   They finally agreed to give a buffer zone to Afghanistan to lessen the chance of inadvertent war between themselves.   That buffer, the Wahkon Corridor, is a finger of Afghanistan that now separates Pakistan from Tajikistan and points into China.    During that first “Great Game”,  China was too weak to play any part.  Not any more.

The recent news that the first Chinese freight train has arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, through new rail lines built in Central Asia, is the latest indication of a new “Great Game” —  this time between China and everybody else… and, friends, China has already won.  China’s “One Belt, one Road” or “New Silk Road” program has signed up 34 countries on its periphery.   In 2015 alone, it resulted in $92 billion in signed contracts.

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Pamiri Mom Carrying Smart Phone. © Fred Lundahl

One of the big surprises of Fred’s trip to Tajikistan recently was the now ubiquitous presence of all things Chinese.    Traveling through remote mountainous areas, Fred found that he had better cell phone coverage there than back home on Whidbey Island.  That was thanks to Chinese-built solar and wind-powered cell towers dotting the mountain peaks.

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Pamiris in Rags 20 Years Ago. © Sharon Lundahl

Villagers in even the most remote villages, who had been dressed in rags when Fred and Sharon passed through the area 20 years ago, now wore new Chinese-made clothes and carried cell phones.  Chinese consumer goods fill the most remote village markets.

Even before the now-complete final stretch of rail line through Central Asia, evidence of Chinese ascendancy in the economic life of Central Asia was everywhere.  Fred found hotels filled with Chinese businessmen and mountain highways clogged with hundreds of huge Chinese double 18 wheeler trucks.  Chinese-built infrastructure projects such as toll roads, airports, power plants, bridges, tunnels and railroads are everywhere.

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Chinese Road Builders. © Fred Lundahl

All that China asks for all this assistance is unfettered access to all a country’s mineral wealth and a few border-line adjustments here and there.  Locals note that for more than a century, Russia took all their mineral wealth and gave little back in return.  In comparison, China is viewed by the locals as a welcome partner.

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Empty Chinese Sneakers Container. © Fred Lundahl

Sure, the huge trucks take a toll on poorly made Soviet-era highways, but the Chinese are busy repairing and improving the roads.  All this building is being overseen by Chinese foremen, but there are plenty of new low-level jobs for local workers.

Several years ago in this area, a road accident resulted in a Chinese truck falling off a highway into the rocky and raging Panj river.  The truck broke open and spilled out its contents of hundreds of pairs of Chinese-made sneakers.  Little by little, these sneakers floated downstream and washed up on riverbanks where poor villagers were amazed to find them.

During his recent trip through the mountains, Fred saw a number of individuals in traditional dress wearing brightly colored sneakers they had fortuitously picked up during “The Miracle of the Chinese Sneakers.”

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Chinese Truck on Pamir Highway. © Fred Lundahl

The neatest place you have never heard of: Tajikistan

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The Pamir Mountains. © Fred Lundahl

Why go to Tajikistan?

In the 1990’s Fred served at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, while Sharon served at the Embassy in Kyrgyzstan.

A Mine Field from the Tajik Civil War. © Fred Lundahl

A Mine Field from the Tajik Civil War. © Jake Smith

Sharon’s country seemed like a happy Dr. Seuss country, while Fred’s was embroiled in a nasty civil war.   This conflict had transformed the USSR’s best mountain adventure destination into a no-go zone with landlines littering once-pristine trekking routes in the high Pamir mountains…home to numerous peaks over 6 and 7,000 meters.

Tajikistan on the Left--Afghanistan on the Right. Fred Lundahl

Tajikistan on the Left–Afghanistan on the Right. Fred Lundahl

After peace came in 1997, the two of us often traveled in the Tajik hinterlands.   We took one memorable journey along Tajikistan’s border with the then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and were escorted by armed security vehicles from the Tajik government.  Among the many Central Asian pictures in our shop are some heart-rending photos of  children dressed in rags living in this Wahkon corridor.

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Sharon and Tajik Friends in 2000. © Fred Lundahl

We made many good friends in those years.  We had stayed in touch, but never had a chance to visit again.  When a Seattle mountaineer friend expressed interest in investigating climbing opportunities in Tajikistan, Fred did not need much more urging to plan a trip back to see what changes 15 years had brought.

Fred's Reunion with Same Friend 15 Years Later. © Fred Lundahl

Fred’s Reunion with Same Friend 15 Years Later. © Fred Lundahl

What Fred found in his three-week trip was the most amazing transformation of any country where we had formerly been posted as diplomats.  If Mongolia was the new adventure-travel destination a decade ago, Tajikistan is this decade’s new tourism discovery.  As a London newspaper wrote this spring, “the most amazing trekking destination you have never heard of…”

Even expecting tourists, Fred was surprised at the large numbers of tourists everywhere, especially solo travelers, bicycling or motorcycling or simply hiking

Bicycle Tourist in the Middle of Nowhere. © Fred Lundahl

Bicycle Tourist in the Middle of Nowhere. © Fred Lundahl

throughout the country.  Although most were Europeans, Fred even met Israelis–a sure sign that it was a safe travel destination, even though it shares a long border with increasingly unstable Afghanistan.

Perhaps most interesting was the presence of numerous American college students.  The U.S. needs a new generation of diplomats and scholars who speak Persian or Farsi–the language of Iran.

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American Language Student with Hosts. © Fred Lundahl

The best way to learn a language is by total immersion living in the language, and there are three countries where Farsi is spoken.  We wouldn’t want a son or daughter to go to immersion training in Iran right now.  We also wouldn’t want to send a child to study in Afghanistan.  The third Persian-speaking country is Tajikistan.  Tajik is still written in Russian script there, rather than Arabic, but hundreds of American college students are now attending language immersion programs in Tajikistan.

What a change!

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The Wakan Corridor from an Ancient Fortress. © Fred Lundahl

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Patagonian Cowboys and their Rodeos

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Traditional Dance with Costumes. © Fred Lundahl