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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Gas Station with No Road. © Fred Lundahl

Why Travel to Mongolia?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Horseman with Mongolian Lasso.© Fred Lundahl

Novia Scotia and the Cabot Trail

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Lunenberg in Novia Scotia. © Sharon Lundahl

Mid-May was a great time to visit Novia Scotia.  We were there one week before a 24-hour relay race with 70 teams of 17 runners each…and the commencement of the tourist season.

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Andre and Leslie–Old Friends and Our Hosts in Quebec City. © Sharon Lundahl

We were also a couple of weeks before the onslaught of black flies, which takes place in June before the heat of the summer.  (While visiting Fred’s parents nearby in the state of Maine, we learned that the bites of black flies are something you want to avoid.)

Although we still saw banks of leftover snow from a hard winter, the weather was nice every day of our trip, and the tulips were blooming.

Snow in May on the Cabot Trail.  © Sharon Lundahl

Snow in May on the Cabot Trail. © Sharon Lundahl

The Cabot trail is a scenic roadway built in 1932 and named after the explorer John Cabot.  The northern section passes through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and follow the rugged coastline, with spectacular views of the ocean.

It is scattered with small villages, such as Pleasant Bay; Belle Cote; and St. Ann, famous for its Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts.  There were plenty of ethnic enclaves throughout the area.  Cape Breton, for example, has the “Ceilidh Trail”–the home of Celtic fiddle music.

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Seafood in Nova Scotia. © Sharon Lundahl

We tried to visit Cheticamp, an Acadian fishing village famous for its hooked rugs and live fiddle music, but mostly things were just getting ready to open for the season.  We did see that even the sign in front of the Post Office in Inverness says “Canada Post” in Welsh.

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Whale Watching Boats on the Cabot Trail. © Sharon Lundahl

Whales are sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from May until late November.  We didn’t see any, and the whale boats were not yet open for business.  It was a shame, because they advertise a high success rate viewing a high number of minke whales, pilot whales, and even humpback whales near the coastline.

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Our B&B in Lunenburg. © Sharon Lundahl

The difference in two versions of the same historical event was noticeable in Halifax, where we saw a large official historical display beside an old cemetery.  It read–“Why aren’t we Americans?  We are not Americans, thanks to the bravery and fortitude of the soldiers and sailors, all casualties of the American war of aggression of 1812, buried in this old burying ground.  These men fought and died successfully resisting the United States’ attempted invasion and annexation of our country.”  Eh?

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Beautiful Lunenburg. © Sharon Lundahl.

Probably the most beautiful town on our trip was Lunenburg.  Its old town has been designated an UNESCO Heritage Site–one of only two cities in North America given that honor.  The other is Quebec City.

The town of Lunenburg has a history of being an important seaport and shipbuilding center.  It has its own distinct dialect,

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Church in Lunenburg. © Sharon Lundahl

known as Lunenburg English, which is influenced both by New England English and by German.  Now it is full of galleries, restaurants and a renowned fisheries museum.

While we love Langley on Whidbey Island, and usually consider it the most beautiful place in which to live, the Maritime Provinces provide stiff competition…at least in the warm seasons.

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Mural in Nova Scotia. © Sharon Lundahl

Quebec and Canada’s Maritime Provinces

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Along the coast of Novia Scotia. © Sharon Lundahl

We traveled recently to Quebec City to visit friends who teach there at the University of Laval.  We also planned a road-trip with them to parts of Atlantic Canada, the ocean-bound northeastern corner of North America, which is comprised of four provinces with their own personalities.

Fred with Friends and Statues in Saint John. © Sharon Lundahl

Fred with Friends and Statues in Saint John. © Sharon Lundahl

Our trip explored two of those provinces–New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  New Brunswick is mostly forested with beautiful beaches and the three cities of Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton.

Nova Scotia has the big seaport of Halifax; the postcard-perfect seaside town of Lunenberg (according to our B&B owner, quickly becoming a wedding destination); and the hiking paradise of the wilds of Cape Breton Island (which will be addressed in our next blog.)

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Chateau Frontenanc in Quebec City. © Sharon Lundahl

We loved old town Quebec with its classic buildings and monuments which feel somewhat European.  It has many parks like the wonderfully named “Plains of Abraham” where both English General Wolfe and French General Montcalm were killed in the British takeover of the city.

Still, centuries later it is clear who really won:  We remember years ago when the Quebec license plates said, “La Belle Province.”  Somewhere along the way the inscription changed to a line of poetry, “Je me souviens,” (I remember)…but they really mean, “Don’t you ever forget we’re francophone!”

Having spent a year of her youth studying in Grenoble, in France, Sharon was really happy to try to speak French.  With the combination of the Quebecois accent, the modern slang, and the years since her study, it was not easy.

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Traditional Houses in Vieux Quebec. © rogingwire/flickr

Taking off from Quebec, we found a convenient stop in Fredericton in the Saint John River valley.  It is one of the country’s oldest settlements, dating since the late 1600’s.  With its small size of 50,000 people, Fredericton was easy to manage on foot, and we explored the downtown area along its pretty river.

Various European peace treaties in the area resulted in the swapping back and forth of huge tracts of Canadian territory and resulted in, among other tragedies, the infamous deportation of the French “Acadians” in the mid-1700’s.  You might know

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A Typical B&B Room on our Trip. © Sharon Lundahl

Longfellow’s famous poem about separated Acadian lovers, “Evangeline”.  Interestingly, many Acadians managed to sneak back into the area over the following years.  Especially in New Brunswick, we saw just about as many Acadian flags (French tricolor with a gold star) as we did Canada’s maple leaf.

The Acadian coast might be described as a French-flavored seaside of ports, beaches, sand dunes and rocky coastlines.

Indoor Market in Saint John. © Sharon Lundahl

Indoor Market in Saint John. © Sharon Lundahl

Saint John is the province’s largest city and major port at the midpoint, and to either side the coastline is sparsely inhabited and mostly wild.

In Saint John we were mistaken for the first of the season’s cruise ship visitors because of Sharon’s large camera.  From Saint John, we took the ferry to Digby, ready for our adventures in Nova Scotia, subject of our next blog.

Washing in a Small Village. © Sharon Lundahl

Washing in a Small Village. © Sharon Lundahl

 

 

Hungary and American Football !

 

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Parliament in Budapest. © Sharon Lundahl

Our time in Hungary was a study of contrasts.  It was in some ways more old-fashioned than the other Middle-European countries, and in some ways more modern.

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Pretty Hungarian Girl in Skanzen. © Sharon Lundahl

First, we must admit we could not learn a word of Hungarian…a distinctive language from the Finno-Iuguiric family of languages like Tibetan.  That didn’t matter much because most people in the tourist areas spoke some English.

We were wandering through a rug store near our hotel in Budapest when the proprietor, hearing we were from Seattle, said in perfect English, “Sorry your Seahawks lost to the Dallas Cowboys yesterday.”  It turns out that he is a devoted fan of American football and watches an NFL game every Sunday on their Eurosports TV Channel.  He explained that he much  preferred American football to soccer because the former is all about strategy while the latter is mostly about luck.

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Hungarian Bakery Sign (strangest language in Europe). © Sharon Lundahl

American football is making amazing inroads in Europe.  Partly through exhibition games played there and clever marketing, you are now more likely to see a young man wearing an NFL logo ball cap than an NBA logo hat.

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Folk Village Skanzen in Northern Hungary. © Sharon Lundahl

Hungary also was the site of Fred’s usual “odd musical instrument” purchase of this trip.  For 50 years, he has wanted to buy a Hurdy Gurdy (“tekeru” in Hungarian), a kind of crank fiddle invented in France in the 16th century.

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Train Conductor in Skanzen. © Sharon Lundahl

We visited a folk village, “Skanzen”, north of Budapest, and saw an old instrument in the museum there; no one, however, knew where one could be found.

After canvasing music shops in every city on this trip, Fred finally found a hurdy gurdy maker in central Hungary with the help of the last music shop he visited in Budapest.  The maker brought his latest piece to the shop and sold it to us, along with a lesson on how to play the instrument.

Budapest has a different flavor than the other cities, just as Hungary has a different history than the other countries in Middle Europe we had visited.

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City Bazaar in Budapest. © Sharon Lundahl

Settled by Huns from Central Asia and later occupied by the Turks much longer than its neighbors, Hungary  lost much of its territory after World War One.  Occupied by the Nazi regime, Budapest also lost its Jewish population and had both its villains–Adolph Eichmann–and its heroes–Raoul Wallenberg–although its historical museums are strangely quiet about accepting any responsibility for what happened, in contrast to the other countries’ museums we saw.

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Chess in the Budapest Baths. © Alex Promos.flickr

The sights of tourist interest are more spread out within this large capital, so it is not such a “walking city” as is Prague or Krakow.  Public transportation is good, though, and quite easy to learn how to use.

There are plenty of churches, museums, an opera house, Parliament, and other beautiful buildings to visit in Budapest.  We especially liked the City Market Hall, a spectacular building with more than 180 stalls with a huge range of foods and goods under a tall roof of colored Zsolnay tiles.

For some beautiful aerial views of Budapest, click on this:

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Violinist Gloria Ferry-Brennan Playing our Hurdy-Gurdy in our shop. © Fred Lundahl

Hungary is noticeably slower in integration into modern Europe than its neighbors.  Its government leaders are more repressive than the others, and pro-Putin as well.

Still, the Hungarian people are as determined as any to join Europe and, when the government attempted to levy a tax on internet use in a clumsy attempt to stifle dissent, tens of thousands of Hungarians marched in downtown Budapest to protest, holding lighted smart phones aloft rather than candles.  The government backed down.

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Sculpture Park in Budapest. © Sharon Lundahl

Attention All Pilots: Middle European Aviation Museums

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Polish Museum of Flight. © Sharon Lundahl

As an enthusiastic pilot, Fred seeks out aviation museums wherever he goes, and Middle Europe was no exception.  We visited the Czech and Polish museums of flight–both located on disused airports outside of major cities, and both not on your usual tourist routes.

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Graphic Comic History of Aviation. © Sharon Lundahl

These countries, which played prominent roles in early aviation, continue to have robust light aircraft industries building their own airframes, but using American-built engines.

Fred had a chance to see the ZLIN aircraft that he flew in 1972 on his previous trip to Czechoslovakia…now on display in the “early modern aviation” section of the Czech museum.

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Early Russian WWI Plane. © Sharon Lundahl

The museums were as well set up as ours, with displays in both local languages and English.  Even the layout of the museums was familiar–with big hangars housing early aviation and World War I displays.  Then followed hangars with World War II exhibits, and finally huge outdoor displays of Cold War-era planes.

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Beer Barrel Fighter. © Sharon Lundahl

Here was the first noticeable difference–acres of MIGs and Soviet aircraft rather than more familiar F-86’s and F-100’s of American museums.  In the late 20th century exhibit halls, there was another subtle difference.  Scattered around the exhibits of Soviet era sport planes and gliders were a few small home-built handmade airplanes.

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WWI Pilots Drinking Beer. © Fred Lundahl

These were basement-built little single seaters made by people trying to escape to the west.  Sadly, if these little planes were on display here, it meant that their builders had not succeeded.  If they had, you would have seen the plans in Austrian or other western european air museums.

Perhaps the most interesting case was a “gyro-copter” built from plans in a smuggled Popular Science magazine.  The builder took off in bad weather (to avoid detection) to fly to Austria… only to become lost in thick fog.  The fog finally cleared enough for him to spot the border fence, and he managed to fly over it and land…back in Czech territory. He had actually first flown into Austria, but then got turned around in the fog.

Gyrocopter. © Fred Lundahl

Gyrocopter. © Fred Lundahl

The Czech pilot spent two years in prison for the attempt, but the museum display showed a photograph of the smiling (now elderly) builder donating his little aircraft (see photo) to the Czech national air museum in 2000.

An example of the wonderful turnabout from communist rule to EU and NATO membership was a huge Vietnam-era American F-105 sitting in a prominent position in the courtyard of the Polish museum.  Painted on the side of the aircraft were the huge words, “The Pollack!”, and it had the Polish-American pilot’s name painted beside the cockpit.

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Outside Czech Aviation Museum. © Fred Lundahl

The display showed a photograph of the proud American second generation Polish immigrant donating his aircraft to his father’s country, with the U.S. Secretary of Defense shaking hands with his Polish counterpart, broad smiles all around.  A picture that is worth a thousand words!

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Polish Aviation Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

Krakow, a Showcase of Culture

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Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow. © jesuscom/flickr

Krakow in southern Poland was a fun place to visit.  It is often described as one of the most beautiful cities of Europe.

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Busker in Krakow. © Sharon Lundahl

Like Prague, it is a walkable city. Most of the city’s historic area has been turned into a pedestrian zone with rickshaws, buggies and segways. It is a tourist magnet complete with its own Hard Rock Cafe, and the city’s squares teem with buskers and mimes.

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Florianska Street. © jesuscm/flickr

Krakow is a relatively small city, with about 750 thousand inhabitants, and was spared the WWII destruction of other Polish cities such as Warsaw.  Like other Middle European cities, the place is clean as a whistle.  The horse-drawn carriages even have a co-driver whose job it is to wield a butterfly-net-type sack on a stick as a pooper scooper…before the horse poop even hits the ground.

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Young Man in Krakow. © Sharon Lundahl

The Old Town district of Krakow is said to have about 6,000 historic sites and more that 2 million works of art.  Its historic architecture includes baroque, renaissance and gothic buildings.

You can find treasures and spend any amount of time exploring this 13th century merchants’ town, looking at wonderful old houses, theaters, churches and palaces lining cobblestone streets.

The magnificent interiors are famous for their color, stained glass, architectural details, paintings, sculptures and furnishings.   Don’t miss the ancient synagogues, 14th century fortifications, Jagiellonian University and the Gothic cathedral where they buried the kings of Poland.

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More Krakow Kids. © Sharon Lundahl

Even here, reminders of WWII’s devastation are never far away.  On a square near the wonderful medieval Krakow Castle is a simple wooden cross memorial to the Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish officers in 1939 in the Katyn Woods.  And the old Jewish quarter has no Jews, though there are plenty of Klezmer music concerts and Yiddish museums to remind of how robust and vibrant that community once was.

Krakow is also the jumping-off point for tours to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps.  Although not a “fun tour”…such a trip is really, really a necessary (we think obligatory) visit for everyone to witness the pure monumental evil that was Nazi fascism.

Gothic Altarpiece of Vert Stross. © Nico Trinkhaus/Flickr

Gothic Altarpiece of Vert Stross. © Nico Trinkhaus/Flickr

The numbers, such as six million murdered, are incomprehensible to handle.  Seeing acres and acres of dormitories, with huge rooms filled with children’s shoes…and others with human hair which was used to stuff cushions and mattresses…brings the numbers into some human perspective.

Since 1979 more than 25 million people have visited this former concentration camp.  From 1955 to 1990 the museum was directed by one of its founders and former inmates, Kazimierz Smolen.

We watched several groups of somber Israeli high school students singing and holding ceremonies next to the huge gas ovens and couldn’t help but weep.

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Krakow at Night. © Arek Olek/flickr

 

A New City of Warsaw

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Golden Terraces Commercial and Entertainment Complex. © Jesuscm/Flickr

Warsaw was totally unexpected.  We found a modern city with skyscrapers–which was rebuilt after the total devastation of the central city by the Nazis in 1944.

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Pretty Girls in Warsaw. © Sharon Lundahl

The “Museum of the Uprising,” often called Poland’s best museum, should be seen by everyone.  It tells the story of 300,000 civilian Polish resistance fighters in occupied Poland who rose against the Nazis in August of 1944.  The spirit of the resistance fighters at first caught the Nazis off guard.  Then the Germans regrouped, and Warsaw experienced Nazi cruelty exceeding that they had suffered under previous centuries of Prussian and Russian domination.

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Photo of Warsaw from the Uprising Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

In the end about 800,000 Warsaw residents died–nearly two out of three of the inhabitants of their city.  Anything deemed of cultural importance was dynamited, and whole districts were set on fire.

Before WWII, 80 percent of Europe’s Jews lived in Poland.   In Warsaw there were 380,000 Jews in a total population of 1.2 Million.    Approximately 20,000 Jews live in Poland today: out of a total population of close to 40 million, the Jews represent at most .06%.

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Antique Shop in Warsaw. © Sharon Lundahl

Although the Jews in the ghettos and the concentration camps suffered the worst, of course, we should not forget that ordinary Poles were starved, killed and executed.

The uprising was an expression of hope for freedom and that others (the West) were coming to liberate them.  Two months after it started, the uprising was over, and an angry Hitler started to demolish all of Warsaw street by street to punish the resistance.  Virtually nothing remained.

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Chef from a Local Restaurant. © Sharon Lundahl

An expedition of American flying fortresses arrived too late and had little influence.  In spite of a capitulation agreement for humane treatment, most of the rebels were sent to POW camps in Germany.

After the uprising’s failure and the people’s massacre, the Soviets moved in as early as May 1944.   They dropped leaflets on Warsaw calling on the population and promising assistance.  By the end, little help was received.

The story was not over.  In the post-war Poland run by the Communists, Warsaw insurgents were tracked down, accused of collaboration and imprisoned or executed.

Fast forward to the future and the indomitable spirit of the Poles.  In the 1980’s Lech Walesa and his Solidarity Movement helped start the fall of Communism.

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Skyscraper and Stalin’s Building. © Jesuscm/Flickr

In spite of the fact that more than 90 percent of Warsaw was leveled, we were amazed by their dedication in rebuilding their beloved city.  Using photographs and paintings as blueprints, the Old Town was painstakingly reconstructed. It was only finished in 1962, and has now been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.   The Royal Castle, which marks the edge of the Old Town was reconstructed from a pile of rubble at great cost between 1971 and 1974.

Even though cities like Krakow are more popular with tourists, it is great fun to hang out at cafes and watch buskers on Market square.  There are many sights in the city worth seeing: the Royal Castle, King Sigismund’s Column, the Barbican, Wilanow Palace and many places connected with the Polish-born composer Fryderyk Chopin.

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Busker in Market Square. © Sharon Lundahl

A defining landmark of Warsaw is the towering Palace of Culture and Science; commissioned by Stalin as a gift from the Soviet people, it was built with about 40 million bricks and was finished in 1955.

In a recent magazine article comparing European countries, we read that a remarkably high 74 percent of all Poles report that they are “quite happy”.

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Photograph of Warsaw Burning in 1944. © Sharon Lundahl

The Fairy Tale City of Prague

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Prague Panorama. © Pavel Moravec/Flickr.

At first glance Prague might seem like just any modern city, but any turn in the road reveals another fairy tale castle.  The city’s history shows in its medieval churches and palaces…now converted into art museums for Gothic and Baroque masterpieces.

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Art Nouveau–Alfons Mucha. © abaco77/Flickr

Fred visited Prague in 1973 when the Czechs were still reeling from the Soviets’ crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968-69. Then the city was grimy and depressed.  Soviet troops were everywhere with their big hats,  and secret police pushed through the night clubs demanding “documents” from patrons.

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Walking in Prague. © Sharon Lundahl

Still, the music Fred heard everywhere was all American.  Czechs chose the most anti-Soviet music they could find to play–country western and bluegrass!  A Czech told Fred that “the Soviets may occupy us, but they will never occupy our spirit.”

That spirit served them well.  Fast forward to our visit 40 years later, and the sparkling-clean city of Prague is a tourist magnet.  Prague reminded Sharon of the Paris of her first visit there about 50 years ago.   Food and lodging are not expensive, and you can linger in a sidewalk cafe for an hour without being bothered.  The feeling on the streets is happy, and the city is walkable.

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Pretty Girl in Prague. © Jakub/Flickr

We loved wandering across the 15th century Charles Bridge, with its kiosks to shop in for our store and street musicians and other busker performers offering entertainment.  Across the bridge from the Old Town, where we stayed, was the beautiful Prague Castle.

Although the streets are full of tourists, Americans are few.  It is fun to be on foot all day,  looking through the shops and quaint house of the Golden Lane,  the Mozart villa, and an Art Deco cafe where dissidents met in the 1980’s.

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Toy Museum in Prague. © Sharon Lundahl

Prague houses lots of museums, among them the Franz Kafka Museum, the Museum of Communism and the Mucha Museum of Art Nouveau works.

Today the Czechs like to be called part of Middle Europe, rather that Eastern Europe.  Perhaps this is an effort to disassociate themselves from their past of being under Soviet occupation.  Also, although most of the older Czechs speak Russian, they often refuse and speak just their few words of English.

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Buskers in Prague. © Sharon Lundahl

The Czechs are very proud, and rightfully so, that they split with the Slovak brethren peacefully.  This was the only amicable split after the fall of communism and the two countries are still good friends.  Many shops and businesses in Prague are still owned by Slovaks.

Prague was an important European city in the 19th century and is again in the 21st century!  We loved our visit there.

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Franz Kafka Museum in Prague. © Sharon Lundahl

Middle Europe (New Name for Old Place)

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Czechs Stating Their Opinion in Prague. © Sharon Lundahl

Our memories of working abroad defined certain places as Eastern Europe–using the old “Cold War” dividing line of Russian influence.

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Wandering streets in the Prague old city. © Sharon Lundahl

Traveling in October of this year in the countries of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, we learned that most citizens prefer to be identified as living in Middle Europe.  They are tired of being affiliated with a term that they feel is outdated and which identifies them as being repressed under authoritarian regimes.

We also found that people in those countries didn’t want to speak Russian with us, as it was a reminder of the same period.  Knowing Russian was still sometimes helpful, as Slavic languages share many similarities.

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Pretty girls in Warsaw. © Sharon Lundahl

We could often read signs or understand words in Czech or Polish.  It was difficult to get along in Budapest, however, as Hungarian belongs to the Finno-Ugric group of languages and looks and sounds really weird.

We usually travel to third-world or at least more far-flung countries, where we can purchase exotic handicrafts to sell in our store.  We knew that Middle European countries also had interesting handicrafts, and we were attracted by the possibility of train travel between the different cities on our itinerary.  Also, it was sort of Europe, without being so expensive.

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Budapest Train Station. © Shawn Harquail/Flickr

Traveling by train was a mixed blessing, however.  While it is relatively cheap, and the rail cars are clean…and some even have power plugs for our smart phones…there are problems.  First, we had to go to the main train stations to buy our tickets; there, no one spoke good English, and once we had to wait more than an hour while the computers were down.  Second, it was confusing to find out what track you should be on, and there were often changes of trains required before your destination.  Finally, the trips were always longer than advertised.

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My favorite Polish Pottery for Sale. © Sharon Lundahl

Even though the train cars were modern, we suffered from the poor state of the infrastructure and the fact that the tracks seem always to be under repair.  One time we stopped 45 minutes without anyone telling us why.  The final straw was when the train from Warsaw to Budapest took 11 1/2 hours, and there was no notification about when to depart the train.

We just flew the final leg of our journey, from Budapest back to Prague.  It was convenient and easy.

One big surprise was that in the EU no one asked to see our passports, until the time we took our flight back to the U.S.   When a train attendant came through, he was only interested in looking at our tickets.

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Shopping at a local market in Krakow. © Sharon Lundahl

Because of the wide geographical spread between the countries, there were noticeable differences in personalities.  It is said, for example, that Czechs are generally non-confrontational, while Poles might be more straightforward with their opinions.  It’s taboo in Poland to shake hands at the doorway, but OK for the other countries.  The Hungarians seemed more reserved in their manners than people in Prague.

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Real Polish T-Shirt. © Sharon Lundahl

All of the cities we visited, coming off a terrible 20th century, have blossomed into huge tourist magnets in the 21st.  Even in October, we shared the streets and shops with many tourists, although apparently few Americans.

Fred likes to buy T-shirts in the local language, but that took some effort.  The city centers were full of shirts saying “I (heart) Poland” or “Hard Rock Cafe Budapest”…all in English.  We finally found our way to real local shopping areas and markets.  We would know we were successful when we saw T-shirts for sale with slogans in Czech, Polish or Hungarian!

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View from Riverboat in Budapest. © Sharon Lundahl