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

Novia Scotia and the Cabot Trail

Lunenberg, Canada

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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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,


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.


Mural in Nova Scotia. © Sharon Lundahl

Quebec and Canada’s Maritime Provinces


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.)

Quebec, Canada

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.


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


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 !



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Chess in the Budapest Baths. © Alex

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:


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.


Sculpture Park in Budapest. © Sharon Lundahl

Attention All Pilots: Middle European Aviation Museums


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


Polish Aviation Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

Krakow, a Showcase of Culture


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


Krakow at Night. © Arek Olek/flickr