FLORIDA is known for many attractions: orange groves, Mickey Mouse, the entire posse of Disney princesses, the slam-dunking Orlando Magic basketball team. But for something different, consider a trip to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, an operational facility run by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or Nasa.
That’s where space history was made in 1969 when Apollo 11 lifted off and landed the first men on the moon. From where my wife and I stayed, just north of Orlando, it was a long drive there. For a breezy ride, we turned the music up and rolled the windows down to enjoy the luscious scenery and feel the sun’s warm kiss on our faces. Since the Sunshine State’s beauty is on display year-round, many beachcombers come here during summer, while crowds of northerners escape winter to visit during Christmas and New Year.
As we glanced at the silver light shimmering off the myriad lakes, we spotted a lazy Anhinga bird drying its wings.
Between long stretches of scenery, my wife looked up Nasa trivia while I drove. Established in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, Nasa’s history is rooted in Cold War fear, yet it has transcended over time. From CAT scanners to water filters, Nasa’s scientific enterprise has benefited the world. And who is not inspired by Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, which remapped the boundaries of the possible?
As we neared Kennedy Space Center, the highway was replaced by a wide road, which arrowed across a calm river. There were no cars around, only wheeling seagulls and a speck of a distant launch pad that reminded me of space, the final frontier.
“Can you imagine space travel?” I asked as the speedometer quivered over 120, then 130kmh. The last stretch of road that led to Kennedy Space Center was so straight, it begged me to rocket forward. The wind through the window crack fluttered and I imagined cruising past the sound barrier, faster and faster.
“Slow down!” my wife shouted above the roar of the wind.
Simulated space travel
Space travel is not for the fearful. Thankfully, one can have a safe, vicarious experience at the Space Center. Once inside, the silhouette of decommissioned rockets on display inside a garden impresses the recurring theme of the visit on visitors: the grandeur of an infinite universe and mankind’s attempt to explore it.
To kick off our tour, we took a free bus ride that shuttled us around the sprawling grounds. During the ride, the guide pointed out the gigantic factory that assembles the shuttles, titanic tractors to haul multi-tonne equipment and towering edifices that support the rockets pre-launch. Geeks can linger over the statistics on signboards and interactive displays at each stop — the place is a veritable nerd heaven — and people hop on and off the bus at will.
Our favourite was a moment of time travel: We sat in a launch control station and experienced a simulation of a historic shuttle launch, accurate down to the quivering window shutters, the taut voice of the on-site controllers, and the boom of lift-off. After that, we wandered about the Apollo/Saturn V display inside a cavernous warehouse, which showcased a dismantled booster rocket and patches of past Apollo missions — many successful, a few tragic.
Finally, inside an Imax theatre, Leonardo DiCaprio narrated us through the repair of the Hubble telescope by astronauts. After that, we drifted inside stunning 3-D views of deep space where we saw baby planets, swaddled in blankets of cosmic dust.
As we drove back, the moon was a slight sliver in the darkening sky, 400,000km away. I would never travel there in my lifetime, but to indulge in your own space fantasy, Cape Canaveral is a not-so-distant alternative.
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WHILE it may not be home to the Forbidden City or the Oriental Pearl Tower, China’s south-west province of Yunnan is where one can get a glimpse of one of the most unique and culturally rich sides of the country.
The location of Yunnan, which means “the place of the colourful clouds in the south” in Chinese, contributes to its rich culture and exquisite scenery. Bordering Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, the province has served as China’s main bridge to South-east Asia and home to a large number of ethnic minorities in China.
Among many counties in Yunnan, Yuanmou is best known for tulin, which literally means “earth forest” composed of earth columns or pillars that rise up like a giant forest. The unique and mysterious landscape, formed by soil erosion one to two million years ago, somewhat resembles that of Turkey’s Cappadocia.
From a distance, the “forest” looks like a giant, abandoned castle, covered with countless years of dust. As reflected in its natural landscape, the county indeed boasts a long history. It is where the fossilised remains of the “Yuanmou Man”, a member of the Homo genus which lived 1.7 million years ago, was found in 1965.
Yuanmou’s tulin certainly offers one of the most unforgettable experiences while staying in Yunnan, even if it means having to walk under the scorching summer sun. In June, the temperature in Yuanmou can be as high as over 40 deg C.
But even without tulin, Yuanmou boasts beautiful rural scenery with red soil, dramatic clouds and endless agricultural farms and fields. The county is particularly known for its sun-dried cherry tomatoes, which taste almost like sweeter versions of raisins.
On the cultural side of Yunnan, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture is recommended. Located in the north-central part of Yunnan province, the prefecture is the residential area of the Yi people – the largest ethnic minority group in the region.
They are known for their practice of a form of animism with elements of Buddhism and Taoism, as well as powerful traditional practices such as rituals for cursing enemies, exorcism and healing.
Visitors are welcomed by the Yis in their colourful, exquisite costumes, who often dance and sing their traditional tunes in public.
On top of cultural performances by the Yis, visitors should not miss out on dining out in Chuxiong. Most restaurants run by the Yi people treat their guests with wine according to their traditional eating customs.
The Yis usually pour the wine in a big bowl first, while everyone is seated in a circle. The oldest of the group will take the first sip, and pass the bowl to the next person after wiping its edge. They repeat the process until the bowl becomes empty.
While dining out, visitors can also experience the Yis’ tradition named “tiaocai”. After all the dishes are ready, performers visit each and every table in a restaurant and sing loudly for guests, using drums and other traditional instruments while jumping and dancing. In some restaurants, the Yis reportedly do the “tiaocai” while carrying food plates on the head.
“We encourage the Yi people to carry on and celebrate their traditions,” said an officer from the Information Office of Yunnan Authority. “We appreciate their existence in Yunnan.”
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
TO BE honest, when I was told I was going to Kyrgyzstan for a work trip in late July, I drew a blank – I had never heard of the country before.
But having spent a week there, I can say with some confidence that it is worth visiting for its people, mountainous scenery, diverse cultures and rich history. The landlocked country is situated in the middle of Central Asia, bordered by Kazakhstan (to the north), Uzbekistan (west), Tajikistan (south-west) and China (east).
Its stunning natural beauty – more than 80 per cent of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, and the snow-covered Tian Shan mountains will brighten up even the greyest cityscapes – has earned it the nickname “the Switzerland of Central Asia”.
Kyrgyzstan offers travellers some of the best trekking, biking, mountaineering and horse-riding experiences in the world.
Kyrgyzstan, also known as the Kyrgyz Republic, has a continental climate and covers an area of slightly under 200,000 sq km.
Its population of about six million people are mostly Kyrgyz and Muslim. And they converse mainly in Kyrgyz and Russian (due to its Soviet Union legacy).
The capital, Bishkek, has a population of about one million and the country is further divided into six administrative sections known as oblasties.
INTO THE UNKNOWN
In Kyrgyzstan, a journey from one place to another takes longer due to its hilly terrain and lack of highways. However, Bishkek is a modern city with wide streets and all the usual urban amenities.
Things appear quite slow-paced but Kyrgyzstan is by no means an underdeveloped country. On the roads, you can see European and Japanese cars – and, would you believe it, Proton Wiras. The police force uses Malaysia’s Proton, among other makes, as their patrol cars.
Zebra crossings abound not just in the city but throughout the country. The best thing is that drivers are courteous and will stop to allow pedestrians to cross.
Some popular landmarks in the city are the Victory Monument and Ala-Too Square. The Victory Monument was built to commemorate the victory during World War II as well as the country’s fallen soldiers. What is striking are the three curved arcs – representing a traditional round and portable Kyrgyz tent – with the figure of a woman awaiting the return of her husband and sons from the war, near an ever-burning flame; very poignant. Many a wedding party would make a stop there to pay their respects.
Ala-Too Square is where the locals hang out and conduct many activities and festivals. Different bicycles are available for rent too, from morning till late at night.
There are no seas to head towards to. The next best thing is Issyk-Kul Lake, which is the 10th largest lake and the second biggest saline lake in the world. The body of water, with a 182km span, is situated at the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. The name Issyk-Kul means “hot lake”, but do not be fooled because the water can be icy cold even in the summer.
The locals believe that the lake’s water has healing properties and, during summer, it is a major tourist spot. Ferry services are available to bring visitors to the middle of the lake for a swim. Indeed, the water isvery clear, clean and inviting.
Another popular destination the Kyrgyz and Russian tourists throng is the Keremet Suu hot spring in Chong-Oruktu village near Issyk-Kul.
Other locales to consider visiting include the Burana Tower in Tokmok. A historical tower, it was built in the 10th century on the site of the former Karakhanid city of Balasagyn.
During my stay, I also realised other reasons why Kyrgyzstan finds favour with some tourists.
I bumped into a couple of 23-year-old students from New Zealand who said they chose to holiday in Kyrgyzstan because it is not a usual vacation spot. Also, it is not very commercialised, and food and accommodation are cheap.
“I hardly see Western or European tourists here. The Kyrgyz are so friendly, warm and beautiful. It’s a very peaceful and stunning country,” said one of them.
Food in Kyrgyzstan is quite an incredible experience. Finding halal food is not a problem too.
The country’s staple is bread, which is usually eaten with vegetables, dairy products and red meats. And to the locals, drinking tea – green or black – is like drinking water.
Vegetables served seem to be a combination of onions, tomatoes and capsicums sprinkled with olive oil. Forget chicken; instead, think beef, mutton, buffalo or even horse meat.
The locals’ nomadic heritage appears to figure into the type of ingredients used for their cooking, as well as how food is prepared.
Do try the kimiz (horse milk), kuurdak (sauteed meat) and traditional noodles known as beshbarmak, which is similar to spaghetti and contains a mixture of meats. Beshbarmak means “five fingers”, because that is how the dish is eaten – with your fingers. Also, try the wheat drink called jarma.
OF TENTS AND TOILETS
The country’s nomadic tradition, which has been passed down from generation to generation, is still very evident.
While the majority of Kyrgyz live in houses and apartments, some natives live in portable round tents, called bozui, accompanied by herds of horses, goats and sheep.
Bozui are usually found in rural areas and used by the shepherds. Being portable, they are designed to be easily dismantled and carried about.
Assembling one takes around two hours, and is done by both men and women; usually the men are in charge of the wooden structures while the women handle decorations and roofing.
Many bozui are also set up along the highway or in the city as makeshift restaurants to offer visitors a unique dining experience in a traditional house.
Then there are bozui camps like those in Tash Rabat, the House of Stones at Bashy and in Jeti-Oguz (Seven Bulls) Valley near the city of Karakol on Issyk-Kul Lake.
Be prepared, however, for their toilets; in some places, they can be very simple.
BEFORE YOU GO
Getting to Kyrgyzstan from Singapore takes about 12 1/2 hours or more by air and may include transit stops. Do make sure to change your currency to United States dollars.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
This trip was sponsored by the government of the Kyrgyz Republic.
To sample the best of seasonal eating, look no further than Taiwan