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February 21, 2013, United States

Space fantasy

Soak in the spirit of space exploration at Cape Canaveral in Florida

Winston Len

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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Kazakhstan, where ‘friends eat friends’

SIX years ago, I begged a Kazakh immigration officer at Almaty airport to let me leave his country. The man shook his head. He thought my visa had expired. When he finally stamped my passport and allowed me to catch my flight with just minutes to spare, I swore with a glass of chilled champagne in my hand I would never come back to Kazakhstan.

Six years later and here I am once again at Almaty airport, waiting for another immigration officer to let me enter the country.

Located in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is a new country with a long history. It is the world’s largest landlocked country, yet has a population only slightly larger than that of Bangkok. Like his Mongolian counterpart, the Kazakh was once a nomad and enjoyed the openness of the endless steppe.

That carefree lifestyle is no longer practised now that the Kazakhs have ditched their yurts for flashy apartments, the cash for which has been made possible by the country’s large oil reserves. The oil boom has seen fortunes made, and paid for the modernisation of a former poor part of the Soviet Union. The nomadic instinct, though, has not changed.

“We, the Kazakhs, love horses,” begins Natalia, our guide. “The Kazakhs and their horses have been together on the steppe since the nomadic days. The horse is a great friend to the Kazakh people. And great friends make for great food.”

Natalia’s “friend-eat-friend” joke leaves many of the first-time visitors to Kazakhstan in our group looking confused.

“If the Kazakhs can eat their friends for dinner, perhaps they’ll want us for dessert,” says one of my travel mates with an uncertain laugh.

We find out exactly what Natalia means as she leads us on a city tour.

ANCIENT CITY

Sitting at the foot of the snow-capped Zailiysky Mountain, a spur of the Tian Shan range, Almaty is Kazakhstan’s largest city. It is part of an ancient network of trade routes, but it is not a “fabled” city like Samarkand in Uzbekistan

After independence in 1991, Almaty was the capital for six years but lost out to Astana in 1997.

However, the leafy city has always been one of the region’s most charming Russian-built cities, with long streets criss-crossing in a grid pattern, making it easy to navigate even with the free hotel maps.

That said, it is also easy to get lost as there are no landmarks and every street has two names, in Russian and Kazakh.

To get a sense of the city, we decide to walk through it. Darya, a beautiful Kazakh girl, takes us to Panfilov Park in the city centre, which is home to the Museum of Kazakh Folkloric Music and the Panfilov War Memorial.

The memorial, with an eternal flame and massive sculpture representing the 28 soldiers of the Panfilov Division who died in a battle against German tanks near Moscow in 1941, conveys the brutality of the war.

“The flame is burning all time,” says Darya. “Newlywed couples come here to lay flowers on the reflecting stone base of the eternal flame.”

She does not explain what exactly inspires these just-married pairs: the flame or the agony of the war.

Beyond the wall is the Zenkov Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church. Completed in 1907, the cathedral survived the earthquake of 1911 and the Russian Revolution in 1917. Surrounded by a beautiful rose garden, the cathedral is the second-tallest wooden building in the world.

“The cathedral was converted into a recreation area and clubhouse during the communist period, because practising religion was banned,” adds Darya.

Now a place of worship again, visitors are welcome to walk in and admire the icons and paintings.

From Zenkov Cathedral, we retrace our steps to the museum and cross Zhibek Zholy Street to explore the Green Market, which is an indoor and outdoor labyrinth of stalls. The food market connects urban Almaty with the countryside through the piles of nuts, fruit, smoked fish, vegetables, wild honey and enormous hunks of fresh meat.

In the cavernous hall, I spot a counter piled high with steaks, chops and ribs. A sign at the end of each aisle advertises the animal on display: lamb,cow, goat and, towards the back, horse. And it is not only the meat of their best friend that is a favourite among the Kazakhs; they also love kumys, a highly alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare’s milk.

‡‡LOCAL DELICACIES

At Kishlak, one of the finest traditional restaurants in Almaty, we are treated to the delicacies of the steppe. As we are served beshbarmak (a pile of lasagnalike noodles, topped with pieces of boiled horsemeat and onion), plov (a rice pilaf topped with barbecued horsemeat), and kazy (boiled horse sausage), the Thai woman sitting next to me asks me which she should sample.

“Try the kazy,” I tell her, remembering from my earlier visit that the special sausage is usually served to honour special guests.

“The first bite might churn your stomach, but drink two glasses of beer and you’ll be fine.”

Surprisingly, my table companion loves the horsemeat.

As I bite into the accompanying radish and parsley, I muse on our luck at having such a great choice of dishes back home. We are certainly a lot luckier than the Kazakhs, whose diet depends so much on horse, lamb and goat. But it is all a question of taste.

The Kazakhs’ ancestors roamed the open steppe with their horses. They could not grow much in the way of vegetables because of the bleak weather and rugged terrain. Those horses provided companionship as much as milk, blood and their meat.

“They eat what they have,” says a Russian, who is sharing my table.

I imagine waking up in a yurt with my wife and my horses. I cannot eat the wife for breakfast and she cannot have me for dessert.

That, my friends, leaves the horses.

THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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