Saturday, June 27, 2015

1st Paintball

Today was some paintball with a few of the lads from work.  Obviously, with a few of the more competitive lads from the office. 

One of the guys found a Czech "groupon" where it only cost us something like 200 Kč (~$10 each) for a few hours.  We had a couple of matches between us and then we had a few matches against another team. 

We've done laser tag several times but I've been wanting to try paintball for quite some time.  It was a blast! 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Same-Sex Marriage in the USA

I knew that one day same-sex marriage would be legal in the United States.  I just wasn't sure that I would ever live to see the day.

The original plan was to get a civil partnership in Ireland.  Then Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote.  So until today the new plan was to get legally married in Ireland. 

But now we actually have the option to get married in the USA. 

There will be some paperwork regardless of where a ceremony takes place.  There's for sure all kinds of paperwork to submit for a non-Irish EU citizen to marry a non-EU citizen in Dublin.  And I'm sure that there's more than enough paperwork for a U.S. citizen to marry a non-U.S. citizen in the USA.  But the awesome thing now is that we actually have a choice.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Jan Kašpar

Jan Kašpar is considered to be the Czech pioneer of aviation.  He was born in Pardubice in 1883 when Bohemia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

On 16 April 1910, he became the first Czech pilot to successfully fly an airplane.  He managed to fly 2 km at a height of 20-25 meters.

His most famous flight was on 13 May 1911.  He flew 121 km, in 92 minutes, from Pardubice to Velká Chuchle.  At the time it was the longest recorded flight in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The airplane he flew was donated to, and is still on display at, the National Technical Museum in Prague.
At Prague airport

After WWI he fell on hard times.  Impoverished and suffering from mental illness he committed suicide in his hometown of Pardubice in 1927.

There is a memorial for him on display at Prague's Václav Havel Airport

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Central Asia Trip Summary

My first visit to "the Stans" went pretty well.  I was only there for nine days so some things felt a bit rushed but overall I had enough time.  I learned a few things for the next visit.

In Kyrgyzstan, I stayed in Bishkek.  It was very easy to get around on foot or by bus.  The taxis are very cheap but you will need some Russian to get by.  The cars are imported from the west and from Japan so half are right hand drive and half are left hand drive.  I'm used to both but it was a bit odd seeing both on the road at the same time.

The only problem I had in Bishkek was that it took me forever to find an ATM that would work for me.  I wasn't able to pull out any cash on my Czech or American debit cards.  I had €150 with me that I could change but not having any local currency handy started to worry me.  I finally found that I could withdrawal cash from DemirBank.  No other bank ATMs would work for me.  Lesson learned: always have a few U.S. Dollars or Euros handy to exchange when visiting the far off lands.

70th anniversary of the end of WWII
Throughout the city there were still many Soviet-era monuments and statues.  There were many billboards commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.

The people were very friendly.  I even received a high-five from an ethnic Korean because I was an American who could speak basic Russian.

With no visa required I can see returning to Bishkek but next time it will be to head off to the nearby mountains for some hiking.

Kazakh registration card
After a couple of days I flew to Kazakhstan.  Thanks to the government's pilot program for visa-free travel I was able to visit without the ordeal of applying for the $160 visa.  There was a separate line at the airport where I had my registration card stamped.  I just had to keep the card with me until I left the country.

Almaty was a bit of a disappointment.  For a place that used to be a capital city I figured that there would be much more to see.  Not so much.  However I was almost interviewed for the evening news.  I was in an Almaty park and got approached by a TV crew.  But once they realized I couldn't speak Kazakh and that my Russian sucked they lost interest.  Not quite the high five I received in Bishkek. 

Astana was much more interesting.  When it comes to architecture it's like the Dubai of Central Asia.  There is so much to see.  On the 19th, me and my FitBit walked all over the city - a new personal best 34,17 km (21.23 miles).

All of that walking around the capital and I still never ran into Borat.

Kazakh WWII 70th anniversary poster
Kazakhstan is much more developed than Kyrgyzstan.  Much more expensive too.  Overall it was a great trip.  The only real drawback is the travel time.

Turkey now has a $20 e-visa so I made sure to apply in advance.  It gave me the opportunity to escape the Istanbul airport for a while in order to break up the long travel day home.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Time for Some Turkish Coffee

Today is a long travel day.  My flight from Astana to Istanbul was 5½ hours.  Then there's the almost 6 hour layover before my 3 hour flight to Prague and my bus back to Brno.  Plus all of this started with having to be at the airport by 2 AM.

I needed to clear my head and get out of the airport for a while.  So I caught a bus to the city in pursuit of breakfast.  Grabbing some Turkish coffee and burek at Taksim Square was just what I needed.  It felt so good to get some fresh air and to get out of the airport for a while.

Now I just have to get back to Czechland and start some laundry because I've got to be at work tomorrow.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Astana, Kazakhstan

Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan.  It was originally founded in 1830 as Akmoly and it was used as a fort by Siberian Cossacks.  In 1832 the town became known as Akmolinsk and then in 1961 it became Tselinograd.  After independence from the USSR, it became Akmola in 1992.  In 1997 the capital was moved from Almaty to Akmola.  In 1998, it was given the name Astana.  Very original.  In Kazakh, Астана means "capital".

With over 835,000 people it is the second-largest city in the country after Almaty.  It is also the second-coldest capital city in the world.  Winter temperatures run from -30°C to -35°C (-22°F to -31°F).

Astana is a planned city.  Planned to stand out that is.  It's an architect's dream because everything is unique.  It's like the Dubai of Central Asia.  And the construction continues especially since the city will host the 2017 Expo.  It's clear to see where so much of the country's oil and gas revenue has been invested.

The Bayterek monument symbolizes a Kazakh folktale about Samruk, a magical bird of happiness who lays its egg between the branches of a mythical tree of life.  It's also an observation tower and on the top level there is a gilded hand print of President Nazarbayev that people place their hand and make a wish.  The locals refer to it as Chupa Chyp, like the lollypop.

The Nur-Astana Mosque is the second-largest mosque in the country.  It was a gift from the Emir of Qatar and has capacity inside for 5,000 people.

The Central Concert Hall was completed in 2009.  Its walls are designed to resemble a flower petal.

The Shabyt Palace of Art is part of the local university.  It is often referred to as the dog bowl.

Opened in 2012 the Nazarbayev Center is a multi-functional research and public education institution with a focus on Kazakh society.  I'm not sure what the nickname is for this one.

The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation opened in 2006.  The pyramid is 62 meters (203 feet) high and cost about $58 million to build.  It was built as a center for religious understanding.  Inside is also a 1,500 seat opera house, Kazakh museum of culture, and a library.

The Hazrat Sultan mosque opened in 2012.  It is the largest mosque in Central Asia and can hold up to 10,000 people.

The "Kazakh Eli" monument shows the mythical bird Samruk on a 91 meter column that honors 1991 when Kazakhstan became an independent country.

The Presidential Palace was modeled after the White House in Washington, DC.  It has a bit of a Disney look to it.

KazMunayGas is the state-owned oil and gas company and its headquarters are in the city.

The Justice Monument is located near one of the courts.  It shows Tole bi, Kazybek bi, and Aiteke bi.  I'm told that every true Kazakh can trace their lineage back to one of these three.

The Khan Shatyr is the world's largest tent.  It is 150 meters (500 feet) high and covers 140,000 sq. meters (35 acres).  The area under the tent is bigger than 10 football stadiums.  It was completed in 2010 after four years of construction and cost $400 million.

The tent has a special chemical lining that protects against the bitter cold.  It also lights up at night.  Inside is a just your normal shopping mall, complete with a roller coaster, boating river, mini golf, dinosaurs and an indoor beach resort that is always 35°C (95°F).

There is way more things in Astana to see than in Almaty.  The only bummer is that I haven't been able to find any postcards.  I don't understand a capital city that is trying to be at the forefront of some very cool construction and there are no postcards at all. 

Update:  On 20 March 2019, Astana was renamed to Nur-Sultan in honour of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Almaty is located in southern Kazakhstan.  With a population over 1.5 million people it is country's largest city.  Алматы used to be called Alma-Ata and it is the former capital.  Today's it's the major commercial and financial hub of Central Asia.  The city is responsible for about 20% of the country's GDP.

The area was first settled around the 10th-9th century BC during the Bronze Age.  Between the 10th-14th centuries it became an important stop along the Silk Road.

Alma-Ata was founded in 1854.  From 1929 to 1991 it was the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.  When Kazakhstan became independent the city remained the capital until 1997 when it was moved to Astana.  However in 1993 the the city's name was changed to Almaty.

Akimat House used to be home to the Communist Party of Kazakhstan.  After independence and once the capital moved to Astana it became a city government building.  Part of the building is Almaty City Hall.

At Independence Square is the Independence Monument.  It is the Kazakh Golden Warrior on top of a snow leopard.

The Golden Warrior

The Palace of the President was supposed to be a Lenin museum but it never happened.  You can't go inside but the gardens outside are quite nice.

Zhambyl Zhabayev was a traditional folksinger who died in 1945 and was buried in Alma-Ata.  Although he sang exclusively in Kazakh, his many patriotic, pro-Stalin songs were circulated thorough out the USSR during the 1930s.

After independence many of the street names in the city were changed but not all were.  At Shevchenko Street there is a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.

The Lermantov State Academic Russian Drama Theatre was built in 1969.  It seats almost 850 people.

The Kazakh State Academic Drama Theatre is the country's oldest professional theater.  It opened in 1926 before moving to the capital in three years later.  In 1961 it was named after M. Auezov, a famous Kazakh writer.  I believe that the building was renovated in the 80s.

The Central State Museum is one of the oldest and largest museums in Central Asia.  It opened in the 1930s and the current building was completed in 1985.

The State Museum of National Musical Instruments opened in 1980.  The wooden building it's housed in dates back to 1907.

The Ascension Cathedral is also known as Zenkov Cathedral.  It was completed in 1907 and it is the second tallest wooden building in the world.

Abai Qunanbayuli was a Kazakh poet, composer and philosopher.  He was a cultural reformer toward Europeans and Russians based on enlightened Islam.  He died in 1904 and the bronze monument was unveiled in 1961 on what used to be Lenin Street.  It is now called Abai Street. 

The Almaty TV Tower was completed in 1983.  It is 371,5 meters (1,219 feet) tall is the world's tallest free-standing tubular steel structure.  Almaty is prone to earthquakes so the tower was designed to withstand a 10.0 quake.

General Ivan Panfilov
The city's most well-known landmark is Panfilov Park.  Ivan Panfilov was the commanding general of the 316th division that, despite heavy casualties, helped prevent the Nazis from reaching Moscow in WWII.  

The park is actually named after Panfilov's Heros - 28 soldiers from Almaty who died in the fighting.  In 1975 an eternal flame was lit to honor those who died in the Russian Civil War and in the Great Patriotic War (WWII).  The granite monument depicts soldiers from all 15 Soviet Republics and was unveiled as part of the 30th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany. 

In 2011 the subway opened.  It currently only has two lines which isn't bad except that construction began in 1988.  I've never opened a subway before but 23 years does seem to be quite a long time.  On the flip side it only costs 80 Tenge (about 54¢).  And how can you not be impressed with a marble subway platform with chandeliers?

Almaty hosted the 2011 Winter Asian Games and will host the 2017 Winter University Games.  It is also in the running to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.  If it wins it will be the first Olympics ever hosted in Central Asia.  Here's the Almaty bid video I found out on YouTube.

Update:  Almaty lost out on hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ata-Beyit Memorial Complex, Kyrgyzstan

About 25 km (~15.5 miles) southeast of Bishkek is the Ata-Beyit Memorial Complex in Chong-Tash.

Ата-бейит is Kyrgyz for "Grave of Our Fathers".  Here's the story...

In the 1930s the local nomadic people were forced to settle down by the Soviet authorities.  That's when the small village of Чоң-Таш, Chong-Tash (Big Rock), was established.  

As part of Joseph Stalin's Great Purge the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, executed people all across the Soviet Union.  In Central Asia is was a means of cracking down on nationalist movements.  In 1938 the NKVD secretly brought 137 "counter revolutionaries" from the capital to here.  They were shot and the bodies were dumped into an underground kiln. 

For more than 50 years no one knew what had happened.  

Memorial with the victims' names

The site caretaker who witnessed the executions told his daughter what happened only while on his deathbed.  She kept the secret for another 20 years until after Kyrgyzstan gained independence from the USSR.  In 1991 she finally told the authorities and the site was discovered.  

The memorial opened in 2000.  There's a small museum on site that is designed to look like a yurt.


One of the men who was executed was Törökul Aitmatov.  His son,  Chingiz Aitmatov, went on to become a celebrated author.  He was buried here in 2008 and there is a memorial for him too.  

In 2010 Kyrgyzstan had another revolution.  There were mass demonstrations in front of the Kyrgyz White House and 89 protesters were killed by government snipers.  Across the field is a monument to those killed in the revolution.

Sixteen of the victims are also buried here behind the monument.