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Happy 20th Birthday, Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan!

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Kristina Postnikova / Shutterstock.com

The largest country in Central Asia—it’s as big as all of Western Europe combined—turns 20 years old today, and to celebrate, here’s a list of ten random facts about everyone’s favorite Kazakh-speaking ‘Stan.

1. For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Borat, the fictional reporter invented by the English comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, hails from Kazakhstan. In Baron Cohen’s 2006 blockbuster movie, Borat describes his native land in less than flattering terms, as an impoverished region where prostitution and child marriage are rife, and people drink “horse urine” for fun. In response to such bad—if genuinely comedic—publicity, the Kazakhstan government bought full-page ads in The New York Times and the U.S. News and World Report, and commercials on CNN and the local ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., begging Americans to get to know the real Kazakhstan, too.

2. How You Like Them Apples?
Those Granny Smiths sitting in your fruit bowl right now? They’re the great- great- great- granddaughters of wild apples, Malus sieversii, which are originally from modern-day Kazakhstan. According to Christopher Robbins’ 2008 travel book, Apples Are From Kazakstan (required reading for any visitor of that wind-parched land), the wild apples were brought to the Middle East 2,300 years ago, where they were cultivated and eventually exported worldwide.

3. Tiptoe Through the…

Tulips are from the mountains within, and surrounding, modern-day Kazakhstan, too. They were also later cultivated in Turkey and then exported to Europe, causing what historians refer to as “Tulipmania” in the Netherlands. The 17th-century Dutch were reportedly so taken with the waxen flowers that a single bulb was sometimes sold for the price of an entire house in Amsterdam.

4. Horsing Around
Horses and cattle have been so vital to nomadic Kazakh culture for so long, a common greeting in the countryside asks not if you are OK, but “Are your cattle OK?” A 2009 archeological study found that people in modern day Kazakhstan are among the first in the world to tame horses, and to use them for riding, work, milk and meat. Besparmak, boiled hunks of horsemeat, is still on traditional Kazakh menus today.

5. King Arthur was a Kazakh?
According to Robbins’ book, the famous, supposedly Celtic, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table may have actually been Kazakh horsemen. While that’s hardly a point of historical certainty, Robbins describes the claim as “serious scholarly speculation.” And it kind of makes sense: If King Arthur lived at all, he would have lived around 1500 years ago—right around the time that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius sent thousands of cavalrymen from modern-day Kazakhstan to defend the fringes of the Roman Empire in the modern British Isles. The commander of those Central Asian cavalrymen just happened to be named Lucius Artorius Castus, or “Artyr” in Welsh.

6. Stung
Despite its gorgeous, lunar countryside—not to mention its handful of historical claims to fame—Kazakhstan, led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, remains a largely repressive, corrupt and undemocratic bastion for some pretty grim human rights abuses. In July this year, the famous English rocker, Sting, cancelled a concert the day before it was scheduled—on President Nazarbayev’s birthday, no less—in the Kazakh capital, citing human rights concerns.

7. The Naked Truth
In June this year, one of Kazakhstan’s most famous and fearless investigative journalists, Guljan Yergaliyeva, quit her job as editor of a major Kazakh newspaper and started her own news website. To publicize the new portal, Yergaliyeva released an advertisement on YouTube in she strips down to a pair of shiny stilettos, leaving viewers with nothing more than the site’s chirpy slogan: “Better the naked truth than a dandy lie.” We’d like to have seen Walter Cronkite perform stunt like that.

8. Big Buildings

kzww / Shutterstock.com

The World’s Biggest Tent, built by world-famous architect Norman Foster, is in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. But that’s not all: Astana, this futuristic, frigid blip upon the Kazakh steppe, was built by the sheer force of will of President Nazarbayev, who also commissioned a massive pyramid (also built by Foster), a shimmering concert hall (a nod to the Sydney Opera House), and a rather hideous tower, called the Bayterek (pictured), shaped like a Poplar tree crowed by a giant golden egg and decorated by—what else?—Nazarbayev’s gilded hand print.

9. Family Feud!
Politics in Kazakhstan are fifty percent ex-Soviet machinations and fifty percent afternoon soap opera. For example, for the last half-decade, President Nazarbayev has been locked in feisty, international power struggle—alternately described as a “war of attrition” and a “blood feud” by Western newspapers—with his former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev. Aliyev, who has publically criticized his father-in-law’s human rights abuses, has also been accused of torturing people. Both men's names bubble up in political gossip circles from D.C. to Beijing.

10. Dances With Horses
An equestrian-themed dance craze has been sweeping Kazakhstan for the last couple years, with flash mobs the size of small cities gathering in malls, streets and public parks to perform a galloping traditional dance, called Kara Zhorga. In September this year, nearly 60,000 people turned out on the streets of Oskemen, a city in eastern Kazakhstan, according to EurasiaNet. The year before, 15,000 turned out in the western city of Atyrau to shake, shimmy and gallop the night away. Giddy-up!

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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entertainment
20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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