Touring the Baikonur Cosmodrome * Day I

Posted by on Jun 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

So here I am, about to start my tour of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. After about a year of planning and one night spent in Moscow I arrive at Domodedovo Airport ready for my 3.5 hour flight to Baikonur in Kazakhstan. A bus that has seen better days is supposed to take us to the plane but keeps circling around instead: the plane is still being fueled, there’s no air conditioning on the bus and the only way to get some fresh air inside is to keep moving.

We finally arrive and our ride is revealed: the plane looks like it’s been around for half a century or so which is slightly unsettling if you’re not a fan of flying.

After asking for an isle seat at check-in (“coridor” in Russian if you ever need to use it) I get the additional bonus of significant leg-room that’s fortuitously offered only on my row. It’s all good until the flight attendant starts passing around barf bags to whomever wants them, which is a first for me. Many people actually take one (someone takes a couple for good measure), which is not the most encouraging way to start your flight.

But truth be told, the flight is surprisingly smooth. I somewhow convince myself that old-style Soviet plane technology is actually better (and safer?) than modern gimmick-filled planes (this will be proved wrong on the return trip when turbulence makes takeoff rather worrisome).

To make up for the lack of in-flight entertainment, the pilot starts explaining something in Russian at some point. I wait patiently for the English translation to come as my Russian skills are limited to about three words. After 20 minutes of Russian nothing follows. I later learn that the pilot was just rambling randomly to relieve boredom.

As we start to descend there’s nothing to see outside but endless Kazakh steppe that’s bone dry and flatter than concrete in every direction. There’s nothing taller than small shrubs in terms of vegetation and no buildings, cars or roads that can be seen. Just when I start to think we’re making an emergency landing in the desert, thankfully, a runway appears.

Welcome to Krainiy Airport in Baikonur. Ours is the only plane at the tiny airport and it also leaves back for Moscow.

There’s more desert to be seen during the 20 minute bus ride to Baikonur, the town built around Russia’s main cosmodrome. Construction started in 1955 and two years later the world’s first artificial satellite blasted into orbit from here. The space race between the Soviet Union and the United States that would put people in orbit, on the Moon and in space stations is launched as well.

For many years Baikonur was a closed town that was not shown on maps and had restricted access. Now the town together with some of the cosmodrome’s cool infrastructure can be toured by the very determined. But one doesn’t simply stroll into the cosmodrome; special permits are required.

For me it all started about a year ago. While looking on Google Maps for future trip ideas I come across what looks like a weird round-shaped region located inside of Kazakhstan. As my interest for small land-locked countries required additional info, I was compelled to investigate: it turns out that was no country, but the city of Baikonur located in Kazakhstan and used by Russia for its space program needs (Google Maps no longer displays Baikonur as a distinct round entity inside Kazakhstan with its own borders).

The tour company that I eventually decided on (Country of Tourism Ltd Moscow) was really good at arranging everything and I highly recommend them. Alex, the guide who took care of things and came with us to Baikonur was really cool and helpful.

So I reach Baikonur. After waking up at 4:00 AM and flying in the antiquated plane my first impressions of the town are nothing to write home about (not that you could if you wanted to: the post office lacks postcards). As usual, first impressions turn out to be wrong.

There’s a beach on the banks of a river that snakes around the town and a park that’s empty but surprisingly green for such an arid climate. I see the first trees. An imposing statue of Lenin overlooks the main square: he doesn’t seem all that impressed with the state of current affairs, but nevertheless continues to point upwards towards a brighter future for the working people.

The town’s a bit worn out and filled with the stereotypical Communist-style apartment buildings and the odd little store selling necessities in a retail space of 10 square meters. The atmosphere is not unlike that of a medium-sized Romanian town in the 90’s, after the fall of Communism. Here, though, time seems to have frozen still.

Upon closer inspection, it’s not bad really. There’s a lively atmosphere on the main pedestrianised street with families strolling in the shade, kids playing and guys enjoying a beer.

Baikonur, a town of about 70 thousand people is leased by the Russian Government to service the eponymous Cosmodrome. From a walk around town you wouldn’t guess this is the place where some of the most exciting stuff in space exploration got its start and still happens today. The only clues are the random rocket launch posters which look cool but oddly out of place among beer gardens and apartment buildings.

Random space posters aside, the highly successful Soviet space program started right here (followed by the equally successful Russian program). Sputnik, the aforementioned world’s first artificial satellite and Gagarin‘s historical first space flight were launched from Baikonur. There followed many more missions and programs, including some lesser known ones: the failed N1 rocket that was supposed to take Soviet cosmonauts to the Moon or the Buran, USSR’s answer to the US Shuttle which was scrapped after one flight.

Baikonur is the place to go if you’re interested in space exploration and in touring space facilities: this is currently the only place in the world that launches astronauts into space (with the sole exception of China which has its own secret launches). Every Russian, American, European, Japanese or Canadian astronaut launches from here.

There’s not a lot to do in Baikonur at night. There’s supposedly a cool (?) karaoke place in town, but the thought of Westerners attempting karaoke in Russian worries me. The food is weird, but maybe I’m just picky. In fact, I don’t really care: I’m here for the space stuff not for gourmet food and quality entertainment. So I settle for a surprisingly good pastry dessert thing while trying to convince the Kazakh gods of technology to grant me internet access.

Keep reading about Baikonur: Day I | Day II | Day III | Day IV | Day V | Day VI