In Kazakhstan I toured the Baikonur Cosmodrome, at the time the only place in the world that launched astronauts into space (with the exception of China which has its own manned launches). Leased by Russia and located in the middle of nowhere in the Kazakh steppes, the cosmodrome is one of the most fascinating things I've ever seen; reality doesn't get any closer to scifi anywhere else.

As much as I like planning my own trips, visitors don't just go into Baikonur by themselves as special clearance and permits are required. My tour was organized by Russian operator Country of Tourism which did a great job.

The focus of the tour was the Soyuz TMA-09M mission to the ISS. We got to see the rocket's rollout to the launch pad from up close - it's huge, shiny and cool, and it was so close you could almost touch it; we attended the astronaut press conference and pre-flight report; and finally, the highlight of the tour, we watched the actual launch from less than 1 km away. The entire experience was improved further by 15 cool people from ESA who were part of our group (yes, actual rocket scientists).

A rocket launch is such a unique experience that's really hard to put into words. I had seen pictures and videos of many launches before; but watching a real launch from about 800 metres away is awe-inspiring and a very intense experience. I didn't get too many pictures of the launch as I was too awestruck and quickly forgot about the camera.

The tour also included trips to other cool stuff such as the gigantic N1 transport vehicles (the N1 rocket was part of Russia's failed manned Moon program) and the Energia-Buran launch pad (Russia's answer to the US Space Shuttle, retired after just one flight due to lack of funds); the History of Baikonur and the Baikonur Cosmodrome museums; and the International Space School where people study to work in the space program. The city of Baikonur itself is a fascinating mix of a slightly rundown Eastern European city and cool space infrastructure.

I wrote a detailed account of my trip to Baikonur, read it here.

Additional info:
- country entry on Wikipedia
- country profile on Wikivoyage
- Baikonur Cosmodrome entry on Wikipedia

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