A late night arrival in Baikonur

Gagarin in BaikonurBaikonur, 18 December 2011 – I write this blog on my first evening in Baikonur. Actually, I crossed the border checkpoint from Kazakhstan less than two hours before writing this. So far I have experienced Baikonur city as dark, remote and extremely cold. When our local guide Elena Galaktionova (that’s her real name) picked us up at the Tyuratam railway station, she herself said that at -25°C even the locals consider it very cold.

First impressions

Baikonur is above all a remote place. We travelled two days to get here. Admitted, for economic reasons we didn’t take the quickest plane route via Moscow. Instead, we took the quickest public route. This brought us from home via Astana (6 hours) and Almaty (another hour and a half, plus a 5 hour wait in the middle of the night) to Kyzylorda (two hours) by plane. Then a 20 kilometer taxi ride to Kyzylorda railway station, followed by a 30-minute police interrogation, just because we were foreigners. Then a 2 hour wait and a 4 hour trainride to Tyuratam, also known as the Kazakhstan side of Baikonur. This is where Elena picked us up and drove us to the nearby checkpost to get us into the Russian city of Baikonur. Our hotel is only minutes from the checkpoint. So all in all it took us well over 36 hours to travel from our home front door to this hotel. I’d say this place is the most remote launch site in the world!

Baikonur is not only remote in the context of time to get there, but also geographically. The central and southern Kazakh steppe is immense! On our way from Almaty we flew two hours over freezing prairie-like plains, followed by 4 hours by train, through more freezing snow covered prairie-like plains. The two stops along the way were in villages that could all easily carry the ‘middle of nowhere’ title. The large cosmodrome area, which measures about 50 by 75 miles in the heart of this area, is dwarfed by its surroundings. It is impressive to experience this remoteness. There are not many places in the world that can rival the vastness of central Kazakhstan.

First encounters

So, as I have said, so far I have only experienced the city of Baikonur during a short, very cold, dark winter evening. But we have met several interesting people already, and we saw our first rockets! But let’s start with the people first. At the railway station we met our guide for the next days Elena. A well organized person who quickly took us through the getting-comfortable in the city phase. She had a warm car waiting, she had our permits ready for inspection at the infamous Baikonur city entrance checkpoint and she checked us in at the hotel. After filling out incomprehensible Russian forms she disappeared as quickly as she had come.

Our second encounter was with the hotel lady. She didn’t appear too friendly at the beginning, but after some problems with our room she warmed up a little. A little. This is Russia after all. But at least she calmly explained to us in perfect Russian that she couldn’t solve our room issue. However, she handed us two Greater Baikonur Guest Cards and made sure we didn’t venture outside the hotel to look for a restaurant to end our long day. Instead she introduced us to the next lady:

Our third encounter was with the waitress in the café in the same building as the hotel. A cheezy bar and a few transparent-plastic-tablecloth-covered tables and uncomfortable iron chairs. On TV a muted 70’s American TV show and on the speakers some 80’s radio station, just a little too loud. There were no other guests and the waitress spoke fluent Russian and maybe a few words Kazakh. That’s it. But after pointing to the glass-door of the fridge holding bottles of beer she nodded, and I grabbed two bottles of the local stuff. Then I pointed to my mouth, indicating we would appreciate some food too, after which she ran off to the kitchen (I think). Anyway, after our first toast to having arrived in Baikonur, she reappeared with a few slices of bread with cheese and two spoons. We hoped the spoons were not intended for eating the bread, so assumed there would be soup. And low and behold, after a few minutes and a few slices of cheese on bread, there were two bowls of soup! And 2 minutes later there were two plates of beef fried rice. Wow, what a simple gesture can do! And she even said “thank you” after we smiled at her and mumbled a few “spasiba’s”. When finished our food we realized that all prices were indicated in Russian Rubles, where we only carried Kazakh Tenge. But that also solved itself – as it always does – when giving her the (totally guessed) correct amount in Tenge, hoping she’d accept. She frowned a few more times and then took my 2000 Tenge bill and gave me 600 Rubles in change. I still don’t have a clue what the meal cost, but both parties seemed happy with the deal.

First rockets

The only reason for coming to this barren place in the midst of winter are the rockets. And rockets there are plenty in this city! Despite the darkness we have already spotted our first life-size Soyuz rocket, angled upwards in front of a few concrete housing blocks. And there are paintings and pictures of rockets everywhere in our hotel too. The room is pretty bland, but the reception area has a few rocket models and the café has a rocket mural. I will take pictures of them by daylight!