Baikanur Russian Space Center, Kazakhstan

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Kazakhstan  , Qyzylorda,
Saturday, May 19, 2007

Southern Kazakhstan is true Big Sky country, a rolling treeless expanse where you can see to the horizon.  After the cold climate, thick forests, and industrial landscapes of Russia, to me it feels great to be back in a dry, sunny climate with endless vistas inhabited mostly by a few horses and camels. For some reason the local cows like the shade of bus shelters along the road looking as though they're waiting to ride the bus to town, almost something out of a Far Side cartoon.

Baikanur is a small outpost of Russia deep in southern Kazakhstan, originally chosen by the Soviets as the location for their space center because of its clear skies and relatively southerly latitude.  Russia stills pays the Kazakh government to keep the base now that Kazakhstan is an independent country.

Dragoman e-mailed us before the trip date about the possibility of the Baikanur Space Center visit and the additional costs it would entail.  It was essentially an all or nothing affair - unless everyone in the group agreed to it, it could not be on the itinerary.  Not to be a spoiler, I begrugingly agreed to pay the $500.  Hmmmm, for $500 they better be firing off a rocket specially for us or I should be able to stay in Yuri Gagarin's personal suite, I thought.

We were delayed for a while outside the entrance to Baikanur, while the bureaucratic issues related to our arriving to days later than planned got resolved.  The toilets at the guardhouse were among the nicest I had seen in a while.  I couldn't help but think, "If the toilets outside the station are this nice, my hotel room will have climate control, a whirlpool bath, marble floors, kingsize beds on raised platforms, mink beadpreads, and silk robes to wear.  We'll be served the finest Russian Imperial cuisine - blinis with caviar, Coulibiac, Beef Stroganoff, and Charlotte Russe for dessert".  Well, after all this, at least I haven't lost my ability to imagine luxury, even if I haven't experienced any for a long time.  The reality in food and accommodation turned out to be fairly respectable but not overly interesting.

I'm far from being a space nut, so I was somewhat unsure of what I'd be getting for my money on the Space Center visit.  I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable and quite interesting, partly because of the novelty of visiting a place so few foreigners have been to before.  The site's tourism director, an older white-haired man named Valery, informed us we were the largest single tour group they ever had in the five years the Space Center has been open for visits and the first tour group to arrive overland with its own transport.

Our Baikanur Cosmodrome tour was a mix of a city tour and a visit out to the rocket launch sites.  The stops included visits to two museums documenting the history of the Soviet/Russian space programs containing numerous artifacts, Yuri Gagarin's home, the apartments the Cosmonauts (including recent wealthy space tourists) stay in during the weeks before their flights, the avenue of trees the Cosmonauts each plant before their flights, several monuments to founders of the space center, notable cosmonauts, and important scientists, and a memorial to the victims of two launch pad explosions in 1960 and 1963.  The launch pad we visited at the end of our stay was one of many at Baikanur but the original one used since the 1950s to put the first man into space and also the most recently used one for a launch earlier in the month.  Our day at Baikanur ended near the launch pad with Valery presenting us all with personalized certificates of our visit to Baikanur and celebratory vodka shots and pickles.

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