Memories of Baikonur – A Guest Post by Remco Timmermans

Today I’m excited to share another guest post written by Remco Timmermans. He too was invited to a Soyuz launch (last year), and he offers a great reflection on his experience. 

Really, Abby has no idea what she is getting herself into. I know. I had no idea what I was getting into when I traveled to Baikonur for the same reason (to attend a launch), just over a year ago. Actually, I still have no idea what exactly happened to me, but I think I have been part of history…

I didn’t think too long about my decision Memories of Baikonur - A Guest Post by Remo Timmermansto go to Baikonur. My fellow countryman André Kuipers was launching on a Soyuz rocket to International Space Station (ISS). Probably the last Dutch astronaut in a few decades. And Baikonur had been heading my bucket list for a while. A good offer from a good travel agent specializing in Kazakhstan did the rest.

Travel to Baikonur

On a cold December morning I boarded a plane heading for Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. It was a much longer flight than I had anticipated. Almaty is close to the border with China. I arrived in the middle of the night. Drowsy from the flight and time difference, I had my passport stamped and entered a new world. The people looked more Asian than European. Kazakhstan is on the Silk Road and in some respect hadn’t changed much since Marco Polo was here.

My long flight was followed by a short flight to the middle of nowhere. Waiting for the train at Kyzylorda railway station I noticed that Central Asian winters are very cold. Under a crystal clear sky it was -25°C. When the Soviet relic train arrived, men shoveled coal into the carriages. Inside the train it was 50°C warmer than outside. From Kyzylorda it was only four hours through endless flat prairie-like steppe to the Kazakh town of Tyuratam. Behind this simple village was the skyline of the Russian enclave of Baikonur.

Entering a Surreal World

A car awaited to bring us to the Russian side. Baikonur is a true Soviet-style city in the middle of Kazakhstan. It was built in great secrecy in the 1950’s in this remote corner of the then Soviet Union. It was code-named Baikonur, in reality a small town hundreds of miles from here, to confuse the enemy. Later the town was named Leninsk, for obvious reasons. Now it is known as Baikonur, although the Kazakh still call it Tyuratam. Crossing the border from Kazakhstan into this Russian enclave is no small formality. Without the hard-to-get “Propusk” permit this is a no-go area. The city is fenced off by a high concrete wall and is well guarded by local police.

Memories of Baikonur - Guest Post by Remco TimmermansI entered a surreal world that many have heard about, but hardly anyone has experienced. It was so surreal that looking at my own pictures still feels like looking at someone else’s photo album. I also keep replaying my own video. I hope it reflects the sense of surrealism. That is really how it felt and still feels. Was I really there?

The city of Baikonur consists of wide avenues, surrounded by dozens of five-story dull grey concrete apartment blocks, all alike. Although 70,000 people live there, there were not many cars or people in the streets. Due to the cold, people stayed inside. That, plus the fact that the city once hosted over 100,000 inhabitants, leaving lots of buildings completely empty, gives a first impression of a ghost town.

The ‘old’ city center is in the South East corner of the city. It is not much older than the rest, but it has the City Hall, a central square with the statue of Lenin and “Main Street” with a few shops, banks, bars and restaurants. The rest of the city is a widespread area of grey apartment blocks, factories, office buildings and a massive railway station. Scattered between this 1960’s Soviet concrete dullness are monuments of the great history of this place, including (nuclear) missiles, large transport planes, a real Soyuz rocket and many statues of the heroes of Soviet space exploration. The town heroes Yuri Gagarin and Sergei Korolev are omnipresent.

The only purpose of this remote city is to serve the Cosmodrome. This area, the size of a European province, lies about 30 miles north of the city. Since the 1950’s it has spread over 50 miles in all directions from famous Launch Complex number 1, the place where Sputnik, Laika and Gagarin launched. This space port is fully self-sustainable. Near the gate there is a rocket fuel plant. In the distance there is a large telemetry station with its large dishes pointing to space. At the end of the long bumpy road there is LC-1 and the vehicle assembly buildings that service the central launch pad. To the east is the Zenith complex and LC-30, the second Soyuz pad. To the west are the Energia-Buran launch sites and the very active LC-200 Proton complex. Invisibly scattered around the grounds are the underground launch silos for the Ukrainian built Dnepr “missiles.” Just like Soyuz and Zenith, these were designed as long range nuclear missiles, now converted to more friendly purposes. When visiting these areas it felt like endless bumpy car trips through emptiness, exchanged with brief surreal visits to surreal places.

A Part of History

The people of Baikonur are extremely proud of their role in history. There are two great space museums. The one in the city is the best, housing a lot of original flight hardware and Gagarin-era memorabilia. The one at site 2 of the Cosmodrome, next to Gagarin and Korolev’s summer houses, hosts one of the few remaining Buran space shuttles. If you ask the museum staff, you can climb into the cockpit and sit behind the wheel. In winter it is as cold inside the shuttle as it is outside, but what a privilege! They say that if you throw a coin onto its wing, you will return to Baikonur. I will have to go back to see if my coin is still there!

Memories of Baikonur - Guest Post Remco TimmermansIt is not easy to be a tourist in this place. In town you are more or less free to roam around, as long as you don’t leave the enclave. At the Cosmodrome you always have to be accompanied by an official tour guide, a driver and a security guard. At the museums you are assigned an interpreter guide (signs are in Russian only). At restaurants, where it is most needed, there is no interpreter. Pointing at other people’s dishes helped. Making animal noises (cow, pig, chicken, horse) also often does the trick and makes this a lot of fun. Do not expect culinary delights though. In a Russian worker’s town you eat hearty Russian worker’s food.

There is so much more I can tell about a visit to Baikonur. It is above all a surreal experience in the heart of Soviet and Russian space exploration. One visit does not suffice. It takes weeks to process the impressions, requiring several trips to grasp it all. It is both a pity and a blessing that not more tourists make it to this remote corner of the world. It is a pity because all space enthusiasts should have the chance to see all this before it is gone. By 2018 Baikonur will be succeeded by the brand new Vostochny Cosmodrome in far east Russia. It is a blessing too, as the place is completely unspoilt by visitors. Everything is original and authentic. It is a true monument to the greatness of humanity in space.

I am super excited that our Abby gets to experience all this. I hope that at some point she will realize that she too was part of history!

Remco Timmermans (@timmermansr) is a Dutch remcospace and social media ambassador. After a 15-year career in international business, he started his own business organizing Arctic expeditions in 2008. Through social media he refound his childhood passion for space exploration. By attending (and organizing) tweetups he got front row access to launches, space conferences and other space adventures, making him a leading space ambassador. Now Remco combines Arctic expeditions with organizing special space and social media events (@SpaceUpEU). In 2013 he became the Executive Director for UN-declared World Space Week (@worldspaceweek).

Comments

  1. NEVILLE MADDEN says

    That is Beyond Amazing ! ….. Thank You for Sharing. It looks like such a Wonderful Place. Just watching The Video is Totally Surreal: So I can imagine what it would have been like for Remco Timmermans to be there. You are So Lucky being able to have that to look forward to Abby. And we are So Lucky to be able to Share It With You. I could actually Visualise YOU Standing Watching That Launch, Abby. I hope you have Internet Access (Wireless/WiFi) whilst you are Onsight, so we can Converse (LIVE) with You and Your Mum, as things unfold leading up to and during the Launch. All I can say is ….. “WOW!” 🙂

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