Cosmic Closed City in the Desert Steppe

It was almost midnight in Toretam and I (Marek) was waiting in the streets of this small desert steppe town for two guys that earlier in the day told us that they will help us with getting into the Baikonur city. Colorful lights of the closed shops reflected on the asphalt and all I could hear was train passing through in the far. I thought going out in the night will be my chance to cool down at least a little bit as in the guesthouse where Tiia was waiting for me it was just like in sauna. Except for few gusts of wind the heat felt just as much as in the hotel, and in the day…

Finally I met the guys, father and the son, heard their offer and refused. They wanted to take us through the main gate of nearby Baikonur city in their car, do a quick tour with us (“rocket, rocket, photo, photo”), and come back. We felt that there’s much more to see, and also that guided tours is just not our thing. Guys started shaking their heads, guaranteeing me that if we will somehow sneak in alone, police will surely catch us. Though I thought that they might be right I just prefered to take my time and check other solutions.

Baikonur, formely known us Leninsk and Zvezdograd (star city) is a russian closed city inside desert steppe of Kazakhstan. It was constructed to service world famous Baikonur Cosmodrome. OF all 60 thousand inhabitants, majority works for the space port. It is here where missions of Vostok 1 (piloted by Youri Gagarin) and Sputnik 2 (dog Laika) and many others took place. Today the first space port on Earth remain just as busy, satelites and probes are launched every few months. Much more information you can find online, especially if you know Russian. Both cosmodrome and the city are off limits, which means you have to own a special pass to get in. There are of course ways to do it i”less legally”…

Arriving to Toretam, town neighbouring the Baikonur we had a simple plan, we pinned the hole in the fence on the map, pinned the places of interest, learned what we could from forums, people that were inside etc. The cheeky smile dissapeared from our faces once we find out that the before mentioned spot is covered with another layer of fence, with barbed wire and cameras on it. Next to it – police border post. It seemed like it continues along the border of the city on the whole lenght, but then on the way back we took a closer look at the part of the old wall which was not reinforced with it. It sorrounded the area of the thermal plant, place inside the city but still far from the center. There it was, a small crack at the bottom of it – easily we could squeeze in…

Sweaty like a pigs in blazing setting sun we came back home and reconsidered our plan – the hole was the way in, now the issue was the road through industrial land on the other side. We did not know what to expect, all we knew is that there it might be more difficult to act like a “normal civilian”… We created strategy for tomorrow.

Early in the morning we dressed as normal as we can, trying to avoid our most sporty-looking, dusty from trekking clothes. In the market of Toretam, I found the young guy, (his name is Nayruz) near the car and presented to him our idea. He said that he was no taxi driver, but, what a coincidence, he works in the thermal plant on the another side of the wall and he will be happy to help for a little bit of money. The rest was easy, he drove us to the hole, we went through and hid, waited there on the second side for him to come. It took some time, after all he had to go through the customs and drive all the way through Baikonur to us. We saw his car and we run to it. The drive through industrial area was bumpy, we passed some workers, rails, lots of garages, mainly abandoned. There it was! Finally we were inside the city! Nayruz told us “here’s the centre, market area, just act normal”. We exchanged whatsapp, made a deal that I’ll let him know when we will want out and that’s it! We were in!

We discussed the route quickly and moved on. More or less the plan was to head towards “must sees” and later on check some less known places. Baikonur somehow felt completely different than any other russian/kazakhi city we’ve been in. It is hard to name why, probably has to do something with wide, open urban plan and big blocks of flat ornamented each in different colour. The streets were very clean, nevertheless one could feel that the prime time of this place has passed. Though we’ve seen many maintenance and garden workers, a lot of little parks there seemed very wild,the grass grew tall, also between the plates of the pavements. In other places, around the corners of the blocks and near street curbs, a lot of accumulated steppe sand could be observed.

Majority of attractions in Baikonur are soviet monuments and on those we focused in the first part of our tour. Beautiful high-risen statue of women holding a planet and a rocket (?) in her hands which is named “Stella” is quite a symbol of the city. It can be seen on many posters, tickets and also on the permit cards. We stopped to admire it and then went on to the main square and walking street in the city. There we encountered Lenin monumet, with his hand raised towards, he was sending regards to few people walking nearby. We read that once we’re in it will be easy to get lost in the crowd, but the true is that there weren’t many people. Good thing for us was the fact that most of them were Russian thus had similar facial features as us. Heading north on both sides of the street we could see many posters bleached by the sun, each of them presented space exploration theme – rockets, cosmonauts, proud faces of the leaders. Below them on the grass, hoses were left with water flowing, in some parts there were already small ponds appearing. We crossed two streets more and there it was, huge Soyuz rocket. It really is huge and very impressive, it was hard not to act shocked. Under red exhausts of rocket engines we could see some garden workers, taking care of the flowers. It looked really charming among green trees and blooming flowers, empty benches were waiting for the watchers from each side. We went around the rocket trying to stay in the shadow, temperature again was over 40C.

Luckily next big sight was very close – Yuri Gagarin statue. With his hands up in the sky and smile on the face he was sending really positive vibes, it’s not a common pose for soviet monuments. Happiness on his face is understanable – after all he is the first man to reach the space. Almost 60 year ago inhabitants of this city could watch him go “through hardships to stars”.

Ok, all must see places covered and we were still there, nobody kicked us out, nobody canceled our 3 months visas, that we would later need for Russia. We relaxed a bit, went back between blocks of flats. When passing pedestrians we pretended to speak Russian to each other which after all is not so needed, as here are also people from abroad (mostly working for ISS). There was a church, some parks, blocks with many satelites sticking out and a lot of playgrounds for children. Baikonur is built near the shores of Syr Darya river which is also natural border for the parks around. We decided to go deep inside on of them. At the entrance we were greeted by many columns and arches, another Soviet monument and even a map of the park. Nobody was there, place looked really abandoned. Looking at the summer stage at the second end of the park it was hard to believe any event was held there in the past. Next to it, among the trees we could see big wheel a la the one in Pripyat. Why all those places stood abandoned is hard to understand, especially that population in the city seem to grow.

At that point we decided to tempt the fate big time. We decided to check Museum of Baikonur Cosmodrome History. Personnel was pretty shocked when we tried to explain that we did not speak Russian, nevertheless they found younger girl that introduced us to the costs. There was no more questions asked. All we could afford is entrance, no guided tour (anyway it would be in Russian). The exhibition is big and very detailed. One could trace whole history of the comsodrome and soviet space program in the whole. There were many rocket models, suits with badges and medals, elements of spacecraft, outfits of cosmonauts, Sputnik 1 model, memorabillia from missions and even food products that was on board in spaceships. We did not learn much as nothing was in English, still it was very much worth it.

After museum we got completely loose and we headed to the shop to buy cold kvass. All inhabitants were very kind to us. From their smile we realised that they might be used to some less legal visitors in town.

Sun slowly started to go down enabling us to do a little bit more walking outside. We headed back where the driver left us, to the market. People finished their jobs and streets became more crowded. We found souvernir shop in the middle of the market and bought some postcards. It felt surreal to be among so many people, youth, seniors. They all were walking, smiling and drinking cold kvass (like us!).

We finished our tour after once again getting between the blocks. This city felt so remote, but at the same time very homey. We could enjoy here for much longer… we set on the bench near the rusty fountain and started to wonder how every day life is here. Our driver came very soon after we wrote to him. Again he left us not so far from the hole and we met on the second side. We tried our Russian and talked with him a little.

Baikonur city is unique place which definately is a must see place in Kazakhstan. The more we learned about its history the more surreal it felt for us. Though getting inside might be stressful after all it kind of an additional attraction!

PS. Once we left Baikonur, hitchhiking another truck towards south. I got a message from our Nayruz that we should leave the machine. Not knowing what is it all about we listened and thanked to our current driver. Nayruz wrote that “he’s comming”. After 15 minutes we saw him, him and his mother in the car. They bot went out and gave us two big packs of food… just as a gift! We were speechless and shocked. We meet wonderful people everywhere, even in the space city in the desert steppe!

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