There are a handful of places in the world that are on top of every space enthusiast’s bucket list. For the true space historian Baikonur has the top spot. This is the town where human’s voyage into space truly began, with the launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1 in 1957, quickly followed by the launch of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin in 1961. If these two historic facts are not enough to make you want to visit, then the fact that this is the only place in the world (apart from China) where humans are being launched into space today, should convince you. Baikonur embodies the great past of spaceflight, but still counts as the most important space port in the world today, 59 years after construction began.
Baikonur is a must-see for any traveller interested in modern history. However, it is not an easy place to visit. Due to the top-secrecy of the early Soviet military nuclear missile and space program, its very existence was to be hidden from the world for as long as possible. A sufficiently remote, but still accessible location was found in Southern Kazakhstan, on the Syr Darya River and the Moscow to Tashkent railway, in the heart of the Central Asian plains, at the tiny fishing town of Tyuratam. With nothing but plains for hundreds of kilometers this was a perfect secret launch site. It was named ‘Baikonur’, after the Kazakh mining town with that name, about 400 kilometer further north. Another effective distraction measure. During its history the name of the new town near the launch sites changed from Tyuratam to Kaliningrad to Leninsk. Since 1993 it is officially named Baikonur. This is also around the time that it became a Russian enclave in the new independent Kazakhstan. Baikonur is on lease to Russia until 2050. Since 2011 the site is no longer considered military terrain, although it is still guarded as such.
Both the remoteness of Baikonur and its special geopolitical situation make this a difficult place to visit. You can come here on one of the three weekly scheduled flights from Moscow or by train from Almaty, Kyzylorda or Aktobe. You will need visa and additional permits to visit the city. Another permit is required for access to the cosmodrome, which is about 40 kilometers north of the city. If you are coming to Baikonur to attend a launch you also need a ‘launch permit’, which at the time of writing is only available to press and VIP guests of the local space companies. So it takes some effort and preparation to visit, but once you have the paperwork done, you are in for the adventure of your life, that not many visitors get to experience.
Preparing a trip to Baikonur is also difficult because there is no guidebook. The ‘Kazakhstan’ Bradt guide is the best of these, with a few pages on Baikonur, mainly describing the history of Russian space flight. Other travel guides barely mention Baikonur at all. This blogpost therefore aims to be the first travel guide to the city of Baikonur. Please follow me on a virtual tour over several blog posts (next). This first post is all about the city.
The tiny airport of Krainiy is only connected to Moscow (scheduled flights three times per week). The train ride to Almaty, the other main airport in the area, takes about 18 hours (daily trains). Make sure you get off the train at Tyuratam. There is no sign for Baikonur. Visitors need a special permit to visit Baikonur, that you can only get through specially appointed travel agents, to be requested at least 60 days in advance. When traveling here from Moscow you will need a Russian visa. Please note that if you want to return via Moscow, you will need a double (or multiple) entry visa for Russia. When traveling from and to Kazakhstan you need a Kazakh visa (single entry will do fine).
Most hotels in Baikonur will only cater to guests of one of the space agencies that are based here. Best ‘public’ hotel is the Italian-run 4-star Hotel Sputnik, with rooms starting around €350 per night. The 3-star Hotel Tsentralnaya is much more basic, but very centrally located on Lenin Square. Rooms start around a more affordable €75 per night. The 1-star Hotel Studenteskaya on Abai Street is even more basic, with the least expensive rooms in town. Please note there is often no food service at Studenteskaya.
Once you have overcome the overprized hotels you will find life in Baikonur pleasantly cheap. You can have a good 2 or 3-course meal with drinks for less than €10. Even the very luxurious restaurant at Roskosmos-owned Hotel Baikonur (you can not sleep here, but eating is fine) is very decently priced, with very good service.
Transport in the city consists of mini-buses (no bus map, but only a few lines) and taxis of variable quality (fixed inner-city rate R.70). There is a taxi stand on Lenin Square (next to the statue). If you are not in a hurry you can easily walk to most sights in the city. Baikonur is relatively safe to walk around, but take your normal precautions. You have to carry your passport and permit all the time!
Climate in Baikonur is extreme. Winters are long and very cold (down to -40C), while summers can be very hot (up to +40C) and dry. There is very little precipitation in the flat steppe year-round, so although cold, do not expect a lot of snow. Most hotels and restaurants have air conditioning (not all) and all of Baikonur is very well equipped to deal with the extreme cold in winter.
Baikonur Blog Trilogy
This blog post is part I in a series of three about Baikonur Cosmodrome. Also read:
You may also enjoy reading my Baikonur launch trip stories, written in 2011:
Part I: Getting to Baikonur
Part II: Baikonur Launch Blog – A Soviet City
Part III: Baikonur Launch Blog – Space History and More Space History
Part IV: Baikonur Launch Blog – Launch Day!