Space City Baikonur – a travel guide

Baikonur_City_47There 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.

Baikonur City Map

Map of the city of Baikonur, highlighting the main sights and useful locations. The red line is the well-guarded city delimiter, separating Russia from Kazakhstan territory. Click to enlarge.

You will arrive in Baikonur either at Tyuratam railway station or at Krainiy Airport, both located outside the Baikonur city limits in Kazakhstan.

You will arrive in Baikonur either at Tyuratam railway station or at Krainiy Airport, both located outside the Baikonur city limits in Kazakhstan. Plane passengers headed for Baikonur City do not need a Kazakhstan visa to fly through this airport.

Just before you enter the city from Krainiy Airport you pass the famous 'Fisherman' Statue, a symbol of the space (and fishing) history of Baikonur.

Just before you enter the city from Krainiy Airport you pass the famous ‘Fisherman’ Statue, a symbol of the space (and fishing) history of Baikonur.

City center is located in the south-eastern part of Baikonur, around Lenin Square and the bottom part of Korolev Avenue, locally known as 'Arbat'. On Lenin Square you will find Hotel Tsentralnaya, the main Roskosmos office and the old Officer's Club, now a disused building behind the statue of Lenin.

City center is located in the south-eastern part of Baikonur, around Lenin Square and the bottom part of Korolev Avenue, locally known as ‘Arbat’. On Lenin Square you will find Hotel Tsentralnaya, the main Roskosmos office and the old Officer’s Club, now a disused building behind the statue of Lenin.

Hotel Tsentralnaya is the most central affordable hotel of Baikonur. It has mostly single rooms and a decent restaurant. Although classified as a luxury hotel, compare this to a simple 2-star hotel by western standards.

Hotel Tsentralnaya is the most central affordable hotel of Baikonur. It has mostly single rooms and a decent restaurant. Although classified as a luxury hotel, compare this to a simple 2-star hotel by western standards.

The much more luxurious Hotel Baikonur is only available to Roskosmos guests, while hotel Alcor only serves Tsenki guests. Hotel Cosmonaut is reserved for the Cosmonauts and their direct families. Hotel Sputnik is usually the home base for space company representatives and press. This nice 4-star hotel is available to travellers, but prices starting at €380 per night make other options much more interesting. The restaurant at Hotel Baikonur (photo) is highly recommended. In summer they put up a nice airconditioned 'party' tent for drinks and dinners.

The much more luxurious Hotel Baikonur is only available to Roskosmos guests, while hotel Alcor only serves Tsenki guests. Hotel Cosmonaut is reserved for the Cosmonauts and their direct families. Hotel Sputnik is usually the home base for space company representatives and press.

Baikonur is full of space related monuments, highlighting people, machines, incidents and famous missions. You can walk around dozens of these, taking all day. Baikonur is big enough to have many monuments, but still small enough to walk to most of them.

Baikonur is full of space related monuments, highlighting people, machines, incidents and famous missions. You can walk around dozens of these, taking all day. Baikonur is big enough to have many monuments, but still small enough to walk to most of them.

In addition to the official monuments you will find space-art on every streetcorner. Just keep your eyes open to find it.

In addition to the official monuments you will find space-art on every streetcorner. Just keep your eyes open to find it.

Although mostly a Russian city, you will find links to Baikonur's location in Kazakhstan. This is the Abai Monument, dedicated to the Kazakh poet, composer and philosopher Abai Qunanbaiuli (1845-1904).

Although mostly a Russian city, you will find a few links to Baikonur’s location in Kazakhstan. This is the Abai Monument, dedicated to the Kazakh poet, composer and philosopher Abai Qunanbaiuli (1845-1904).

Another city attraction is the central open air market, two blocks west of the railway station. An interesting mix of Kazakh produce, clothing, supplies and some souvenirs. Near the entrance you will find several small restaurants and stalls that sell homemade Kvas (non-alcoholic cold drink).

Another city attraction is the central open air market, two blocks west of the railway station. An interesting mix of Kazakh produce, clothing, supplies and some souvenirs. Near the entrance you will find several small restaurants and stalls that sell homemade Kvas (non-alcoholic cold drink).

This Beeline shop is the most helpful place to get a local SIM card for voice and data. The sales people speak enough English to understand what you want (most shopkeepers in Baikonur don't) and will help you set up your phone such that it actually works.

This Beeline shop, located about 50 meters to the east of the main market entrance, is the most helpful place to get a local SIM card for voice and data. The sales people speak enough English to understand what you want (most shopkeepers in Baikonur don’t) and will help you set up your phone such that it actually works.

The market is one of the places where you really feel that you are in Central Asia, rather than Russia, although the sales people still prefer Russian Rubles over Kazakh Tenge.

The market is one of the places where you really feel that you are in Central Asia, rather than Russia, although the sales people still prefer Russian Rubles over Kazakh Tenge.

The south-eastern corner of Baikonur is considered city center, with the pedestrian area locally known as 'Arbat', that ends in old Lenin Square. (Click to open map)

The south-eastern corner of Baikonur is considered city center, where the southern end of the main ‘Korolev Prospekt’ road becomes a pedestrian area locally known as ‘Arbat’, ending in old Lenin Square. (Click to open map)

On 'Arbat' main street you will find many small bars and restaurants, some with nice shadowed terraces. Have a cool 'Shimkent' beer with some shaslick and fries, like here at cafe 'Delikat'.

On ‘Arbat’ main street you will find many small bars and restaurants, some with nice shadowed terraces. Have a cool ‘Shimkent’ beer with some shaslick and fries, like here at cafe ‘Delikat’.

There are several mini shops along Arbat, most looking surprisingly identical. Here you buy your most basic groceries. You will also find large sections of cheap to very cheap vodka. 'Bas' is one of the larger of these mini shops.

There are several mini shops along Arbat, most looking surprisingly identical. Here you buy your most basic groceries. You will also find large sections of cheap to very cheap vodka. ‘Bas’ is one of the larger of these mini shops.

Although shop and restaurant staff generally don't speak any English, they are very friendly and will do their best to help. Many like to be in pictures too.

Although shop and restaurant staff generally don’t speak any English, they are very friendly and will do their best to help. Many like to be in pictures too.

One of the best souvenir shops is on a side street of Arbat, in the back of an optics store (indicated as 'Optika' on the map above).

One of the best souvenir shops in all of Baikonur is on a side street (Ul. 8 Marta) just around the corner of Arbat, in the back of an optics store (indicated as ‘Optika’ on the map above).

Cafe 'Svesdnoe Nevo' in the middle of Arbat has the best free wifi internet in Baikonur, plus power sockets for your laptop. It is open for food and drinks all day. Ask for a wifi username and password. The interior boasts portraits of all Soyuz crews.

Cafe ‘Svesdnoe Nevo’ in the middle of Arbat has the best free wifi internet in Baikonur, plus power sockets for your laptop. It is open for food and drinks all day. Ask for a wifi username and password. The interior boasts portraits of all Soyuz crews.

There are several nice restaurants in central Baikonur. The most recommendable are pizzeria Palermo on Arbat and Kazakh restaurant 'Oxotsnitsi Domik' on Ul. Gorkogo. The latter has typical Kazakh 'Yurt' tents in the garden, that can be rented for groups. Great grilled meats here.

There are several decent restaurants in central Baikonur. The most recommendable are Pizzeria Palermo on Arbat and Kazakh restaurant ‘Oxotsnitsi Domik’ on Ul. Gorkogo. The latter has typical Kazakh ‘Yurt’ tents in the garden, that can be rented for groups. Great grilled meats here.

South of city center, towards the Syd Darya River you will find a large park boasting several sports and amusement facilities. Not sure whether the amusement park rides are ever used or whether they are safe at all. Closer to the river you will find this 'bathing' area, with a few fountains. Looking south from here there is literally nothing between here and Uzbekistan.

South of city center, towards the Syr Darya River you will find a large park boasting several sports and amusement facilities. Not sure whether the amusement park rides are ever used or whether they are safe at all. Closer to the river you will find this ‘bathing’ area, with a few fountains. Looking south from here there is literally nothing between here and Uzbekistan.

Practical information

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:

Part II: Baikonur Cosmodrome – The Last Place on Earth
P
art III: Baikonur Cosmodrome – Gateway To Space

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!

10 thoughts on “Space City Baikonur – a travel guide

  1. This is wonderful, I sure will bring copies of the maps on my next visit. You might consider adding the location of the new Russian Orthodox church, just a bit south of the cosmonaut alley east end overlook. How some things have changed!

  2. Thanks! I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Baikonur 1998-2000, and this brings back a lot of memories. I was wondering how much the city had changed, and apparently not too much.

  3. Wow… Is this a blast from the past! I was in Baku, Azerbaijan for10 years but never got to go to Baikonur. Yuri Gagarin was a native son of Baku so there was a big connection. You photos told so much that I have only been able to imagine until now. Thanks for such great details!

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