Bus arrived as expected at 8 and we headed to Astana. I assumed we would go to the airport and then have to get a taxi to our hotel, but instead of going around the ring road we headed directly into town so we decided to see if the driver would take us to our hotel. We had the hotel address in Russian, but the driver spoke no English so I wasn’t hopeful, however after stopping at the railway station to drop off some Hungarians and Czechs we eventually stopped in a side street near our hotel. Greg had a city map on his phone which was very helpful here. The driver consulted some workmen and motioned us back into the bus and off we went, the wrong way down a very narrow street. Much “nieting” and arm waving convinced the driver he was going the wrong way and he then backed about 100M back to where we’d come from and headed off about 50m in the correct direction before stopping again. We were then about 50 meters from our hotel so decided to walk.
The hotel didn’t look so great from the outside, but the staff were very helpful and the rooms were clean, modern and comfortable. We’re out of the city a bit here and things not quite so glitzy. Still much building work and relatively new huge buildings however. After settling in we went for a walk, partly to find a place for dinner and also to get some lunch which we bought from a small supermarket in a huge apartment block. We were not far from the “circus” a large space ship shaped arena, the roof of which I lit by ever changing coloured lights. As we only found one possibility for dinner Jenelle did some goggle searching after we returned to our hotel which suggested we needed to be one street further west. We investigated this street later in the day and found many very upmarket restaurants which probably wouldn’t have been too happy to have jeans and T shirt clad Australians. Eventually found a small very nice small place to eat. (No English – just lots of gesticulating & miming)
14th Sept Race to the airport and worlds shortest bus trip
Ordered a taxi for 11, I thought, to take us to the airport. Went down the a small shop to buy some things for lunch and got back at about 10.45 and a few minutes later the taxis arrived. Two taxis as we couldn’t fit in one. Off we went at ever increasing speed. Fortunately the roads were very good. At first I thought the taxis were having a race but then it dawned on me that they probably thought we needed to be at the airport by 11. Faster and faster we went at one stage reaching 150km/hr. The speed limit appeared to be 70km/hr as a couple of times we slowed to 70 for speed cameras. We arrived in one piece at the airport, checked in and went and sat under a tree to eat lunch and let the adrenalin levels subside a bit.
Boarding time arrived and we boarded a bus to go to our plane. The bus moved off and stopped 20 metres later. We got off the bus and boarded the plane!
The flight to Kyzylorda was uneventful. We were met there by four people and transferred to the train to Baikonur which took about 3.5 hours. The third class tickets implied seats and not much space but we had two sleeping cabins so were quite comfortable. Also the carriage had a hot water supply so we were able to make tea to supplement our cheese, biscuits, beer and chocolate for afternoon tea. The country side was a bit like central Australia although there was some evidence of irrigated crops in one or two places. Very flat and sandy with low scrub.
We passed through several villages on the way and saw one or two tracking stations and other buildings in the distance. We were met at the station by only three people this time, a driver and two interpreters who transported us to our hotel. The weather is quite warm. Hotel is good. Baikonur is in Kazakhstan but is very much a Russian city. We passed through a check point on the way in and the currency is Rubbles. Temperature can vary from -40C to + 40C here during the year with cold winds but little snow.
Latish start then off to the space museum. With driver and interpreter. Joined by a “space” interpreter at the museum.
Many models of Soviet and to a lesser extent American rockets and other space objects including the International Space Station. Also saw a video of the inside of the ISS. Many rocket motors and other associated rocket parts. Many photographs of the Cosmadrome being constructed and other memorabilia also.
After the museum we did a tour round the town. Saw a Soyuz rocket, the Gagarin memorial, and an obsolete Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. The town has many parks and open areas. Our hotel was on one side of Lenin square which you can imagine has seen its fair share of military parades. Buildings are generally typical Soviet era with new buildings on the outskirts of the town.
After lunch we visited the “space” school. Essentially a secondary school dedicated to those who will work in the Cosmodrome after going to university in Moscow. Many student built model rockets, some of which had been flown, and aeroplanes, gliders etc. Were shown a video of Soyuz launches. Here there were also many rocket motors and associated parts. Quite impressive although not many computers obvious. Visit ended with our launching a couple of model rockets. Link to rocket video – http://youtu.be/n4LsC4uMQfY
After dinner went for a walk to find a supermarket to buy some water and the necessary ice cream. Many people out enjoying the cool of the evening.
According to our guide there are very few, perhaps 20 per year, English speaking tourists visiting Baikonur. The population of the city is largely Kazakhs, looked after by the Kazakh government and Russians, looked after by the Russian government, with the Russians being better off which can cause tension between the two.
We were taken to Turotam station in good time to catch the train however the train only stops for 5 minutes so there was a bit of a run to get to our carriage, especially as the train arrived one platform further away than expected. We only had one cabin this time but still enough room.
A rather delicate operation decanting water into our water bottles in a rocking train. Were collected at the Kyzylorda station, only 2 interpreters and a driver this time and taken to lunch, which was good. Arrived at the airport early so had some time to fill in. Plane left on time for the 1.5 hour flight to Almaty, where we were met by our guide for the next part of the trip and also a driver. Countryside from the plane looked fairly desolate but there were a couple of large rivers flowing through it and some areas looked like they had been cropped.
Almaty is close to the Tien Shan mountains which we saw in Kyrgyzastan and are high and snow capped. We will explore this area more in the next few days.