Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Day trip into history


I’ve arrived at Moscow's Domodevovo airport and seem to have been delivered through customs surprisingly quickly. Taxi drivers congregate and I scan their handwritten signs.

I head for one with a Metop logo, the spacecraft I have been brought out to see. I ask if it is for me but he says no. Ten minutes later he comes up and asks “are you Mr Simpson?” It's for me.

It’s a rough old car. None of the dials on car dashboard work so there is no speedo but I guess that’s no problem here. More importantly, perhaps, the radio is working fine, blaring out music and chat in Russian.

Moscow has many airports, both civilian and military. There is a lot of public transport too - trolley buses, railways and trams. At this time the main airport was not linked by rail to the city so it was a one hour taxi ride, if the traffic favours you.

I’m struck by the number of people walking on the side of busy multi-carriageway roads. There also seem to be a disproportionately large number of cars either broken down or parked on the roadside. It’s all very congested and polluted on this warm, summer’s evening - my first experience of Russia.

The sun is still quite high and brings a crisp, reddish outline to the buildings, homes and offices as we speed towards central Moscow and the ‘grand' Metropole hotel, which I understand is close to Red Square.

By now it is 9 pm in the evening local time and it has been a long day. I am one of the last of the international journalists to arrive to join this Press trip so there is just time to check in before we are whisked out and around the corner to a ‘traditional' tourist-style Russian restaurant.

Our hosts are dressed in colourful costume. It is dark and dimly lit inside and we are offered chunks of crusty bread to dip in salt, a traditional Russian greeting. There are shots of mead and of vodka for each of us, along with much cranberry juice and wine for the meal.  We dine on a Russian ‘tapas', followed by a salmon main course and apple pie. Mmmm, slightly English that - didn’t expect salmon and apple pie for my first Russian meal.

It's 11 pm and dusk is falling by the time we finish. Though it is late and the coming day will be long too, I decide to take a stroll to Red Square. It will be my only chance to see this Russian icon.

There are many people about, Muscovites, tourists and a few guards. It is beginning to get quite dark and the illuminated buildings look stunning. I take many photos and wish I had a tripod to reduce the low light camera shake.

The next morning we are braced for a 5 am (2 am UK time) alarm call. No time for any breakfast but there is a table to help yourself to hot takeaway teas and coffees as we are whisked onto a coach for a ride through early morning Moscow. There are many beautiful buildings. The sun is rising into a blue sky. It is still very quiet on the wide roads and boulevards. Much of the city is still asleep.

The trip to Baikonur involves a charter flight from Moscow’s Pulkovo airport. We board a Tupolev TU-134, which I would describe as a rather quaint, twin-engined jet.

It was old and stylish, with wooden fittings, and curtains at the windows. The seats had seen better days and I guessed the aeroplane had already plied many decades of service. Our flight time would be about three hours and ten minutes.

We were headed for Baikonur, the legendary Russian launch site where Yuri Gagarin blasted mankind on the first step of its on-going journey to the stars.

Though we would get to see just about everything else, on this occasion we were not there to witness an actual launch. We would, instead, be briefed on the final preparations for the upcoming flight of a new European weather and climate monitoring satellite, called Metop.

Baikonur is a Russian controlled enclave in Kasakhstan so thankfully there was no need for an additional visa. It is two hours ahead of Moscow, five hours ahead of UK time.

Even from the air you get the feeling that Baikonur is a remote and desolate place. After 30 minutes or so we've flown just east of the Aral sea, a shrinking area of water. Five times the size of France, Kazakhstan is bordered by Russia to the north, the Caspian Sea, and China to the southeast.

Most of the country is made up of steppe, the sand massives of the Kara Kum and the vast desert of Kizilkum, while in the southeast the mountains of the Tien Shan and the Altai form a great natural frontier with tens of thousands of lakes and rivers.

To the east of the Aral Sea, in an area of otherwise un-inhabited desert, lies the Baikonur cosmodrome. There are check points at all major entry points and its airport has two scheduled flights per week to Moscow.

Flying into Baikonur by plane, one can’t help but be struck by the huge expanses of flat sandy desert, broken only by patches of scrub vegetation and deep red scars of rock, exposed by the elements.

The plane looses height quickly, and with a couple of turns we are lined up on the runway. This is the 20 km of tarmac built for the Buran shuttle, which landed here after its one and only flight.

Despite the rough tarmac appearance our landing is smooth and the pilot lets the plane run out for some distance, before executing a sharp u-turn. Eventually he eases off and we come to rest near a near a green shed where two dogs run out to greet their Russian visitor. Luggage is carried from our aircraft in an army truck. There are no civilians in sight, it’s all uniformed military personnel.

This really is like a frontier town, nothing for miles around and about a 40 minute drive for project workers everyday to the famed cosmodrome. As western visitors we are definitely not allowed the freedom of hire cars so a coach has laid on by our hosts Starsem from the hotel.

When it was founded in 1955, the Cosmodrome was dubbed ’Baikonur’ in an attempt to mislead the West about its true location. Infact, the original Baikonur is actually a mining town about 320 kilometres northeast of the space centre.

Administered by Russia and constructed to service the cosmodrome, the city outside the space centre (now called Baikonur as well) went by the name Leninsk until 1995, when it was renamed by the then President, Boris Yeltsin.

Baikonur town is a shadow of its former self. Once formal parks and gardens are now patches of dirty sand and overgrown grass. At the height of the Buran/Energia programme - Russia’s answer to the Space Shuttle - the population peaked at around 130,000 but is now down to around 30,000.

As well as Yuri Gagarin, first human in space, the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched from Baikonur. All subsequent Russian manned missions have lifted off from here, as well as other Earth orbiting, lunar and planetary missions.

As a republic within the USSR, Kazakhstan suffered greatly from Stalinist purges and environmental damage, and saw the ethnic Russian portion of its population rise to nearly 40 percent.

Our appropriately named Sputnik hotel was an unimaginative slab of a building, basic but pleasant enough inside. Opposite the main entrance was it’s saving grace, a monument to Sputnik.

There are monuments everywhere - no mistaking this as a space town. But the parks are mostly overgrown and many of the huge apartment blocks lie half empty.

Outside of the town, the desert-like scenery is unforgiving on the eye and it seems a long drive to Baikonur’s cosmodrome. The scrub landscape is an orange dusty colour and the landscape is littered with regimented and dissecting lines of pylons carrying electricity to the power hungry launch facilities. A railway track alongside the road adds some interest to the wide, flat landscape.

The cosmodrome, too large to fence-in, is a scattering of sites. Old facilities are left to decay, as is any unused or unclaimed item. Derelict buildings, discarded machinery and metalwork populate this desert.

The facilities in use today are smart and efficient. A big attraction of the launch site continues to be its cheapness and reliability in recent decades a significant amount of Western money has come into Russia’s satellite launching business..

We are waiting to catch sight for the first time of the famous launch gantries. The railway bends off to right on a spur. The big sky is overcast and grey but it's very warm, around 40 degrees. I’m pleased we're in an air conditioned coach. As we finally arrive at the cosmodrome there's a very real sense of walking in the footsteps of history.

Article and photos by Clive Simpson. For travel or writing commissions please email.