Our plan, if you can call it that, was to venture out into the middle of deepest Kazakhstan and sneak into the Russian space port of Baikonor, to try and track down some abandoned Russian space hardware left rotting deep within an abandoned hanger. We wouldn’t be the first to attempt this, and indeed a few brave souls had ticked them off before us, but it’s certainly not a trip for the faint hearted. Firstly, theres just getting to the place. Baikonur is about 1400km from the nearest proper city and even then you’ve got to yomp it by night through the arid desert for about 45km, charting a route that avoids the army patrols, live rocket facilities and keeping an eye out for the packs of free roaming dogs that stalk the area at night. It’s also Russian territory, a bit like the way Guantanamo is a little bit of America in Cuba, so if you get caught, you’re not exactly going to be dealing with a bunch of goat herders.
Armed with a rough hiking route that ‘at least didn’t go past the bit where they make the nuclear missiles’ and a pair of crossed fingers, we were hoping to be able to bargain a suitably rugged 7 seater off-road vehicle to get us the 1500km from the airport to Baikonur after touch-down, disguise it in the dust with some tarps and hike the last 10km through the live base and on to the shuttles.Urbex History Tours in Kyiv are available for you!
1. ‘So, what do we know about Kazakstan?’
The Cheshire Cat, fresh off the plane from Moscow; planted himself in a chair opposite me in the Almaty arrivals lounge, where we’d been hanging about while I finished off programming the waypoints for our trip into the handheld GPS receivers, terrified we’d not see a jot of free wifi in the country again.
‘5th biggest’, I said, still buried in the over complicated menus of the Garmin and only really just coming to terms with the insanely long drive we had ahead of us.
“…and the second most corrupt”, he completed with his signature grin. “It’s really bad here, worse than fucking Africa”.
We got our next Pizdetz about 5 minutes later. The Boatman, who had left the cafe 5 minutes previous for a quick cig while I finished faffing with the GPS units, came walking in shaking his head.
“I’ve just had to bribe a cop to not arrest me for smoking in the smoking area”.
To chop a long one short, he went out for a quick tab and got stopped a third of the way in by a police man, who took him into his office and told him that a had a ‘very big problem’. He could either fill out an enormous blue form, all in Kazakh, and, I assume, expect to hear from a county court judge in a few days, or alternatively pay a ‘fine’ and have the matter resolved in a gentlemanly manner there and then, allowing everyone to get on with their days and forget the whole thing ever happened. Apparently, this wretched scoundrel wanted a whopping $100 to clear the whole thing up, but as far as I understand the Boatman managed to pull him down to a straight 20 and have done with it.
As luck wouldn’t have it, the General and Scharfrichter had booked their flights via Astana in a bit of a pre-trip mixup so were going to be another couple of hours. We needed some rest, so we retreated to a nearby hostel and got some kip while we waited for them to land. We could face these problems in a few hours.
Upon arrival, it transpired that Scharfrichter’s bag had been lost somewhere in Minsk leaving her with no boots or camping gear, and on top of that, no one would rent us a vehicle. Try as we might, there wasn’t a rental company in Almaty that were going to trust us to drive 1500km to Baikonur, even for $1000 USD cash, which binned our main plan before we’d even got it off the ground.
Our only alternative was a long sleeper train to Kyzylorda, a town 200km from the Cosmodrome where we could probably rent another car or get some cowboy taxi drivers to drop us in the middle of nowhere with no questions asked. To be honest, the train felt like a much nicer option to alternative of the long schelp of driving it. Endless broken pot holed roads, shithole towns and progressively more bleared driving eyes, or just sitting round a table drinking beer for 14 hours watching the scenery go by.
2. I Heart KyzylordaBy 19:00 the next day, we were sat in the back of a pair of taxis heading out into the desert. We’d utterly failed to pickup what any self respecting adventurer would call ‘adequate supplies’ for the environment we were about to find ourselves in. For starters, we had no camping gas, so the fancy expedition meal packs and jetboil that the Boatman and the Otter had smugly unveiled at Gatwick as their solution to their already full-to-the-brim-with-camera-gear backpacks went right out. Cold sausage, cheese and bread were to be the order of the day for the next 3-4, with no grumbling allowed. At least I could console myself in having some proper footwear. The Monkey had pulled his usual trick and come equipped for a night on the tiles: skinny jeans, ankle socks and a pair of Vans, which had already stated to rub his ankles from walking round Gatwick Airport. The drivers we’d cajoled into driving us out to Baikonur seemed convinced with our story, but then again, he did keep stopping to buy beer en route, so I’m not actually sure he gave a sod as long as he got paid and stayed above the drink drive limit. For the record- I was Steve McCurry, world famous photographer, and the Boatman was the son of the owner of National Geographic, there to take photos of the stars for the Kazakstan tourism board. The Cheshire Cat. the General and Scharfrichter were our guides, and the Monkey was the son of the Boatman, along for some reluctant work experience…
3. Just Deserts
Baikonur comes as a strange jolt after the 3 hours of total darkness, with a huge motorway intersection and ranks of sodium streetlights appearing out of absolutely nowhere after miles of desert. Our taxi man seemed a bit miffed he had to drive an extra 5km beyond the Baikonur turnoff (his beer must have run out), but after seeing the fist full of notes we presented after pulling over, he happily swerved off into the black. With the stars of the milky way on one side and the distant street lamps and glistening aircraft warning lights on the towers in Baikonur City on the other, we 7 souls began our journey towards our first waypoint. Four Brits and three Ukes stomping into the worlds biggest space port, straight into Moscow’s back garden. We were a diplomatic incident waiting to happen. I suggested that to keep our profile as low as possible and that we flightmode all our phones and keep silent when moving, and in too-perfect-to-be-true timing, the Cheshire Cat ripped his earphone out, delightedly exclaiming
“Hey guys, I have 3G!”.The landscape here is perfect for nighttime hiking. Flat, firm, no rocks or weird objects, and by light of the moon you can just crack on and get some miles under your belt. The Cheshire Cat was zoning off into his own little world listening to the Intersteller soundtrack, quite fitting for the dizzying display of stars above our heads, but I kind of wanted to keep my ears open. I had absolutely no idea what sort of patrols they might be running out here and I actually quite enjoyed the simple rhythmic plodding of everyone’s feet on the soil underfoot. Polluting it with a load of Hans Zimmer would have felt a little crass and quite unnecessary.
We made excellent pace. Silently pitting one foot after the other, we blitzed our first 20-odd km to our first stop-off in 2 or 3 stress-free hours.The camp for the night was a mostly-destroyed R-36 missile silo, which presumably once housed an end-of-the-worlder and must have been demolished in the nuclear non-proliferation treaties in the mid nineties. USA and Russian superpowers had decided that enough was enough and that it was time to start scaling back the arsenals, resulting in hundreds of ruins like this one scattered all over the US, Europe and former Soviet Union. It was a pretty spectacular sight. A huge concrete and rebar Sarlac, straight out of Star Wars with a bottomless pit of death at its centre, offering an accompanying bunker to shield us from the intense sun that would be upon us in a couple of hours. We had to wait for the next evening before we set off, due to both the heat and the chances of being seen by the military patrols so had a day to spend on our little oasis of concrete out in the barren desert of the Kazak steppe. Games of ‘throw the stone in the hole’, ‘throw the stone at the metal thing’ and ‘throw the stone at the stone, were all popular pursuits, as well as looking wistfully at the cosmodrome through the monocular and making sure the camels on the horizon weren’t security guards in disguise.
4. To Buran
At 9pm we started out on the last straight. The general plan was to make our way round the top side of some of the live facilities and into the Buran compound at a tangent, crossing part of the Baikonur industrial railway and skirting past the Soyuz assembly buildings and the tonnes of guard dogs and soldiers that kept watch over that particular part of the base. With the alternative being to nip round to the far south and coming back round from the back, adding on another 10k, a shortcut wasn’t to be sniffed at. The only horrid part was going to be finding a way past a control post and it’s enormous search light next to the control post which we could see blasting out like the eye of Sauron about 5km before we got anywhere near.
This last 5km was plagued with obstacles, seeing all of us fall down at least once on all the random bits of space junk lying around the various demolished facilities and piles of trash that had been bulldozed into huge piles covering ancient foundations of the once extremely active Soviet space program.
The Boatman took an ankle full of rusted barbed wire next to a set of defensive trenches just before the last sprint to the dilapidated Buran complex. The 5 minutes of down time while the Boatman detangled himself allowed us to take stock of what we had to deal with up ahead. 1 km away was the main access road that lead up to the Proton launch pads and Yubileyniy airfield north of the Buran hangers. It was 4am but still had plenty of traffic moving up and down, as well as that blasted search light lighting the road up for at least 2km towards the nearest launch pad where the search lights installed on top of the rocket support uprights took over to light back the other way. It was also totally flat. The only thing close to what you might call cover were a smattering of 2 foot high bushes, (the sort that eventually become tumble weed) which would only provide sporadic protection against the light and eyeballs of the guards in the control post. There was nothing for it, we’d have to crawl.
For about 600m, we agonisingly shuffled our way towards the road like a flock of oversized land turtles. The weight of the pack was smashing my knees to bits on the gravelly ground and I lost count of the number of thorns my fingers collected along the way, although the Boatman was still bleeding profusely after trying on those barbed wire ankle socks and the Monkey had just trekked 45km in a pair of loafers, so all things considered, I didn’t really have much to moan about.
The last 100m was excruciating. We were lit up like a starting eleven at Wembley and decided the best thing to do would be to up our speed, stop belly crawling and crouch run across the road, keeping 7 abreast formation to lower our surface area to the KPP sat next to the search light.
I can only assume the guards in the control post weren’t looking, because it felt like the most obvious, on top, horrendously dodgy thing i’ve done in ages. I was even considering taking another route round the launch pad, going past more security and adding on about 5km rather than doing this, but we sprinted for it anyway.
As soon as we had made it over the road, the terrain lowered slightly and we could stop and take stock, have a breather and work out wtf to do next.
In front of us, were a number of ruined buildings and a loose dirt road which snaked around them. For some reason, we started faffing about with the iPhone map and people started getting impatient. We should have just gotten a fucking move on.
Now, I don’t care who you are or what you get up to, there isn’t an urbexer, trespasser, burglar, robber, undercover police man or flippin secret agent whose arse doesn’t clench a bit at the sound of a massive dog. Whenever I get a refresher of that ‘teeth and capture’ feeling I always pray it’s the last bloody time I’ll experience it. I’d just been getting used to how utterly mental the milkyway looked flanking the back of the Buran shuttle hanger with the mild desert breeze gently shifting the odd bits of scrap that lay around the site, so at least for me, this was an extremely unwelcome shift in pace.
We sprinted off to the right, towards the Energia rocket building doing that ridiculous too-fast-to-be-quiet-but-too-slow-to-outrun-the-slowest-dog-in-the-world run, and before we knew what we were doing, me and the Monkey had climbed into the wrong building, the group were cut in two and that dog was *still* going off on one in the distance.
We cooled our beans and saw a bit of sense, heading towards the Buran building on the direct approach, scaling a sheer concrete wall and multiple layers of 70s style barbed wire fencing that once upon a time, would have served as dog runs to keep the engineers in and the spys out.
We moved by red-headtorch, creaking towards the hanger and still tripping up on all the cosmic detritus and random bits of junk that littered the courtyard in front of the enormous building.
One by one, climbing through an open window, we fumbled our way through a couple of dilapidated corridors, the broken glass crunching underfoot, framed by the strange, rusted shapes of some ancient Soviet electronics that lay scattered around the floor. Coming to a doorway and moving through, I suddenly got the sense we were in a much bigger space. We still had the reds on and couldn’t see shit, but as soon as the General flicked on his big torch, by mouth dropped.
Fuck me. They were bloody massive.
Laid out in front of us were the things we had come all this way to see.
Two Soviet space shuttles.
We made camp in one of the top rooms, on the upper levels, sipping a bit of vodka we had left over and tucking into our daily ration of bread, sausage and cheese. 2 or 3 hours sleep and the sun would be up, and we could get cracking with having a proper nosy around the place.
5. Actual Pizdetz
“Vitaly! Shit, there’s someone out there speaking Russian”The Monkey sounded worried.
The Cheshire Cat hoped out off his mat, the iPhone that he’d been using to listen to music on the night previous clattering to the ground).
“Pizdetz! (Its screen had cracked to bits) Ok ok, lets check.”
I stayed put. I wasn’t quite awake yet, and I was fucked if I was gonna be rushing round like a headless chicken only to be caught 2 minutes later. If they we’re coming in anyway, I might as well stay in the hammock and get an extra 5 mins snooze.
I dozed for another 30, just listening to what was going on outside. I heard the Cheshire Cat laugh.
I thought we were gonna be ok, whatever it was.
I only noticed at this point that everyone else was already up, so I hauled my lazy arse out the hammock and got my camera to get my derp on with everyone else, moving out on to the top gantry and seeing a few figures moving about below.
As I made my way down the staircase, I came across two dudes in army camo making a brew over a primus stove.
Sat next to them with a full mug of java was the Cheshire Cat, having a natter.
“They are 4 guys, came here a different way to us. From East”
So past the R36 assembly base then…
“they almost got caught lots of times”
“really. what a surprise!”
So, after trekking out 2 days into one of the most remote deserts on the planet into a Russian rocket base guarded by the military, and STILL bumping into derpers, I think we can all declare urbex officially dead and buried. This was turning into a bad day in Belgium.Baikonor might be becoming a new urbex centre parcs, but there is a bloody good reason. These shuttles are fucking mental. I’ll spare you the ’30 years of abandoned russian majestic amazing derp dust urbex ghost #history #barelitfam #adventure #hastag’, but they were truly a sight to behold. I’ve seen the Saturn V and the shuttle in stasis at NASA in Florida, a fantastic day out that I’d recommend to anyone, but its so much nicer when you get to see these things on your own terms an not have your eardrums bashed in by the 5000 other folk who have paid their $15 to do the same.
Myself, the Monkey and the Boatman were stood beneath the second shuttle acting the goat and generally spoiling each others photos. Had I not spent 5 minutes faffing about trying to the the perfect ‘URBEX POSER’ pose (I didn’t manage it) the next part of this story would have probably read something like:
‘Got in Shuttle, pretty cool, went to see the other rocket bit, had a look at a launch pad, walked home, top job’,
but it wasn’t going to be that simple. I’d noticed out the corner of my eye, 3 dudes, one of which was head to toe in camo with a Russian military badge on left breast pocket, about 50 yards further down the hanger by other shuttle.
The others saw them too, and our first reaction was to quickly duck out the way, until I realised that the Russians who we’d met on the step earlier also had camo on, and one of them had that same red military emblem, and I think the Monkey had this same revelation as me. Why on earth I managed to see a tiny Russian Army badge from this distance and not the fact it’s owner was a tall Kazakh soldier in his mid forties is anyones guess, but I think it’s probably time I got to Specsavers.
By the time we’d realised our mistake we were fucked. I think they were as confused as we were, but after everyone settled down and realised what was going on, the shouting started.
“DOCUMENT!, DOCUMENT!” he shouted
“Nyet Rooskie Govoreet!”.. “Nyet Document!, Moi Rooksack!”..
My Russian is pretty poor, but id managed to convince the dude that I didn’t really speak Russian and that my passport was in my bag on the top floor.
It wasn’t, but I knew full well we were about to get put through the wringer and I at least wanted my backpack and its contents there waiting for me after our prospective prison terms and it not left to the pigeons.
From behind, the Otter came out with his hands up, obviously realising he was knackered as the moment we went to get our bags, they’d know there was at least one extra pudding at the picnic and almost certainly just start looking for him.
The Cheshire Cat scuttled by on the top balcony, doing the most unsuccessful scooby-doo duck-run I’ve ever seen and getting seen straight away by the soldiers. He’d grabbed his bag and was making a break for it, I guess hopefully trying to find a spot to hide and wait it out. I told the solider we were going to pop to the top and grab my bag, and his mate grabbed me, obviously thinking we were also about to do a runner. We negotiated that we left the Boatman and the Otter on the ground floor with one solider, and had one man come up to the rafters with us to pack down and grab all our rucksacks and sleeping kit. We hauled everything up bar a bottle of vodka, which I left discretely to one side. I figured that if the Cheshire Cat was in for the long haul, he’d probably want something to keep him occupied while half a Russian platoon hunted the poor lad down outside.
Coming down the stairs, we came across two young Russians in full camo. They looked a bit ‘new’, but I thought that maybe Baikonur might be a first placement for the burgeoning young Russian squaddie. On the ground were the camping mats and primus stove of the last lot lying around on the floor, but my assumption that these two were senior soldiers checking the remains of our old mates camp pretty quickly came tumbling when I saw the fear in the eyes of the the girl at the back. She was fucking bricking it. These two, it turned out, were the mates of the two lads I’d said hello to on the stairs previously, and were now about to be transferred into the custody of the Russian military with us.
We were all lead back down to the hanger floor where I found the General and Scharfrichter, before we were all lead outside, surrendered our passports and lined up against the wall of the Buran hanger.
All we had to do now was just wait. Our Russian soon-to-be new cell mates had just grassed their mates up, so the numerous soldiers that kept arriving, van by van, started spreading out and surrounding the building getting ready to go hunt of them. Once they figured they’d had the whole place covered, the man in charge let out a giggle, racked the bolt on his AK and jumped up into the open window we’d just been lead out of, presumably to wonder around on the shop floor, shout a bit and try and make the two others come out by just shitting them up into thinking they were about to end up full of holes.
It took a good 45 mins of hanging about here, although the soldiers were pretty sound. They obviously thought the whole thing was a bit weird, but quite funny and were happy for us to ferret through our bags and grab the odd biscuit. One of the soldiers even got his phone out and showed us a video of a Soyuz blasting off the week before.
The boss man came back out the window looking disappointed. Even after all that Rambo business he’d still not found his quarry, so it seemed the two ruskies and our very own Cheshire Cat were in for the long haul. They bundled us into the bag of an ancient Soviet off roader and drove us to the cosmodrome cop-shop, presumably so someone with a bit of authority could decide what on earth to do with us.
I thought we were going straight to the cells but it ended up being a rather relaxed affair, sitting out in a sort of garden pagoda in the yard of the police station, shaded from the desert sun. All we needed was a disposable BBQ and for the one funny-man soldier to stop messing with the bolt action on his AK every 2 seconds and it’d have felt like a bank holiday weekend. When we got permission to pop inside for a quick wee, the main thing that struck me was that unlike European police stations where the posters on the wall are all about how to give CPR and the number to call for Crime Watch, here literally every single poster was how to strip down a different type of machine gun or a massive picture of Vladimir Putin.
The only time I felt really worried at this little garden party, was when all the soldiers who were guarding us jumped up to attention, in preparation for what I can only assume was the base commander who came strolling in. Number 1 shaved grey hair, jet black tash, easy 6ft 8 and wide as a bus, this fucking nut bar just paced it a couple of times while clutching onto what I can only describe as a sheathed Katana, bellowing a few terse phrases in Russian and walking off. If there was anyone that was gonna be doing the ‘interrogation’, I assumed it was gonna be him. He only made one more appearance before we got bundled into the mini bus for a drive to Baikor town, coming out the front of the police cell this time with his blade half out and gave a good stomp up and down shouting the odd thing. Fuckin nob.
It’s a fair old way from the space base back to the walled city of Baikonor, and getting a ride a round the place on the way to the nick was actually kind of cool. Getting access to Baikonur town wasn’t originally on the cards, its a walled city that requires a permit to enter (not that this ever stopped us before), but sneaking in there after blapping the space base had originally felt like we were pushing our luck and we weren’t going to bother, so a drive round here was a nice little bonus. Theres a huge Soyuz rocket displayed in the centre of town and a load of ancient soviet locos on commemorative stands dotted about the place. Not that we had time to stop for photos of course, we were in the back of a police van on the way to jail. Another thing I noticed was that every other person seemed to be cop or a solider, which would have made escaping the place a right job had push come to shove.
Escape from Baikonor. Staring Kevin Spacey. Yeah, that sounds about right.
We got our finger prints done, got mug shots, twice, and sat for ages in a holding room by the cells. A grumpy looking plain clothed man came in, demanded to see our boarding cards from our flights and any other bits and pieces we might have to prove our travel to Kazakhstan, took all our passports and left the room.
The General whispered over to me..
“He is FSB”.
Nads. The notorious Russian secret police were now on our case, and our new man looked like a right grumpy fucker. We were lead upstairs (I guess thats where the FSB do their dealing in the Baikonur jail), and although I was totally shitting it, I have to say, it was much nicer up here than the dingy windowless lower floor we’d been hanging out it for the last hour or so. We even had a view, even if it was from behind bars..
We got separated from the General and Scharfrichter and made to sit on our own in a room containing nothing but an oil painting of Putin and a chain smoking fat man in a red polo shirt who sat over an ancient computer painstakingly editing some document, typing like my nan, stabbing the keyboard only with his fat index fingers.
The only bit of comic relief we were gifted came in the form of one of the chief FSB officers who spoke some English. He came down the corridor and leant on the door frame of our smokey little room and asked:
“Where you from..?”
“England” I replied as neutrally as possible. I didn’t want to see cocky, scared or even like I had the remotest idea what I’d gotten myself into, lest I gave our game away or influenced the outcome of it some way.
“England…” He paused. thinking for a moment.
“And what are you doing here?”
“Hiking” I said.
“Yes.. Hiking, in the desert”.
He then took another moment to consider my confirmation, then burst out laughing, steadying himself on the door frame.
“You’re fucking crazy!” He said, walking off down the corridor shaking his head.
From this point on, I kind of thought we might be ok, and about 15 minutes later we were taken next door, where we had to give our side of things with the General acting as translator.
We were told to empty our bags, each item being scrutinised one by one, and had to give over our phones so they could have a quick scroll through. The only thing they really took exception to was the Boatman’s drone.
“Did you fly this?”
“err yeah, once, well, we tried but it was too windy”
“It is forbidden to fly drones without a permit”
Nads. Well that was another flippin law we’d broken, although after he’d seen the piss poor attempt at flying the thing played back on the Boatmans smartphone in the 20mph desert winds, he kind of lost interest and made him pack it up, and after a few more questions, that was it.
We signed our names to a big Russian statement, and left the place with a very firm handshake and a look in the eye from the head of Baikonr FSB. That was quite weird, and I’m pretty sure they don’t shake your hand when they boot you out of 210 Baker Street.
For me, that was enough pizdetz for one day. I just wanted a sit down and a beer. The police van van dropped us off at the station and I found a kiosk and a woman behind it kind enough to sell me a cold one. It had been a long fucking day, and a moderately stressful one at that. I’d juuuusstttt started to crack the can, got the first little hiss of carbon dioxide racing out the nanometer thin opening the ring pull had just created, all ready to go the whole hog and open it, a fifth of a second off completing my day with at least one, simple, nice thing.
Just one nice thing.
I put the can down and just slumped into my chair, I’d given up, and right on cue, with utterly perfect timing, comes a police officer.
Had I had one gram less of patience, I’d have just told him to fucking do one. He obviously had no idea what we’d been through, but we wanted us all in his office, right away, and to get our wallets ready for some bribe-time. I was going to leave the half opened beer can on the floor, but the man motioned for me to take it.
He was going to regret that.
We piled into this tiny office where the sergeant told us to put our bags down and handover our passports. We duly complied, but as I dropped my bag I turned round and accidentally gave the that can of beer he was desperate for me to bring with me a bit of a kick, and it exploded all over the office.
His face was a right picture.
I right down the corridor trying to stop this madly fizzing can shooting allover the place and failing miserably, just about managing to ditch it in a sink pretty much as it had stopped spraying..
I made my way back to the office. Everything, including me, was covered in beer.
He gave me another stern look, tore a piece of paper out of his magazine and made it into a paper chip-cone. Where on earth was this going..?
As he thrust the thing into my mouth, I realised he’d made us a make shift brethalizer, and wanted us to breath into it. We all did so, and it because clear we a: weren’t pissed, b: had all the proper stamp in place and c” like chelsea and man united.
“England! Man United! Ferguson! Chelsea! Abramovich!”
Why the fuck does every interaction with a language barrier, worldwide, always come down to shouting about the workplace of a load of millionaires in Salford. The mind boggles.
Shouting the names of some English footballs clubs seemed to work, and we were away, hopefully trying to spend the next few days in Kyzylorda, and out of trouble.
6. I Don’t Heart Kyzylorda
We almost managed it as well, even heading out to nip up the cooling tower of the local power station and tracking down the largest stretch limo in Kazakhstan, but the Monkey binned it on his last day, smashing a whole bottle of vodka, going out, getting slapped by a local and finishing off the week by kicking the hotel room window out and trying to get on the roof in his underpants.Well done everybody.
At least we weren’t in jai.
Thanks to the Boatman, the Otter, the Cheshire Cat, the Monkey, the General and Scharfrichter.Original post by Testhamber