After now having been in Baikonur for one week, I am starting to get a fairly good impression of the town. In one word: surreal.
This is a place in (literally) the middle of nowhere - in this case: the desert of southwest Kazakhstan -, a complex built in the '50s by the USSR. At that time, Kazakhstan was of course still part of the Soviet Union. At the moment it is a Russian enclave in a now independent country. Once upon a time, this city was inhabited by 100.000 people, Russians and Kazakhs. And it was the glory of the Soviet space program: this is where Yuri Gagarin launched from, and many other space-milestones were achieved here. Other - not so successful, yet prestigious - projects also have their origin here. For example, the Buran shuttle and its enormous Energia launch pad are here. All in all, it is a area with decades of space history. Even for those without any significant space-related background you cannot not be impressed.
However, now in 2006, Baikonur has been stripped of most of its prestige. Towards the end of the USSR the space program inevitably suffered. At the moment, there are about 30.000 inhabitants of the town. At times, it feels like a ghost town. Huge apartment blocks are unoccupied; the streets seem deserted; paint is fading and the ferris wheel stands still with Russian songs coming from the croaky speakers. Of course, the Baikonur Cosmodrome isn't completely deserted. In June, for example, at least 5-6 launches are scheduled. Some of these are for governmental or military satellites, other launches are for cargo supplies to the International Space Station.
The drive from Baikonur town into the Cosmodrome is a surreal experience. Exit and entry to and from both areas is stricly monitored. The town is surrounded by a wall, with a few checkpoints to get out. The Cosmodrome itself is as large as a third of the Netherlands: it has a diameter of 80kms. The landscape is almost moonlike - desert and steppe continues for miles and miles. The only thing growing out here are some shrubs now and then. And of course there's the occasional tracking station or antenna farm. Once inside the office building we are onlly allowed outside for about 20m, anywhere further is off-limits. And for every single request explicit approval is needed from the Cosmodrome authorities (at the moment we are waiting for approval to visit the Buran model in 15 minutes....).
The inhabitants of Baikonur town are a mis of Russians and Kazakhs. There is also a Kazakh village just outside the wall (where we are not allowed, as we only have a Russian visa) and I can only assume that many of the villagers work in the town or Cosmodrome. As far as I've heard the two groups get along without problems. There was some friction just after the collapse of the USSR with rioting in the town - after all, Russia was not about to give up its valuable facilities in Kazakhstan, but the Kazakhs wanted to reclaim their land. At the moment, there is still some separation between the group and the people tend to keep to their own. So far though, I do see them mixing at the market, in the local bars etc, although it might be too early to really tell accurately. There is a lot of military on the streets, and it is clear that all people here are fully dependent on the space activities for their livelihood.
In any case, it will be an interesting further two weeks. There is a lot going on at the Cosmodrome and in the team, the weather is great, so far the team members seem interesting enough to socialize with; now just to get that Russian under control....