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Eduard Starkbauer
October 31, 2023, 6:30pm
Reading time: 9:49

Filip visited the abandoned Soviet Baikonur Cosmodrome: The sight of the ruins of the most expensive space project is unreal

He marched 30 kilometres to and from the campus in total darkness. He narrowly avoided the guards several times.

Eduard Starkbauer
October 31, 2023, 6:30pm
Reading time: 9:49
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Filip visited the abandoned Soviet Baikonur Cosmodrome: The sight of the ruins of the most expensive space project is unreal
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Twenty-nine-year-old photographer Filip Poreba likes to travel to undiscovered or forgotten places. He recently returned from an expedition to an abandoned part of the Baikonur Cosmodrome site in Kazakhstan.


Most of the iconic space base belonging to Russia is still in use and it is impossible to see it up close. However, Philip gave us an insight into the preparation and progress of an extraordinary four-day adventure in the dilapidated hangars that house the former pride of Soviet space exploration - the Buran space shuttles.


Source: Archív Respondenta


Baikonur is not exactly one of the standard tourist destinations. How did the idea of visiting it come into your head?

A couple of years ago, as an official tourist, I saw Chernobyl and Pripyat. I met a guy there who organizes solo tours and gave me tips on urbex in Kiev. I walked with him along the city's drainage canals and we became friends. He was the first to show me photos of the Soviet Buran shuttles from Baikonur back then.


Later, when I was tidying up my emails, I wandered into a spam box and saw a message from him offering to go to Baikonur with a random group of people. It was a proper coincidence. I didn't hesitate a minute and took the last available spot on that date. I immediately paid for the tickets and didn't even bother with the tourist visa, as it's free for 30 days.


I assume there is no direct line to Baikonur. How did you get there?

I flew to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, from Prague with a change of planes in Istanbul. From there, I continued on a local low-cost flight to the city of Kyzylorda near the border with Uzbekistan. I met the other three participants of the trip there. From Kyzylorda, Baikonur was only three hours away by car.


We told the driver we were going fishing. We didn't have rods, but we needed an alibi. On the way, we stopped at a local motor inn where we sampled specialties including extremely sour milk from a horse. The driver dropped us off after 7pm 30 kilometres from our destination. We continued on foot along the most recommended and safest route to meet the hangars with the Energia rocket and two Burans.

Did you avoid the city of Baikonur, which is connected to the still functioning spaceport, altogether?

Yeah. There is a museum with one of the three shuttles, but you can't get to the active part of the base belonging to Russia. The most you can do as a spectator is watch a rocket launch. The active part is considerably larger, and when we slept in the abandoned part, we saw the launch pads from which rockets are launched into space. It was from here that the first man, Yuri Gagarin, launched into space in 1961.


You didn't go to Baikonur alone. Did you know your companions in advance?

No, but when we met, we found out that we were really similar. They were 30- to 40-year-old guys from Europe who are extremely world-traveled. One of them had also been to North Korea and he was quite inspiring to me. We were a great bunch and had a lot to talk about the whole trip. We are still in touch to this day.


Source: Archív Respondenta


Did you have to walk all night?

Yes, we set off as soon as the sun went down and finished the final touches. We re-taped the reflective elements on our clothes, switched our phones to airplane mode and headed north. We followed the North line the whole time.


The hike took 10 hours and we took a 5 to 10 minute break every hour. I had a 17-kilogram backpack on my back, and right after the start, I realized that it wasn't going to be easy.


We each carried eight litres of water and about two kilos of food on our backs. I ate three energy gels on the way there and back. I also had protein bars, Snickers and Bounty. We also all had a slab of sausage, a block of cheese, and crackers, which was our diet for the entire stay. Ideally, though, we were supposed to drink a liter to a liter and a half of water at a time.


Did you have to get to the abandoned spaceport in the dark?

Yes, and that's why we had to pick up the pace while walking. One of us had a huge rucksack, and in places he couldn't keep up, and we had to wait for him so he wouldn't get lost. We had to get him three litres of water so we could be faster and make it to sunrise. Once he even took a wrong turn when we lost him in the dark. Then we had to cross his path to meet him again.


It was totally dark around us as we couldn't use any light. We were tripping over bushes or holes in the ground. We often fell into holes where various rodents, snakes and scorpions live.


What was the riskiest part of the night march?As we approached the campus, we had to cross a number of dirt roads, which, fortunately, were not checked that often. Another tricky passage was the trenches, behind which was the railway and beyond that a dual carriageway. It was the longest but also the safest route, relatively far from the buildings where the guards slept.


Source: Archív Respondenta


Did you come into contact with any officers after all?

On the way there, as we approached the grounds, I was the last one to go, to watch the pace and see if anyone was approaching from behind. Everything went smoothly then. The drive back, however, was much busier. Coming back along the fence along the dirt road, we walked on the very edge of the road behind us, leaving no tracks.


Suddenly, the first of us saw a flash of light and ran towards the desert. We didn't hesitate, sprinted about 200 meters in his direction and lay down on the ground. Suddenly a police car passed about 100 meters away from us. It was a very close encounter. The rotation of officers was intense during our trip, with military and special Baikonur police personnel taking turns.



What would you have been in danger of if the police had caught you?Last year, a well-known YouTuber Bald and Banrkupt was arrested there, and it was a mess. In principle, however, there's not much at stake after an arrest. They just take you to the nearest police station in Baikonur City. If that happens, it's ideal to have SD cards with photos hidden and prepare a fine for which they'll let you go.


Although there is minimal chance of encountering other tourists in the area, we came across a trio who had been arrested two days before our arrival. However, they returned because they missed some shots. We got to talking because we knew neither of us were security guards. It was preceded by a comical situation where one of them went to check who was breaking inside the building and ran away from us instead.


Why are the officers guarding the abandoned area so tenaciously?

They got pretty pissed off about two years ago when someone spray painted their Buran shuttles with graffiti. Since then, they've started stricter controls. The original plan was to spend a full day at the Burans, but we quickly found out from observation that that wasn't going to be possible. A black car of the Baikonur police made a circuit around the hangars every hour and a white car of the military police every two. The officers stopped behind the building so as not to be seen, and searched the interior of the hangars for over an hour.


The Spaniards, however, said the guards were not unpleasant. They say they understand the tourists and know they have come a long way. However, their boss is reportedly terribly p*ssed off when he sees new posts on Instagram all the time. A year ago it was much more relaxed and sometimes there was only one check a day. Back then, people were literally sleeping in shuttles.


Source: Archív Respondenta


Are all visitors motivated by filming and photography or do they also go there for adrenaline or the desire to experience something unusual?In our group, I was the only one who is dedicated to professional photography, but I only took a small camera. People go to places like this because they want to check a place off their bucket list. We mainly took pictures on our phones.


What was the first thing you did when you got there?

At a building not far from the Buran shuttle hangars, we waited for a beautiful desert sunrise and went straight to sleep. The floor of our "bedroom" was littered with junk, nails and glass. So I cleaned up a bit, lest I puncture my air mattress.


I took off my softshell jacket and trousers, which I used as a cell, and slept only in thermal clothing and a neck warmer, as it was blowing from the windows. I tucked myself into my sleeping bag and slept like I was in my own bed. I was really at the end of my strength.


Was it a safe place to spend the night?

Basically, yes. It was a huge building with plenty of places to sleep in relative safety. At most there were a few primitive traps on the bottom floor. There was a rope or tape stretched across the stairwell, and elsewhere glass was propped up. In another place, bricks were laid out that would collapse if someone brushed against them. The motion sensors would have made more sense, but these were Russians after all.


Especially on the lower floors, of course, we had to be careful. Every morning we heard someone coming in, and then we had to be really quiet and still. At night we could only shine a red light inside the palm of our hand to see underfoot a little. There was a lot of dirt and glass and sheet metal on the ground, and when you kick something, it really echoes.


Source: Archív Respondenta


How did it feel when you first came face-to-face with the two giant Buran shuttles? From the videos, they look like the most spectacular attraction.

It is, and getting to them is therefore also the most difficult. The building with them is quite boarded up and there are chains everywhere. We waited for the rotation of officers from both police forces to finish before entering, and to be on the safe side, we allowed a maximum of 45 minutes for our visit.


The view of the shuttles was extreme. It was shocking to see the state in which the Soviets had left their most expensive space project. The Soviets built the Burans based on plans that the KGB stole from the Americans. They did the same thing, only bigger.


Buran had a single launch in 1988, when it was carried into orbit by an Energia rocket. The entire test was unmanned, and the shuttle made two orbits around the Earth in 3.5 hours. The project was cancelled by Boris Yeltsin in 1993. In total, it cost over 20 billion rubles.


Did you also get inside them?

No, we didn't have the time or the rope, as all the entrances from the ground floor are completely barricaded. We walked through the floors and balconies and took a few photos. However, we did manage to see everything we had planned, although we're sorry we had such a short stay at Burano.


Does it seem that people take something away from Baikonur?

Kazakhs in the area drive around with their lights off and collect iron, wires or metal sheets without shame. They also take stolen iron and copper items from hangars to the raw materials collection centres. It is quite a problem, so the authorities are even considering dismantling the whole area, including the shuttles.


Did you get any souvenirs?

I picked up four tiny labels from the dilapidated junction box by the rocket where we slept. I don't know if anyone takes anything from cockpits, too, but I wouldn't be surprised.


Source: Archív Respondenta


What surprised you most about Baikonur?How closely they guard it. Once, when I went to my backpack to get water, I saw a car in the desert through the vent. A guy got out of it and started shining a powerful flashlight around the grounds. When he started shining it on the building and specifically on my "window," I quickly ducked and walked away for a few minutes.


In addition to the risk of being caught, were you also exposed to risks arising from the technical condition of the buildings?

Definitely. The buildings are really old and in bad condition. In some places the gridded floor is completely missing and we had to jump over holes. Everything was rusted on top of that. When I took a picture of the Energia rocket from a booth suspended at 200 meters, I really had to work up the courage.


In search of good shots, I also walked on a thin metal plate that was feathering heavily, and the railing wasn't in the best condition either. I didn't care all that much either as we climbed the six flights of outside stairs or the dilapidated prefab roof. Parts of it were caved in and we preferred to spread our weight on it.


How did you feel on the way back?

The last six kilometres, after we had covered another forty that day, including the area, were the most critical. I couldn't feel my legs and we couldn't even stop because it was really cold. On the car ride to the airport we all fell asleep within seconds. When I got on the plane on the way back and it all came crashing down on me, I was almost in tears that it had all worked out successfully for us.


Is Baikonur a romantic place?

It has enormous charm. It is in the middle of the desert and the sunrises and sunsets are spectacular. There are also wild horses running around the desert and through the buildings. Walking around such a special place is magical and unique.


Source: Archív Respondenta


How much did this whole adventure cost you?

More than I expected. The tickets cost me a total of 500 euros. I also had to buy hiking gear, including shoes and a backpack. All in all, it could have cost me around 3 000 euros.


However, it was the best, albeit at the same time physically and mentally the most challenging trip I have ever experienced. I recommend everyone to see Baikonur before it's too late.

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