July 26, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 2: Kyzylorda to Baikonur

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My morning was not spent walking around the city as planned, but in my hotel room at the Hilton Garden Inn Astana. I had some work to do, and despite being surprisingly hungry after a whole day of eating yesterday, I wasn’t interested in eating much this morning. Lunch at a decent restaurant wasn’t an option today since most don’t open till 12pm, and I was on my way to Astana Airport by then.

Dining options at the domestic terminal of Astana Airport were pretty damn limited. I didn’t have a lot of time, and wasn’t gonna bother checking out the Creperie de Paris. There didn’t seem to be a local option, so I found myself at Burger and Pasta, ordering two croissants and a juice. Gotta be honest and say that the croissants exceeded my expectations.

The flight to Kyzylorda took 1½ hours, and after 3 flights on Air Astana in 2 days, I’ve gotten used to passengers clapping upon successful landing by the pilot. Kyzylorda Korkyt Ata Airport reminds me of the dinky airports in remote parts of Asia – with a simple building, only one gate, and no luggage conveyer belt. We had to wait outside the room until the staff unloaded the luggage, then everyone rushed to grab their bags. I didn’t see my luggage in the pile, and was about to try to report missing/stolen luggage until my guide spotted it near the entrance. My guess is that one of the locals tried to steal it but couldn’t get pass the staff at the door checking luggage tags.

After meeting up with fellow traveler Stuart and our guide, we set off on a tour of Kyzylorda while we wait for the rest of the group to arrive about 4 hours later. I had pretty low expectations for what we would see, despite the fact that this place had a population of over 200,000 and was in fact the very first capital of Kazakhstan upon the creation of the SSR.  And I was right...

Our first stop was the Independence Square, not far from the airport by the Syr Darya River.  The first thing I noticed was the large number of crows on the grass... Anyway, not surprisingly the square was dominated by a huge flag of Kazakhstan...

Next stop was the President's Park (Президентский Парк). This time it would be the pigeons perched on top of those columns...

Then it's on to the Korkyt-Ata Monument (памятник коркыт ата), dedicated to the famous composer.

The Temple of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God is the only Russian Orthodox church in the city, and was consecrated in 1855.  It was small but beautiful, and seemed to be an oasis of calm and tranquility in the city.  We didn't stay long in order not to disturb the faithful.

We also go and see a park dedicated to the dead heros of Kyzylorda, with headstones announcing the names of the heroes and an 'eternal flame' which seemed to be taking a daily break.  At the far end of the park, we see a monument dedicated to all the wars that Kazakh people have fought and died in, as well as Chernobyl and the former nuclear testing site of Semipalatinsk near Semey.

Our next stop was my request.  I wanted to see the Kyzylorda Train Station, which turned out to have been built in 1905.

Finally we went to the city's central square (центральная площадь), which houses the main theater, the university, and a fountain where we found kids playing with the cool water on a scorching day.

We had some time to kill before heading back to the airport to pick up the other members of our group, so we ended up at Nomad Palace Hotel and headed to the lounge for a beer. I was a little hungry, so I got myself a bowl of solyanka (Солянка сборная мясная).  The broth is a little sour thanks to the pickled cucumber and lemon slices, and there were small cubes of pork sausage, beef, smoked meats, and black olives.

We picked up the rest of the group at the airport, switched to a Mercedes van that seats just under 20, and started the long drive towards Baikonur.  We managed to catch a beautiful sunset along the way.

After a ride of more than 3 hours, we finally arrived at the entrance to crossroad separating the town of Baikonur and the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  We were issued with our "tourist pass" and put them on immediately.

Another 20 minutes or so on the bumpy roads past the official checkpoint, we finally arrived at Hotel No.1 at Site 2.  Our guide Anya, who works for Tsenki (ЦЭНКИ) and therefore Roscosmos (Роскосмос), warned us not to wander too far from the hotel by ourselves.  "There are snipers around, and I'm not kidding, guys!" were her words.

We got our room keys, and I carried my heavy suitcase up 2 flights of stairs to the third floor.  At around 11 p.m., I finally got the chance to dig into the takeaway dinner our local guides had provided for us.

We had the usual tomato, cucumber, and onion salad found everywhere in Central Asia, along with plenty of dill and other herbs.

We also got plov, which was totally awesome.  Even though it wasn't piping hot, there was still some warmth, and at this time of night, it tasted fucking delicious!

It was late, and my internet connection wasn't working, so I showered and hit the small single bed in my room.  The 2-day program begins tomorrow!

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