13 May 2013

Meeting Astronauts in Karaganda

Mention that you live in Kazakhstan and the first thing that people associate with the country is Baikonur – the massive space complex in the steppe.  Gagarin left the earth from Baikonur and it is now the only launch base for manned space missions to the International  Space Station.  It is possible to take a tour to Baikonur - watch a launch, stay in the cosmonauts hotel and visit the historic launch pads and museum.  Sadly the costs of the tours are very high and beyond our pockets, even with just the in-country costs to consider.

Luckily there are some other opportunities to find out more about Kazakhstan's role in space exploration.  Due to the return of the current  ISS crew this week a large number of astronauts have gathered in Kazakhstan to form the welcome home team.  We heard that they were holding some meet and greet sessions in Karaganda – one of our neighbouring towns- over the weekend so we arranged to go down to participate.

Kazakhstan is vast, it is very easy to forget how large it is but we are reminded every time we leave Astana – Karaganda, our nearest large neighbour is about 220 kilometers south on the main north south highway, we had to leave the house at 6am on a Sunday to make the event in time.  The highway cuts through the steppe, which is endless with small villages every now and then before reaching Temirtau, a metallurgical center and some small hills just outside Karaganda.   The road is decent but single lane which means that the speed is limited to 70kph for much of the distance.  

Dachas outside Karaganda
Karaganda City Center - monument to miners 
It is always fascinating to see other parts of the country.  We had been to Karaganda before, an autumn trip two days before the first snowstorms.  No place looks good in October and Karaganda was no exception, the fountains were boarded up for winter, the flower beds dug up and the riverside park was closed.  It was a pleasure, therefore, to see the city in the spring.  There are beautiful tree lined boulevards and some stunning buildings.  Sadly our trip coincided with one of our rare but fierce rainstorms meaning we were not able to enjoy our planned picnic by the river.
Karaganda in the Autumn
Karaganda is an industrial and mining center and this is evident wherever you look, even the local football team are called the miners.  It was once the second city in Kazakhstan and was a candidate for the new capital city when the decision was made to relocate north from Almaty.  Karaganda is also infamous as being a large Gulag (Karlag) administration center during the Stalin years, many of the residents were Volga Germans and Poles, forcibly relocated because of their ethnicity and a large proportion of these people have left in recent years. The net result of this is that the city gives the impression of being a little too large for its needs and it lacks the bustle of Astana.

The meet and greet was held in the American Cultural Corner in the Karaganda research library and comprised a large panel which include Michael Surber who is in charge of manned spaceflight and Kirk Shireman the deputy manager of the ISS.  Eric Boe and Kenneth Cockerill, two shuttle pilots with extensive experience of trips to the ISS, gave us a presentation on the development of the ISS and how it has changed over the past 15 years before taking questions on just about every subject related to space.  It was a once in a lifetime chance and well worth the horrible early morning and 6 hour round trip.

Eric Boe gives a presentation on Discovery's last mission
After the meet and greet we took the opportunity to visit the regional museum next door.  The first floor has some interesting exhibits on the history of the Karaganda area from prehistoric times up to about 1900.  The second floor concentrates on more recent history including the early mining industry, Soviet times, the Great Patriotic War, space exploration from Kazakhstan and the country since independence.

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

No comments:

Post a Comment