Off Korolev Avenue Baikonur 6.30pm
We’re at Yuri Gagarin’s monument. I like this one. Its a huge concrete sculpture. He has his arms raised upwards towards the sky. I walk around it for a bit and see, that at a certain angle, it looks like he has the setting sun between his two outstretched arms. I like this view, so take a few photos of him holding the sun, with the shadows of the group in the foreground. Its nice. I continue to wander around the monument as the tour guide lady turns another page in her folder sharing more facts with us. Yuri seems otherworldly in this pose, and I like it. I could stay here for a while. I’d prefer to be here with may be one or two other people though, taking my time to sit here and have a think. Its a nice spot for thinking.
The blue folder is full of printed pages and I can see that she’s only about a quarter way through on this walking tour of monuments. Her hair is done nicely and she’s dressed well. She’s really giving it socks, but one of the Slovenians keep interrupting and correcting her, or translating for the group from Russian to Slovenian at the same time our lovely interpreter Yana is explaining to us in English what we are looking at. Its very odd, there’s clearly some sort of bizarre power struggle going on. I feel sorry for both Yana and the tour guide lady, they’re both being very polite about the situation, and none of us seem to know what to do about it either.
We’re in a park full of monuments, celebrating the achievements of truly exceptional people, key influential people in the history of Russia’s long and incredible space story. Most of them are the usual brass sculpture busts. I’ve seen a ton of them in nearly every city and town I have ever visited. We even have a few in Dundalk. They all look the same. Whats the beef with monuments, anyway? I mean, are they really the right way to capture a life’s work? Is this monument really sharing with us the incredible stories of the people who created Baikonur? Why can’t they be remembered in a more tangible way? I want to know all about the lives of these people and the incredible things that they did. But someplace else, not here in front of a block of concrete and a brass bust- what about instead, if its over a dinner, or lying down on a beach, or on a lovely grassy field under a tree, with the sunlight casting dappled shadows through the leaves with a soft breeze blowing softly on my face, half asleep but listening intently to the lovely tour guide and imagining every detail she is telling me- about their lives, their REAL lives; how they struggled to achieve what they did, the personal sacrifices they all made to create Vostok 1 and to get Yuri in to space that day back in April 1961. About the yelps of joy when he returned safely, the looks exchanged between Sergei and Yuri that moment he emerged safely from that spacecraft, knowing together that they had created this enormous and unimaginable seismic shift in our perception of ourselves as humans.
What must it be like to change everything so completely in a moment? What does it feel like to carry that on your shoulders? I imagine the handshake Yuri and Sergei shared in that moment, or maybe even an embrace, probably holding back tears of pride, respect, love, fear, disbelief and joy, such wondrous joy. Celebrating that intimate moment surrounded by the team, still not quite realising the huge thing that together they made happen. That their lives would never be the same again. Or probably as good either. How could it? What else could you possibly achieve in life, that could exceed the day you shifted forever existential perceptions of what is and what isn’t possible?
So lovely tour guide lady, throw away that blue folder, melt all those brass busts into a beautiful art piece on that beach, or in that grassy field, and burn those pages in a fire for us all to sit around as you recount these amazing human stories. Tell me those stories, please lovely tour guide lady! Not a cold, voiceless, static brass bust of a person I never knew, do not know, nor respect nearly as much as I should. And arguing with a Slovenian academic over numbers dates, names and locations to me, is completly missing the point. Please, spare me this!
The dude interrupting the tour guide lady is Voike, and seemingly a well respected and very knowledgeable scholar on Russian space history. Andreas tells me that his comments to the tour guide lady are legitimate and that she’s getting the monuments mixed up. I’m not surprised, they all look the same to me too. Its great that he knows so much, but I can see that the lovely tour guide lady is getting flustered.
I see her shoes. They’re white. She’s done her toenails in a lovely pink colour. This job is important to her. You can see that she takes a great deal of pride in being a tour guide. I think about her earlier in the evening, getting ready to come to work, to be our guide for the night. I see her at her kitchen table, in her home. I imagine that its a simple home, that this job is a good one, and that the fee is good compared to other jobs available to her in Baikonur. Her role as tour guide is important to her. Even her blue folder tells me that. I wonder what she thinks of us too. I try a few times to catch her eye and smile at her but she doesn’t see me. She’s working, and doing her very best in disseminating this information that she has in her blue folder. So when Voike corrects her, I can only imagine the humiliation she is feeling right now. I can’t watch, because I want to jump in to the middle of the disagreement and fix it for her. But I can’t, because this is my first day with these people and I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. Its all probably down to a simple difference in cultures, different methods of communication, different values. So I’ve decided to disengage and instead watch the pages turn in the tour guide lady’s blue folder. It looks like she has about 10 pages left, and she’s done about eight already. So that means that there’s another hour at least of this excruciating experience to endure.
Some local kids come running over, some are on bikes and they circle us in amusement. They sit around beside us. One of them has a bubble wand, haven’t seen one in years. I love them, and he has one that can make the really huge bubbles. How cool would it be to make enormous bubbles at Yuri’s monument? I’m dying to play with it with him. He runs around us initially, then slows his pace, until he is walking behind his, unsure if he can join in. He sees me smiling, I beckon him to join us. He seems particularly interested in us and slowly approaches. The other kids slowly peel away and move on to the next distraction, but he doesn’t. He looks at everyone individually, and when he gets to me I smile at him again. He listens to the tour guide intently for a bit as Yana and Voike continue to vie for our attention, and then stands beside some of men in the group, peering up at them. He then looks back to me, sitting at the base of the monument and comes over.
I get up to talk to him. He asks me something. In Russian, I think. I tell him ‘Ireland. I’m from Ireland’. ‘Nah’, he mutters and he shakes his head quietly. I get my camera out, thinking that maybe he wants me to take a picture of him, which I do. But that’s still not it. He moves off and goes to stand beside the Slovenians to the right of me. I sit back down at the base of the monument. He comes back and sits beside me, which is nice. I point to his bubble wand, and he looks up at me. ‘Bubble?’, I ask. And he shakes his head while showing me his bubble wand. I want him to give it to me so I can blow some bubbles but he doesn’t.
Stefan comes over and speaks with the boy. Turns out that Stefan knows a little Russian from when he lived in East Germany before the wall came down. He tells me that the boy is incredibly proud that people have come to his city from all over Europe. He doesn’t seem to know much about the launch. I smile back at him. He asks Stefan a question as he looks at me. Stefan says ‘Irlandyia’. And I smile back at him and say ‘Da, Irlandyia’. He laughs. We all laugh. Vasily has come over now wondering whats going on and sits beside me on the other side. Andreas takes a picture of us all together.
His name is Sascha. He looks about 10, maybe 11 years old. He’s a lovely young man and is making his parents very proud with the manner in which he is conducting himself in our company. We’ve all fallen in love with him a little. We continue to have a non-conversation together for another 10 minutes- Stefan, Vasily and myself. I continue to point at his bubble wand, saying ‘Bubble’ to him. He never pursues it, kind of ignoring it every time I say it. Vasily jokes that bubble could be like a really offensive work in Russian, and finds this completely amusing for the remainder of the evening. As do I.
Its time to move on to the next monument. And Sascha decides to join us. As we walk onwards, he runs on ahead, walking with Andreas, and then with some of the Slovenian men, then back to us, then to Stefan. He stays with Stefan mostly. I like that he’s with us.
Next up: the Soyuz Rocket replica.
And its incredible. I mean its huge and bright and the boosters are this beautiful bright red. We all take pictures of ourselves under the boosters, taking turns-first the Slovenians. The blonde Slovenian girl in our group snips at me to get out of shot as I’m trying to take a better shot for one of her colleagues. So I step out of the way and feel a little silly. We all haven’t gelled yet as one big group, and I’m hoping that tomorrow or maybe the next day, I’ll get to know them better. Sascha joins in too, running under the big red boosters. I manage to grab a few sneaky pictures of him. Then its a group picture of the Slovenians with their national flag, then our group Vasily, Stefan and Steffen take their turn. I try to take good pictures for them. And then its time to move on to the next monument.
Andreas tells me to hang back, he’s a great idea that we should take some pictures here with me jumping in the air. I love it and throw myself into the task wholeheartedly. And its so much fun jumping in the air. I’m laughing and loving the notion that I’m in front of this rocket that could one day finally get me up to space. Vasily hangs back and he decides to click away too, both generously grabbing this exquisite moment for me. Its wonderful. And while I’m distracted with all this, somewhere between the Soyuz rocket and the next monument Sascha decides to leave us. He probably ran back to the Yuri monument to re-join his friends.
Because we’ve only had lunch today, Galina is asking us if we want to go to dinner. But lunch had been only about two hours previously, so none of us are interested. ‘I’d love to grab some chocolate or something, in case I get hungry later tonight though’, I say. So we all go to the shop across the street. A tiny shop. The two shopkeepers stand to attention the moment we enter. They’re not used to this many people coming in at once, I imagine. I’m embarrassed that there are so many of us. I’m embarrassed that I cant speak Russian, because we’re all speaking English so loudly. There’s not much stock in the shop. Very little choice. I wonder how I would survive here, what kind of job I could get, what my salary might be. There’s a big housing shortage in Baikonur so it’s probably expensive to live here.
A lot of spirits, lots of vodka for sale in the shop. They also sell beer from a keg from a makeshift bar area, and someone has come in with a 2l plastic bottle which is being filled with beer. The chocolate is displayed in a glass case. Andreas recommends a genuine Russian chocolate bar to buy. It has a lovely cream wrapper with a Babushka doll design on it. The aisle between the 2 sides of the shop is so narrow it’s difficult to turn around to see it, because there are so many of us here. Vasily wants one too, so I get 2 bars. I pay the lady.
There are no cash registers, it’s a simple cash exchange. I see the bubble wands are for sale here too. I want to buy one for Sascha and see that they’re 40 roubles, but I don’t want to buy it in the company of the group. So instead, I decide that I’m going to give my 50 roubles in change (which is worth about 70 cents) to Sascha. Only problem is, I don’t know where he is.
Vasily and I have already become best buddies. Turns out he talk about other things besides concrete, which is a relief. He’s funny too. Likes being silly, the way I like being silly. But I think we’ve bonded because we both saw something in Sascha. Maybe not. He says that he want to help him, but its hard to know when Vasily is joking and when he’s serious. He might be mocking me. Even though he’s making me laugh, I don’t know him well enough yet to know the difference. I tell him that I want to buy Sascha chocolate from the shop and he encourages me to go back to the Yuri monument to find him. He promises to get the tour bus to wait for me until I return. So I run back towards the Yuri monument, but get terribly lost. I cant remember where it was. I’m walking up & down for a few minutes, the group are completely out of sight now. A group of teen boys sitting on a wall, notice me and start to talk together. I probably look completely out of place and remember that scene in ‘Trainspotting’ when the American tourist enters a dodgy pub during Edinburgh fringe and Rent Boy (Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewan Bremner) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) mug him, and they say that he was asking for it. And I think that this is me right now. The teens get up from the wall and are walking towards me. I worry that I’m not being vigilant enough, and then I worry that I’m being prejudiced. But in the end, I decide to head back to the group.
‘Did you find him?’, Vasily asks. ‘No’, I say. ‘There’s still time, go back!’, he says. ‘I thought that you wanted to buy him chocolate’. ‘I do’, I say, ‘but he’s gone’. We get back in the tour bus for another hour of monuments.
In our white, knackered minibus drive back to the hotel, with our crazy but affable Kazak driver, Vasily teases me that I didn’t try hard enough to find Sascha. And I laugh. And he jokes about ‘bubble, bubble’. And I laugh. We get back to our lovely hotel ‘Sputnik’. We sit outside on the steps as Andreas smokes away. We were planning on a beer before bed, or as I’m told by Steffen and Stefan an ‘Absacke’, but the chats are so good outside on the steps, we cant be bothered heading to the bar. By 9.30pm I cannot keep my eyes open. The 2 days of non-stop travel to Baikonur have finally caught up with me. We’ve a very early start in the morning to view the real Soyuz rocket that takes Alex, Serena & Sergei to the ISS. It is rolling out from the Energia site 112 at 7am, being seen for the very first time. It’s a big tradition in Baikonur for the Soyuz rockets to be rolled out this way, making a 2hr journey to the Gagarin launchpad. We make a plan to be at reception for 6.20am. I excuse myself from my new family, shower, and fall into my beautiful, huge bed. I’m gone in 15 minutes.
I lie in bed and think about Sascha, and feel bad that I didn’t try hard enough to find him. And anyway, what difference would my stupid 50 roubles have made to his life? Vasily & I continued to speak about him throughout the whole trip. He said that he would really like to help him and I said that I would like to too. We even joked about adopting him.
At the end of the evening after we’d visited every monument in the city, the lovely tour guide lady got out of the bus in a suburban part of the city. It must have been close to where she lives. I shouted ‘Spaceba’, as she got out, but I’m not sure she heard us. Or maybe she didn’t want to hear it. She didnt say goodbye and no-one made a big fuss for her as she disembarked. The bus just stopped and she quietly got off. I imagine that when she went back home, and took her white shoes off that she told her family about the awful evening she had had. And the man who kept correcting her. I thought she was a great tour guide. I may hate monuments, but she did a great job. With her blue folder, and pink toenails. And white shoes.
I never went back to find Sascha. I never saw him again.