The Aral Sea is located in the heart of Eurasia. Its basin covers the whole territory of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, the majority of Turkmenistan, the three provinces of the Kyrgyz Republic (Osh, Jalalabad, Naryn), the southern part of Kazakhstan (two regions: Kyzylorda and South Kazakhstan) and the northern part of Afghanistan and Iran.

Before the beginning of shallowing of the water, the Aral Sea was the 4th largest lake in the world. In 1960 the surface area of the Aral Sea was 68,900 square kilometers, but early in the 20th century the figure dropped to 17,160 square kilometers divided among four lakes.

According to scientists, to restore pristine state of the Aral Sea it will take at least 200 years. Full restoration of the Aral Sea is possible only if no water would be taken from its feeder rivers. Desiccation of the sea reflected the climate of the region: it has become more continental In addition, the dust from the dried seabed, which contained sea salt, pesticides and other chemicals, was carried by wind for hundreds of kilometers. This naturally had a negative impact on the health of residents of settlements located in purlieu of the Aral Sea.

In 2003, in order to improve the environmental situation in the region, the Government of Kazakhstan decided to build a dam stretching from the Kokaral peninsula to the Syr Darya estuary. Such a move would save the northern part of the Aral Sea, now called the Small Aral Sea, or Small. To date, the water level in the Small Aral Sea has increased significantly; in addition, water itself has become less salty, which made it possible to begin the process of breeding of some species of game-fish.


Aralsk(on the Aral Sea) is a town that once a busy fishing center with 40,000 people on the Aral Sea that supplied fish to much of Central Asia and other parts of the Soviet Union. Now it’s a depressing, impoverished eyesore, many kilometers from the shore of the Aral Sea. Many of the people that used to live here have left. Many of those that have remained are unemployed or have health problems from airborne toxic chemicals carried by winds and exposed when the Aral Sea’s waters retreated, and possibly, from chemical and biological agents unsafely stored on the island of Vozrozhdeniya.. The main tourist sights are beached ships about five kilometers outside of town. A number of beached ships can also be seen near the town of Dzhambu, 50 kilometers away.

On clear days you can sometimes make out the Aral Sea shore. For all intents and purposes reaching the Aral Sea is impossible. It can only be approached by foot and is very difficult, even dangerous, to try to reach it on your own. On the drive to Aralsk you can see fields damaged by salinization from irrigation. The lake near Aralsk is getting larger due to the construction of a dam that diverts water to the North Lake (the northern portion of the now fragmented Aral Sea.

Also known as Aral or Aral'sk, Aralsk serves as the administrative center of Aral District. Its population in 2009 was 29,987 down from 30,347 in 1999. Aralsk is now completely landlocked. The northern small Aral Sea shore is about 12 kilometers from the town. This is considerably than the 100 kilometers distance observed before the completion of a dam in 2005.

In 1971, a massive public health response to a smallpox outbreak in Aralsk ensued once the disease was recognized as resulting from the release of weaponized smallpox from a nearby biological weapons test site. In less than 2 weeks, approximately 50,000 residents of Aralsk were vaccinated. Household quarantine of potentially exposed individuals was enacted, and hundreds were isolated in a makeshift facility at the edge of the city. All traffic in and out of the city was stopped, and approximately 54,000 square feet of living space and 18 metric tons of household goods were decontaminated by health officials. The original outbreak sickened ten people in Aralsk, of whom 3 died.

Vozrozhdeniye Island: Biological Weapons Testing Area in the Aral Sea

Vozrozhdeniye Island (in the Aral Sea) was the home of a top-secret facility that was the world’s largest biological weapons testing ground and was one of the primary testing grounds for Russia's biological weapons using anthrax and other diseases. The island contains pens that held thousand of animals—rabbits, guinea pigs, monkeys, sheep, donkeys, mice, hamsters, horses and baboons—that were used in testing. Around 1,500 people lived there at its height. [Source: Christopher Pala, New York Times Magazine, January 12, 2002 |:|]

Mark Synnott wrote in National Geographic: Located on Vozrozhdeniya Island—which, now that the sea is gone, is no longer an island—the facility was the main test site for the Soviet military’s Microbiological Warfare Group. Thousands of animals were shipped to the island, where they were subjected to anthrax, smallpox, plague, brucellosis, and other biological agents. The U.S. State Department, concerned that rusting drums of anthrax could fall into the wrong hands, sent a cleanup team there in 2002. No biological agents have been found in the dust since then, but sporadic outbreaks of plague afflict the surrounding region. [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015 \+/]

Gennadi Lepyoshkin, a scientist who worked at Vozrozhdeniye told the New York Times, “About one-third of our work was on weapons, like anthrax, plague and others bacteria, and two thirds on matters like testing vaccines or clothing or how long microorganisms would survive in the soil....The atmosphere was friendly, people were earning good money and we were provided with everything.” The workers used to sunbathe, dance and hunt ducks in their free time. |:|

Much the testing involved giving disease-causing agents to animals. Lepyoshkin told the New York Times, “We used monkeys, about 200 to 300 each year. Our staff would take them out to the range”—25 kilometers from the town—“and they would put them in cages next to devises that the measured the concentration of germs in the air. Then after they were exposed, they would be taken to the labs, where we would test the labs, where we would test their blood and monitor the development of a disease in them. They would die within weeks, and we would perform autopsies..” The testing was usually only done in the summer when temperatures sore to 120 degrees F to prevent the spread of the pathogens. |:|

Lepyoshkin said, “There was always danger, but we never had an accidents. He recalled on incident in which a woman dropped a petri dish containing anthrax. She tried to hide her mistake but her accident was discovered. Here punishment: she was docked some money on her paycheck. “No one got sick,” Lepyoshkin said. |:|

Vozrozhdeniye Island In the Early 2000s

Vozrozhdeniye Island, now shared by shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was shut down after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the level of the Aral Sea has dropped the island has become a peninsula connected to the mainland. The peninsula is uninhabited except for the occasion scavenger that goes there. [Source: Christopher Pala, New York Times Magazine, January 12, 2002 |:|]

Large amounts of the strain of anthrax that killed people in Sverdlovsk are buried in pits on Vozrozhdeniye Island. There are concerns that terrorists could collect disease samples of the diseases could spread through animals or people that visit the site. Uzbekistan is particularly concerned because it plans to drill for oil near where the anthrax is stored. |:|

One of the greatest worries is that wild rodents that live at the range and were exposed to weapons-grade plague may have survived, The plague that was used was not affected by antibiotics and is more contagious than the natural kinds. If this strain somehow spread to a scavenger and then the people there could be a very serious problem.

In 1995, an American teams discovered live anthrax spores on Vozrozhdeniye Island. At that time the United States earmarked $6 million for a program to decontaminate the site.


Baikonur City (near the Aral Sea, 30 kilometers from Baikonur Cosmodrome) is closest major town to Baikonur Cosmodrome. It used to be called Leninsk City; in 1995 it was renamed Baikonur. Situated in the heart of the vast Kazakh steppes, Baikonur is home to about 30,000 people (about 70,000 people lives in the general area of the Cosmodrome) . The Baikonur (Baikonyr) comes from the village of Baikonur, which lies where the town is situated today. In order to camouflage the real Cosmodrome, a fake one was built of wood to throw off enemy spy planes and satellites. This fake cosmodrme gave birth

Baikonur is located on a bend of the Syr Darya (river) about half way between Kazalinsk and Dzhusaly, two district centers of Kyzylorda region, near the railway station of Tyura-Tam. Leninsk was founded in 1955 and grew from the western suburbs of what is now the so-called "wooden town". Some of original one-storeyed "wooden" houses; they are exceptionally well suited to the desert climate.

Getting to Baikonur: The easiest way is to fly to Kyzylorda, the nearest city to Baikonur and from there take a train, bus or taxi. The nearest Railway Station to Baikonur is Turetam. Travelling from Astana to Baikonur on a train usually takes more than 24 hours. There are direct trains from Almaty to Turetam station, but again the trip is usually more than 24 hours. There is a direct flight from Moscow (Russia) to Baikonur (Domodedovo Airport – Krainiy Airport) three times a week. There are frequent flights to Kyzylorda from Astana, Almaty and other places in Kazakhstan.

International Space School and Sights in Baikonur City

Baikonur city sprawls over an area of approximately 40 square kilometers. The Syr Darya river is the natural boundary for the west and south sides of the city. The city is the administrative and economic center of the cosmodrome and has the status of city of republic significance in Kazakhstan, which rented and administered by the Russian Federation. In the center of the city is the central square and government buildings of cosmodrome, computing and information processing centers, the hotel "Central" and the department store. the Soldier's Park is near the main avenue. One of the first TV towers in Kazakhstan was built in the city in 1961.

The Monument to Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin, the first man in space, sits the park between the house of communications and building of the city administration. the street along which cosmonauts enter the city from the airport is also named after Gagarin. The main square is named Korolev Square after Sergei Korolev, the leading Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer in the 1950s and 1960s and regarded by many as the father of the Soviet space program and practical astronautics. The square is situated at the intersection of the street 50 years of the Soviet Army and the Korolev Prospect (formerly Karl Marx). Korolev Square contains a monument, produced by the sculptor, A.P. Faydysh-Karandievsky and architect N. Asatur.

The International Space School (at Baikonur) is named after Vladimir Nikolaevich Chelomey. It offers three fields of study — 1) physical and mathematical, 2) chemical and biological and 3) aerospace — in which 750 students from 5 to 11 forms are studying. The International Space School is a profile school of MSTU named after N.E. Bauman. It is a member of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), the Program Committee on Education IAF, and the International Organization of young astronauts. In 1993, the International Space School opens scientific branch "Space" of Small Academy of Sciences of the National Academy of Sciences of Kazakhstan. The International Space School has a large space museum, which contains unique exhibits of rocket and space technology. The International Space School pays much attention to trips for gifted students at the events such as the olympiads, competitions, conferences. Usually efforts are not wasted, and representatives of the International Space School win prizes.

Baikonur Cosmodrome

Baikonur Cosmodrome (near the Aral Sea, 30 kilometers from the town of Baikonur, near the village of Tyuratam, 275 kilometers northwest of Kyzylorda) was the launch site for nearly all the rockets used in the Soviet and Russian space program. The complex is owned by Kazakhstan and leased to Russia's until 2050. Special permissions is needed to visit the area. For a long time tourist were rarely given access. These days three-day Baikonur Spaceport Tours are available for about $400. They sometimes include witnessing a launch,

Baikonur Cosmodrome is the world’s first and the largest space center. Occupying an area of 6,717 square kilometers, it has been a launch pad for many different types of space vehicles. It is one of three space centers on Earth — along with the Cape Canaveral in the U.S. and Jiuquan in China — that has launched manned spacecraft. The orbit of the International Space Station (ISS) was chosen taking into account the latitude of Baikonur so Baikonur could be used to launch spacefcraft with supplies and astronauts.

Baikonur is in the Tyuratam desert. Construction of it began in January 1955. It became functional in 1957, the year Sputnik was launched. In 1970-80 Baikonur was the largest cosmodrome in the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s cosmodrome became the property of Kazakhstan. The first satellite, dog, man and woman into space were launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Manned space vehicles launched from the site include the Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz series. The "Salute" and "World" space station series, the reusable "Energiya — Buran" craft, scores of of interplanetary spacecrafts and hundreds of satellites have been launched from the cosmodrome. . About 50 percent of the annual number of space launches of Russia are launched from Baikonur, but on the total mass of the output payloads is more than 80 percent, including 100 of the percent launches into geostationary orbit.

Baikonurwas located in bleak steppe far enough away from populated areas so that if a mishap occurred no one from the general population would get hurt. The location was so secret that few people knew where it was. Even the name was intended to throw people off. Baikonur was the name of town 320 kilometers (200 miles) from the actual launch site. The location was kept secret from the U.S. until it was spotted by a U-2 spy plane in 1957. There are some other Russian rocket launching facilities. Plesetsk launch facility in northwest Russia specializes in launching military satellites.

Baikonur is where Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and all of the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s space mission were launched. It is a huge complex, a city really. At its peak in the 1980s it was home to 150,000 people, 52 launching plazas, 34 scientific laboratories and 10 factories. It had its own agricultural system and embraced six towns. There were movie theaters, one of the best hospitals in the Soviet Union, 13 schools, specialized music schools, three palaces of culture, a palace of Young Pioneers, resort and beaches built on an artificial lake. Today Baikonur is now primarily used for commercial launchings and to send supplies and people to the International Space Station. Most of the people who work at Baikonur are Russians. When Baikonur was built it was regarded as so secret that a dummy launch site was built 370 kilometers away to fool high-flying spy planes.

Baikonur has handled twice as many launches as Cape Canaveral in the U.S. According to NASA: Baikonur Cosmodrome is the launch complex where Sputnik 1, Earth's first artificial satellite, was launched. The rocket that lifted Yuri Gagarin, the first human in orbit, was also launched from Baikonur. In fact, all Russian crewed missions are launched from Baikonur, as well as all geostationary, lunar, planetary and ocean surveillance missions. All space station flights using Russian launch vehicles will be launched from Baikonur. Baikonur is also the only Russian launch site capable of launching the Proton launch vehicle, which was used for Zarya, the first element launch of the space station. [Source: NASA]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Kazakhstan Tourism website (, Kazakhstan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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