When Jim VE3UA and myself, Pat VE3HFS first discussed the possibilty of travelling to Irkutsk to visit and meet with radio amateurs there, it was not with a great deal of conviction. As time passed and organizing hurdles were leaped, our thoughts became more positive. Copies of our radio and station licenses were sent to Irkutsk about three months ahead of time so Serge UA0SR could forward them to the Central Radio Authority in Moscow for approval. At the time of our departure the license situation had not been resolved, but, as their favourite saying is "no problem", Serge said everything would be all set when we arrived in Irkutsk.
We received the invitations from the Irkutsk Radio Club and forwarded these along with identification, copies of passport and money to cover the cost of visas to visit Russia, to the Russian consulate in Ottawa. We expected a long wait and were pleasantly surprised to receive them within two weeks. Now the die was cast.
We then told our travel agent all papers were in hand and to issue tickets for our trip to Russia. While we were waiting for visas, some unrest started to develop in Russia with Boris Yeltsin being challenged by hardliners. We were asked by friends and compatriots (in a kidding manner) whether we thought we would be able to return from Russia. We did not think we were valuable enough that the Russians would want to keep us, in fact it was most likely the other way around, they would be glad to see us leave.
When we started to firm up our tickets we found a slight change in our schedule. We originally intended to travel from Thunder Bay to Toronto, Toronto to Zurich, layover in Zurich one night to get some rest, and then complete the trip to Moscow and Irkutsk. The airline changed our departure date from June 3rd to June 4th and there went our night of rest in Zurich. We would end up travelling straight through, getting our sleep in airports and airplanes. We were now looking at a 40 hour trip. We packed our bags, trying to keep our personal possessions to a minimum as we were carrying two HF radios, one laptop computer, and a PK 232 TNC. The radios and laptop computer were carried as hand luggage so they would not get damaged or stolen in transit. It is hard to believe how heavy a carry-on bag can become when it contains two small portable HF radios and you lug it through airports and on and off planes. Jim carried the laptop computer and we had to put the TNC with our checked luggage; we were out of space. Included in our luggage were some solar calculators, small screw driver sets and T-shirts. The T-shirts had the Lakehead Amateur Radio Club logo embossed on the front. Since we were staying with families in Russia, we also took presents for our host families. Gifts are a very important item in Russia and are accepted very sincerely, and greatly appreciated.
The day of departure arrived and Jim and I met at the airport. Skip VE3BBS was there to see us off. It is hard to put your thoughts into words as you contemplated taking off for a country that in the not too distant past did not welcome visitors. You were going to visit with people you had never met and, from reports on the news media, a country where conditions were such that we might have a hard time getting a decent meal (boy, were they ever wrong). We flew Air Canada (Thunder Bay to Toronto to Zurich) and then Swiss Air (Zurich to Moscow). Considering we were carrying a fair amount of electronic equipment as well as our handi talkies, we expected to be delayed by security at each airport. Surprisingly, the only delay was in Zurich where security used a sniffer to check out the equipment for explosives. Security is very tight in Switzerland.
We arrived in Moscow right on schedule and walked from the plane into an airport that was far from clean, needing repairs, and immigration and customs men in what looked like military uniforms. We later found out that before the political changes in Russia these were KGB personnel. I also had my first look at a Russian public washroom, which I won't describe except to say facilities were minimal, paper was nonexistent, and cleanliness was not the order of the day.
We cleared immigration, which seemed to be a timed ritual, each passenger being delayed for the same amount of time, and went to wait for our luggage to arrive from the airplane. As we were waiting, a pleasant lady in a Swiss Air uniform came up and asked "are you Canadians?", we said "Yes", and she said "You have lost three pieces of luggage". We found this hard to believe as the luggage from the plane had not arrived in the terminal yet. It turned out Air Canada had taken our luggage on to Geneva and Swiss Air had arranged for it to be flown to Moscow arriving 15 minutes after we did. This was all well and good except another 300 hundred people had arrived while we waited the extra time and there were only two custom agents. This added another two hours to our clearance time, but, we figured "no problem". We had a ride waiting to take us to the domestic airport and with our 3 and 1/2 hours in between flights it would be a piece of cake. When we finally arrived at the customs bench, we presented an official letter from the Irkutsk Radio Club saying how vital the equipment we were carrying was to the seminar we were attending, the letter was signed by the president of the radio club and embossed with various official seals. This smoothed our passage. The customs agent read the letter and did not even want to look at the radios and computer, better he should just move us along, which was fine with us.
When we met Grigori, a friend of Vasya UA0SN, who was to drive us to Shermet, the domestic airport, we found out it was 100 km away on the other side of Moscow. Grigori had an ancient Lada that had seen better days, and we only had an hour left to make our connection. Riding down a Moscow freeway in an ancient Lada at 120 Kph and only slowing down for radar traps, is not the recommended thing for tourists to do. Grigori made a valiant attempt and we arrived at Shermet where Jim and I struggled with our bags while Grigori parked his Lada. We went into an airport that Mike Jones, who was there in 1991, described as being remodelled by a group of Hells Angels. We found out that when Aeroflot gives a departure time it means the plane is at the end of the runway waiting to take off. Not at all like North America departures. Grigori said "no problem", and bundled us off to Intourist to check on the next flight. Lo and behold, there was one three hours later and Intourist booked us on this flight. We had our first food in Russia, sweet tea and some sausage along with dark bread, when Grigori treated us to a snack in a small restaurant next to the Intourist waiting room.
We finally had our chance to fly with Aeroflot, the plane was not new, but the exterior looked okay. We sat down in seats where the cushions had seen lots of use. My seat belt worked, but Jim's didn't. There was an open seat beside us with a seat belt that worked so Jim sat there. As we rolled down the runway we thought the pavement was a bit rough little did we know. As we started to take off and the weight came off the landing gear the plane went into extreme vibration and various loose articles started to rattle. I don't think the landing gear had been serviced in a long time and God knows what shape the wheel bearings were in. As the wheels were tucked away the vibration stopped and all became fairly quiet. None of the other passengers seemed too concerned, and since we only had two more landings and one more take off before arriving at Irkutsk, we figured our chances of surviving were fairly good. We flew from Moscow to Novosibirsk where the plane refuelled. Everyone had to get off the aircraft and go to the terminal. there was a bus available to ferry the passengers but it was not big enough for all so some had to walk, nobody seemed to mind. Lucky for us that the stewardess had assigned a young lady who was an employee of Aeroflot to make sure we got back on the aircraft. The airport was extremely crowded, all the announcements were in Russian, and the departure gate was a small panelled door, that looked like it was taken from a house. We would have been lost without her and her young German friend who was going to Irkutsk to visit with her sister. We then continued on to Irkutsk, a total flying time about 7 hours.
The Russian amateurs met the flight we were supposed to be on at 7:30 a.m., and when we did not arrive, they checked, by long-distance phone, with Grigori who told them of our late departure. As you can see things had been fairly negative so far and Jim and myself were still wondering if we had done the right thing in travelling to Russia. However, events now started to turn positive. UA0SR, UA0SN, UA0SD, UA0SU, and RA0SS met us at the airport. They seemed glad to see us and best of all they took over carrying the hand luggage which had been weighing us down all the way from Thunder Bay.
We then went to Serge's mother's home, (a flat in a five story building), where I would stay for a couple of days. Serge had his radio station set up there and we had our first chance to see
Russian radio up close. Ham radio stations in Russia are home brewed and usually consist of a transceiver and amplifier with a Quad being the normal antenna system. Yagi's are the exception. Our radio licenses had been arranged and our calls would be RA0S\VE3HFS and RA0S\VE3UA. It is our understanding Jim and I were the first Canadian amateurs to have been licensed in Siberia. We had lunch, then Jim left with Vasya UA0SN, with whom he was staying. We had arrived in Irkutsk at 10:30 a.m. after 40 hours of travelling and we were starting to show the effects, however, the Russians had left the afternoon open so we could get a couple of hours sleep. Serge had arranged for the group to meet at the flat, that evening, and we sat down and hadour first supper in Russia. The food was excellent with salad, sausage, meat balls, potatoes etc. and of course the much talked about "VODKA". Russians are extremely inventive when it comes to making toasts. After an evening of dining and imbibing we all relaxed and started enjoying each others company. Most of the group spoke some English and Vasya UA0SN did any translations necessary. We all had a common interest, which was amateur radio, and it was a great way to start