Our first evening in Irkutsk was a pleasant experience. We had a few toasts with the trusty "VODKA" but, we did not stay up very late. We were still tired from the flight over and the fellows had a busy schedule mapped out for us.
On June 7th, which was the second day, I experienced my first Russian breakfast. We sat down to tea, kielbasa, cheese and dark brown bread. A lot different from my usual breakfast in Canada. Once I got over the difference in breakfast menu I found it tasty and nourishing and a change from our usual fare.
The first home I stayed in was Serge's, UA0SR, mother's flat. I would move to Serge's flat (apartment) the evening of the 8th. A flat consists of a living room, small kitchen (similar to our kitchenette), bathroom, one or two bedrooms, and a balcony. In the newer flats the water closet is separate from the bathroom which is furnished only with tub and sink. The flats range in size from 500 to 700 square feet. The buildings containing the flats are from 5 to 9 stories and any building over 7 stories must have elevators. Serge lived on the 7th floor of his building. If we arrived home late in the evening we found the elevator shut down and would have to climb 7 floors. The buildings are made of concrete.
They are arranged in groups with services such as water, light and heating being provided by a central source. Irkutsk is a city of 700,000 people; detached housing is the exception. There were a great many of these large apartment buildings throughout the city. They seem to have a standard floor plan and are erected and habitable in about six months, being put together by a relatively small crew. Some of the commercial buildings are apartment buildings with modifications.
Serge told us back in the Brehsnev era the government said everybody was entitled to affordable housing and a Dacha. Most people have a plot of land outside the city, with a small house, where they spend their weekends and summer vacations. The Dacha is much more than just a place to spend the weekend. Everyone has a garden, which is devotedly tended, not a weed to be seen anywhere. The garden is a very important part of the life style, for the average Russian. It provides vegetables for the family's table.
Jim and Vasya UA0SN joined us for lunch. Prior to lunch Jim and I tried to contact Thunder Bay but propagation was terrible. In fact, radio conditions throughout our trip were lousy. After lunch we went to the post office to mail a parcel to Tyumen. A Russian university student attending Lakehead University was sending some Advil to his father who had arthritis. Serge very carefully wrapped and addressed the packaged before going down town. When he went to mail it, the Post mistress insisted that he open it so she could see the contents. After looking at it she took it over to her desk. She took a large sheet of brown paper and proceeded to rewrap the parcel. Before folding over the ends she generously applied glue to same and then tied a light rope around the parcel sealing the ends of the rope with hot wax. She handed it back to Serge to re address. Glue was dripping from both ends, but Serge carefully re-addressed the parcel.
After the visit to the post office we went to the Irkutsk Radio Club operating site. It was located in a former government building on the 4th floor. The station had not been used in quite a while and the antennas and rotor were in need of repair. The equipment was former military issue and of the glass fet variety. Each piece looked rather formidable and required sturdy operating tables. One of the receivers used nixe tubes for the digital readout.
At one time station UW0SWA was very active, especially during contests. The station would have no trouble meeting the 200 watt maximum allowed, HI HI. On the same floor as the club room are class rooms for training commercial radio operators. Due to the money crunch in Russia some of the building is rented out to commercial establishments.
We were scheduled to go to Valeri's, RA0SS, flat for dinner. We did not have motor transport so we walked a couple of blocks downtown to arrange a ride. Since the street cars did not go our way Serge tried flagging down passing motorists and negotiating a price for a ride. No one was eager to give four of us a ride, especially when two of the group were foreigners. Serge then flagged down a small empty bus that was on its way back to it's terminal. After suitable negotiations, a price was settled. Russians are adapting to free enterprise!!
We arrived at Valeri's flat where Vlad UA0SD and Leonid UA0SU joined us shortly after our arrival. The group sat down to a fine dinner prepared by Natasha, Valeri's XYL. We don't know what they did to their household budget but along with the usual fare of salad, meatballs, pickled fish, potatoes etc. we had salmon roe on toast. There was the usual ample supply of vodka and no shortage of toasts. We were the first North Americans to dine at their flat and Natasha was very nervous about hosting the Canadians. It was an excellent evening with good friends.
Valeri had purchased a Kenwood TS520 when he was in the United States on a photographic assignment. We brought a spare set of finals for the TS520. His station was the exception, in that he had a commercial transceiver. He was in the process of building an amplifier. Prior to dining, Jim RA0S/VE3UA contacted JA9BOH, Kimio on the west coast of central Japan. It was his first QSO from Siberia and an occasion for celebration with suitable refreshments!
Vlad, UA0SD, drove Serge and myself home. We had consumed a fair amount of vodka and while Vlad did not have as much as us, he had participated in a few "toasts". As we proceeded on our way home a policeman waved us down. A very shaken Vlad stopped the car. Not only had he been drinking, but, his safety certificate was out of date. Lucky for us the policeman only wanted a ride downtown. We had a pleasant conversation with the policeman. He was very interested in Canada, particularly what wages were paid to a Canadian policeman. In Russia when you drink and drive, they don't play around. No fine, they throw you in jail. No wonder Vlad was nervous. From then on when Vlad or Leonid had to drive, they drank tea or coffee.
On June 8th we were scheduled to go yachting on the Irkutsk Sea in a 7 meter sailboat. The vessel was home built except for the lines and one windlass. The winds were weak and at one time we had to paddle. Winds picked up in the afternoon for a short time. The captain put on full sail and the vessel started to show its speed potential. You get to live at a 20 degree list under full sail.
The highlight of the day was the street car ride from downtown to the harbour. Some street cars are dual units with a capacity of about 100 people. Serge and I caught an express which was carrying students to an Agricultural College. There had to be at least two hundred people on board. You did not have to worry about falling over. We were pressed in like sardines. Prior to our stop Serge advised the people around us we were getting off. It was a matter of exchanging space and trying to squeeze out the door while energetic students are trying to get on. With money for upkeep not available, the street cars are poor repair. Often there is plywood covering some of the windows but in some cases no plywood or glass. The loaded car had a hard job climbing grades and rocked to and fro on the uneven tracks. The experience was a bit unsettling for our first ride.
Another unique aspect is that since the car is so crowded and people get on and off through both doors, the ticket money has to be passed hand to hand to the conductor with the change and tickets being returned in the same manner. The tickets are then cancelled by a punch located near the door. The nearest passenger takes care of that chore. The honour system really works there. One day Jim joined the ritual, passing money and tickets to and fro; the amusing part was he could not speak Russian. When people asked him how many was being paid for, he gave them a blank stare. Then with amusement they realized he was a foreigner.
On June 9th we were scheduled to have dinner with Sasha, UA0SF. On our way to dinner we stopped off to see a 12 meter yacht, Arthur (our captain from our sail on the Irkutsk Sea), was building. The yacht was in the final stages of completion. The hull was steel, fibreglass coated, with a keel similar to the one the Australians used to win the America Cup. The steel plates for the hull were hand formed using a hammer and anvil. She was a twin rigged sloop. The masts were laminated of wood. They were hollow to allow the lines for raising and lowering the sails to run up the centre. The aft mast had 3 meters of solar panels on each side to charge the batteries for power and running lights. Arthur did all the forming, welding and woodwork himself. He even had to build the trailer which the yacht rested on. The yacht was an eleven year project, the last two years after his wife died he slept on board. He was originally building it to sail around the world. Don't ask me where he got all the materials or the energy, but he did. It was a marvellous project for one person.
When we arrived at Sasha's we had an opportunity to see another type of building. Sasha was in the final stage of completing a solid state transceiver of his own design. The workmanship was excellent. The components were built with precision and care, as good or better than a commercial transceiver. His tools were limited and his radio room/workbench was a small corner of his front room. His former occupation involved viewing the flame in power plants while making adjustments to obtain optimum performance. Doctors were successful in restoring the sight in one eye, but could not repair the other. He must therefore restrict his work on the printed circuit boards and miniature components to 30 minutes at a time. Prior to wrapping up the evening we gave Sasha a Radio Shack multi meter. Our timing could not have been better as he needed it to complete the installation of the components. It is amazing what people can accomplish. Russians have learned to make do. I know some hams who think they are real scroungers, but they don't hold a candle to these fellows.