The trip to Mongolia

by Duane Ausherman

Our 1991 trip to Russia was to go to Mongolia and participate in a Ham Radio contest.  The four of us that traveled to Russia were Bill Philpot (N6TIB), my wife Linda (N6NQD), her son Dan and myself (W6REC).

Linda and her son, Dan, stayed in Samara, and Larry, our Russian host, took Bill and me to Mongolia.

I must admit that I am fuzzy on some details, and we took a few photos that I can’t find now; however, I will do my best.

Mongolia was independent but closely aligned with the Soviet Union.  We needed visas to visit Mongolia.  We went to the embassy to apply for the visa and discovered that the official procedure would take a lot of time, far more than we had.  Larry had a private conversation with the clerk, and our visas were given to us.  Bribery was a way of life in Russia.

I brought with us some decent used radio equipment as a gift to the station.  Larry collected two items that he planned to sell in Mongolia.  Since the population was smaller in size than the Russians, he took some high-quality military boots that were too small for most Russians.  I assume that he got them for free.  He also took lots of canned fish, mostly sardines.  Mongolia was landlocked, so he assumed that they had little access to fish.  While he had never been there before, he turned out to be right, they sold easily.

We flew to Irkutsk on Lake Baikal.  That lake is the largest freshwater lake, by volume, in the world.  We had to spend a full day before our connection to Mongolia.  Irkutsk was far poorer than anything that we had seen in Western Russia.  I remember that people were cleaning with homemade brooms.  They collected a lot of green twigs and tied them to a stick to make a broom.

We flew to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.  We didn’t anticipate it, but we landed during the time of the major holiday in Mongolia.  When the plane landed, there was no ground crew visible to do anything.  The captain helped us move a ladder over to the cargo hold, and he opened it for us.  We had to dig around for our luggage along with the few other passengers.

We took our stuff into the terminal, and it was almost totally empty of employees.  Somehow Larry got us onto a bus, and we headed for the city.  Along the way, the bus broke down, the driver opened the engine cover, and I could see that it was going to be dead for some time.   Larry flagged down another bus on the nearly empty highway to take us the rest of the way to a hotel.  We parked our stuff in a room and went to find the Ham radio club station.  Virtually all Ham radio was done at a government-controlled club.

When we found it, of course, nobody was there, as, like the rest of the population, they were at the huge holiday celebration.  It was located on the ground floor, so I was able to remove a window and crawl in and unlock the main door.  We figured out how to turn on the equipment, and I made a few ham radio contacts.  Basically, we were burglars that broke into the building.

Somehow we finally got in contact with the most famous Ham operator in Mongolia, and that started our relationship.  Even his daughter was fairly active in Ham radio.  While enjoying an evening in his living room, he proudly showed us a photo of his lovely mistress while his wife was in the room.  Maybe she didn’t understand English, but his daughter certainly spoke English well.

We were introduced to the other members of the club station.  They were very welcoming to us.  Their English was limited, so often Larry had to use Russian, and their Russian was also limited.  I was seldom totally confident that we had a correct understanding.  They told us that we were the first Americans to operate Ham radio in Mongolia.  That would be me since I operated on the ham bands when we broke in.  I asked about other club stations and was told that there was only one other, and they never had American visitors.  They didn’t know if any American Hams had operated Ham radio before WWII, but they thought not since there was little or no Ham activity back then in Mongolia.

They took us all around as tourists and proudly exhibited what technical things Mongolia had.  We visited a technical institute, and it was very basic.  We also got to see some of the competition of the holiday celebrations.

Horseback riding was important, and it was totally different from how we ride horses.  We saw some of the wrestling, but it was mostly just a shoving match, and I found it rather boring.

The club members explained that they wanted to be taken over by the United States.  I was shocked, but they had a reason.  They felt that Mongolia would always be bounced back and forth between Russia and China.  They knew that America would treat them far better and allow freedom in the world of economics, travel, and speech.

We used the club call sign, and Larry promised to enter the results of the contest.  We were so far north that radio propagation was poor.  Darkness was only a few hours long, and we needed that for the low Ham band operations.  Our score was respectable, but it never appeared in the contest results.  I am sure that Larry never bothered to submit the logs.

Once while we were out in public at our hotel, a woman heard our English and came to us for help.  She was an American traveling alone in Mongolia.  She only spoke English and had no interpreter.  She had purchased some travel plans with prepaid accommodations in hotels.  They knew nothing about the firm or the plan, so they wouldn’t honor her vouchers.  Larry tried to assist her, but the hotel was adamant and wouldn’t accept her paperwork.  I don’t remember the details now, but it got resolved for that one hotel.  I am fairly sure that Larry just paid for her out of his pocket.  He was a nice guy, and it was hard to believe that he was once a high-ranking officer in the KGB.

The club station had a manager.  The manager wasn’t a Ham, and he was appointed by the government.

Hams often exchange a rather special postcard that we call a QSL card.  The card has the technical information that proves that one station had a radio contact (conversation) with another one.  For example, if a Ham collects a QSL card from all 50 states, it can earn an award called WAS, which is an acronym and stands for Worked All States.  There is a large variety of awards available.  Getting a QSL card from Mongolia is special because it isn’t easy to make radio contact.  When a Ham sends a QSL card to a station in a poor country such as Mongolia, it includes return postage in the form of a “Green Stamp,” which is short for a US dollar bill.  The club station in Mongolia would get a lot of these green stamps.  The manager opens the mail and keeps the money.

While on the main street of Ulaanbaatar, I could look down the street and only see a half dozen cars.  Owning a car in Mongolia was far rarer than in Russia.  The manager owned a nice modern car.  It was paid for by the US dollars that arrived in the mail.  It was in his interest for us to operate in a contest because we made thousands of contacts.  It was in his interest to have a station that worked well.  He had to keep the members more or less happy.  Yes, they understood that he was cheating them big time.  He was one of the richest people in Mongolia.

I remember almost nothing about our return trip.  We returned to Larry’s house, and Linda and I had lots of stories to swap.

Updated 30 March 2023