Still fresh from one expedition UJ8JMM asked me whether I would be interested in undertaking yet another one, this time beyond our borders to Afghanistan. Of course my answer was 'Yes!" Nodir cautioned us that our enthusiasm would get us only so far. We needed official permission to operate, equipment and antennas, all of which were small but very reliable, and hard currency.
Nodir had traveled on business in Afghanistan, and knew how affairs were conducted there. One very important thing he knew is the Afghans did not care for our rubles. Because of Nodir's knowledge of the country, he was to obtain the license, and I was to try to obtain support in the form of equipment, antennas, and funds. With this division of labor I left the next day for home. From that time on Nodir and I generally spoke once a week by telephone, as radio propagation proved too unreliable.
Meanwhile, I was carrying on my weekly Saturday schedules with my good friend Bill W3XU. On the next sked I reported on the success of the UJ1K effort and touched upon the idea of his helping develop the YA project. Bill agreed, so the next step was to obtain the license.
As it happened Nodir obtained the license without too many problems. It arrived in October and was good for a crew of five operators and for duration of two months commencing February 1, 1992. It didn't make sense to ask anyone else for support for the effort before confirming that the license documentation met ARRL requirements. The ARRL DXCC desk was most prompt and helpful. They reviewed the license within days of its submission and let us know that with the additional future documentation to show that we were in fact inside Afghanistan, our DXpedition would be valid for DXCC credit.
We still needed funds and equipment. Because of the relative values of Soviet and then Ukrainian and other CIS republic currencies versus the "hard" currencies of the West, our own personal finances proved of no help. As an indication of this, my salary as an engineer was approximately $10 per month. When I passed along to W3XU my estimate of the cost of a place from which to operate, cost of food, and cost of physical protection (more about this later), I could detect even over the 4800 miles between us that Bills enthusiasm was flagging quickly. He pointed out to me that there had already been DXpeditions to Afghanistan. I countered with the observation that if we put YA on the air with high-power RF output and beam antennas during high sun spots at approximately the equinox, this would enable those running low power and simple antennas the ability to work YA on the first band or on additional bands-particularly the low bands- where they have been unable in the past. Bill's spirits buoyed a bit.
As far as equipment goes, we already had one ICOM IC-735, which Bernie Mutter N3CBW gave me as a gift in 1991.I wish to thank him one more time for the rig. In order to have two stations active at the same time, we needed two more transceivers (one for backup), and we also needed two antennas and a power amplifier.
During October and November 1991 Bill and Chick Allen NW3Y, a friend of Bill's and mine whom I had met during my 1991 visit to the United States, publicized the planned DXpedition through as many means as possible (national and international publications and local club newsletters, as well as packet DX bulletins) and sought contributions. Throughout this time Ed Kritsky NT2X was a great help and source of encouragement.
I also contacted F6HIZ for advice and support, and he replied with a long letter. He explained that earlier expeditions YA0RR and T6AS, had eliminated YA from the wanted lists of most European DXers, and that we should concentrate on providing contacts for the Western Hemisphere and on looking for support there.
In fact the help we received from the Northern California DX Foundation, the International DX Association (INDEXA), ICOM America, Cushcraft, and a very large number of contributions from individual amateurs and local clubs was critical and enabled us actually to continue forward to Afghanistan.
By early January we had ICOM IC-735 and IC-725 transceivers, a Cushcraft A3S tribander and an AV5 vertical, and some money in Bill's hands.
The next problem was how to get the equipment and funds to Kiev. Mail is slow and unreliable. Discovering that a round-trip passenger ticket was only slightly more expensive than an airfreight delivery, we opted for the security of transporting everything to Kiev by hand. With a standing invitation from Bernie N3CBW, to visit him in Silver Springs, Maryland. I spent the next two weeks preparing for the trip.
Ed NT2X introduced Bill W3XU to New York City travel bureaus specializing in travel in and to the CIS. Bill immediately called one and managed to speak with a most friendly and seemingly helpful agent named Tanya, but promptly concluded that if there was a meeting of the minds as to what the arrangements actually were, it would be a bit of a coincidence. Ed came once again to the rescue and concluded the arrangements with Tanya in Russian, or at least almost concluded them. Ed's arrangements had Bill meeting me in New York City in the middle of the ARRL DX Contest. Although Ed, a Yankee Clipper Contest Club operator, denies any attempt to depress the score of W3XU's competing club, it was necessary to rearrange the dates to avoid the conflict.
My friend George Pataki WB2AQC met my Aeroflot flight in New York and took me to his home, where we rested and I learned of George's most recent world travels (many of which have been published in CQ). The next day Bill met me at George's and we drove quickly to Delaware, where we met noted conntester Dave Hawes N3RD, and his wife Suda. and Bill's wife, Paula, for a seafood dinner and renewal of friendships.
Time passed quickly, as we needed to prepare antennas and transceivers. Ideally, they needed to be thoroughly tested, because once they were at their destination in Afghanistan there would be no second chance, in practice, we could not test the antennas. We assembled them to be sure we had everything we needed, but a combination of cold weather in Delaware and shortage of time prevented us from mounting them sufficiently high enough to test them out.
In recognition of the situation in Afghanistan, we took NT2X's advice and spray-painted the shiny aluminum a dull black, so that their visibility from the air would be limited. Cushcraft had specially prepared the antennas by making shorter than usual lengths so as to be transportable by airplane. Perhaps there is a universal rule as to maximum baggage size, but the Cushcraft configuration allowed the packages to be precisely at the limit, so I had no problem with their size on the return flight.
With the antenna parts determined to be all present and with them all camouflaged and marked for easy reassembly, we had the weekend free for a multi-operator, single transmitter entry in the ARRL CW DX Contest at W3XU. We had a lot of fun and it appears we finished third in the USA in that category.
A few more days were spent in Delaware packing all gear and antennas into boxes. Then, after one more night with George, WB2AQC, in New York, I was on the plane to Kiev at last. Vasily, RT4UQ, met me at the Borispol Airport in Kiev with some good news. He had constructed a power supply for an ICOM radio. So with one more power supply, all equipment needs would be met. I headed home thinking everything was in order.
When I arrived home after two weeks overseas, my wife, Tanya, greeted me with news that I had to take my passport with the Afghan visa to Moscow for more official approvals. With only four days between arrival from the US and the flight to Dushanbe, our point of departure for Afghanistan, this was a real imposition on my family. Apparently there was no way to avoid going to Moscow, however, so I had to comply.
On Monday, March 2 I left from Kiev to Dushanbe by plane. As baggage, I carried the transceivers, two antennas, one power supply, and one laptop computer. After seven hours on board the plane the equipment and I arrived safely in Dushanbe. I was very happy to see Nodir and his father, Masud, UJ8JM, at the airport.
Dushanbe, by the way, is a city of about 300,000 people located approximately 3000 feet above sea level in the mountains. As it is susceptible to earthquakes, the highest buildings stand only about 9 stories. Even then, they still move during minor earthquakes, which occur frequently. Though Dushanbe was founded during the 19th century, it took on its present name only about 80 years ago. "Dushanbe" means "Monday," the local market day. As most of the buildings in the city are relatively new, the architecture does not reflect the city's Islamic origins and culture.
We spent five days in Dushanbe building another power supply, checking everything once more, and racing around leaking for food and everyday items needed to sustain us in Afghanistan. Food for the trip was primarily potatoes and packets of instant dehydrated meals. Alex, UJ8JCQ, helped with a tower for the tribander and provided a power supply from work, which we had to rebuild to provide more current at 13.8 volts. The power amplifier came from Alex, UJ8JJ. In fact, I had built the amplifier by hand five years earlier, and two years ago had given it to Alex. lt had come in handy on all our previous expeditions to the Pamir mountains as RJ7R, UJ5K, and UJ1K.
The night before we departed, everybody, except Faridun, our driver, was too busy and excited to sleep. We tried to check every little piece, because there would be no margin for failure once we were in Afghanistan. The designated chief of the preparations was Nodir's father, Masud, UJ8JM, because of his many years of experience with DXpeditions in Central Asia. Nodir and I packed everything. RJ8JM, Nodir's younger brother, took care of hot coffee and rendering advice, which, though unsolicited, was not unwelcome.
At last it was early morning on March 7. One of us prepared breakfast, while another of our friends tried to stop us from leaving because of the dangerous situation in Afghanistan. He said we were stupid radio fanatics and worse. Nevertheless, we were committed to carrying this expedition off, and we wanted to be successful.
Once all our gear was put into the car, its owner, Faridun (who was also our driver), informed us that the weight of our baggage exacted special conditions on us. We had to guarantee that in case of breakdown we would provide for repair or replacement of his car. We had a quick breakfast (and found later that the meal was to be our lunch and dinner, too) and left Dushanbe City.
After one hour of driving we were on the Tajik (UJ) Uzbek (Ul) border. Customs control checked all our gear for twenty minutes, after which the officer said he would have to stop us as we would, he claimed, need official permission to take the aluminum tubing with us.
For the next two hours we showed one paper after another documents from the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Communications of both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the ever-influential articles from CQ. Nothing helped. This was Saturday so we did not see any possibility of getting the seemingly required official license until Monday.
Luck was with us, however. Fortunately, officers on the border change every few hours. Thirty minutes after our outright rejection, a new customs officer reported for duty. This one may have been smarter than the first one, but more to the point, he was born in the same area as our driver Faridun. With only a few minutes of discussion, we got permission to proceed, after also promising to bring back jeans for the officer. The jeans were purchased for about $6 near the Russian Consulate in Mazer-i-Sharif City, Afghanistan and duly delivered to the officer on our return trip. This is a typical example of the "Russian" manner of transacting business in the former Soviet Union.
From the UJ-UI border we drove about 2.5 hours before we reached Termez City, located on the Uzbek-Afghanistan border. We spent a sleepless night in Termez and then we crossed in the morning into YA-land.
As soon as we crossed the border we became aware that fighting had resumed between the Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen people on one hand and the Pushtun people on the other.
Nodir had visited Afghanistan in November 1991 and found a good site for operating in Mazer-i-Sharif City, which is about 50 to 60 miles from the Uzbek border. Now the situation was so threatening that we did not dare to take the main road, so we took the back road-an unpaved stretch of dirt and stone.
This was my first visit to an Asian country, and I was quite fearful and given the circumstances, not without reason. Although I had planned to look and act inconspicuous I found this to be impossible. Even everyday activities such as washing one's hands or drinking tea are performed in ways to which I was unaccustomed, so there was no way for me not to appear foreign. As it turned out, I later learned from Nodir that I was fortunate that the Afghanistanis with whom we dealt were able and willing to distinguish my nationality as Ukrainian and not Russian, without that distinction I probably would not have been able to proceed. Nodir and Faridun had a much easier time in this regard, as their own customs were not too different from those in Afghanistan.
Once in Mazer-i-Sharif, we visited the Russian Consulate, but the officials advised us to go back, as it was too dangerous to stay, especially with our equipment. After a short discussion, Nodir and Faridun went to talk with some local friends, and I stayed in the consulate. Soon Nodir returned with the first good news of our trip. He had found a good operating site, one that even had a supply of AC (220 volts)! By evening we were there, where we would spend the next two weeks.
The "shack" was in fact a shack. It was a metal guardhouse used by the military and equipped with all the amenities four beds, one table, and a hot plate - and situated about three-quarters of a mile from a village near Mazer-i-Sharif. At this point we had a guard (for which a fee was exacted). The guard's job was to keep us away from others, and them from us. He even followed us to the lavatory, an area in the field so designated for this purpose. Everyone was very tired, so we decided that our first contact would be the next day.
On March 9 we put up the Cushcraft AV5 ground plane and one working position - the IC-725 and a 1 KW linear. We thought this was enough for the time being. We warned to test the local waters with the ground plane. The tribander is a very big antenna, and we wanted to gauge the local reaction to the ground plane before we tried the tribander. W3XU and I had painted both antennas black to minimize detection from the air.
With the antenna in the air and trie rig set up, we were happy to hear the first sound of noise from the speaker, but we checked everything one more time, as we knew we would have little rest once the world heard YA5MM. First, however, we had to decide who would make the first QSO. A flip of a 5 kopek coin was in my favor. I sat down and checked 10 meters. It sounded good! With the first CQ and a quick answer, PB0AJV was in the log as the first QSO.
The afternoon of the same day a big wind came up. It continued for 48 hours, so we had to delay putting the tribander up until the third day. We had brought only one linear because there was no place for another in our little "Lada" car. Good propagation and the beautiful job of the Cushcraft antennas helped us to maintain a big pile-up on every band from 80 to 10 meters. Both of us normally operated 18 hours per day. Very often we changed from SSB to CW simply so we could eat. We tried to maximize every minute to make contacts, because we really had no assurance from one moment to the next how long we would be able to remain in Afghanistan. By the same token, however, we did hear some rifle shots, but saw no actual fighting.
After a few days we found a good timetable for operating. I took a few hours in the nighttime for sleep, while Nodir slept for a few hours during the day. This fit in with our operating preferences, which fortunately complemented each other. Nodir likes the low bands, while I as a contester like high-speed pile-ups. Normally we had to spread stations out over 100 kHz, otherwise it was very difficult to pick up even a few letters from a callsign.
After the first week we started to use nets with our low-power position. We know that this is somewhat controversial. Many big guns even alleged incorrectly that we only worked nets. We found that with a good net control station we could make up to 170 QSOs per hour with stations on the other side with 100 watts and simple dipoles or ground planes. We believe that the limited use of nets allowed us to give more YA QSOs than we otherwise would have been able to. At the same time it gave us some rest compared to the pile-ups.
We also made a concerted effort to spend time on 40 and 80 meters. Other YA expeditions did not have high-power capability, so we tried to help with DXCC on those bands. We always tried to be on the low bands for sunrise and sunset to North America. The AV5 antenna did a great job! It was very funny when one day KM1H called us on 10 meters and said that some pirate was working at our sunrise every day on 3795 and giving everybody 59, so KM1H worked him just in case. You cannot believe how happy KM1H was when we told him this "pirate" had him in the log on 75 meters at 23:37 UTC!
Good conditions and the fine AV5 gave us a chance to make contacts with more than 150 stations from North America on 80. For this region this is remarkable, as the heading for Texas is 0 degrees! Some more DX from our log on 80: PY0FF, ZF8AA, KP2A, WP4U, VK6HD, VS6WV and many others.
We were very fortunate with our ICOM equipment and our linear, as there were no real problems during 2 weeks of 24 hour per day operation. On the morning of March 18 we made dipoles for WARC bands (12and 17 meters) fed together with one cable. It was made and in the air (only about 6 feet!) in about 90 minutes. We had no idea that this antenna would result in 3000 WARC band QSOs! We also made 200 QSOs on RTTY on 20 and 15 meters with an MFJ-1278 and the IC-735.
On the night of March 18 we were informed that political power was changing hands in Mazer-i-Sharif City. It sounded very bad for us, so we started to use the IC-725 as a broadcast receiver and tried to catch "Radio Afghanistan" to check this information. It was true.
The first thought that came to mind was to flee as soon as we could. The next morning Nodir met with some important local people who helped us, and they recommended that we stay awhile longer until the situation became clear. At last, on the morning of March 20 we received information that we had to depart the next day.
After the last pile-up at sunrise on March 21 and after 25,000 QSOs with 16,000 different stations, within three hours we had packed all our gear into the "Lada." We didn't get to cross the border, however, until March 23. On the evening of March 23 we were back at Nodir's house in Dushanbe. How happy my XYL, Tanya, was to hear my voice on the telephone after three days of silence! During the celebration of our safe return home we vowed no more DXpeditions to anyplace where people are still fighting! However, who knows?
Many thanks to ail who helped us develop this DXpedition. Special thanks goes to the Northern California DX Foundation (NCDXF), the International DX Association (INDEXA), ICOM America, Cushcraft, and W3XU, NW3Y, UJ8JM, UJ8JCQ, NT2X, RT4UQ, RJ8JM, WB2AQC, LZ1HA, RT5UL, UJ8JJ and UJ8JX.
And thanks to W0JRN, who after traveling in Central Asia came up with the characterization "Jaws of the Dragon." used in the title of this article.
Editorial assistance from Bill Remington. W3XU.