Shortwave spy stations, still transmitting years after the Cold War

I’ve been reading a number of John Le Carré books lately, which are mostly fictional thrillers about Cold War spies. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a particularly good one. So in that vein, I’ve been reading about ’60s spycraft, including how they used to communicate.

In the pre-internet days, these spies used shortwave radios to receive orders from “numbers stations”, which are radio repeaters transmitting coded signals over the open airwaves, only at ranges higher than AM and FM music stations. Used together with a “one-time pad”, these encoded transmissions traveled around the world on open airwaves but were unbreakable if you didn’t have the code.

I decided to see if these “number stations” were still around, as I had heard that they are still on the air. Tech seems to go obsolete these days very quickly, so I was skeptical. Short answer, they are still broadcasting!

There’s a whole subculture of people that track these stations and there’s even a schedule that shows expected repeat transmissions. They’ve given them names based on their quirks, “The Pip”, “The Airhorn”, “The Buzzer”, all of these transmit audible sounds when inactive. When they are active, a voice reads numbers or letters from the military alphabet.

They transmit in English, Spanish, Russian, and Morse code, which gives a hint at how widely they are employed. What we don’t know is if these stations are in active use or “mothballed”, though given their level of activity, they’re at least kept in a state of readiness and have been for many years. This may be due to extreme caution on the part of spy agencies: changes in frequency of transmissions or other details might inadvertently reveal operational details. In that vein, as if a carryover from a past era, several of these transmissions are still done manually by radio operators.

Moments after I checked the page above, a station labeled “M12”, for Morse code, began transmitting: “TTT 531 531 531 TTT”. Twenty minutes later, the same message on a different “M12” channel. Who knows what this means? There’s a good chance the answer to that lies behind the former Iron Curtain.

The Way to the Top of the World

I’ve enjoyed staring at maps since I was a little kid, pulling the inserts from National Geographic. I’ve always been curious what was out there at the fringes, at the distended top and bottom of the map, rotating close to the poles of the globe, out there at the edges of the country, the continent, or the populated world.

The game of “close your eyes and put your finger on the map” often resulted in an imaginary trip to Greenland, Norway, Russia or some freezing and far-flung locale, so it’s fitting that I’d sit down to consider this topic on the most frigid few days of the year.

Walking outdoors last weekend required layering shirts, sweaters, and coats while covering every exposed bit of skin, then dashing into a storefront or restaurant when the wind gusts chilled our legs too much. It was so cold that the drafts followed us indoors, cold air pouring off our poorly sealed windows and requiring a coat and blanket indoors.

As I finish up this post a week later, it nearly feels like spring outside. Regardless, I’m still fascinated by the types of places where you need a military-grade parka just to step out the front door. The New York Times beat me to the punch, publishing a great story about building a road to the end of the continent, the Canadian Arctic. This isn’t Hudson Bay, rather it’s around 400 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the town of Tuktoyatuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories, which was formerly only reachable by ice road or snowmobile during the winter or bush plane during the summer months.

Thus, here is my bucket list of destinations in and around the Arctic Circle:

Viewing the Northern Lights. Apparently in the 1960s, the magnetic interference from all the Soviet and American atomic tests resulted in the Northern Lights being visible as far south as Washington, D.C (read here or here). So much for the good old days (N.B. Just kidding, let’s not reenact the electromagnetic pulse from the movie Goldeneye any time soon, I’d need to buy a new laptop).

We’ll have to head further north these days to get the real show. From WikiTravel:

The auroral oval, meaning the area with the highest probability of seeing the northern lights, covers most of Alaska, northern parts of Canada, the southern half of Greenland, Iceland, Northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. As well as the western half of the Russian north (with the Kola Peninsula of Murmansk Oblast being the most popular viewing spot).

Here’s some great photos and more info about ideal viewing times from

It’s important to remember that aurora can be a bit of a diva, and she will only start the show when she feels the time is right. Patience is a virtue, also when chasing the northern lights. But here’s how you maximize your chances of a sighting: The lights are at their most frequent in late autumn and winter/early spring. Between late September and late March, it is dark between 6pm and 1am, and you have the best chances of spotting the lights.

However, remember how we told you about her being a diva? Aurora borealis likes it best when the weather is cold and dry, usually from December. Some will tell you that the driest weather, giving clear skies, is found inland, but that isn’t always true.

Greenland. Thanks to the Mercator Projection everyone wants to visit here like it’s a lost continent. It depends how you look at it. It’s not really that big, guys. My next-door neighbor was stationed here during the Korean War to man nuclear listening stations and it made me curious what was there besides ice. Speaking of it, seems like the main reasons to stay year-round this far north have to do with measuring bad weather and Cold War-era military exercises. Which are both things I find fascinating, so there we go.

Ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, Alaska. Source: Frank Kovalchek, Wikipedia

The Iditarod. This has to be like the Winter Olympics if you’re a dog: an 1,100-mile sled dog race across Alaska. In recent years the race has been rerouted due to lack of snow. It might not be around too much longer if climate change in the North continues.

Pyramiden, former Soviet mining outpost. Source: Rachel Nuwer,

Svalbard, Norway. The Svalbard Archipelago is now open to tourism, but was originally solely a mining outpost, populated by Norwegians, Russians, and Ukrainians, as it was partially leased to the Soviet Union. It’s reachable by air, including by low-cost Norwegian Air Shuttle. Barentsburg is still inhabited, and still a Russian mining town, though Pyramiden, sold to the Soviet Union in 1927, has been abandoned since 1998.

Novaya Zemlya. Famous as the site of the Tsar Bomba test, the largest ever nuclear test. On second thought, I don’t really want to visit, but this happened there:

Over its history as a nuclear test site, Novaya Zemlya hosted 224 nuclear detonations with a total explosive energy equivalent to 265 megatons of TNT. For comparison, all explosives used in World War II, including the detonations of two US nuclear bombs, amounted to only two megatons.

Murmansk. The largest city north of the Arctic Circle and home to the ice-free port that allowed the White Army to resupply when fighting the Bolsheviks and later for the Allies to support the Soviets during World War II. It’s reachable by air and easily accessible by railway from St. Petersburg, with a balmy average high of 14 degrees Fahrenheit in January and February, though a relatively normal 60 degrees in summer.

Buckner Building, Whittier, Alaska. Source:

Whittier, Alaska. This town in southern Alaska is a cruise ship port and stop on the Alaska Railroad, from which you can reach Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks. The entire town lives in one condominium, Begich Towers. During the Cold War, the U.S. Army built the neighboring Buckner Building as a fully contained “City Under One Roof” with space for 1,000 men. It was later abandoned, though the structure itself was strong enough to withstand the Alaskan Earthquake. See some amazing “ruin porn” (photos of destruction and decay, not nudity) here.

Wrangel Island. This island in the Russian Far East is home to the largest population of pacific walrus and highest density of polar bear dens, per UNESCO. At one time it was a Russian military outpost, though is now a natural preserve. Sherry Ott at Ottsworld has some amazing photos of her visit.

So there you go. Unless you’re either conducting military exercises, mining, or are native to the area, the Arctic isn’t necessarily the year-round polar bear and sauna party you may have expected, though neither is it a barren uninhabitable wasteland (other than the irradiated parts). Your best bet for visiting is via one of the more populated neighboring settlements, either via air, sea, rail or snow/ice.

Add it to the bucket list. Until next time!



January’s 10 Best Stories in Travel

Photo: January at Labrador Mountain, Truxton, NY

I’m here to share with you my favorite stories of the month from around the web. All have an international flavor, many explore the unseen side of the places we hear about in the news. If you’re wary of traveling there, at least you’ll be able to visit vicariously through these talented authors. I’ve also added in a few travel how-to’s and what-to’s that stood out from the crowd. Enjoy.

Underground in East Ukraine
Illegal coal mining in rebel-held territory in Ukraine has its own risks and rewards and continues on despite periodic skirmishes. Read on for more on the trials of daily life in contested territory.

A Gift From the Sea: On China’s Land Reclamation Free-for-all
Entire new cities are rising from the sea in China as coastal areas are filled and developed at a breakneck pace, appearing to create “something for nothing”. How is it done, and what is the catch? Read on.

Salvation by the Slice
A veteran of the war in Ukraine opens a pizza shop in Kiev staffed entirely by veterans and finds great success serving those heading to and returning from the front. Italian food in Eastern Europe is an unlikely savior.

Time Travel to Anadyr, Russia
Taking the world’s shortest trans-continental flight from Alaska to Russia’s Far East is like stepping back in time and exploring the rarely-seen populated corners of the Arctic. Click here for the story with great photos from Sherry Ott.

Visiting Ojai, California
Visit Ojai, the cozy and creative town outside of Los Angeles, bed down neo-hippie style in an Airstream trailer, grab a fresh brunch, and browse the outdoor bookstore. Add this place to your next road trip destination.

Ultimate List of Travel Movies
From Into the Wild to Crocodile Dundee, this list touches on the great road trip and travel movies, both classics and more recent films. You may know half this list, which will make the other half you haven’t seen even more enticing.

How Shenzhen Became the Global Epicenter of High-Tech Innovation
Electronics designed, sourced and built in a matter of days instead of weeks or months, this is how Shenzhen is shaking up the international marketplace in computer hardware. The next Silicon Valley?

How to Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick
Ever wonder how the locals manage to eat all the best tacos, quesadillas, and fried treats without getting sick? It’s not just the water. Read this for some new tips.

A Crazy New Kind of Amazing Race: International Car Rallies
If you know me, you’ll know the Europe-to-Asia Mongol Rally is on my bucket list. Here are several other crazy options that will now be vying for our future plans.

The Big Cow Con
How a young South African cattle trader stole a fortune through sleight-of-hand in California’s dairy country during the booming 1990s and then disappeared with the spoils, and how he was finally caught on the other side of the world.