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Liechtenstein

01-Feldkirch_Hbf

I’ve always wanted to visit a micro-state. There’s just something neat about paying a visit to a truly sovereign country that is smaller than most cities. Liechtenstein is certainly no exception; it’s been settled in one form or another since the Roman days, and has been recognized as a sovereign country for longer than my home country of Canada has.

02-Feldkirch

So, Liechtenstein has always been on my list of ‘must visit’ countries, if only to say that I’ve set foot on the soil there. My original plan called for a train ride from Munich into the heart of Liechtenstein, a short two hour visit, and then back to Munich. But there was something that wasn’t glamorous enough about this plan. It needed something else.

03-Feldkirch_Soccer

After looking at a map of Liechtenstein, I decided that I could actually walk from one side of the country to the other. An Austrian “OEC” (express) train took me on a breathtaking trip through the Austrian alps from Innsbruck to Feldkirch. After a quick bite to eat at the Feldkirch train station (which turned out to be a very modern, clean facility,) I set off to walk the three kilometers within Feldkirch to the Liechtenstein border.

04-Border

The City of Feldkirch reminded me of the towns of Banff or Jasper in Alberta. It had that nice, high ‘alpine’ feel to it. The water was that ‘national park’ shade of green or blue. The weather was perfect for a hike across a whole country; it was about twelve degrees above and mostly sunny. As I continued to march along, the old European city gave way to a breathtaking view of the Rhine Valley.

05-Grenzuebergangsstelle

Along the way, you could see people doing all sorts of everyday things. A group of school kids playing soccer, someone walking out of a hardware store with the day’s project supplies, another person lights up a smoke and enjoys the great weather. In this photo, you can see the houses in Feldkirch, Austria in the foreground, and then houses in Schellenberg, Liechtenstein in the background. It also became increasingly clear why people would settle in this area: the Rhine Valley is completely walled in on practically all sides by the towering alps.

06-Schaanwald

The Principality of Liechtenstein is not a member of the European Union, nor has it implemented the Schengen Agreement which allows free movement of European citizens between sovereign countries. Because of this, there is still a checkpoint at the Liechtenstein-Austria border manned by Swiss guards.

07-FL_Countryside

I approached a guard house on foot, and engaged one of the Swiss border agents there. He didn’t seem to be too happy to see me. Whether that was because he was busy doing something else or because I was on foot is still up for debate. I asked the guard if he spoke English, to which he shook his head rapidly and said, “No.” I then frowned and said, “Do I need to show my passport?” The guard sighed and pointed at the desk, motioning that I should put my passport there. I did so, and he scanned it on some sort of imaging device (I presume, to check if I’m a wanted criminal, or something.) He then asked, “Where are you going?” I answered, “Liechtenstein.” That seemed to satisfy him, since he returned the passport and let me go on my way. (The photo to the right shows a sign marking the end of Austria. The word below it, “Grenzuebergangsstelle” means, “Border Crossing Point.”

08-FL_Countryside2

It was at that point that I crossed into the smallest doubly land-locked country in the world, a country with a population barely above the size of a large town or small city. Schaanwald was the first municipality on my trip across the country, a small border town set on a hill looking over the Rhine Valley. I noticed that gas in Liechtenstein was very expensive, almost two Swiss Francs per liter (more than $2.00 Canadian.) The license plates are a simple white on black prefixed with “FL” (F├╝rstentum Liechtenstein, or “Principality of Liechtenstein.”)

09-FL_Bus

The Liechtenstein countryside is simply a pleasure to hike through. There are multitudes of hiking and biking trails everywhere. The country capitalizes on its natural beauty extensively, promoting all kinds of outdoor activities. It’s almost a shame that I only had five hours to spend in Liechtenstein before I had to catch a train in Switzerland.

10-Schaan-Vaduz_Bf

I hiked through the small town of Schaanwald, and then the even smaller town of Nendeln. The houses and side streets gave way to a highway that wound its way down around the side of a mountain, into the Rhine Valley. Thanks to the great weather, there were a large number of bikes and motorcycles in attendance. The majority of vehicles on the road were from Liechtenstein, with a healthy minority from Austria, Switzerland, and Germany.

The Principality also has a fantastic transit system. It was great that I was walking from one end of the country to the other, but it would be very easy to catch a bus along the same route. In this photo, you can see the distinctive neon green ‘Liechtenstein Bus’ picking up a passenger across the street from one of the Hilti offices. (Hilti is the largest employer in all of Liechtenstein.) The bus starts in Feldkirch, Austria, goes across Liechtenstein, and ends in Buchs, Switzerland. Thus, this ordinary transit bus crosses two international borders many times in the course of a day.

It would have been a great honour to take the bus or train across Liechtenstein, but walking across made the whole journey more interesting. I eventually made it to the city of Schaan, just north of the capital of Vaduz. It was here where I originally intended to take a train. In this photo, you can see an Austrian train pulling in, stopping on its way to Feldkirch. The railway line that cuts across Liechtenstein (more or less following the same route I was hiking,) is owned by the Austrian railway company. Like the Liechtenstein Bus, several trains travel from Switzerland to Austria (and vice-versa) via Liechtenstein every day.

11-Rhine

The city of Schaan gave away to the countryside as I continued on, this time looking more like the Fraser Valley than anything else. It wasn’t much more of a walk before I came upon the bridge that crossed the Rhine, marking the western border of the Principality of Liechtenstein. In this photo, the land to the right is Liechtenstein, and to the left is Switzerland. I had crossed the whole width of the country in about two hours.

12-Schweiz

I also have to apologize for the poor quality of this photo, the sign demarcating the beginning of Switzerland. As you can see, the sun was already relatively low on the horizon, making it difficult for me to get a good shot of the demarcation sign and Swiss flag. There are no border controls on the Swiss-Liechtenstein border, since the Swiss guards check everything on the Austrian-Liechtenstein side.

13-FL_Bus_at_Border

From the bridge it was only a short walk over to Buchs, a town on the eastern border of Switzerland. At the point that I crossed into Switzerland, I had set foot on four separate countries in one day (Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.) The picture to the right looks back at the border from Switzerland (the little circular sign on the bridge marks the border,) with a Liechtenstein bus straddling the border in transit to Buchs, Switzerland. I looked back on the Principality one last time before continuing my journey to the Buchs Hauptbahnhof (Central Station,) to endure four more hours on the train back to Munich.

TinyTrak

A TinyTrak is a small APRS tracker available for puchase from Byonics. It interfaces with a GPS unit and is tiny enough to fit into a vehicle or carry with you while on a hike. These diverse little units are able to decode incoming serial data (be it from a computer or GPS device,) and then re-encode it into 1200 baud AFSK for broadcast on a radio. The power consumption is very low, making it ideal for environments where power may be limited.

I chose to have the TinyTrak sent to me unassembled. This saves $10 off of the base price and makes for a fun hour of assembly.

TinyTrak 3 awaiting assembly
TinyTrak 3 awaiting assembly

The assembly is not difficult, and in fact serves as a great project for those wishing to learn basic soldering skills. Byonics ships the TinyTrak with easy to follow assembly instructions.

All done!
All done!

The next step is to assemble a cable for your brand of radio. I decided to use it alongside my Kenwood TM-V7, since it normally does not have APRS capability. Later, I will interface it with a more rugged Motorola Maxtrac radio, which will be used soley for APRS. The TM-V7 utilizes a 6-pin Mini-DIN socket, exactly the same as a computer PS2 plug, to send and receive digital data. This makes it easy to sacrifice an old computer PS2 cable. You can see the cable plugged in to its socket on the left-hand side of the radio in the picture below.

The Maxtrac makes use of a 16-pin connector, similar to old floppy and IDE cables, but with fewer pins. Again, sacrificing an old floppy cable to create an interface for the TinyTrak is easy.

Kenwood TM-V7 w/ TinyTrak3 interface cable and Motorola Maxtrac
Kenwood TM-V7 w/ TinyTrak3 interface cable and Motorola Maxtrac

Surprisingly, the toughest part of this project was assembling the cable. I spent hours scouring the Internet for accurate interface diagrams before I realized that Byonics had great radio interface diagrams on their website. I wholeheartedly suggest that you look there for a diagram, first. You can click here to see what the diagram for the TM-V7 cable looks like.

TinyTrak3 in service
TinyTrak3 in service

After that, it’s a matter of plugging the TinyTrak into a computer to program it via the serial port. The software used to program the device runs on Win32, but fortunately there are lots of old Win32 machines lying around doing nothing. I configured the TinyTrak to beacon every 30 minutes while stationary, and every 60 seconds while on the move.

Building a J-Pole Antenna

jpole

A j-pole is a very inexpensive homebrew antenna that is quite easy to assemble from several pieces of half-inch copper pipe. There are countless articles on the Internet on how to assemble a j-pole, but this article will show you my first experience in assembling a home-built j-pole. Essentially, assembling a j-pole is more akin to a basic plumbing project than it is a radio project.

Please be aware of the hazards of assembling your own antenna. Tiny pieces of copper will be prevailant (during the cutting), the pipe will get extremely hot (while soldering the pieces together), and never touch an antenna while transmitting. Work in a well ventilated area so that you don’t inhale fumes from soldering.

First, it’s necessary to buy several lengths of half-inch copper pipe from your local hardware store. Depending on how good the store is, they may pre-cut the pipe into the lengths you need, or they may not. For a j-pole to work on the two meter band (144mhz to 148mhz in Canada,) you will need at least 230cm of copper pipe. Also obtain 2 end caps, 1 ninety degree ‘elbow’, and 1 ‘tee’ connector. These are all common plumbing parts.

Cut the copper into pieces following these exact measurements: 147.20cm for the radiating element, 48.84cm for the matching section (or ‘stub’), and 4.59cm for the center piece which will separate the radiating element and the stub. These measurements are based on a center operating frequency of 146mhz. If you need measurements for an alternate frequency, this site has a very useful j-pole measurement calculator.

I purchased a hacksaw to cut the copper into correct lenths. However, I learned that you can get a convenient copper pipe cutting tool that does the job in a fraction of the time (and costs a fraction of what a hacksaw costs.) The leftover pipe will be used to put at the bottom of the antenna, as a support pipe.

Next, sand the ends of the copper pipe with plumber’s sandpaper, which will help make the solder bind to the copper better. Fit the ends of the pipe together with end-caps on top of the radiating element and the stub. Fit the end of the radiating element into the top of the tee, the center section into the side of the tee, and the support pipe into the bottom. Take this time to measure the pipe from end to end again, as the measurement will affect the operating frequency.

Using a butane torch, heat up the tee connector (do not apply heat directly to the copper pipe itself — only to the connector) until it is hot enough to apply regular electrical solder. The solder should melt right into the joint upon contact, binding to the copper pipe and connector. I’ve been told not to use plumber’s solder, that regular electrical solder is best for this job. Do the same for soldering the matching section to the angle joint, and then again for the angle joint to the center piece. Allow the pieces to cool between soldering — copper retains heat for a long period of time.

After that, it’s a matter of attaching a connector to the matching section by way of soldering it. I used three different methods and connectors. Any method works well, but the easiest is to solder the wire directly on to the antenna. A more professional way to do it would be to solder a PL259 female connector to the matching section. The point of first contact for the wire or connector must be exactly 4.8cm up from the top edge of the piece of center pipe.

Soldering on connectors and wires was by far the most difficult part of assembly. Try to have a SWR meter handy to measure the RF power coming back down the transmission line. After some work, all four of my j-poles get 1.5:1 SWR or less from 144mhz through 148mhz.

My array of J-Poles
My array of J-Poles