The Landlocked Navy of Mongolia

 Lacking access to the open sea, many landlocked countries maintain navies, which may seem strange at first glance. But once you realize that in addition to oceans, lakes and rivers also form national boundaries for many countries, the idea won't seem so absurd.

For example, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan – three landlocked countries – all maintain naval fleets on the vast lake, the Caspian Sea, on which they border. Paraguay has armed patrol boats on the country's major rivers because any enemy nation could reach the heart of Paraguay by traveling upstream through these rivers from the open sea through Argentina. Switzerland – historically neutral, yet one of the most armed countries in the world – also has armed patrol boats to monitor its many lakes. Hungary maintains a full arsenal of ships, including battleships and minesweepers. All of these countries have legitimate reasons for protecting their inland waterways. But Mongolia is another story.

Mongolia is surrounded by land on all sides. Mongolian map photo by Jason Kolenda/

Mongolia is the world's most landlocked country with its borders more than 600 km from the nearest coastline. In terms of size, it is the second largest landlocked country in the world after Kazakhstan.

Mongolia's only international water border is a 10 km long zigzag at the northeastern end of Lake Uvs, a small part of which extends into Russian territory. Realistically speaking, the likelihood of Russia attacking Mongolia through this narrow corridor is extremely low. Still, if Mongolia wants to protect its waters, so be it. But that's not why Mongolia has a navy. The truth is that Mongolia's navy is not even on Uvs Lake. It is on another water body – Khövsgol Lake – which is completely inland. The Russian border is more than 13 km from the lake shore and is separated by a high mountain range.

Mongolia's symbolic navy is the result of a futile attempt to keep alive the country's lost heritage. Eight hundred years ago, the Mongols, under Kublai Khan, had the largest navy in the world. The Mongolian Empire extended its reach to Central Asia and Eastern Europe, with a maritime presence along the Sea of Japan, the East and South China Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. Twice in the late 13th century, Genghis Khan led a fleet of more than 4,000 ships across the Sea of Japan to attack the island nation. Both invasion fleets were destroyed by devastating storms, which the Japanese called "divine winds" or kamikaze. Centuries later, thousands of World War II pilots, known as kamikaze, would crash their planes into enemy ships in suicide missions to defend Japan.

A 19th-century painting by artist Issho Yada depicts the sinking of Kublai Khan's fleet. Photo credit: Koji Nakamura/Nat Geo

By the end of the 13th century, the Mongol Empire had fragmented into several independent kingdoms. Eventually, with the Chinese conquest of the Mongol Empire, the nation was pushed even further back from the coast towards the present landlocked state.

In the 1930s, the Mongolian Navy was reborn when the Soviet Union presented a tugboat, Sukhbaatar, to the country. The current vessel, Sukhbaatar III, is manned by a crew of seven. According to a documentary produced by Litmus Films, only one member of the crew knows how to swim.

“I would like to see the real sea someday,” muses a Mongolian navy sailor. “I think it would be gentle and peaceful. Here on Khovsgol Lake the water is very rough and cold.

The Sukhbaatar III did not see much combat duty. Khövsgol Lake, where it flows, is entirely surrounded by Mongolian territory. During communist days, tug boats were used to transfer oil from the south of the lake to its northern tip – a journey that took 8 hours to complete, compared to 4 days by horse. There is no motorable road. But when the post-Communist government moved its oil hub elsewhere, the navy lost its purpose. The navy has since been privatized and abandoned by the government. The crew is now struggling to stay relevant by hauling cargo and carrying tourists across the lake.

1 comment:

  1. ghengis conquered the world for a short time....Jesus conquered the world forever


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