Does Mongolia really have a one-boat navy?

You might have heard of Mongolia’s one-boat navy. While a singular vessel in your naval fleet seems small, Mongolia is the second largest landlocked country in the world, so why do they have a navy at all? Well, technically they don’t – although there is a boat and seven crew members (only one of whom reportedly knows how to swim). 

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Sukhbaatar III is the boat widely considered to be the entirety of the Mongolian Navy. (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

The Mongolian Navy is something of an urban myth, with a common misconception that the tugboat that patrols Lake Khovsgol is a branch of the Mongolian Armed Forces. It was the subject of a documentary in the early 2000s and has been speculatively reported since, but sadly it isn’t the case. Government-operated? Yes. Part of a navy? No.

Lake Khovsgol is Mongolia’s largest lake by volume, located in the north of the country, across the border from Lake Baikal in Russia. Baikal is the oldest and largest freshwater body of water in the world, and the two are often known as “sister lakes”. Yet while Lake Khovsgol is a vast area, it is surrounded by Mongolian land on every shore. Nowadays, the lone government boat operating there, named Sukhbaatar III, spends most of its time moving commercial cargo across the lake. 

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Horses walking on the shores of the giant Lake Khovsgol. (Getty Images)

The water transport infrastructure at Khovsgol was built by the Soviet Union in the early-to-mid 20th century. Though Mongolia was not officially part of the Soviet Union, it was a satellite state and much of the nation’s infrastructure to this day dates back to Soviet-era development. In 1952, the running of the Lake Khovsgol service was transferred over to the Mongolian government, who recently celebrated 70 years of operations on the lake. 

At the ceremony, the governor of the province looked ahead, saying: “In the future, we are faced with the need to protect Khovsgol Lake, and develop eco-tourism and water transportation.” Many of the past and present members of the crew were also rewarded with state-sanctioned awards.

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Mongolia’s vast lands may no longer have naval forces, but some 800 years ago, at the height of the Mongol Empire’s power, their navy was the largest in the world. Most of the ships were lost on an ill-fated attempt at invading Japan in the 13th century, with two giant typhoons ravaging their fleet. Soon after, Mongolia lost its shoreline altogether and now only Kazakhstan is a larger landlocked country. Kazakhstan, however, has a vast border with the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water and sometimes classified as a sea in its own right. 

It might not have a navy anymore, but Mongolia is home to so many fascinating stories. If you liked this one, we think you might like the video below with four different Great Big Stories celebrating Mongolian culture!

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