Mongolia’s Strange and Unnecessary (and Really Small) Navy

Mongolia is the second-largest (by area) landlocked country in the world, after Kazakhstan. And that’s really not fair to Mongolia, as Kazakhstan borders the Caspian Sea, which is also bordered by four other nations.Mongolia, unlike Kazakhstan, has little reason for a navy, as there’s virtually no possibility of the nation engaging in seafaring warfare. (Uvs Lake is one tiny, tiny, tiny exception — the 1,300 square mile/3,350 km^2 lake has a tiny point in Russia, but that’d be an unlikely place for a battle to break out.)

But Mongolia has a navy. A very small, mostly silly one.




Pictured above is the Sukhbaatar III, a tugboat (Here’s another angle.) It is the flagship of the Mongolian Navy — a title it has earned in no small part because it is the full complement of the nation’s armada. And you’ll note that, despite Mongolia having no meaningful aquatic route to a neighboring country, the Sukhbaatar III is sitting in the water. It’s stationed in Lake Khovsgol, the nation’s largest body of water by volume, itself in the northern part the nation and not too far from Russia — but still comfortably and entirely within Mongolia’s borders.

The tug is operated by a seven-person crew which constitutes the entire navy. That’s right, the Mongolian Navy has seven sailors and a tugboat. That’s it. And amazingly, it gets even stranger. According to Neatorama, only one of the seven know how to swim.

Historically, the navy served an actual purpose, small as it were. When Mongolia was under Soviet rule, the naval force transported oil from the north of the lake to points south and west, as conditions warranted. (The lake freezes for a few months every year.) A trip across the lake by boat takes about eight hours, and going around the lake (by horse — there are no roads) takes four days, so in some sense, having a lake-bound navy made sense.

But that’s less and less true now. These seven sailors aren’t much of a military force, but they’re increasingly less of an economic one as well. Not only do they not have any way to steam into battle — unless someone invades that lake, that is — but budget cutbacks have required the crew to obtain part-time work shuffling goods and tourists around the lake’s coasts, and making ends meet is a difficult challenge.

Bonus Fact: Mongolian barbecue isn’t Mongolian. It’s Taiwanese.

From the ArchivesThe Yellow Fleet: Ships stranded in a strange way.

Related: “Bones of the Master: A Journey into Secret Mongolia,” by George Crane. 4.6 stars on 72 reviews.