By Oliver August on Lake Hovsgol.
7 Juli 2001
THE senior ranking officer in the Mongolian Navy gazed across turbulent waters and picked up an oversized telephone mouthpiece of Soviet vintage. "Calling headquarters, calling headquarters," Captain Purevdorj barked.
Standing on the bridge of the diesel-powered Sukhbaatar III, he was ready to pursue enemy vessels across Lake Hovsgol on the Siberian border. He pulled levers controlling the engine while his eyes darted back and forth between compass and radar. "She can get up to 22km an hour," he said, before suddenly collapsing into his seat. "But what is the point?"
The Sukhbaatar III is the only vessel in the navy of Mongolia, the world's largest landlocked country. Named after Damdiny Sukhbaatar, the Lenin of Mongolia, it has been on patrol duty since 1938 without ever encountering a foe. Lake Hovsgol, which holds 2 per cent of the world's fresh water, is about 1,000 miles from the sea.
Despite having served on the Sukhbaatar III for three decades, Captain Purevdorj has never fully accepted his fate. He keeps his black and gold rimmed cap in pristine condition, ready for the day when he can sail on open water.
As he walked past paintings of ancient sea battles in the officers' mess, he said mournfully: "I trained in the Russian Navy - that was exciting. I have been bored ever since coming back here."
To the rest of Mongolia, however, the Sukhbaatar III is an object of immense satisfaction. In the provincial capital of Moron, pictures of the ship are on public display.
"The Sukhbaatar constitutes the Mongolian Navy and thus is a source of national pride," a visitors' guide said.
The high seas have long fascinated the nomadic people of the steppe. In the 13th century, Mongolia under Genghis Khan ruled the world's largest empire, stretching from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. Having broken free of communism, Genghis Khan's heirs try to rekindle some of the old fervour.
Dambii Dorligjav, the Defence Minister, told Jane's Defence Weekly magazine: "We don't think either of our two neighbours (Russia and China) intends to attack Mongolia, but neither do we neglect that some incidents might develop which threaten Mongolian security."
Speaking to The Times, Nambaryn Enkhbayar, the Prime Minister, fondly remembered sailing on the Sukhbaatar III. "It was in the late 1970s," he said. "The captain was the uncle of a university classmate. It's good to know that the ship is still there today."
And there it will remain. The six-strong crew of the Sukhbaatar III have little hope of ever reaching the open seas. The ship was transported on 100 lorries across the grassland and assembled from parts on the edge of the lake. Its two predecessors, the Sukhbaatar I and II, sank in shallow water not far from the docks in the town of Hatgal on the southern tip of the lake. According to the Comprehensive History of the Mongolian Navy, published by the Government in 1967 on a single, folded sheet of paper, both were peacefully retired. The history did not record the armaments aboard the ships.
As it is, Captain Purevdorj said, "the biggest battles we fight are with the weather. We have all the right weapons for that." In the summer thunderstorms from Siberia regularly whip up the water. During winter the Sukhbaatar III is stuck in port because the lake is frozen solid - hardly ideal conditions.
Moreover, the Sukhbataar's patrol duties have been greatly reduced in recent years after the ship was privatised. Without an enemy to engage, the Mongolian Navy's pride and joy has been seen towing bulk carriers across the lake.
(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2001.