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In August 2007, an Explorers Club flag expedition to northern Mongolia performed the first scientific dive in that landlocked country in the second largest lake in Asia, Lake Khosvgol. mongolia1Purported to contain 1-2% of the world’s fresh water, the vertical 25 by 13 mile lake shares its northern border with Siberia and is accessible through a small airport or a several hour bone-rattling drive from the regional town of Moron. Located over 600 miles from the only major city, the capital Ulaan Bataar, large parts of this pristine lake remain sparsely populated. Led by EC member Steven Schwankert, I joined fellow Explorers Club members Peter Hess and John Dema and 8 others to inspect old Russian shipwrecks, perform side scan sonar surveys of lake bottom, survey lake fauna, and sample water quality. Other potential targets for this dry suit survey included some of the 30 to 60 cars that have plunged through the ice during the winter when the lake is used as a road. An intriguing story of lost golden Buddhas cast into the lake by monks to avoid confiscation during the Russian persecution in the 1930s added a fascinating dimension to the potential underwater targets.

Arriving in Ulaan Bataar, known locally as UB, this initial unfavorable urban impression of Mongolia is dispelled once one gets into the vast open spaces of the steppes. Majestic in grandeur and unpopulated except for very occasional small groups of few houses, rugged mongolia ponies share equal billing for transportation with land rovers which generally confine their activity to the solitary rugged gravel road heading toward the lake. The small town of Khatgal at the southern end of the lake is surrounded by camps with traditional gers mongolia2(traditional mongolia rounded tents, mistakenly called yurts) containing a central woodburning stove. One such camp located further up the western lakeshore became our base, selected because of good shore diving access and closer proximity to the northern reaches we intended to explore. The few hours per day of electricity provided by our portable generator were generally reserved for refilling dive tanks.

Very remote and beautiful, Lake Khosvgol reminded one of the northern Great Lakes with its pine woods and few inhabitants. This was especially true as one left the slight civilization of Khatgal and headed toward Siberia. Water quality was judged to be quite good according to field tests administered at several lake sites. Despite the proximity of humans and animals to the shore near the town of Khatgal, there were no appreciable phosphate levels to denote fertilizer runoff nor any evidence of unacceptable coliform infestation. These results were consistent throughout the course of the expedition. One can only hope that this is sustained as the human population continues to encroach on the shores of this important water supply. This is encouraging for the more widely known Lake Baika, located not far away in Siberia. Lake Baikal is the largest and deepest Asian lake and a significant world source of fresh water.

mongolia3Initial forays for divers to acclimate to gear and temperature led to the discovery that the waters near shore were significantly warmer in the shallow areas than the anticipated anticipated 400 C though there was a rapid drop off in temperature with entry into the thermoclines. Many large fish known as burbot, a cod species, were found to be quite curious and unafraid of the divers. Three known shipwrecks from the Russian era were located and surveyed and some artifacts were retrieved for the Mongolian interior ministry. The side scan sonar successfully located interesting targets though the golden Buddhas proved illusive. Most curiously, an unusual 5 meter sonographic signature was detected at 35 meters but could not be confirmed to be animate….it seems the divers were reluctant to hop in for a closer inspection.

Fortunately, there were no adverse medical events among our members, though we did have to render assistance to a German tourist who fell off a horse. He did not appear to have any skeletal injuries but did sustain low back pain and contusions. Given the lack of facilities in this remote area, he was examined and given pain medication and counseled to seek medical attention if his condition worsened.


My departure prior to the rest of the group involved a wild buggy ride in a landrover going 70 mph over very poor roads for 3 hours across the northern steppes. I am sure this land has not changed much since the days of Genghis Khan. My Mongolian driver spoke not one word of English, causing the inevitable difficulties of how to communicate a need to stop for a biological break. However, he did get me to the small provincial airport in Moron to fly back to UB, dusty and sore from bouncing but relatively intact. Much speculation occurred about Moron (the alternate spelling of Murun is not nearly as fun) and its inhabitants, whether they were considered Moronians or just Morons…..our Tasmanian ops guy who lives in Mongolia is quite convinced it was the latter. It was a fascinating trip in all but, as is usually the case, I was delighted to get to Hong Kong for rehab into civilization.