Lin’s virtual exploration in the StarCAVE this afternoon is an extension of a flesh-and-blood expedition that he led last summer, when he, 18 men, eight horses, and two Soviet-era trucks loaded with high-tech mapping and imaging equipment set out across the same terrain he’s poring over digitally now. The expedition plunged deep into northern Mongolia’s Hentiy Province, into an area known as the Ikh Khorig, which translates literally as the “great taboo” but is referred to by outsiders as the “Forbidden Zone.” The immediate aim was to survey the area—with GPS, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flyovers, and satellite imagery—but the larger goal, the one that inspired the trip and still causes Lin no end of excitement, was to find the lost tomb of Genghis Khan.
From the time of the Khan’s death in 1227 up until 1991, the 90 square miles that make up the Forbidden Zone were as off-limits as any place in the world. Shortly after he died, the Khan’s surviving commanders ordered a group of 50 particularly battle-hardened families, collectively known as the Uryangqai of the Woods, to occupy this land and kill any trespassers, making exceptions only for the funeral processions of the Khan’s direct descendants, who were allowed to be buried there. Unsurprisingly, this fierce degree of secrecy has led many to surmise that the body of Genghis Khan himself resides somewhere in this zone, along with some of the treasures of an empire vaster than those of Napoleon and Alexander the Great combined. When the Soviets took over Mongolia in 1924, they stamped out the Uryangqai of the Woods just as they tried to stamp out the subversive, nationalism-inspiring memory of the great Khan, maintaining a bubble around the Ikh Khorig, declaring it a highly classified military site. It wasn’t until the fall of the U.S.S.R., in 1991, that restrictions began to loosen. Even today, 782 years after it was sealed off, the Forbidden Zone has been visited by only a smattering of archaeologists, biologists, and environmentalists.
Lin has been obsessed by the story of “Chinggis Khaan” since a backpacking trip to Mongolia five years ago, but it wasn’t until last year, after realizing that UCSD was the perfect embarkation point for a tomb hunt, that he took steps to mold his obsession into action. Some of his best friends at the university were experts in various fields—UAV design, remote sensing, geographic information systems—that could, if applied in combination, provide an old-fashioned archaeological expedition with cutting-edge advantages. Not only that, but these same friends were almost all, like Lin, avid rock climbers, used to roughing it in the wilderness, up for most any adventure, the crazier the better.