One thing quickly led to another, and one day in early July, Lin and his team, funded by a National Geographic Waitt grant, found themselves rumbling north from Ulaanbaatar in their rented Russian trucks. On maps, it looked like their initial destination in the Ikh Khorig was about six hours distant. Then came the mechanical breakdowns and deep mud pits, the injured goats and swamped vehicles, the recalcitrant guards at the entrance to the Forbidden Zone. After two days, they established their first base camp—two Mongolian gers, or yurts—took a few celebratory pulls from a bottle of bootleg vodka, and set about exploring.
For the next three weeks they roamed all over the Forbidden Zone and beyond, fanning out across the untracked wilderness on foot and on horseback. They braved wolves, exploding UAVs, and unexploded Soviet ordnance. They ate goat steak, goat stew, and something called goat bread, and washed it down with fermented horse milk.
One afternoon, while crossing a valley, Lin spotted a small, evenly proportioned grassy hill in the middle of an otherwise flat field. It looked distinctly like a burial mound, perhaps even one of a royal scale. The team pushed its way through the thick, boar-infested brush surrounding it and clambered to the top. A test probe, however, revealed that the hill was just a hill.
Their disappointment didn’t last long. Two days later, high on the flanks of a mountain, they arrived at the location of an ancient temple that has never been studied. Although they didn’t do any excavation, by simply peering into the upturned earth near recently downed trees they found plenty of impressive artifacts, among them a clay medallion, dating from the Khan’s time, embossed with the regal face of a lion.
All told, Lin’s team identified dozens of potential burial sites. And since his return to the States, he has continued his discoveries, transforming real-world data into the virtual world of the StarCAVE and canvassing terrain he couldn’t reach in the field. Scouring the StarCAVE for anomalies, he has added one more major site of interest to his list.
When Lin and his team return to these sites next summer, they will set about examining each one. Rather than digging, however, the team will probe them noninvasively with subsurface imaging tools. Genghis Khan, after all, is considered by most Mongolians to have been not just the greatest military commander of all time, but also the greatest shaman, a kind of combination of General Patton and Jesus Christ. Some locals worry that disturbing his tomb could unleash spiritual furies of an eschatological caliber, bringing about the apocalypse.
While the validity of these concerns is debatable, it should be noted that, on the day the team packed up the gers and began the long trip back to Ulaanbaatar, the sky darkened and the biggest rainstorm in 40 years kicked up. Perhaps Albert Lin is on the right track.