The Western Mongol Kalmyks, also known as Oirats, migrated across Central Asia from an ancestral home around Xinjiang, China and southeastern Kazakhstan and eventually arrived in Southern Russia, displacing the Tatars of the Astrakhan Khanate. Originally an independent khanate, Kalmykia's independence was slowly chipped away and it was eventually assimilated into the Russian Empire.
As more than half of Kalmyks are followers of Tibetan Buddhism, the country is often referred to as the only Buddhist country in Europe. Sadly, nearly all of Kalmykia's beautiful khuruls (Kalmyk Buddhist temples) were demolished under Stalin's massive campaign of cultural vandalism. In an act of genocide during WWII, Stalin deported the entire population of Kalmyks toKazakhstan and Siberia. The imported Russians then intensified the desertification caused by collectivisation and inappropriate agriculture. Those Kalmyks who survived the brutal deportation and exile were finally allowed to return home in 1957, under Khruschev. But despite these hardships, Kalmykia's khuruls are being rebuilt, and the people remain, and merit a visit.
Present day Kalmykia garners some press attention for the excesses of its flamboyant and dictatorial president Ilyumzhinov. Ilyumzhinov, a former Kalmyk statesman in the USSR and president of the World Chess Federation, has led Kalmykia since the break up of the Soviet Union, but has so far failed to deliver on rather grandiose promises to turn Kalmykia into a "Caspian Kuwait" in which there would be "a cell phone for every shepherd." He has, however, turned Elista into the claimed chess capital of the world by building a small district of Elista known as "City Chess" and by hosting successive chess championships in the capital.
Although the native language of the Kalmyk majority is Kalmyk (western Mongolian), it is mainly older people who are fluent, due to the effects of the 1944-57 deportation of the Kalmyks and the virtual destruction of their cultural cohesion. Nowadays just a few villages are mainly Kalmyk-speaking by all generations. Russian is spoken and understood everywhere - although not spoken by some of the very oldest Kalmyks.
The Republic of Kalmykia is currently a part of the Russian Federation. Therefore, when planning your trip to Kalmykia, you should apply for Russian visa.
The Elista airport is temporarily closed due to non-compliance with technical requirements of Russian Airlines Committee. Most likely, it will undergo the procedure of bankruptcy before being opened by new private owner first half of 2007.
Several private companies operate a daily bus service between Moscow and Elista. The pickup point in Moscow is Luzhniki Stadium. A one-way ticket costs about 1000RUR.
Traditional Kalmyk drinks bear some similarity to those found in Mongolia, but are unique to the region. Try:
With tourism on the rise, travelers will have no difficulty finding good accommodation in Elista, although accommodations outside of the capital may be scarce or of lesser quality. It may be possible (and extremely rewarding) to arrange homestays in rural areas by asking around town or village centers.
Kalmykia is known for its sunny weather and fresh air. However, visitors are advised not to drink tap water due to the high content of minerals and salt. Otherwise, Kalmykia offers a healthy environment, and delicious and fresh food — mutton and beef being specialties, also Caspian caviar, prized as far away as Moscow and Saint Petersburg.