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.
Now one of Europe's poorest and most underdeveloped regions with a crumbling infrastructure, Kalmykia was once a land of fertile if fragile steppe whose black soil was cherished by the herdsmen. Soviet times changed all that. The land was ploughed and intensive grazing became the norm. Much of the steppe has now turned to desert. Livestock raising remains the main economic activity and there is also some fishing and arable farming.
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.
In addition to the sights within the present reduced boundaries of the Republic of Kalmykia, worth visiting in Astrakhan oblast is one of the few remaining pre-revolutionary Buddhist Temples (disused and partly demolished) in the village of Rechnoe on the left (east) bank of the Volga in the village of Rechnoe. To its north is Mount Bogdo, revered by Buddhist Kalmyks, and with many fossils in its rocks. To its south the sacred lotus of the Buddhist Kalmyks can be seen growing in the waters of the Volga delta. In Rostov oblast here are some settlements previously occupied mainly by the newer Buzaf clan of traditionally more russified and christianised Kalmyks who were also Cossacks. They were not allowed to reoccupy this area after their return from deportation. In Stavropol krai to the south lies the spa resort of Yessentuki (Kalmyk: 'Ten Flags) in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, near Europe's highest peak, Mt Elbrus. In the European part of the Republic of Kazakhstan can be found the town of Kalmykovo, looking across the Ural River at Asia. And if you cross Kazakhstan to its border with China, you can meet the Oirats, living in Dzhungaria, part of Xingjiang province. They are those Kalmyks who did not wish to remain in Kalmykia when it was incorporated into the Russian Empire, so they returned home. All these places occupy a small part of the former Kalmyk Empire that stretched from the Great Wall of China to the River Don in Europe, and from the forests of Siberia in the north to Tibet and the Himalayas in the south.
Traditional Kalmyk drinks bear some similarity to those found in Mongolia, but are unique to the region. Try:
With tourism on the rise, travellers 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 centres.
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.