The 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 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 continental Europe. Sadly, the majority of Kalmykia's beautiful khuruts (Kalmyk Buddhist temples) were demolished under Stalin's massive campaign of cultural vandalism. In an act of genocide following WWII, Stalin deported the entire population of Kalmykia across Kazakhstan and Siberia. The Kalmyks that survived the brutal deportation were allowed to return, however, under Khruschev. But despite these hardships, Kalmykia's khuruts and the people that built them 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 veritable chess capital of the world by building a whole district of Elista known as "Chess City" and by hosting successive chess world championships in the capital.
Although the native language of the majority of Kalmykia residents is Kalmyk, Russian is understood everywhere.
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 accomodations 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, which are prized as far away as Moscow and Saint Petersburg.