In ancient times, the region was home to nomadic tribes such as the Khazars, whose empire was broken by Kiev in 965. Later on it was the north-western corner of the mighty Mongol Empire and subsequently the Golden Horde. Kalmykia is a historical crossroads on the Silk Road.
The Western Mongol Kalmyk tribes, also called 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) as well as all Christian churches were demolished under Stalin's massive campaign of cultural vandalism. Under German occupation all Jews of Elista were exterminated. Later in 1943 Stalin deported the entire population of Kalmyks to Kazakhstan and Siberia. The inappropriate agriculture along with previous collectivization caused erosion and desertification. 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 garnered some press attention for the excesses of its former flamboyant and dictatorial president Ilyumzhinov. Ilyumzhinov, a former Kalmyk statesman in the USSR and president of the World Chess Federation, led Kalmykia since the break up of the Soviet Union, but 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, 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.
Being one of Europe's poorest and most underdeveloped regions, Kalmykia now has one of the highest birthrates in Russia and growing private food production sector. Livestock raising and processing remains the main economic activity and there is also some fishing and arable farming. Oil-production contributed significantly to the economic revival. The official GDP growth in the republic was 2% in 2010.
Besides Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity believers there are smaller parts of Muslims, Christian Catholics and Protestants.
Although the traditional language of the Kalmyk majority is Kalmyk (western Mongolian), it is mainly older people who speak it natively, while younger people usually speak Russian as their native language. Nowadays just a few villages are mainly Kalmyk-speaking by all generations. Russian is spoken and understood everywhere - although not by some of the very oldest Kalmyks.
The Republic of Kalmykia is a part of the Russian Federation. Therefore, when planning your trip to Kalmykia, you should apply for Russian visa.
Several private companies operate a daily bus service between Moscow and Elista. The pickup points in Moscow are bus station close to subway stations: Orehovo, Teplyi Stan, Krasnogvardeiskaya. A one-way ticket costs about 1800RUR.
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 (under restoration but disused so far) (Хошеутовский хурул) in the village of Rechnoe on the left (east) bank of the Volga. It was founded in honour of Kalmyks fought against Napoleon and later was visited by novelist Alexander Dumas. To its north is Mount Bogdo (Great), 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. These objects are inside the Nature reserve.
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.