Mr BSqB is an old friend of mine and has invited me to write about my recent Kalmykia experience. Is Kalmykia travel destination for everyone? Certainly not. But if you’re looking for something off the grid, this might be just what you were waiting for.
Kalmykia is the only Buddhist region within Europe. I know about this Russian province because I’m married to a Kalmyk lady. When I first met my wife eight years ago, it seemed a bit fantastic to me that there were a group of Mongolians in Europe for more than 400 years, who lived in their yurts until the 1920s. I googled it and – yes, it turned out to be true. We then visited her friends and family in Kalmykia several times over the past few years, and I gradually got to know this fascinating stretch of land and its hospitable people better.
How to get there
To get to Kalmykia and its capital Elista, you will usually fly into Volgograd with a stopover in Moscow, then travel another 5 hours by bus on bumpy roads in a southern direction. The Caspian Sea lies to the province’s east. Its southern borders are formed by the Caucasus Republic of Dagestan and Russian Stavropol. Elista has 100,000 residents, which is one third of the republic’s population.
Who lives there
About half the people of Kalmykia are Kalmyk, the other half are Russian. Kalmyks have their own language, which is spoken by less than half of ethnic Kalmyks, and which UNESCO has classified as endangered.
Today these proud people of the steppe no longer roam the land as nomads. They have settled and follow daily work-life routines not too different from ours in the West. The national museum in Elista gives a good first insight into local history and tradition.
A ceremony and some tea and wine
The first thing that you will be served when you are being received as a guest is tea. The local variety is a light black tea with milk, butter and salt. It’s likely to take a few visits, but over the years you will learn to like it! Also, they might serve you Borzeks which is a fried tasty pastry, slightly salty. If you were an official guest, you would also be given a white Tibetan prayer scarf. I once had the honour to act as the “translator” (without knowing any Kalmyk, I had just learnt the translation by heart) at such a ceremony in Austria (Wachau region) a few years ago. The local winemakers produce a wine called “Kalmuck Wein” named after the Kalmyks, who had passed through there during the 19th century wars against Napoleon. The Kalmyk guests of honour had been invited to celebrate this proud tradition. They were a merry crowd and we all had loads of fun.
If you like lamb dishes you are at the right place because Kalmyks are famous for rearing sheep. The sheep’s diet consists mostly of herbs as almost no grass grows in the steppes. Meat is cheap and of an extraordinarily high quality. For the photo in this post I had ordered a “nomad lunch” at Chipollino restaurant (I know, Italian name, not Kalmyk, but they know what they are doing), close to the capital’s main square, for £7, much more than the usual £0.30 to £1.50 you’d expect to pay out in the country.
The “nomad lunch” parades typical Kalmyk dishes, each of which would usually be served as a main in its own right. The meal here consists of a broth of lamb as a starter, and cooked lamb with spicy sauce. The sauce consists of broth, salt, raw onions and raw garlic. It is as simple as it is tasty. Besides, the meal includes Dotur which is sheep innards, the taste is unusual but delightful. There is Börek, braided dumplings filled with lamb, and Huursn, homemade noodles with fried lamb. I especially like the Böreks. However, the best Kalmyk food, way better than at the best restaurants, is of course cooked by my mother-in-law.
As for milk products Kumis is an exciting drink. It is mare’s milk, that has gone through an alcoholic fermentation process. Apparently you’re bound to live to a hundred if you have a tipple a day.
For travel in the capital or the few other towns, I recommend to take a taxi. A trip costs around 1 pound. The minibuses called marshrutka are cheaper (25 pence per person), but many seem to go by the motto „Get out of my way or we will all die right here right now,” which seemed a tad risky, so we stopped using them early on.
Star Wars’ Watto, wolves, and race horses
In the countryside you’re likely to come across millions of sheep, the odd Saiga antelope (if you’re lucky), which looks exactly like Watto, the Star Wars character, the Kalmyk Shepherd, a fierce dog that is known to bite wolves’ necks in half mid-air whenever one of them calls him a cute puppy (best not to pet them), some camels, and the famous Achal-Tekkiner horses, one of the oldest horse breeds. They are valued worldwide as race horses for difficult long-distance challenges, because they are extremely tough, due to the harsh desert and steppe climates they are accustomed to.
Chess – the national sport
All little Kalmyks learn chess at school. I wouldn’t dare to mess with my 12-year-old nephew when it comes to this royal game, he’d wipe me out within seconds. The republic’s former president Ilyumzhinov (also known widely for his 1997 allegations that he was kidnapped by aliens and visited another planet in their UFO before being dropped off again at his apartment an hour later) has been the president of FIDE, the global chess federation, since 1995. In 1998 the 33rd Chess Olympiad took place in Elista. For this reason the local authorities and Ilyumzhinov built ‘Chess City‘, a large building complex devoted to chess, including olympic village style accommodation, conference rooms, competition venues and a chess museum. The chess museum is one of Elista’s highlights, don’t miss it.
This year we visited the tulips festival. The Kalmyk steppe at this time is full of flowering wild tulips in red, yellow and white colour. They are a protected plant and wonderful to look at.
At the festival many different groups perform traditional dance and music. You can also see typical sports like Kalmyk wrestling or archery. Many people are dressed in their traditional costumes, which adds to the atmosphere.
Day-Trip to Grozny
On one of the last days of our stay, I did a day-trip to Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, 500km away, together with a Russian mate of mine. You can read more about that trip here.
Kalmykia: travel destination for everyone?
I find that Kalmyks are friendly and hospitable people. I immediately felt welcome and never unsafe. While Kalmykia might not be (and shouldn’t be!) a go-to destination for mainstream tourism, I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for something a bit more off the grid, with a sense of adventure, but overall very pleasant, without the risks and dangers you’d be facing in some Central Asian countries or other parts of the world.