Kalmykia: Russia with a twist

Posted in: Russia


The Golden Temple in Elista, Kalmykia's capital city. Photo: Rob Mills
The Golden Temple in Elista, Kalmykia's capital city. Photo: Rob Mills

Anyone for Kalmykia? It is a republic that lies in eastern Europe between the Volga and the Manych River. Kalmykia is in the premier league of offbeat destinations in Europe. It is even less visited by leisure travelers than Ruthenia, Lusatia or Moldova.

If you like feather grass steppes and wide open spaces, then Kalmykia is for you. The Republic of Kalmykia is about the same size as Scotland or South Carolina and its sparsely-populated prairies are home to less than 300,000 people. And more than a third of them live in the capital city Elista.

Russia with a twist

The European portion of the Russian Federation includes, apart from the various oblasts of Russia itself, 16 distinct republics of varying size, some of which sound more the stuff of fiction than modern political practice. These territories are Russia with a twist, each with a greater degree of autonomy than would be the norm in a regular oblast in Russia.

They include Karelia and Tatarstan, the engagingly-named Mari El Republic (capital city Yoshkar-Ola) and the slightly improbable Republic of Bashkortostan, tucked away in the southern part of the Russian Federation between the River Volga and the Ural Mountains.

Each republic is the heartland of an ethnic minority (eg. Ossetians, Tatars, etc.). That does not mean that one particular ethnic group is always a majority within its own republic. In Karelia, for example, Russians greatly outnumber Karelians. But in Kalmykia, Kalmyks really do form the majority of the population – some 55% of the total.

Kalmyk origins

The Kalmyk people are of Mongol origin, having migrated west over the vast steppe landscapes of central Asia to the Volga region in the 17th century. They brought their culture and religion with them. And therein lies the explanation for the extraordinary fact that Kalmykia is the only territory in Europe where Buddhism is the dominant religion.

Throw in the fact that Kalmyks are utterly addicted to chess and you begin to understand what an oddball place this is. It is a nice reminder that, if you take the path less traveled, there still are some truly different places just waiting to be discovered.

Routes to Kalmykia

Tempted? Just take the train from Moscow to Volgograd, an easy 24-hour journey. Volgograd is 100 km north of the border with Kalmykia. A bus from Volgograd every afternoon at 3 p.m. will take you directly to the Kalmyk capital at Elista. Provided you have a valid visa for the Russian Federation, you need no additional permit or visa to travel to Kalmykia.

About the author


About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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2 thoughts on “Kalmykia: Russia with a twist”

  1. Mr Monty

    But does this not prove that which we have always suspected? Namely, that the proverbial wisdom of the man on the Clapham Omnibus is deeply suspect.

    We note your interest in travelling by bus from London to Kalmykia. We judge that would make a very fine journey, probably one that would take about 10 days, assuming that you stop off en route for comfortable overnight stays.

    Best to proceed as follows. Next time you are on the Clapham Omnibus, explain gently to the driver and all on board that you are hijacking the vehicle and taking them to Kalmykia rather than Clapham. Go prepared with a good supply of Kendal Mint Cake, some chess sets and a decent map of Europe. Practice your chess along the way, and you’ll all surely receive the warmest of welcomes from the Kalmyks.

    Have fun!

    PS. Stop off in Moldova to get Russian visas.

  2. Is this serious? No, come on now guys, surely you pulling the proverbial Eurocheapo leg with this one. I’ve done a straw poll of half a dozen commuters on the Clapham Omnibus this morning, and the general view is that Kalmykia does not exist, but we all agree that compulsory chess lessons in school is a great idea. Better than maths. Is there a direct bus from London to Kalmykia?


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