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.
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.