Kalmykia (west of Astrakhan) is bizarre republic west of the Caspian Sea traditionally occupied by the Buddhist Kalmyks. Bounded by the Volgograd region in to the north and about the size of South Carolina, it is covered mostly by arid steppe and occupies the western part of the Caspian lowlands. There is little surface water and the climate is hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

The Kalmyks are descended from the Mongols who ruled Russia for 240 years. In the past they lived in Western Siberia, but later moved to the area between the Don and the Volga. In the 1600s they formed an alliance with Peter the Great and were given a homeland in the southern near-desert steppe.

The only Buddhist republic in Europe, Kalmykia and home to about 300,000 people, half of which are ethnic Kalmyks and half are Russians. It is among the poorest republics in Russia. In the early 2000s, the average monthly income was less than US$20. At that time some state farm workers went five years without getting paid and herds of animals were depleted by hungry people who subsisted on water and bread and meat they could steal. This was a shame because the republic has oil.

Kalmykia, the former Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Kalmyk ASSR) is located on the northwestern shore of the Caspian Sea and has an area of 75,900 square kilometers and a population of about 350,000 (in 1995). The republic was established in 1920 as an autonomous oblast. The Kalmyk ASSR was established in 1935, dissolved in 1943, then reconstituted in 1958. The republic officially changed its name to Kalmykia in February 1992. In 1989 the republic's population was 45 percent Kalmyk, 38 percent Russian, 6 percent Dagestani peoples, 3 percent Chechen, 2 percent Kazak, and 2 percent German. The Kalmyk economy is based on the raising of livestock, particularly sheep, and the population is mainly rural. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

One Russia's four regions where most of the population are Buddhists, Kalmykia is home to the largest Buddhist temple in Europe: the Golden Abode of the Buddha Shakyamuni. The Black Lands biosphere reserve contains up to 1,300 species of birds and animals, of which 29 are endangered. The Kalmykia displays a lotus, which is not just a Buddhist symbol here: in the summer, thousands of pink lotuses flower in the south of the region. Special boat tours are organized for people to see the blossoming.

Getting There: By road, Moscow it is 1257 kilometer from Elista, the capital of the Kalmyk Republic; St. Petersburg is 2085 kilometers away. There are federal highways to Volgograd, Makhachkala and Astrakhan. Buses from Elista go both cities in Kalmykia and neighboring regions such as Yessentuki, Kamyshin, Beslan, Vladikavkaz, Volgograd, Astrakhan, Armavir, Kislovodsk. By Plane: There is a daily flight between Moscow and Elista and back. The travel time is two hours; a ticket costs 4100 rubles. Direct flights between St. Petersburg and Elista operate on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. The cost of the flight is 8740 rubles (for an adult round-trip). By Train: Trains from Moscow and St. Petersburg do not go to Elista. By Bus: Moscow to Elista costs 4800 rubles. St. Petersburg to Elista, 6600 rubles (for an adult round-trip).


Elista is the capital of Kalmykia. It is a typically, drab and poor Russian-style city except for one thing:Chess City, a US$30 million project with a suburban-style subdivision, amusement park and postmodern castle with turrets, flags, glass and candy-colored eaves and a five-story yurt covered in mirrors and surrounded by a lawn with sculptures of Mongolian-looking shepherds and warriors and chess pieces. The Dalai Lama visited the city in 2005..

In 1998, Elista hosted the 33rd World Chess Olympiad, which brought together representatives from more than 120 countries around the world. Chess City was opened for that event. The city Has Also Tried to Spruce Itself up with Other Development. Between 1996 and 2006 many new structures were built: the Kazan Cathedral to the Equi, the Stupa of Enlightenment, the Giver of Peace, Harmony and Well-being of All Living Things, Worship Cross and X Frames Chapel of St. Sergius of Radonezh, the Arch, the Golden Gate, ", made in the tradition of Buddhist architecture, the Sacred Lotus fountain, based on a Kalachakra mandala, a hexagonal rotunda with a white marble statue of the Buddha.

In 2006, the central square of the capital was decorated with a seven storied pagoda "Seven Days" and prayer wheels, a three-tiered fountain and flower beds with ornamental lotus. The capital of Kalmykia also boasts four theaters, the "Kalmkontsert", two state song and dance ensemble and creative unions such as the Union of Artists, the Union of Theater Workers and the Republican musical society museum. The official portal of the Administration of the city of Elista / www.gorod-elista.ru

Buddhist Monuments in Elista

Buddha Statue of Shakyamuni was installed in the park behind the government building in 1995 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Dalai-Lama attaining his position. The only Buddhist statue in the European part of Russia that is situated outside of a Buddhist temple, it was designed by Russian artists Vladimir Vaskin and artist Pyotr Usuntsynov. Statue of Buddha is made of white marble and located inside of a six-sided Buddhist rotunda, decorated with traditional Buddhist ornaments and paintings.

Golden Abode of Buddha Sakyamuni Temple was built in Elista in 2005 after a visit to Kalmykia by the Dalai Lama, Standing 63 meters tall, it is one of the largest Buddhist temples in Europe. The nine-meter statue of Buddha located in the temple is the largest in Russia and Europe. Prayer sessions in the khurula (temple) begin from nine in the morning with the mantra “Om mani padme hum”. The khurula holds classes in the Tibetan language and yoga and holds exhibitions on the history of Buddhism. The temple is open to tourists. Remember to take off your shoes at the entrance. Skirts are required for women (those that don’t have one can borrow one at the entrance).

The Golden Abode of Buddha Shakyamuni temple (“Bukhrn Bagshin Altn Sume”) is one of the main attractions of Elista. Along the perimeter of the temple small white statues placed at a distance of five meters from each other. The South Gate is the main entrance, but there are also other gates in the fence of the temple, at each point of the compass. At the bottom of the stairs leading to the temple, worshipers and visitors are met by Tsagan Aav, a deity associated with the pre-Buddhist beliefs of the Kalmyks and revered as the patron of the land.

Particular attention is drawn to the pagodas, each of which has a sitting figure of a Great Teacher of Buddhism from ancient India. There are a total of 17 pandits, 17 saints, who have made a considerable contribution to the spread of Buddha's Word. The Dalai Lama himself suggested the creation of this sculptural composition, because these people are very important for every Buddhist. In the middle of the stairs leading to the temple there is a cascade of fountains, with Kubera, a deity of wealth, at the very top.

The prayer hall (dugan) features a 9-meter high statue of Buddha Shakyamuni. The visible parts of the body (the face, the chest, and the right shoulder with the arm) are covered with gold leaf. According to the Buddhist canons, sacred objects were put inside the statue: mantras, prayers, jewelry, incense, handfuls of earth from all parts of the country, crops and other plants of the Kalmyk land.

On the third level, there are rooms for individual receptions of the faithful, as well as administrative offices. Decoration work is performed here, as well as in the dugan. Nine tanka artists work here, decorating the temple, at the invitation of Shadzhin Lama of Kalmykia, Telo Tulku Rinpoche. The fourth level is the residence of the head of the Buddhists of Kalmykia, Telo Tulku Rinpoche, and a small conference room. The fifth level houses the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama 14th. The first level has the Museum of History of Buddhism, with unique masks intended for Tsam dances, archival photographs and objects of ancient art. The library is still receiving new books. His Holiness the Dalai Lama 14th presented the temple with a complete collection of the Buddha's Word, “Ganzhur” and “Danzhur”.

Chess City

Chess City is US$30 million project with a suburban-style subdivision, amusement park and postmodern castle with turrets, flags, glass and candy-colored eaves and a five-story yurt covered in mirrors and surrounded by a lawn with sculptures of Mongolian-looking shepherds and warriors and chess pieces.

City Chess in Elista was built in 1997 for the 33rd World Chess Olympiad, when the Republic was led by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a fan of chess. The main building is the Chess Palace. It has rooms where the finals of the competitions were held and a chess museum. The rest of the complex is made up of cottages where chess players lived during the competition, and tourists have stayed since then. There is a lot of greenery, which is rare for Kalmykia. At the entrance to the city are Buddhist stupas erected by Boris Grebenshchikov, Stephen Seagal and Richard Gere.

The five-story Chess Palace resembles a tent. Covering 6182 square kilometers, it houses gyms, a cafe, conference rooms and offices). Within Chess City there is a hotel complex, Square of Kaissa — the goddess-patroness of the chess, water park and other social and cultural objects. On the central avenue is a Golden Crown called “Yoryal” (“a good wish”) by its sculptor V. Vaskin.

On his visit to Chess City in 2005, Michael Specter wrote in The New Yorker: “Except for five armed men guarding the Chess Palace, a pyramid of glass and mirrors shimmering in the frozen sunlight among groups of condos, stores, and bars, Chess City was deserted when I arrived. The city looked like a sort of Olympic Village—at least, one with a Buddhist temple and laid out in the shape of a Central Asian yurt. The most prominent picture on the wall of the palace shows Chuck Norris striding purposefully through the construction site. The palace has an airy, open foyer—like a Marriott Hotel. There were dozens of chess tables, chessboards, and chess rooms. Beautifully carved, super-sized figures sat on the squares—but there was nobody to move them. I walked through the museum, which has keepsakes from many of history’s most famous matches, including the 1996 bout between Gata Kamsky and Anatoly Karpov, which Ilyumzhinov, after negotiations with Saddam Hussein, had scheduled for Baghdad. The international response was so harsh, however, that fide moved the match to Elista. (That didn’t turn Ilyumzhinov away from dictators. He arranged to hold the 2004 World Championship in Tripoli, at the urging of another friend, Muammar Qaddafi.) Ilyumzhinov’s famous chess ukaz is on display in the museum, as are souvenir pieces from Iran, India, Dubai, Libya, Iraq, Tunisia, Israel, Poland, and other countries. There are chess pieces made of ivory, teak, fake amber, and imitation alabaster; some are shaped like sheep, others like camels, and still others like wandering nomads. [Source: Michael Specter, The New Yorker, April 16, 2006]

“The real cost of Chess City is unknown; Kalmykia doesn’t adhere to open principles of accounting. Ilyumzhinov has said that he put forty million dollars of his own into it. “The city was built on investments,’’ he told me. “It’s all investments. There is no budget money there. And, if investments are flowing in, I think that’s very good—for the republic, for the country, for the people.” I asked at least two dozen people at shopping malls, Internet cafés, and restaurants if they felt they had benefitted in any way from the construction of Chess City. Most refused to answer; not one said yes.

Kalmyk Steppe

The Kalmyk Steppe covers about 100,000 square kilometers and borders the Caspian Sea to the southeast, Volga River to the east and the territory of the Don Cossacks to the west. It is the traditional homeland of Kalmyks and lies in territories of the Kalymk Republic and Astrakhan Oblast.

The western Kalmyk Steppe is occupied by the Ergeni hills, deeply trenched by ravines and rises 100 to 200 meters above the sea. It is covered with and black earth, and its escarpments represent the old shore-line of the Caspian Sea. The eastern part of the steppe is a plain, lying for the most 10 to 15 meters below sea level and sloping gently towards the Volga. Large areas of moving sands exist near Enotayevsk have created high dunes there.

The Kalmyk Steppe is part of the Great Eurasian steppe that stretches from Mongolia and the Great Wall of China in the east to Hungary and the Danube River in the west. It is bounded by the taiga forest of Russia to the north and by desert and mountains to the south. It is located at about same latitude as the American plains and embraces a dozen countries, including Russia, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrzgzstan and several other former Soviet Republics.

Describing the steppes, Polish Nobel laureate Henry Sienkiewicz wrote in With Fire and Sword, "The steppes are wholly desolate and unpeopled yet filled living menace. Silent and still yet seething with hidden violence, peaceful in their immensity yet infinitely dangerous, these boundless spaces were a masterless, untamed country created foe ruthless men who acknowledge no one as their overlord." Steppes are covered mostly by sparse grass or grasses and shrubs such as saxual. Trees are often stunted. Large trunks, branches and leaves require a lot of water to maintain. When the steppes meet the foot foothills, you can find wild poppies, even wild opium poppies.

Chyornye Zemli (Black Earth) Nature Reserve

Chyornye Zemli(“Black earth”) Nature Reserve (between Elista, Astrakan and the Caspian Sea) is located on the Caspian lowlands, between the lower reaches of the Volga and Kuma rivers. It was established to protect the saiga (steppe antelope). The reserve is divided into the steppe part, where the saiga migrates, and the ornithological area, the swampy shores of Lake Manych-Gudilo, the largest stop on the mass migration route of many rare species of birds.

Visitors are invited to see the reserve following the two routes: “Birds of Manych Gudilo Lake” and “The Saiga Route”. On the first route, visitors can use binoculars to see the lake and the surrounding islands with nesting colonies of birds (pelicans, gulls, spoonbills, gannets). A total 173 species of birds can be seen in this area. This is an area of mass nesting of the Dalmatian pelican and European white pelican. Other birds that nest on the islands include spoonbill, gray and white heron, black-headed gull, slender-billed gull; walking along the shore, you can meet up to 18 species of waterfowl and watch the feeding flocks of ducks, waders, terns, and gulls. One of the most beautiful and amazing phenomena in the reserve is the mass flowering of Schrenck's tulip, a flower listed in the Red Book. Visitors are offered binoculars, as well as pocket field guides to birds and plants found in the area. The route is 11 kilometers long.

“The Saiga Route,” 12 kilometers long, crosses a plain. At any time of the year, you can see the saiga and other animals here, Their numbers and the species present depend on the season. including the corsac, fox, hare, wild cat, wolf, and rodents: gerbils, house mice, field mice, and gray hamsters. In the summer, you can watch young foxes, saigas with their calves, long-eared hedgehog and, less frequently, the white-breasted hedgehog.

Spring is the best season to observe the fauna here. At this time, visitors who take the route can see not only the animals that live in the reserve throughout the year, but also many birds coming from the south and nesting in the reserve, as well as birds flying through the reserve to the northern regions.

Saiga Antelope

Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) are steppe animals with a strange-looking snout. True members of the antelope family, they are the size and shape of sheep. They have large, bulbous eyes and a nose with a stubby trunk, large nostrils and mucous glands that are so are numerous and large they cause they animals's head to bulge. The purpose of the animals nose features is to warm and moisten the air and filter dust. Saiga are very efficient at converting steppe grasses to meat. Only male saiga antelope have horns. They are simple, amber-colored, straight spikes.

Saiga weigh between 30 nd 45 kilograms (66.08 to 99.12 pounds). Their average life span is 10 to 12 years. Saiga populations are concentrated in three main areas within central Asia: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Kalmykia. They inhabit dry steppes and semi deserts. Herds are found in grassy plains void of rugged terrain and hills. [Source:Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan, animaldiversity.org ~]

According to Animal Diversity Web: The most striking feature of a saiga is its large head with a huge mobile nose that hangs over its mouth. Males have a pair of long, waxy colored horns with ring-like ridges along their length. Except for the unusual snout and horns, S. tatarica look similar to small sheep. Saiga antelopes are approximately .6 meters to .8 meters tall at shoulder height and are approximately 1 meters to 1.5 meters long. They have long, thin legs and a slightly robust body. During the summer, S. tatarica have a short coat that is yellowish red on the back and neck with a paler underside. In the winter, the coat becomes thicker and longer. The winter pelage is dull gray on the back and neck and a very light, brown-gray shade on the belly. Saiga antelopes also have a short tail. ~

Sources: Saiga Conservation Alliance and Wildlife Conservation Society.


Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website russiatourism.ru ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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