As on the Sunday I went north, on the Tuesday I went south. I had a day with no lessons and the early football match was of only passing interest, so we once more decided to exploit the opportunity of having our own transport in Volgograd to expand our knowledge of the surrounding region. Except this time we would be leaving the Volgograd Oblast altogether, and heading into new lands – the Kalmyk Republic (pronounced “kal-mook”).
Kalmykia is not an independent state, it is a federal subject of the Russian Federation but like Karelia it is regarded as a semi-autonomous state in its own right rather than a mere district/oblast. Generally this means the native population is predominantly of non-Russian ethnicity, and the Kalmyks have a very distinct culture, language and even physical appearance which marks them out as not being ethnic Russians (despite, of course, still being Russian citizens). They are thought to be descendants not of the Golden Horde, the invaders from the Mongol plains that subjugated Russia in the 13th and 14th centuries, but a later tribe of migrating Mongols called the Oirat.
The capital, Elista, is a three and a half hour drive from Volgograd and having had difficulty sleeping the previous night (overexcited from the football, probably), I spent most of it napping. I’m reliably informed that we drove south through Sovetskiy, Kirovskiy and Krasnoarmeiskiy rayons before leaving the city and taking a south-westerly road across the steppes.
This road was even more barren than the road to Kamyshin, with nothing but the odd petrol station every 50km or so. We had set off very early but even so the morning sun was strong and the car’s air conditioning was working overtime. Even the petrol stations were spartan affairs, with outside huts for toilets, and none of the fancy aisles of chocolates, snacks and car accessories you normally find.
The road was not busy at all – no danger of traffic jams – but we passed a couple of broken down vehicles whose situations we didn’t envy. The only delay in our journey was caused by cattle on the road. The Kalmyks are cattle-ranchers but they don’t believe in things like fences, so the cows just wander where they please. Not just cattle, I saw groups of horses and sheep too.
We passed lots of signs telling us we were crossing rivers, but there was no sign of any water. This is a dry land. One or two places had irrigation systems in place but the landscape was mostly brown and baked.
Eventually we started passing roads leading to settlements, each one with some kind of marker with the name of the town (such as the bull of Ovata). Finally we reached the largest settlement, the city of Elista marked by a tall column with a golden horseman on top.
The city has many interesting sculptures and memorials, some very distinctively different from those usually found in European cities, with much more abstract shapes of animals and people. Even the bus stops are designed with an Oriental flavour. The pathways are generally shaded with vegetation and quite pleasant to walk along.
Another distinctive aspect of Kalmykia is that it is predominantly Buddhist and the centre of Elista is well stocked with shrines, gates, pagodas and what turned out to be the largest Buddhist temple in Russia. We watched some people worshipping at the shrines and the ritual was always the same, walk around the shrine (sometimes once, sometimes three times) then bow, then turn around three times before you leave.
One interesting thing they have is prayer wheels – I have never seen these before, basically cylinders with prayers written on them that you can spin around, and some of them will ring a bell once on every spin. There were lots of them at the temple.
Another thing at the temple was the “wind horse” prayer flags strung up on the gates and around the fences. Brightly coloured, some with pictures, all of them with lots of writing, they looked like bunting for a Royal Wedding.
We walked around the temple (as the sign had told us to do) and checked out the sculptures of several great Buddhist teachers. At some points there were prayer wheels making a satisfying “ding” sound on each rotation. At the front of the temple there was a beautiful cascade fountain, with a sculpture at the bottom of an old man and his dog (at first I thought it was Confucius and A.L.F. from 80’s TV). Near the temple doors there is a magic lion.
We didn’t go in the temple-temple but we went into the ante-room/gift shop, and I took a peek through the door to have a look at the decoration inside. Outside the temple there was a plaque commemorating the visit of the Dalai Lama in 2004.
We headed back to the car passing lots of ordinary Kalmyk people going about their business. Most looked Mongol or Chinese with very few Russian-looking people, and I had to remind myself that not only was this Europe, but this was a community that had lived here for almost 400 years, as an independent state, under Imperial rule, and later under Soviet control – although it had its own SSR, amazingly the entire (ethnic) population was transported East virtually overnight in 1943 and it was literally wiped off the map, and remained that way until the Kalmyks were allowed to return to their homeland in 1957.
The journey home was long and uneventful. We did occasionally drive into swarms of crickets hurling themselves to messy deaths upon our windscreen, and we passed many cows patiently waiting in whatever limited shade was available to them, for the heat to subside. When we eventually reached the southern limits of Volgograd I was excited to spot the Sarepta lock, and a ship going through on its way to the Don. The last stretch of the journey, through Volgograd during rush hour, was the most frustrating, though we just about got home in time for the football.