In the bottom South West corner of Russia, just above the Caucusus mountains and loosely between Sochi (where the Winter Olympics will be held in February 2014), Astrakhan on the old Silk Route and the Caspian Sea, lies the Buddhist Republic of Kalmykia.
The Kalmyks originally arrived here as nomads from Western Mongolia around the 17th century. They have a sad history – coming first under pressure from Russian and German settlers, many tried to escape back to Mongolia in the late 18th century but two thirds of those trying to escape died. Those who stayed behind later suffered under the Bolsheviks who destroyed their Tibetan Buddhist temples, arrested monks and expropriated cattle. After some then chose to fight with the Nazi’s against the Russians, Stalin post-World War II rounded up almost all Kalmyks and sent them to Siberia in cattle cars where many died in gulags (please refer to my next blog “A Little Cattle Car with a Big Heart”). According to Lonely Planet, when they were later allowed to return only about 50,000 people made it back, about half the pre-war population.
Those that returned have since built new temples, pavilions and gateways in amongst the Soviet style parks and boulevards. The windswept steppes, Mongolian faces, spinning prayer wheels, Tibetan prayer flags and deep red robed monks had me teleported back to happy days in the Tibetan Highlands of China’s Sichuan province. The Dalai Lama has visited more than once.
To add a strange flavour to this Buddhist retreat (I stayed about three nights to soak it all in and to just relax), the first Kalmyk president (no longer presiding) explored his love for Chess and Ostap Bender (a trickster of Russian literature) by creating Chess City and a nearby monument to Ostap. Chess City Hall, and the collection of suburban-looking guesthouses around it, was built on the city outskirts and has hosted several World Chess Championship games. It mixes curiously with this otherwise Asian town.
The horizon to horizon open sky of Elista on the seemingly endless steppes of Southern Russia, the laidback feel of its people and temples and a room to myself in the only hotel in town made it the perfect place for me to begin to slow down after my race around Russia….
If you’re interested in Buddhism in Russia, you may also be interested to read “Ulan Ude – East meets West.” For minority cultures generally, you might also enjoy “Kazan – It’s not you, its me” and “Astrakhan -Tatar Markets and Mosques ” for Russia and “Diyarbakir – Mourning Songs, Sticks and Stones” for Turkey.
If you’re interested in this darker period of Soviet history, you may also be interested to read “Perm 36 – Last Gulag Standing.”
Thanks for reading.