Dear fellow travellers
The steppes on the drive east from the capital are parched and dry. Vehicles are few and far between. They are in the main old Soviet-era jeeps and trucks, the progress of each one marked by a trail of dust that hangs heavy in the afternoon air.
This is the land of the saiga, an endangered antelope with a beautiful bulbous nose that lives on the feather grass steppes of Kalmykia. Now there's a name to play with. Kalmykia. It is a republic that lies in eastern Europe between the Volga and the Manych River. A lot of folk in the capital Elista have probably never seen a herd of saiga antelope running wild on the steppes of Kalmykia. The animal is desperately endangered.
It was the then president of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who in late 2009 proclaimed that 2010 should be a year dedicated to Kalmykia's most distinctive animal. The Year of the Saiga was a great success, giving fresh impetus to the national effort to protect saiga habitats across Kalmykia.
A chess mecca
Ilyumzhinov stood down from Kalmyk politics last autumn, handing over the reins of power to Aleksey Orlov. But Ilyumzhinov's influence is still felt across the republic. He has long had a soft spot for the saiga, but his greatest passion is reserved for chess. Indeed, an entire suburb of Elista called Chess City has been designed in homage to the great game of strategy and cunning. Chess is a mandatory subject in the school curriculum.
Ilyumzhinov, we should mention, may have relinquished power in Kalmykia but he is still President of the International Chess Federation. Indeed, earlier this summer Ilyumzhinov visited Tripoli in order to play chess with embattled Muammar Gaddafi. Let us also throw in the little detail that the flamboyantly eccentric Ilyumzhinov claims to have encounters with aliens. Indeed, on one occasion extraterrestrial visitors to Kalmykia allegedly invited the president to board their spacecraft that they might have the honour of escorting him on a little tour of the galaxy.
By now, you will surely have checked your calendar. No, it is not April Fool's Day. Kalmykia is an extraordinary place. And it really exists as an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation. Travel east from Rostov-on-Don to Astrakhan and you cannot miss Kalmykia. It is about twice the size of Belgium.
And it is one of those places where truth really is stranger than fiction. It is the only territory in Europe where Buddhism is the main religion. The Kalmyk people are of Mongolian origin. They moved to the lower Volga region in the 17th century, bringing their Buddhist culture and traditions with them. During the Soviet period, the migration of Russians and Ukrainians into Kalmykia changed the ethno-confessional mix and the traveller visiting Elista today will find Orthodox churches and mosques as well as Buddhist temples. But it is those temples that feature most conspicuously in the iconography of nationhood. Being Buddhist is a key element in Kalmyk identity. Almost as important, one might say, as being able to play a passable game of chess.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)