Category Archives: Kalmyk

To the Black Sea

29, 30 Sept

I left Kazan optimistic that this change of plan would bring me warmth and headed south past Lenin’s home town of Ulyanovsk, then Syzran and by the end of the day found a motel outside of Saratov.  By the end of the day I had reached 51 degrees north latitude.  Since Novosibirsk I had been travelling across Russia around 55 – 56 degrees north.  I was making progress towards warmth.  I had thought of stopping a couple of times today … Ulyanovsk has some great Lenin memorabilia, museums and the like, but time and the cold that accompanied it was weighing on me.  I decided I would just focus on heading south.

The 30th was another day of heading south.  It turned into a day of 2 unexpected features … one was Dutchmen, and the other was traffic fines.

While continuing my march southwards I saw two foreign looking bikers and two bikes saddled down with metal boxes filling up with fuel in a petrol station.  I slammed on the brakes and stopped for a chat.  Two dutch guys from Eindhoven were heading for Novosibirsk … and were planning to go via Kazakhstan.  I explained to them its already very cold up north, and getting colder … then I told them how I was frozen in on the Kazakh steppe not too much later than this last year.  It sounded like I was the bearer of gloomy news, and I wished them well, but at the same time, I knew they would have quite a few unpleasant days ahead of them.

As for me, things were looking up.  I reached Volgograd by early afternoon and took off one jacket.  (I ride with 3 in the cold … a fleece, a Klim windstopper and then the Klim Adventure jacket on top of that).  It was warming up.  I figured mid teens by now.  Watermelon stands lined the highway.

I thought about stopping off at the monumental war memorial, the Rodina Mat (Mother Russia) statue atop the Mamaev Kurgan, for a few fotos.  But I had been to Volgograd twice before – significantly for me, I had been there in winter.  The memorial has a completely different feel in winter when it is cold and bleak, and you feel how insanely miserable it must have been for the 1.1 million Russian and 400,000 Germans soldiers who died here.  The scale of the battle of Stalingrad is insane, add in the civilian casualties and the total toll of the battle is between 1.7 and 2 million lives.  The life expectancy of a soldier arriving into Stalingrad to join the battle was less than 24 hours.  The Mamaev Kurgan itself is probably the biggest burial ground on earth.  Entire divisions were wiped in a morning trying to take or retake it.  A visit to the museums and memorials in Volgograd is an intensely moving experience.  It’s one thing to visit it on a bike, but to really soak it in, nothing beats a winter visit.

More info here;

For a deeper perspective, read Beevor’s book “Stalingrad” before you visit.  It’s a great primer and the great names that feature in the museums – the Chuikov’s and the Rokossovsky’s etc – really mean something once you have read up on their roles in history.

Taking pictures on a warm autumn day doesn’t do the memorial justice.  I will defer to my winter pictures:

I passed a police checkpoint on the southern edge of the stretched out city and was asked where I was headed.

“Sochi” I replied.

“Ah – there are two Dutchmen that went through 20 minutes ago, also headed for Sochi.”

“20 minutes?  OK I better head off and try to catch them, Spasibo!”

“Don’t worry, you will catch them, they are on tractors!”

I headed off, still southbound, now thinking to myself …. Tractors?  I guess that means they are on 1150GSs or something like that.

100 km south of Volgograd, I caught the Dutch guys … they were on Quads!  We stopped and chatted.  They were just 1400 km from breaking the world record for longest journey by Quadracycle.  From Rotterdam they had driven their quads to Mongolia and were now headed back.  I noticed they had also tricked out their quads with Hyperpro suspension.

For more info, see

The dutch guys were headed past Elista tonight to camp somewhere on the open steppe, and I was headed into Elista itself to hook up with Zhenya, the Kalmyk biker I had met last year when passing through Elista.  We agreed to meet up somewhere on the road to Sochi tomorrow and I sped off, leaving the guys fielding questions at a Kalmyk police checkpoint.

I went into the Kalmyks in last years posts, so anyone wanting more photos and info on the Kalmyks, see here:

I myself ran into a Kalmyk police officer sometime down the road and was shown a photo of me doing 102 km/h 15 km back down the road.  90 km/h (56mph) is the open road limit in Russia.

“You must pay a fine” the cop scolded.

“Come on mate, it’s only a small bit over the limit.” I pleaded

“Then make it a small fine” he said, exasperated …

I slipped 300 rubles (7.50 EUR) into by driving permit and handed it back to him in the time honoured method.  In 3 seconds I had my emptied driving permit back and a “good luck” from the cop.

Just 50 km from Elista I was pulled over again for speeding … more overzealous Kalmyk policery … this time I was apparently doing 55 km/h through a 40 km/h zone for roadworks.  Fortunately the head honcho among the 4 cops started chatting to me and asked where I was going.  “Elista” I relied.  “To see the Grand Hurul.”

His face beamed with pride.  The Grand Hurul is a huge landmark in Elista and the biggest Buddhist temple in Europe.  Kalmyks are very proud of it.  “The Grand Hurul!” he roared with a huge smile across his face.  Then he reached out and hi fived me and told the junior officer to give me my documents back and let me go.

I reached Elista and was met on the outskirts by Zhenya.  I was now down to just 46 degrees North.  Another 5 degrees south today.  We parked the bike up and Elista Lada, his workplace, and he gave the bike a good check over.  My starter button was non-existant.  I had been starting it for the last 24 hours now by touching two wires together.  Zhenya said we will get a new button and fix it tomorrow morning.  We went back to his apartment that he shared with a room-mate and dinner was prepared by his roommates girlfriend.

– – –


Zhenya woke early and headed into to work at 8am.  He works as a mechanic at the local Lada dealers service centre.  When I rocked up about 10am he had already been playing with my bike for an hour.  The chain had been cleaned and relubed.  And we jumped in the car to buy a new starter button.  The button was replaced and I eventually was escorted to the outskirts of town by Zhenya about 11:30am.  I said farewell and hope we meet again next year, then hit the road south-west, towards Stavropol.

About 70 km out of town I crossed into Stavopol region, via a serious police checkpoint with machine gun toting guards and concrete barriers – a reminder I was now in the North Caucasus, a volatile region on Russia’s southern fringe.  I chatted to the cops there and asked about the Dutchmen on quads.  They passed through at least 2 hours ago, was the reply.  I had some serious chasing to do!

I rode hard into a very strong headwind – I figured I would make good ground on the quads in headwind.  Their cross-section must be 3 times that of the bike, and they had a similar size engine to push it all.

3 hours later I passed the city of Stavropol, and decided to stop for some lunch.  I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, and it was now 3:30 in the afternoon.  I found a good shashlik place on the corner of the Kavkaz highway and ordered a big portion.  As I sat and waited for my shashlik to be cooked up, a local came up to me and asked me if I was headed to Maikop.  Yes I replied, I am heading through Maikop.  He turned around and yelled to his wife “This guy is heading for Maikop too”.

I stopped him … what do you mean “too”?

“2 guys on tractors asked for directions to Maikop not long ago”

“How long ago?” I asked, knowing that was the Dutchmen.

“No more than 20 -30 minutes”

So I was catching them.  I set off after feasting on my shashlik, dodging traffic along the Kavkaz highway.  45 minutes later I caught them.  They were fixing a flat tyre about 100 km from Maikop.

We all rode into Maikop together and found a nice pizzeria.  We were all headed for Sochi, so decided to ride there together … but for today we would just go a short distance outside of Maikop and find some accommodation – I wanted a cheap roadside hotel and the boys were going to camp in the woods.  After failing to find a cheap hotel, I decided to join them – for my second camping night of the trip.

– – –


The road to Sochi was a twisty one, and surprisingly took us most of the day to cover the 260 km.  The quads are not as quick as the bike on the road and they need to stop often for fuel.   Mark looks concerned at this fuel stop.  He had a problem with one of the rear seals on his quad.

It was raining when we finally reached the Russian Riviera city of Sochi, and as expected all the hotels in town were expensive.  The boys resorted to a tactic that had worked for them several times in the past … go to an expensive hotel, talk to the manager, explain that they are doing their Guinness world record attempt and would like to stay at their hotel – if they can get a super duper rate.  A couple of times they had managed to stay at 5 star hotels for 10-15 USD a night.  The Radisson in Sochi whose basic room rate is about 250 EUR a night, was the target.  They got as far as getting the duty manager to agree to a 10 USD rate for the 3 of us, but he didn’t want to pull the trigger without confirmation from the general manager – who was away until Monday.  Close but no cigar.

And so we rode down the road to find a smaller hotel, where I did some sweet talking and got us some rooms for 1000 Rubles (25 EUR) each instead of the normal 1600.

A quick visit to the port told me there was a ferry leaving for Turkey in 48 hours time.  We had 48 hours free in Sochi!

Route Thoughts

Tashkent:  09.05.09

(note track maps now updated in the Trip Data section)

One of the principles behind choosing the overall route was where possible I was going to try routes that I felt were lesser travelled or untravelled by western motorcycle travellers … in doing that, documenting them will expand the knowledge base on sites like Horizons Unlimited.  I also had the chance to explore some regions that have had a long standing interest to me, like the North Caucasus, Kalmykia et al.  So this is a chance to review some of those routes as alternatives for those planning on heading out on the great trek east, to Mongolia, Vladivostok, Magadan or wherever.

Lets start with the Balkans.

Its a bit out of the way for most people heading east thru Ukraine, but our experience in the Balkans was very good.  Inexpensive food, accomodation, great biking roads, plenty of good fuel and a real sense of adventure going thru places like Albania give the Balkans a real thumbs up from me.  Sure there are a couple of highlights heading thru Czech Republic and Slovakia, but in general its all over very quickly and its all very tame.  The Balkans was better preparation for conditions in the CIS, while still remaining very close to EU countries in case of problems.  Borders were no problems at all … very quick, and the only  point I would make is definately take a green card from your insurance company.


Certainly more interesting that the Ukraine in general.  Ukraine lasks the diversity of Russia and for me is just one of the countries I push thru on my way to Russia, tolerating the overzealous cops and border officials as par for the course.  (in terms of dodgy cops and border officials, recent years has seen a marked improvement on the Russian side, while the Ukraine is still dodgy as you like … such that Russia is notably more transparent, open, efficient and less corrupt than Ukraine)  Perhaps the main areas of interest in Ukraine are the Carpathian mountains in the east and Crimea in the south.  I missed the Ukrainian Carpathians (having seen them in Romania) and the interesting scenery and ethnic history of Crimea definately helped break up the Ukraine.  Travelling that way also allowed me to head pretty much directly into the Caucasus once I entered Russia.  Also found a cracking bike mechanic in Yalta … that alone could be a reason to have Crimea on a route east.  Any teething problems can be nipped in the bud there at Valera’s place.

North Caucasus:

This has largely been avoided by western bikers, partly because of a lack of knowledge about what is there and to a lesser degree a fear about safety.  I hope this blog has shown how much interesting peoples and cultures can be found between Adegeya in the west and Dagestan in the east.  On top of that you have Europe’s highest mountain range.  Considering how dull a long ride across Russia can be if you stick to the main routes I personally thing taking in interesting regions like the North Caucasus should be compulsory.  The last thing you want from Russia is an endless chore of just eating up miles for the sake of getting across the country … one of the most interesting counties in the world in terms of both peoples and geography.  If I could only recommend one thing from this trip so far, its to go to the North Caucasus, with a bit of knowledge about the region and you will get a hell of a lot out of it.

The Beyneu Route:

The two main routes to  central asia for western motorcyclists are to go via Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan or to go down Kazakhstan thru Aktube to Chimkent.  There are plenty of reasons to look for alternatives, such as the Beyneu route I took.  (a) the ferry from Baku to Turkmenistan has no schedule.  Its not unheard of to wait 3-4 days for the ferry, spend a day or more on the ferry and then wait in harbour at Turkmenistan end for another 2 days before unloading.  On top of all that uncertainty, Turkmenistan may give you a 5 day transit visa, and may insist on a tourist visa.  The Tourist visa requires you to be escorted thru the country at great expense.  in any case, the visas are not that easy to get, and the only thing worth seeing in the country is the Darvarza burning crater, I can think of 100 reasons not to travel thru Turkmenistan.

(b) travelling via Aktyubinsk (Aktube) means you miss the highlights of Uzbekistan.  You wont see Khiva, Bukhara or Samarkand.  You wont see Khwarezm or the Karakalpaks.  Of the 5 central asian republics, 3 are countries I reckon you definately want to see … Uzbekistan for the culture and food, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for the mountains and mountain roads.  Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are (in my book) “missable”.

Putting that all together, and the route through Beyneu should be the main route.  The route of first instance !  I would recommend it.  The Kazakh side is pretty dull, but you do get to take in all the interesting bits of Uzbekistan without going out of your way.  And it is a route that is reasonably well used by Russian and Kazakh bikers!


28.04.09 Astrakhan

I left the White Lotus Hotel in downtown Elista about Midday, for the ride to Astrakhan. First stop was to pop into Elista Lada and say thanks to Zhenya, the Kalmyk Biker for all his help and to wish him luck for his ride down to Pyatigorsk on the weekend. There is a big biker meet there for all of southern Russia and the Caucasus and apparently hundreds of bikers will be converging on Pyatigorsk, including all the boys form Elista.

Zhenya took time off work and decided to ride with me to the edge of town. At the edge of town he spotted that a small oil leak that I had since eastern europe, was getting worse, immediately identified the problem as probably beieng a loose engine bolt, and zoomed back to his workshop to get a couple more tools. I had suspected it was a dodgy gasket, and had been preparing to order a new gasket to collect and fit in Tashkent or Almaty from a BMW dealer, but here at the side of the dusty highway, on Elista’s outskirts, Zhenya fixed the problem with some silicon gasket goop, some serviettes from a nearby cafe and an star head allen key. Once done he assured me it was not a problem, just vibrations had made the bolt loose and thats why oil was seeping out before patting me on the back and sending me on my way.

The road from Elista to Astrakhan can only be described as featureless. I dont know what was more featureless, the grassy treeless Kalmyk Steppe or the endless cloudless blue sky. The view for most of the afternoon was of just two colours, the sheet of green on the bottom half and the sheet of blue above. There were two or three towns on the way but only the first one, Yashkul,  seemed to have any life. The others barely had petrol, let alone any somewhere too eat. I pressed on towards Astrakhan. I had a little off road detour planned and was happy enough to eat up the miles till then.

That is except for my little detour …  todays “special stage”  … while planning back in London I had spotted what looked like a good 40 km detour off the main road that wound its way through the dunes, lakes and waterways of the Volga delta, only 50-60 km from Astrakhan.

Back on the highway I spotted the start of the detour (an unmarked pair of wheel ruts off to the right across the dunes). The first 6 km was a simple run into that looked like an abandoned Soviet village. There were a few abandoned industrial building and the houses all seemd to have the windows smashed out. Tumbleweeds blew down the dusty rutted dirt streets, yet there was astrange feeling that this village (marked as Prikaspiysky on one of my maps) was not actually abaondoned. Sure enough I did see a couple of old Lada Niva 4wds parked around town, but I couldnt imagine what the owners of them did there.

7km further on down a sealed road was a more normal town, Buruny, where I had to find another unmarked turn off into the dunes. This track from Buruny back to the highway at Kurchenko village was a great track (sandy in places and rocky in others) and worthy of my road highlights. All the dunes and waterways were pretty much east west, and the first part of the tracks was onto of a 20km long dune, with a finger lake on either side. It was a fun track and an interesting landscape. When the dune and the lake on the left ended, the the track wound its way northeast around smaller lakes and a few small (high speed) salt pans before eventually rejoining the highway.

I was now only 40 km from Astrakhan and Nogai hospitality comes into the story again here. Shamil, the guy I stayed with in Terekli Mekteb, had a sister Sofia in Astrakhan who works in TV news. She was planning to meet me on my arrival in Astrakhan with a TV crew. All I had to do was call when I was 30 mins away … which was now. But alas, my phone battery was dead. I tried charging it on the bike with my cigarette lighter to USB adapter I had bought before leaving and had used once in Austria when faced with the same problem – but it seemed the charger had not survived a month of severe vibrations in my baggage. I had no way to contact Sofia (who’s number was also in my dead phone) and so I rode into Astrakhan out of contact and privately kind of relieved that there would not be a TV welcome and the hassle of interviews.

I found a mobile phone shop in the centre of town and charged my phone. As soon as it had power, I tried calling, but as it happens I also had no balance left on my Russian pay as you go sim card. And I had no cash with which to top it up – until I got to a bankomat. I called with my UK number and Sofia and friend picked me up and took me to her friends place – a Kazakh grandmother with 10 grandchildren, many of whom seemed to live in her enormous new house near the centre of town. As you could by now expect, I was fed more and more and more food. The first 3 weeks of this trip had seen me lose weight and gradually take on a decent fit shape, but the weeks I have been in Russia have put an end to all that. I am almost back to my departure size.

The Kalmyks

26.04.09, late at night … Elista, Kalmykia

Today began with my repeating several times to Shamil, my host in Terekli Mekteb that I only had time to do two things today before hitting the road. (1) was to see ‘Mama Rosa’ the mother of Abrek and Irina from Cherkessk, as I had promised and (2) was to go to a metal worker and do some minor repairs to one of my saddle bags. I was aware of the way the Nogai hospitality worked. Both in Cherkessk and now in Terekli Mekteb, there was a tendency to impose a schedule and a plan onto the guest. I had been frustrated by Akhmed in Cherkessk for not listening to or attending to the few things I needed to do, but instead doing what he wanted us to do, and I hoped that could be avoided in Terekli Mekteb by repeatedly saying that I needed to be on the road by 11 am, I had a 8 hour ride to Elista ahead and I only had time to do 2 things in the morning.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. It was 11am by the time Zaur, the military commander of the region arrived in his land cruiser to drive us around. But instead of driving us around to sort the panniers, and despite having had breakfast an hour earlier, we all sat down for more tea and food and chat. When we finally got moving, we didnt go to visit Mama Rosa, but instead went to visit a friend who worked with hides. They wanted to show me what happens to all the sheep hides and offered me a sheepskin for the bike. Then we eventually made it to Mama Rosa’s place about 12:30pm.

Next I thought we were going to get my bags fixed at the towns master metal worker, one of the guys who was with us yesterday and had promised to fix the bags first thing Sunday morning, But instead, we hit the road and went to the cowboy town on Kunbatar, as I had mentioned it was on my route. All my gear had been thrown into the back of the jeep and I was just wearing my jeans and sneakers as I thought we were riding around town getting my tasks done. I stopped 5km out of town and waited for the land cruiser to return … ‘Where are we going?’ I asked … ‘we are supposed to be getting my baggage fixed.’
‘No time for that, we will do it in Kunbatar’ was the reply.

We got to Kunbatar, with me following a jeep load of senior guys from Terekli Mekteb down a dusty dirt track, with most of my riding gear and all my baggage in the back of their land cruiser. We asked around for a metal worked but of course in a one horse cowboy town there was none. It was only 30 km from Terekli Mekteb and anyone with anything to do just went to Terekli.

We settled on a house where a guy said he had a son who could fix anything. OK… So the guys gets out a primitive drill and prepares to drill through my whole bag on his veranda. I stopped him and made it clear that its only the metal support rail and plastic rail that need to be drilled. I left him with it while I sorted out all my baggage from the back of the jeep and got dressed into riding gear. All he had to do was drill one hole and put a bolt through it.

In my full riding hit, it was now pretty damn hot in the steppe sun. Temperatures were probably around 15 degrees, but the sun and the 4 layers I had on made it hot. Once I was dressed I went to check the repair work on the sick side bag. I don’t know what the guy had done, but whatever it was it didn’t look right. I obviously wanted a proper job, but I wasn’t paying for it so how do I complain?? I looked at Nikita, one of the guys in the Land cruiser party and the towns I.T. guy (meaning he spoke a tiny bit of English) and screwed up my face as if to say ‘what the hell is this?’. He looked back at me shrugged his shoulders and said ‘don’t worry, he says its fixed OK’.

What could I do? I took the bag back, packed it up, and loaded up the bike. Why had we not gone to Adjo, Terekli’s metal worker, and had a proper job done? Getting the job done out by a cowboy out in the boonies is surely no quicker than getting the job done properly in a workshop in town. Instead of me saddling up and riding out of there, our posse of 6 guys was now invited into the house for tea and food. I politely declined and said I had to hit the road, but was told, ‘please, its our tradition – to thank them for the repair work.’

I sighed and reluctantly went in for more tea and food. After 30 minutes, facing more hints of staying longer, I just stood up and prepared to go, saying thank yous as I left. It was now 3pm. I had a dodgy bag repair and 8 hours ahead of me on roads that I had chosen because they would be “interesting”. It was a bit of a frustrating end to my time with Nogai people .. a people I had developed a real soft spot for. For the second time I actually left people I like feeling relieved that I was leaving. Sweet, sweet freedom. Hospitality is great, but nothing beats freedom. I guess thats why I love this motorcycle travel thing.

The landcruiser led me to the dusty edge of Kunbatar and ahead was just a couple of wheel ruts heading north across the steppe. I said my farewells to a quality bunch of guys but needed the freedom that the steppe ruts promised me. I sped off without looking back.

It was 40km across nothingness to the next habited place, Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk. I flew across the ground in quick time, following the compass and instinct when the tracks divided. It was a great fun road and my spirits were lifted by focussing on riding instead of the frustrating day I had had prior to saddling up. I stopped on the outskirts of Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk, as i found an asphalt road, but one so bad that everyone, myself included, obviously preferred the dusty sandy tracks at the side of the road rather than the road itself. When i stopped, I saw was I was half expecting to see (but perhaps not so soon), the repair work on the side bag had completely come undone. With the benefit of zip ties, I did a patch job by the side of the dusty track. One way or another I would be in Elista tomorrow and get it fixed properly.

Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk was probably the grimmest town I have passed through on this trip so far. On the North-West frontier of Dagestan, it was the sort of town that everyone wants to leave. At least there was a decent road heading out of town. The steppe around here was so flat that any building was visible 20 km or more before you got there, silhouetted against the horizon. I left Dagestan and re-entered Stavropol Region. The sun was getting lower now and in a town called Turksad I stopped to check directions to the dam that separated Stavropol Region form Kalmykia. While there I noticed that I needed further repairs on my dodgy baggage if I was to get to Elista. While at the petrol station doing my repairs and chatting to the Russian woman behind the counter, a group of Dargin locals came in and began hassling me. The Dargin are another group common in Dagestan. Turksad seemed to have a decent sized Dargin population. Eventually the Russian lady yelled abuse at them and they left. I asked the Russian lady, who had been very civil, are all the locals here like that? She was originally from Moldova but came here to marry her husband 18 years ago. ‘The Russians are fine’ she said, ‘but the Dargins are a real problem’. I had kinda already seen that.

The road from Turksad to the dam was marked as a decent road on my Russian road atlas but was in fact another 2 wheel rut track. It was 40km of potential fun before entering Kalmykia, but the fun I had on that track was tempered by having to stop every 10 km to do more zip tie repair work on my ailing baggage.

Since Bulgaria, when the first part of my baggage broke on my simple fall crossing the railway tracks, i have realised that my hope of doing this trip with the ultralight bicycle luggage was in fact too optimistic. The plastic attachments are simply not durable enough to deal with the stresses of motorcycle travel (and falls). As it happens, I also have a set of Ortlieb motorcycle luggage at home and will get that sent out to me with Tony, when I meet him in Siberia in about 5 weeks time. The bicycle luggage only needs to hold up till then.

The sun went down during my ride to the isolated, deserted dam, and by the time I got there it was almost dark. I expected a concrete road across the 10km long dam, but instead there was a rutted dirt track. It was a challenge in the near darkness, but there was no point stopping here in the middle of the steppe. I could camp, but I didnt trust the water here. 2/3 of the way across the dam I came across a lonely checkpoint with a chain across the track. This was the Kalmyk border and I shut the bike down and had a chat with the 2 Kalmyk police in the tiny hut. Not surprisingly, I was the only foreigner they had ever seen there.

If the Nogai have one of the most interesting histories in the region, then the Kalmyk’s have one of the most bizarre – and fascinating.

Like many of the people in the region, the Kalmyk story starts in Mongolia. However, unlike most, the story does not start with Genghis Khan. The Kalmyks began as a Mongolian group called the Oirat, who like many groups originating in Mongolia, (such as Attila’s Hun and Genghis’ Mongols) headed west in search of bounty and new grasslands, the Kalmyks doing so around the 1600s. The Kalmyk were known as a very warlike people (as most conquering hordes usually have to be) and took northern Kazakhstan before moving in on the original Nogai homeland around Astrakhan. By 1700, the Kalmyks had pushed the Nogai south into what is now Dagestan and established a Kalmyk homeland on the Steppe area around their capital Elista. Unlike many of the other Mongolic groups that have swept through this area, the Kalmyks have not mingled with turkic Kipchaks and other steppe nomads, but have remained remarkably ethnically pure. I recall reading that the Kalmyks are the closest genetically to the Mongols of all people, including the Buryats just to the North of Mongolia.

Back to the story …and back on the road, and I stopped in the village of Iki-Burul about 9pm to grab a few litres of petrol. They didn’t have the grade I wanted so I just grabbed enough 93 octane to get me to Elista. I would happily have stopped for the night there too, but there were no hotels, and my efforts to fish for a bed for the night by putting my puppy dog face on and asking the locals if they knew anywhere to stay for the night didn’t work. I was unanimously told to head for Elista where I would find hotels. I met 3 more police in Iki-Burul, and to my surprise 2 of them spoke pretty good English.

I arrived in Elista about 10:30pm … still shaking my head at not being able to hit the road till 3pm. I had the name of a modern hotel in the centre of Elista, and though it would cost me EUR 50 a night, I decided I deserved it. And besides, my accommodation bill since arriving in Russia had been a paltry 15 EUR … 8 EUR for the hotel in Elbrus and 7 EUR for one in Kammenomostsky. The rest had been gratis.

– – –
27.04.2009, Elista

I awoke in Elista’s finest hotel keen to get the bikes baggage sorted, see the sights of Elista, and get some internet time to update the blog, edit the photos pay some bills etc etc etc. I emptied out the side bags, stuck them on the bike and rode the 3 blocks to the very centre of town. Elista looks like a part of Asia but with a clear sky background that could be the US Midwest or Australian outback. Its bizarre. The post communist architecture definitely has a touch of Buddha’s influence about it. I wanted to get some footage of people spinning a prayer wheel in the centre of town, but everyone became shy when I was up there with camera, so I approached a bunch of students and asked them if they would volunteer and turn the wheels as a favour.

They were a bunch of 5 university students around 20 years old, led by Sasha (a Kalmyk), with 4 girlfriends in tow (3 Kalmyks and one Kazakh) … actually I think one was his girlfriend and the others classmates. We chatted for a while and then they decided to skip their english class and show me the Hurul, Elista’s main Buddhist temple, and the largest in Europe. Quite an amazing sight, this brightly coloured temple in the middle of this steppe city. The Dalai Lama was here 2 years ago, but future visits are less likely. The Chinese have been pressuring the Russians not to give him a visa anymore. The Russians have huge commercial interests in China going forward (Russia being one of the largest suppliers of oil, gas,and raw materials in the world and China being the biggest consumer), and weighing up giving the Dalai a visa or keeping the Chinese happy its pretty clear which side they will come down on.

I will put more photos of the students and other faces around Elista in the photos section.

I had to sort out my bags and Sasha made a few phone calls. He told me to go to Elista Lada, a Lada workshop just down the road. I rode in and a guy waved me over. Turns out he was a biker. Zhenya took me into the worlshop, I explained what I needed done and he began doing it. Professional, proper tools, job done on the side bags. Of course there was no payment wanted for the hour or so he put into it, but instead he asked me to join him and some other bikers in Elista this evening. I am looking forward to that.

Having mentioned how the Kalmyks got to Europe earlier, I might as well follow up with a bit more modern history. Lenin himself was part Kalmyk … one of his grandmothers was a Kalmychka. You might think this would give the Kalmyks a special place in the Soviet heirarchy, but no. During the second world war, Stalin suspected the Kalmyks of collaborating with the Germans as they advanced across the Steppe towards the oilfields of Chechnya and decided to exile the lot of them to Siberia – Ethnic cleansing if ever it existed. Up to a half of Kalmyks are thought to have died during the transportation by cattle wagon, from starvation or from cold, and it wasn’t till Stalin died that Khruschev permitted them to return to Kalmykia. The date the order to exile to Kalmyks was signed (and to liquidate the Kalmyk Republic), 28th December (1943), is the now the most solemn date in the Kalmyk calendar.

The Kalmyk Republic is the only Buddhist region in Europe and its president is a former very highly ranked international chess player, who loves holding major international chess tournaments in Elista – the middle of nowhere. Perhaps as a result of having a strategic thinking president, the Kalmyks seems very well educated and what I have seen of Elista is a notable step forward in terms of modernity compared with surrounding regions – and its considerably cleaner too. The President will have his hands full tho building the Kalmyk economy – Kalmykia is 100% steppe, with very little in the way of natural resources and its small population (less than 1 million) is hardly enough to encourage economies of scale.

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Zhenya came round to the hotel at 8pm with a couple of other bikers, and we headed off to their meeting place, a quiet spot just off the main road on the western edge of town. The others had all eaten but I hadn’t, so immediately we zoomed thru town (there is only one main road) to the eastern edge of town and a shashlik cafe called Sem-Ya. These guys were the first bikers I had met since Crimea. Bikes were mostly sports bikes with a couple of Japanese cruiser bikes in there too. Adventure bikes are not really popular in Russia, tho the head honcho of the club had a bizarre beaten up old Tenere, that had been lowered and decked out so that it resembled a cross between a Tenere and a chopper.

The Kalmyks have their own version of tea … Kalmyk Chai or Khan Chai … Khan refering to Ogodei Khan, Genghis’ successor. This was the tastiest variation on tea I had tried so far on the trip. Recommended ! There is a fair bit of Genghis memorabilia about. Traditional Kalmyk leather wallets I saw in a souvenir shop have a portrait of Genghis stamped into them. I am a bit of an afficionado of all things Genghis, but am surprised to see the Kalmyks identifying so closely with the great man. It seems depite leaving Mongolia a long time ago, the Kalmyks are still proud of their Mongol heritage and very much identify with it.

The Nogai seem to have a ambiguous relationship with their Mongol roots. The Nogai guys I met insisted they are only 5% Mongol blood and 95% Kipchak … but watching video clips of Nogai singers, singing Nogai songs, and the overwhelming background of the filmclips were taken from movies or documentaries of Genghis Khan. They love the image the mongol’s convey, but seem to not be comfortable admitting they have mongol ancestry. I found that a bit strange. The Kalmyks have no such ambiguity.