13 best places to visit in Kalmykia

13 best places to visit in Kalmykia

A buddhist temple, stupa and tibetan flags in Kalmykia, Russia

Kalmykia is Europe’s only buddhist “nation” and a hidden gem in the southern Volga region. I’ve never heard about it until my last minute planned hitchhiking itinerary made me cross the Kalmyk steppe and I ended up in Elista almost randomly.

You’re looking for an off the radar destination very few people visit, with a long history and unique culture ? Look no further ! In this post I share with you a list of 13 must visit places to discover the unique Republic of Kalmykia, where buddhism rules, sand sings and antelopes roam the steppe.

Last updated : 02/03/2024

A saiga antelope in the steppes of Kalmykia in southern Russia
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What’s a Khurul ?

First thing first, it’s important to know that a Khurul (in russian Хурул) is the name of a Buddhist temple in the republic of Kalmykia. It’s the equivalent to a Datsan (Дацан) in Buryatia and a Khure (Хурэ) in Tuva .

1 – Shakyamuni khurul

Золотая обитель Будды Шакьямуни – Also known as Burkhan Bashin Altan Sume Temple or Golden temple, the Shakyamuni khurul is the central buddhist monastery right in the middle of Kalmykia’s capital Elista. By far the easiest temple to visit in the region, it was built in 2005 after the Dalai Lama’s visit.

It’s the largest Buddhist temple in Europe and home to the second largest Buddha statue in Russia (the first one is in Lagan near the Caspian Sea).

There are hundreds of stupas around the khurul and four entrances at the main cardinal directions. Inside the temple you will find a small museum which I recommend to visit.

Daily prayers and tibetan language lessons.

How to get there : The temple is located in the very center of Elista on Lenina street.

2 – The Golden gate

Золотые ворота – The Golden gate called Altn Bosch in Kalmyk is located in Druzhba park (friendship’s park). It’s a 15 meters tall sacred arch built in the late 90’s symbolizing prosperity, strengh etc. and has 28 paintings reprensenting Kalmyk’s history and life.

It is said that if you walk under Altn Bosch your spirit will be pure and put on the “white path”, aka “right path” in life … (I’m no Buddhism expert)

How to get there : The Golden gate is located in the center of Elista, next to Lenina street and about 15 minutes walk from the Shakyamuni khurul.

3 – Memorial to the Kalmyk deportation

Исход и возвращение (Exodus and return) – Like plenty others, the Kalmyk population was accused of Nazi collaboration and entirely deported to Siberia in 1943. They were only allowed to return to Kalmykia in the late 1950’s. Almost 20% of the Kalmyk people is estimated to have died in exile.

This memorial complex has a massive “Exodus and Returns” monument as well as a small museum inside an old railway carriage used to transport people to Siberia.

How to get there : The memorial is located in the eastern part of Elista. You can walk (40 minutes) from the city center or take a marshrutka (see Yandex maps for detailed itinerary).

4 – The museum of Oirat culture

Музей кочевых народов – The museum of Oirat culture is an interactive open air museum about the past nomadic kalmyk culture with several yurts. You can dress up in national costums, hear tradition music and even learn archery.

It’s a rather small but quite unique museum to learn about Kalmyks’ heritage.

How to get there : either walk half an hour from the city center or take a marshrutka (see Yandex maps for detailed itinerary).

5 – The 7 days pagoda

Пагода Семи Дней – Named after the The Seven Buddhas of Antiquity, the Seven days pagoda is one of the main sight of Elista with the Shakyamuni khurul. Located on Lenin Square, the 15 meters pagoda replaced the communist leader in 2005.

Inside you’ll find is a large copper and gold prayer wheel with mantas in tibetan, sanskrit and kalmyk languages.

How to get there : The pagoda is located right next to the Golden Gate, in the city center of Elista.

6 – Syakyusm – Syume khurut

Сякюсн-Сюме – Syakusn-Sume khurut is what locals called “the old” khurut. It’s not much older than Shakyamuni khurul, it was simply built before, in 1996 and outside of Elista as a learning center.

The temple was built in a tibetan style, white, surrounded by prayer wheels, flags, stupas and the Kalmyk steppe. A beautiful sight not to miss, I loved the place.

How to get there : Located about 6 kilometers outside of Elista near the village of Arsha, take a marshrutka from the city center (see Yandex maps for detailed itinerary).

7 – The lonely poplar

Одинокий тополь – The lonely poplar is a sacred lone tree planted in the steppe of Kalmykia in the 19th century by a Buddhist monk who brought the seed back from his pilgrimage to Tibet. However, there ere various stories about how/by whom/when/why it was planted.

The sight of this lone tree in the desert steppe of southern Russia is quite a spectacle ! It is now a shrine for Kalmyk Buddhists who set up stuppas and flags all around the poplar. Back in 2019 it was named tree of the year in Russia.

Located near the poplar is a water spring considered holly by locals as you can set it on fire ! Yep ! Similar to the Fire spring yanar bulgar in Azerbaijan, the water contains methane.

How to get there : it’s easier with your own vehicule but also reachable by public transport : From the bus stop “Astanovka – Остановка” in Elista take the bus “Elista to Khar Buluk”(Элиста – Хар-Булук), then walk 5 kilometers or so from Khar – Buluk village to the lonely poplar (see the detailed itinerary on Yandex Maps).

8 – The Chernye Zemli Nature Reserve

Заповедник Чёрные земли – The Chernye Zemli Nature Reserve AKA the Black Lands Nature Reserve is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of almost 500km². It was etablished in 1990 for the preservation of flora and fauna in the Caspian lowlands region, especially the saigas, the only alive species of antelope left Europe.

They were on the brink of exinction with only 3,500 animals left in 2015, but today, even though they are still far from being saved, there numbers incresed up to 10 000 !

The Reserve is divided in 2 : the Stepnoy area is for protection of the saigas and the lake Manych-Gudilo is a wetland filled with rare species of birds

Disclaimer : it is of course prohibited to pick flowers or touch the wildlife while visiting the Nature Reserve.

How to get there : From Elista bus staion, take a Elista – Artesian (Элиста – Артезиан) bus to Komsomolskoye village. About 3 hours – Daily (see the detailed itinerary on Yandex Maps).

The office of the Chernye Zemli Nature Reserve is located in Komsomolskoye village. You cannot roam around the Reserve on your own and must be with a staff member/guide.

Official website here

9 – The ethno village of Adyk

The ethno village of Adyk is a small tourist complex of yurts to promote the traditional kalmyk/oirat culture : guesthouse, camels, museum, local cuisine and more !

Located in the Adyk village, there is also a water source nearby that can be set on fire.

The kalmyk steppe is turning into sand for a few decades already and around Adyk you can hear the famous “singing” sand of the dunes made by the strong and dry wind of the steppe.
The crazy phenomenom makes a sound similar to one of an organ !

How to get there : from Elista. Same as for the Chernye Zemli Nature take a bus Elista – Artesian (Элиста – Артезиан) from Elista bus station and stop in Adyk, located 60 kilometers before Komsomolskoe (see the detailed itinerary on Yandex Maps).

10 – The Lotus valley

Located near the small town of Lagan on the Volga Delta, the lotus valley is as its name states it full of lotuses and the best place to see them blossom in the summer, usually July and August in Kalmykia.

The lotus flower is even depicted on the coat of arm and flag of Kalmykia. In Buddhism the lotus flower is sacred. Its blossom symbolizes purity as it manages to come out clean out of the muddy waters and represent the birth of Buddha.

Note / Lotus flowers can also be seen in Astrakhan and Volgograd regions.

How to get there : From Elista bus station there are buses to Lagan. 300 kilometers.

11 – The Saiga Yashkulsky center

Сайгачий питомник Яшкульский The saiga breeding center ‘Yashkulskiy’ is an almost 70 hectares wildlife reserve to protect the saigas, the only eurasian antelope left in Europe. As this small antelope isn’t easy to spot in the kalmyk steppe, to be sure to see them you should visit the Yashkulsky center.

Saigas are alive cultural and historical heritage of the kalmyk steppes. They actually lived alongside mammoths !

The center has fence around it to protect the semi wild saigas from predators, especially human ones unfortunately. Without such breeding centers, these unique antelopes would be no more by now.

How to get there : Difficult without a vehicule.
The place is lost in the middle of the steppe
The adress is Ulitsa Tchkalova, 36, Elista (see the map for exact location). Better call (or ask a russian speaking person to do it for you) before showing up there 8847 22 2-06-28 (In russian Адрес: г. Элиста, ул. Чкалова, 36, тел. 8847 22 2-06-28

There is no public transport to get there. The closest village is Ermeli.

12 – The pink lake of Meklet

Меклетинское озеро – The Meklet or Mekletinskoye lake is the kalmyk version of the Dead Sea. A pink lake located in the Chernye Zemli Nature Reserve. It’s better to visit it in spring time because then the lake dries up in the hot months. It would just be a dry pink land.

The pink color of the lake comes from a pigment secreted by algae. Very similar to the pink lakes found in Crimea or even Australia.

How to get there : The lake is inside the Chernye Zemli Nature Reserve. From Elista bus station, take a Elista – Artesian (Элиста – Артезиан) bus to Komsomolskoye village. About 3 hours – Daily (see the detailed itinerary on Yandex Maps).

The office of the Chernye Zemli Nature Reserve is located in Komsomolskoye village. You cannot roam around the Reserve on your own and must be with a staff member/guide.

13 – Lagan

Лагань – Lagan is Kalmykia’s second biggest settlement (after Elista), established in the 1870’s on an island of the same name in the Volga Delta only few kilometers from the Caspian Sea.

The town is famous for its 13,5 meters high Maitreya Buddha statue, the tallest Buddha statue in Russia located inside the Dardeling Monastery complex, also known as the Lagansky Khurul.

Formerly named Kaspiysky, this rather sleepy town is a great place to explore the wetlands of the Volga Delta !

How to get there : From Elista bus station there are buses to Lagan. 300 kilometers.

Prayer wheels in the buddhist region of Kalmykia, Russia
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Let me know in the comments if after reading this you’re adding Kalmykia to your travel bucket this ?


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