Rarified Places: Kalmykia

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The cars in the industrial grease and creosote smelling stations had names on their sides of strange places.  One such place was “Dagestan”.  My silly mind went to Doggystan.

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This Russian train is clearly marked to go to Moscow, which was the hub for nearly all this 11-time-zone spanning country.

Amidst all the metal, people, smells and the bustle in that Russian train station, I never stopped wondering.

Where are these places?

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Sitting inside the train car, what it looked like.

Trains going to places that didn’t even have a place on the map for me.  Just borders and frontiers followed by dark.

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                                                             The red dot is where Kalmykia lives.

Kalmykia sent me a student with a smile as happy as any I had ever seen in Russia (a place where people only smile if they are crazy or if they know you well and like you).  His name was Stas (pronounced Stuss), short for Stanislav.  Stas was studying to be a lawyer, and so as a visiting teacher of English, I suspected that he liked what he could learn from me (English), and that was why he shadowed me.  It was okay, being new in town and having a friend who smiled and liked to be around me was a novelty and he was helpful and pleasant.  Stas was asian in appearance in a very monochromatic Russia, and he was terminally easy to be around, smiling and an intelligent conversationalist.  He never comported himself questionably and only ever answered questions I had about my new home.  And he told me about Kalmykia, where he was from.

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The symbol on Stas’ necklace

The conversation came about because I inquired about his necklace which had a symbol I did not recognize.  In trying to understand who this new friend was, I asked and he told me it was a Buddhist symbol.  He went on to explain that where he was from, everyone was Buddhist, so it was just a normal thing to have, and that he wasn’t sure just how Buddhist he actually was.  I stopped him,

“Stas, you are Russian and you come from a place that is Buddhist?  How is this?  Where are you from?”

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He began to tell me about Kalmykia, a small republic in the south of Russia, close to Astrakhan on the Caspian that I had visited, and situated right between the Black and the Caspian Sea.

At this point, my mind was a little blown, because south of Central Russia I knew was Iran, and Chechnya, neither of those places boasting much Buddhism, and certainly not with the Asiatic facial features that Stas had strongly.

Such began my learning about Armenia, Dagestan, Azerbaijan, Kalmykia… and the huge quantity of ethnic diversity that seemed to be a big secret about Russia.

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There are 89 republics that make up Russia, many of them with ethnic histories that reach back into the time of the Mongols.  I have heard numbers anywhere from 20 plus republics up to 89.  Many of them with ethnic minorities of their own.  Kalmykia among them, a little piece of Asia, or maybe more like Tibet, that broke off inside of Russia and stayed there.

The history of Kalmykia turned out to be a history lesson.  A lesson on the mongol history of Russia, and how Asiatic Buddhists who speak Russian are just a part of this world.

To be continued…  I will recount the story of the Kalmyks which stretches across centuries and land masses.

                                                             A traditional Kalmyk encampment.

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