Ilyumzhinov turned Kalmykia into "Russian Tibet"

The only region officially professing Buddhism in Europe is located in the south-east of Russia. You can visit the largest Buddhist temple, meditate and taste dishes of Asian cuisine in Kalmykia.

It was practically bare steppe in the USSR. And everything changed only when Kirsan Ilyumzhinov became the President in 1993. Nowadays, pilgrims from all over the world come here to see the Golden Monastery of Buddha Shakyamuni.

Buddhists in Kalmykia experienced persecutions and repressions during Stalin period: the temples were destroyed and the Kalmyks were massively sent to labour training camps.
In the summer of 1991, the 14th Dalai Lama visited Kalmykia for the first time. After that, with the diplomatic assistance of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, he came to Kalmykia two more times. Today, there are 28 Khuruls in the republic.
To see such an edifice as the Golden Monastery against the backdrop of houses of the Soviet era is striking at first. The largest Buddhist temple consisting of seven levels was built in 2005 on the initiative and with the financial support of Ilyumzhinov (he even sold a personal plane for this purpose). The largest in Europe 9-meter-high Buddha statue is inside.
I'm thrilled to be inside. I lived in the south of Russia once and did not even realize that a few hours' drive away was a monument of architecture, which had been built quite recently. Meditative music plays inside. There is a strong smell of incense and even if you have never been interested in Buddhism, you want to stop time and while relaxed think about life.
The old Khurul Geden Sheddup Choi Korling is a Buddhist monastery that is located in the southern part of Elista. It is a very beautiful area -- roses and trees are planted straight in the steppe. It is a place must visit for those who are interested in Asian culture and meditation. Tourists are loved there.
The tree of desires is one of the most picturesque places in Elista that is located more precisely five kilometres beyond the city limits. According to Ilyumzhinov's decision, eight Buddhist stupas were installed around the poplar -- Lotus, Enlightenment, Wisdom, Miracles, Buddha's descent from Tushita Heaven, Reconciliation, Perfect Victory and Parinirvana.
The stupa of Enlightenment is 15 minutes’ walk from the city centre. It is named Monlam Tamced Drupa, which translates as "The Executor of All Prayers". Stupa serves as a symbol of victory over difficulties, contributes to overcoming obstacles and full liberation of the human mind.
The altar room is at its base and its walls are covered with traditional Tibetan drawings. In the middle is the prayer drum. While rotating it, Buddhists ask for the fulfilment of the most cherished desires. Not far from the stupa is a pavilion with a statue of the patron of Buddhism -- Mahakala called Bernakchen.
Pagoda of Seven Days is another symbol of Buddhist culture, embodying a cyclical fashion and the cycle of life. Pagoda was built in 2005 by Indian Buddhist temple monks invited by Ilyumzhinov. On the first tier there is a prayer drum that is same as in stupa only bigger.
The body of the drum is decorated with the words of Buddhist prayer addressing the god Avalokiteshvara, who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas, in three languages ​​(Sanskrit, Old Kalmyk and Tibetan). About 30 million mantras of the Buddha and the 14th Dalai Lama are embedded in the kurde drum. According to the Buddhist tradition, one rotation of the drum with pure thoughts is equivalent to reading all the mantras in it.
Going round the sacred Buddhist sites in Kalmykia can take a long time, but this is not the only reason to go on a trip. The capital of the republic is one of the world's chess centres.
In 1998, Elista hosted the World Chess Olympiad. Ilyumzhinov built a cottage village for world chess stars designated especially for it. The whole infrastructure is made in European style. It may well seem that you are somewhere in Germany looking at the houses, paths, cafes and restaurants. The main building of the city is the Chess Palace, where international tournaments take place.
The central alley of Chess City is decorated with the Golden Crown of Yorial (Goodwill) and each house has a chess name: "Queen", "White Rook", etc., and one of the squares is named after Caissa, the goddess of chess.
Elista is a small city but there are enough cultural attractions here. Not far from Chess City there is a museum of nomadic peoples and a monument to Ostap Bender.
You can rarely find monuments to the victims of Stalin's repression in Russia. The Exodus and Return memorial complex is one of them; its author is the famous sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, who was friends with Ilyumzhinov for whole his lifetime. The memorial was opened in 1996 in memory of the tragedy of the Kalmyk people -- the deportation of a large part of it to Siberia.
The taxi driver I called in the morning took me round Elista for all day long. And in the end he refused to take money for the trip. Kalmyks are distinguished by calmness and goodwill. They always help tourists -- they like that you came to their land as a guest to learn about the local culture and history.

Ekaterina Degtereva