What a French discovered in Kalmykia, where the Russian desert meets Buddhism (PHOTOS)
Under a blazing sun, as we tread barefoot on the hot sand of the dunes worthy of the Sahara, a horse breeder approaches us. Keeping an eye on his flock grazing a few tufts of dry grass in the distance, he confides that he recently performed a pagan ritual, in order to invoke mercy from heaven, for no rain has fallen on this arid land since last three months. The stage is set. However, I am neither in Africa nor in the Atacama Desert, but in the Republic of Kalmykia, a Russian region north of the Caspian Sea.
The name of its capital, Elista, is also evocative, since it is translated from the Kalmyk language as “place of sand”. The “Pearl of the Steppes”, as it is nicknamed, truly appears as an oasis in the midst of nothingness.
Founded in 1865, it only remained a village for a long time (1,507 inhabitants in 1914, against 103,000 today); the Kalmyks, the only Buddhist people of Asian origin in Europe, traditionally led a nomadic way of life in these vast regions. However, it was the Revolution of 1917 that changed the situation, as the Soviet authorities were quick to undertake a forced sedentarization of the country’s ethnic groups.
The horse, symbol of nomadism, is omnipresent in Elista, whether in the statues or in a sublime Soviet mosaic on the facade of the station.
From this hasty abandonment of traditions, a second most significant event followed, a tragedy in the middle of World War II. In 1943, the mass deportation of the Kalmyk people to Siberia and Central Asia, as well as the dissolution of the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Kalmykia, were effectively ordered by the state authorities, accusing them of desertion and collaboration. with the enemy. This process, carried out under terrible conditions, resulted, according to some sources, in the death of nearly half of the Kalmyk people (134,000 in 1939, 78,000 in 1950) and it was not until 1956 that these cousins Mongols were allowed to return to their ancestral land.
These events, recognized as genocide by the Russian parliament in 1991, were at the origin of a heavy trauma, but also, until the beginning of the 2000s, of ethnic tensions. The balance of power was now dominated by the Kalmyks, given the changing demographics of the region. Indeed, if, in 1959, 56% of the population was Russian (103,300 people) and 35% Kalmyk (64,900), in 2010, the proportion was 57.5% Kalmyk (162,700) and 30% Russian (85,700).
“Now it’s fine, everything is perfect, even. But, 15 years ago, it was difficult. There were regular attacks, the Kalmyks resented us, ”a local Russian told me with his southern accent.
Although present in the memories, this dark page nevertheless seems now turned and the Kalmyk people, with fervor, reappropriates their identity: the Kalmyk language is taught in all the local schools, Buddhist temples and monuments flourish here and there, while ‘Elista now displays Asian-inspired Architecture, the most brilliant example of which is the spectacular temple of the Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Built in just nine months and inaugurated in 2005, this 63-meter-high building amazes with its size and magnificence. Surrounded by 17 pagodas in the shade of which stand statues of divinities, it has seven levels, including a vast and sumptuous prayer hall. The ambient serenity, reinforced by the meditative melody played continuously, is matched only by the devotion of the faithful who come, hands joined, to worship in this sacred place.
Safari in the Kalmyk “savannah”
If there is one thing that fills the Kalmyks with pride, it is undeniably the surrounding nature. This republic, larger than Ireland and with a desert-like appearance, conceals many treasures.
Planted by a Buddhist monk in 1846, the “solitary poplar” dominates the Kalmyk steppe. On the second photo: a source of salt water which also emits gas, which allows it to be ignited and to pass the hand over it without being burned.
Erwann Pensec; Garia Lidjiev
Watch my video of this phenomenon by following the link.
Aquatic fields of lotus (a sacred flower present on the Kalmyk flag), steppes covered with ephemeral tulips, sand dunes, pink lakes, but also an exceptional fauna make it a destination of choice for wildlife lovers.
Of these marvels, the saiga is undeniably the most emblematic. Behind this name, little known to many, actually hides the only species of antelope still existing in Europe and it is this somewhat strange-looking animal that motivated me, a Breton with delicate skin, to m to venture into these lands licked by the scorching sun.
Founded in 1990, the Black Lands in Kalmykia Nature Reserve has made the protection of this animal mascot one of its most crucial objectives. A fight which seems to bear fruit, since if on its territory there were only 3,500 saigas in 2015, their number is now from 10 to 12,000.
Led by Rostislav, an employee of the reserve, nearly four hours from Elista, my Kalmyk journey turns into a real safari. In our all-terrain vehicle, we travel the endless expanses of this golden steppe that looks like a savannah. Here and there, herds of saigas roam, while dozens of these graceful herbivores, approaching our car, intersect in front of us on the road at full speed with jumps worthy of the best dancers of the Bolshoi.
Further on, we stop and reach on foot an observation point, hidden behind camouflaged wooden panels. A striking spectacle opens up to me. Below this hill, a dry lake looms, on the edge of which graze hundreds of saigas. An unforgettable scene, which I would have thought possible only in distant African countries.
Read more: 10 Russian national parks to visit at least once in your life
Giving back to nature its rights, such is the work carried out by the reserve, which also aims to reintroduce on these lands the animals which once inhabited the region, such as the evening primrose, a wild ass from Asia. In addition to preserving biodiversity, this long-term work has another effect, that of combating the rampant desertification of Kalmykia. When traveling through the region, we often find ourselves in the middle of an almost lunar landscape, dotted with dry lakes.
“The lake is drying up and, at such a speed, it scares me, in three years there won’t be any more,” Vitali, another employee of the reserve, tells me of Lake Manych. “But they say it’s a cycle. During the war, apparently it was dry. My grandfather said he stepped on it then. We want to believe that this is the case, and not the end, with global warming. “
The causes of this desertification are multiple, between climate change and direct human actions. Under Stalin, a vast project of water channels was undertaken, which led to the turning of the rivers and, consequently, the drying up of the lakes. This is the case of Koltan-Nur, formerly made up of fresh water, but which today is only fed by rare precipitation and whose composition, like that of many others, has become saline.
The salt lake of Koltan-Nur. The soil contains a black mud with popular healing properties.
These upheavals have considerable effects on the daily life of the inhabitants and on the fauna. Thus, while some villages are forced to ration their water supplies by truck, bird migrations are strongly impacted.
Major traditional stopover on the route of many birds, Kalmykia has been shunned for several years by some of them, due to the reduced quantities of food in the bodies of water. Pelicans, for example, numbered only 2,500 in 2020, against more than 4,000 in 2018, explains Yuri, an ornithologist at the reserve, while we have already observed a colony of tens of thousands of cranes for hours. young ladies at rest nearby.
However, the efforts made show that there is room for improvement. If, at the creation of the Terres Noires Reserve, 70% of its territory was occupied by sands, thanks to the disappearance of intensive pastures, these have now almost entirely given way to the herbarium, to the wheatgrass, hairless oats and other plants characteristic of the steppes. .
So, as I am about to leave these latitudes to return to my Moscow concrete jungle, I can only wish a “white road”, as the warm Kalmyks say, to these cranes, who, like me, certainly hope to be able to come and come back again and again to these lands struggling unwittingly for their cultural and natural rebirth.
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