Friends and family back home often wondered just how close we were to conflict or danger. Even the Russians warned us about the dangers of riding our proposed route from Astrakhan to the Kersch strait. As we got closer to the south we asked locals like Alix and others and the reality was these routes were just fine. Not only did we not have to back track from Astrakan to Volgograd but we discovered Elista enroute! We had travelled through parched land a far cry from the rich croplands only a days ride north. There were “asian” herdsmen, and as we arrived in Elista we discovered a whole town of Asian people and a huge Bhuddist temple. One local passionately explain the history of his people .. they were West Mongolians who had emmigrated to this region 400 years ago (Mongolians get around as Ghengis showed much earlier). There are about 150,000 West Mongolians ( Russans call them Kalmyks) living here and it looks like 95% of the population. The town is neat and things look pretty cool but it wasnt always that way. Pre-war and again in 1943 Stalin deported the population to siberia and various parts of central asia. It is estimated 1/3 died in transit or soon after from inadequate clothing and food. It wasnt until 1957 that Khrushchev allowed them to return (perhaps to befriend Mongolia itself) and Kalmykia became an autonomous republic within Russia and remained so after the soviet dissolution in 1992.
So…. by coming this way we discovered a micro-nation, it reminded us that Russia is made up of many ethnic groups some of which have suffered terribly… their histories incredible, tragic.. may their future be great.