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Travel to unknown Kalmykia, the country of Djangar with Jan Scheerder

Since I was a young boy, I've dreamed about Russia, the mysterious and faraway country, especially the Northern parts of the former Soviet Union and Mongolia.

In my school years I used to read the adventures of Genghis Khan, Marco Polo and the Russian adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Many I have read more than once. 

I was fascinated by the mysterious throat singing techniques from Mongolia, Tuva and Altai. It was always a dream of mine to visit these places, but for a long time these countries were unattainable for tourists. 

One day I opened the newspaper and saw a picture of a Mongol-looking man in a beautiful costume. Above it was the text:  Vladimir, throat singer from Kalmykia. 

It was an article about a big folkloristic festival, not far from my city. The festival was scheduled for five days, and I attended every day to listen to this mysterious man singing.  

The last evening, before the Kalmyks had to leave for home by bus (which would take them five days and five nights), I had the chance to meet Vladimir. It was difficult to communicate with him, because he only spoke Russian and I did not understand a word. 

We sat down, face to face, on the lawn at the festival place and I think we had contact on a ‘higher dimension?   We ‘spoke’ for about half an hour and when we said goodbye there was a feeling of friendship. He presented me with a music cassette with some of his songs and a business card. 

I went home with the thought of never seeing him again.

I thought that I will never see Vladimir again

In the weeks and months that followed I daily listened to his mysterious songs, in raw Kalmyk/Mongolian language. My wife did not enjoy the music and advised me to make a friendly visit to Kalmykia. She said: "Then you can hear it every day". That was the last drop in the bucket for me. There after I tried to locate Kalmykia and tried to find a way to visit him. 

It was a nightmare to receive a visa for Kalmykia. The Russian consular refused it three times. 

I have a good contact at a travel agency in Amsterdam that specializes in traveling to Russia. They knew a Kalmyk woman in Holland who helped me with an invitation in order to obtain a visa. 

During this period I attended Russian language classes, so I could speak some words and read the Cyrillic alphabet. 

Amsterdam,  1997

The Tupolev plane of the Russian airlines, Aeroflot, was scheduled to depart at 12h45. We were on our way to board the plane, when the stewardess sent us back to the airport building. Through the window we saw kerosene dripping out of the plane, maybe it was overfilled.  The fire brigade inspected the plane, cleaned the floor and 45 minutes later the plane was ready for take off.  


We had a perfect flight, except for some hard turbulence near Minsk. At Moscow airport, Sheremetchevo, a Kalmyk was waiting for me to help me with the local flight and took me to my hotel. But first he took me on a short tour of Moscow, which included the Red Square. The Red Square is a must for any tourist that visits Russia. The Kalmyk boy, Sasja, that was my guide could speak good English. I expected a much bigger Red Square,  but I must admit, it was underestimated on the military parades that I had seen on  TV. Although the Saint Basil Cathedral made it look more impressive. 

Sasja offered to take me to the first Mac Donald's in Moscow, but my choice was a Russian restaurant. I ate my first Russian soup, Borsjt. I did not enjoy the soup because it was too sour for my taste. 

Moscow was experiencing a heat wave of 36' C during my visit.   

We traveled by train to the outskirts of Moscow and then took a taxi to my hotel. I stayed in a non costumed hotel Dom Tvorchestva  which means House of Creation and was founded by Stalin as a hotel for the great Russian writers. It is in a park, and close by were some beautiful wooden dachas in soft blue and green colors. Nowadays the hotel is also open for other artists, sculptors and painters. I drank my first Russian vodka at this hotel. 

After Sasja left, I began to transpires and felt sick. I drank some mineral water,  ate some bread and lay down on my bed. After half an hour I took a shower, but nothing helped. I had to vomit and it was like I had a fever. I think it was from the sour borsjt in the restaurant. That night I could not sleep. The next morning I took some aspirins and after a shower I went outside for a  walk in the park. Far off I heard some thunder and  I walked back to the hotel, and just when I arrived it began to rain and a heavy thunder began.  

I waited for Sasja, who promised to come at eleven, but because of the heavy weather he arrived at twelve. We went back to Moscow to buy a ticket for my flight to Kalmykia, and then we took the train to the airport Vnukovar.  Vnukovar is a little airport about 35 km outside of Moscow, it is only for inland flights. Our airplane was a Jac 40. (Jacovlev) 

On the left and right of the stairs of the plane were fully armed policeman. We entered the plane via the stairs under the belly, and we had to store our luggage ourselves in the cargo room, and then find a seat. There was no stewardess, so everybody was free to find a seat. 

After a while the pilot came in and started the engines. With the stewardess, who just came in, he tried to close the emergency door. It was open because of the high temperature. To close the door was not easy, the pilot secured it with a leather strap. I did not feel happy when I saw this. Many of the passengers placed their luggage in front of this door. The seats  were bad. I secured my safety belt, but after a deep breath it burst open. My neighbor told me to do it like him. He laid the both ends of the belt open over his legs, I said OK and smiled at him. The pilot and the stewardess went to the cockpit and we taxied down the runway. Then there was a heavy noise and the plane took off. Halfway through the flight the stewardess came in with plastic cups of lemonade. This plane did not fly as high as the Tupolev, so I could see more of Russia from the air. After three hours the landscape below changed, we drew near the steppe. The airplane circled and I saw the runway, a little strip in the steppe. It was a very short runway, so the pilot had to break hard. 

Arrived in Elista and no Vladimir to meet me

When we stopped, everybody ran to the cargo room to pick up their luggage. Outside it was very hot and we walked through a big iron door in concrete fence and walked to the parking place. I looked around, but there was no Vladimir.

Newspaper clip of Vladimir, throat singer from Kalmykia
Newspaper clip of Vladimir, throat singer from Kalmykia

Famous Red Square
Famous Red Square
in Moscow

The steppe at Godschur
The steppe at Godschur  

Okna Tsagan Zam,  the National Kalmyk Djangartschi  

Okna Tsagan Zam,  the National Kalmyk Djangartschi 

When Tsagan is singing, it looks as if he is in a trance

While Kalmyk songs are sang others dance

While Kalmyk songs are sang others dance



One of the passengers asked me where I had to go, and told me he knew Vladimir and he would take me there. We walked to the bus, then I saw a big black Volvo, Vladimir came out and welcomed me as if we had been friends for years. 

When we arrived at his home in Elista, his wife Maya served dinner a large amount of cooked sheep meat. Before dinner she served Kalmyk tea, a salty butter tea. When I saw all this meat I felt sick again, and told Vladimir what had happened in the restaurant in Moscow. He took a big glass, filled it with a triple vodka, put some salt in it and ordered: drink this at once. Fifteen minutes later I felt better, and I ate a lot of meat and drank some more vodka. The sickness did not come back... 


After dinner we took a ride on the steppe for a few hours, it was impressive. You feel so small on this endless steppe, and it is wonderful to ‘hear’ the silence.  Back home we spoke, Vladimir speaks a little bit German now, and I a few words in Russian. It was twelve o clock when we went to sleep.  

The next morning we went to Elista for a look at the city. Elista is a city of 100.00 inhabitants, and modern in its ideas as a city. In 1865 it was a little village, and in 1930 it became the official capital of Kalmykia. During world war II (1943) all the inhabitants of Kalmykia were exiled to Siberia by Stalin and the city was totally destroyed by the Germans. In 1957 by a decree from president Chrustjov, the people returned to their homeland. Immediately they rebuilt the city and now it is a modern city with schools, hospitals, libraries, theaters and a university. There are also many churches, Buddhist temples (the Kalmyks are Tibetan Buddhists) Russian Orthodox, Christian churches and Muslim temples.  

We went to visit some friends of Vladimir, drank many bowls of traditional Kalmyk tea and again vodka..

In the following days we left the city behind and went to the steppe.  

Only one who has been on the steppe will understand what it means when I say that the steppe feels like a sacred place, the boundless, endless plains give a man another understanding of life. The smell of the grasses and herbs, the deep blue sky and the silence leave a big impression to every one who has been there. You feel so small in this wonderful and peaceful place. We then rode on a higher part of the steppe and we looked over a long sloping valley, above us we heard the scream of a steppe eagle. At the end of the valley we saw a little settlement, there we saw the silhouettes of five yurts. Slowly we rode forward, it seemed we never got any closer. It felt like time did not exist. Time is not important there, daily life does not play out on a watch. A biological clock tells you when it is time to eat and when darkness comes it is time to sleep. When we arrived at the yurts, one of Vladimir's friends came out to invite us for the traditional tea. After the tea we went inside and sat down on a big felt carpet. Now the bowls were filled with kumis, a strong drink made of milk, it tastes sickly sweet. The kumis contains about 9% alcohol. It is a refreshing drink on a hot steppe. Vladimir took his dombre (two string national instrument) and began to sing. A deep growling sound and at the same time extreme high overtones come out of his throat, He sang about the national hero Djangar.  

Okna Tsagan Zam

--Vladimir is the national Kalmyk Djangartschi. He was born on the way home from exile in Siberia in 1957. His Russian name is Vladimir Karuev, but when he was born, his mother gave him the Kalmyk name Okna Tsagan Zam.

Tsagan Zam means The White Road, in a free translation this is something like The way to freedom, Okna is his fathers name.  

When he was a young boy, he had strange dreams. In one of the dreams an old man told him to sing the Djangar, but he did not want to sing, but strange forces pushed him.  

He started to sing parts of the Djangar epic only for friends. Then in 1987 he started to sing in public and in 1990, on the anniversary of Djangar, he received the title of National Kalmyk Djangartschi.  

Then he was invited to a festival in Paris, it was the start of many concerts in Western Europe and Russia, later followed concerts in Japan, India and the USA.  

The ‘Djangar’is a centuries old heroic story, a source of ancient wisdom, the singers of this epic are called ‘Djangartschi’ Most of the energy of Tsagan Zam is devoted to bring the old culture and traditions back to the people.  

In the summer he organizes camp holidays for Kalmyk children on the steppe at Godschur.  

Here they learn about the Djangar and the old nearly forgotten culture and traditions, but also their own Kalmyk language, old sports like bowing, spear throwing, wrestling and horse riding.-- 

(From now I call him Tsagan Zam, because I think his Kalmyk name fits him better.) The older men listen to his song with great interest. I can tell you when you listen to these songs, sitting near the yurts on the steppe, it gives you goose bumps. 

When Tsagan is singing, it looks as if he is in a trance. In his songs you can hear the thousands of horse hoofs of the Golden Horde from Genghiss Khan trampling the steppe.  

Meanwhile a sheep is slaughtered, a woman fills the pan with water, to boil the meat on a stove outside the yurt.  

When the song is ended many of the audience shake his hands to thank him for the beautiful song.  

When the sheep is cooked, and the men sit down to eat, an older woman takes her dombre and begins to sing old Kalmyk songs, then invites others to dance. 

After the dinner I went for a walk over the steppe with a group of men. When we came back late that afternoon, the sun touched the horizon. It had been a very warm day with temperatures nearing 40' C.

Later  that evening, when it was dark, a campfire was made. Again Tsagan took his dombre and began to sing. With the fire and the thousands of very bright stars in the blue/ violet sky, the music of the cicadas and sometimes the howling of wild dogs or wolves, it was much more impressive than before. It was late when we got to sleep in the yurt. I lay down on the felt carpet and looked up through the smoke hole, I saw the stars above and  I thought of the poem from the well known Kalmyk poet David Kegultinov:  

‘When in the steppe I stand alone With far horizons clear to view, Ambrosia on the breezes blown And skies above me crystal blue, I sense my own true human height And in eternity delight. The obstacles to all my dreams Now shrink, appear absurd, inept, And nothing either is or seems Except myself, these birds, this steppe.... What joy it is to feel all round Wide open space that knows no bound!’  

The next morning we rode straight through the steppe to a little settlement and bought ten bottles of ten mineral water, some bread and some sausages. 

The roads on the steppe was very bad. It was all sandy roads or cart-ruts. We rode for hours without seeing any sign of human existents, no houses, no cars, no noise, only the unbelievable and endless steppe. Sometimes we saw carcasses, bleached by the sun. 

In some places the grass was very high and lower in other places. We saw beautiful flowers and herbs, but desertification is also a problem in Kalmykia, thousands of square kilometers changed into dead plains. We rode in such a place. Suddenly in the distance we saw a flock of 100 saiga’s. Tsagan drove forward, the speedometer reaching 90 km/hr. I hung out the window with my video camera, as we rode beside the herd, it was fantastic to see how these animals ran beside the car. After a few kilometers we slowed down and reached a stop. Tsagan took a bottle of vodka, and as we have no vodka glasses, we drink from the bottle and relished these beautiful moments.  

After half an hour we came across a lonely hut, our mineral water was too hot to drink, so we stopped and looked for a well near the house. I threw the bucket down and then pulled it up, filled to the brim with cool, clear water. We washed ourselves and I drank from the bucket. Tsagan said, do not drink too much because of ‘rtut’  

Poisoned water

I did not understand the word. When we walk back to the car, Tsagan  grabbed my dictionary, and then I understood what he meant, ‘rtyt’ is the Russian word for mercury. 

The water in most places of the steppe is poisoned with mercury and other chemicals from faraway industries. They dump their waste in the rivers, which transport these waste products to the lakes and then to the Caspian Sea. Up to 3 million tones of salts are thrown from the fields of Stavropol into the lakes of Kalmykia every year. The result is mass destruction of water flora and fauna, fish and water birds. The most acute problem is that of the drinking water. Some people use these waters for drinking and cooking, while it is even unfit for industrial use. 

We roamed over the steppe a few more days and nights and in spite of the seeming monotony, it never became boring!

Back in Elista, I stepped back to reality and prepared to go home. Because there was no flight from Kalmykia to Moscow this week, I had to go to Volgograd. The next day at midnight, a friend of Tsagan would bring me to the Volgograd airport, a six hour drive.  

The last day in Kalmykia we stayed at home, we spoke a lot, and Tsagan asked me to send him an invitation, because he would like to come to Holland to visit me for a week or two.  

During the ride to Volgograd we had some problems with the car, a Russian Volga, sometimes the car broke down, but the driver promised to be at the airport in time. He repaired the engine and the lights with some alluminin foil. Indeed, we arrived just in time. I had a perfect flight to Moscow, and from there to Amsterdam.  

A few months later Tsagan visited me and again we had a wonderful time.  Kalmykia is always welcome!  

Jan Scheerder

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