Oh, how quickly those New Year’s resolutions were forgotten. The first quarter of the year is gone, and not one of them has been accomplished. The one in which you were supposed to exercise more? Nope, that only lasted for a few weeks. The one in which you planned to start flossing? Nope, you barely thought about it after the first couple of days. How about the one in which you promised to travel somewhere you had never even heard of before? You completely forgot about it. Now is the time to make good on at least one of your vows.
You’ve never heard of Kalmykia, right? No. Perfect. The Russian republic lies in the southwest corner of the country near the Caspian Sea. Its connection to Russia officially began when the Kalmyks migrated to the banks of the Irtysh River from Siberia. Their home is now an autonomous republic with a fascinating history. Due to its central location, Kalmykia has been home to most of the world’s major religions. Judaism with the Khazars. Islam with the Alans. Tengrism with the Mongols. Christianity with the Slavs. It’s now the only region in Europe in which Buddhism is the widespread religion.
Elista, Kalmykia’s small capital, is known for international chess competitions. But you aren’t traveling here to see Kalmykia’s only real city. Twenty percent of the republic’s land has been set aside as nature reserves, parks, and hunting (mostly geese) grounds. One of the nature reserves is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Chornye Zemli Nature Reserve (Black Lands) lies northwest of the Caspian Sea. Its land is a desert steppe, where only grasses and sagebrushes grow. It’s home to Lake Manych-Gudilo, the largest saltwater reservoir in the republic. It’s also an important breeding site for huge Dalmatian pelicans, white-headed ducks, and many types of geese. But the real reason you need to see the Chornye Zemli Nature Reserve is saiga antelope.
Saiga antelope are critically endangered. They travel in large herds. Their coats change color—from yellow to red to sand to grayish brown—with the seasons. Males have thick horns with pronounced rings. While they’re now only found in Kalmykia, Kazakhstan, and, during the migration season, sometimes Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But fossils prove that this species has been on Earth since as early as the Late Pleistocene period, which sounds like a really, really long time ago. So their current comeback, albeit a slow one, is a major win for preservationists. And a resolution has finally been completed.