Friday, March 24, 2017

Chess City

On a travel blog that I read before our trip, the city of Elista was described as a place where "two hours was an hour too long." There's not much to do here tourism-wise: a visit to the main temple, a quick loop around downtown, and maybe making the trek out to the deportation memorial.

On this roster of attractions, a (the?) highlight of any visit to Elista--whether short or long (read: one hour or two)--has to be Chess City. How to describe it? Imagine a shoddily-built condo complex placed in the middle of the steppe. Or, according to the Atlas Obscura entry, a "Russian City...Built for Chess Fanatics According to Alien Specifications."

The Museum-Restaurant-Chess Tournament Complex at Chess City

View of the condos - and the empty steppe beyond - from the Chess City complex

Another view of Chess City condos

There's a lot to unpack here. First, Chess City isn't a separate city; it is an enclave of Elista and includes, or has included: a hotel, residences, the Mongolian consulate (which was busier when Russians needed visas for Mongolia), and a museum-restaurant-chess tournament complex.

Inside the museum/event center

Second, it was built for the 1998 World Chess Championships, but wasn't completed on time (as I understand it). The top players were housed with local residents since the facility wasn't finished. (The construction of Chess City was itself controversial, as it occurred during Russia's post-Soviet economic low point in the mid- to late 1990s). It has hosted several major international tournaments since 1998, including the 2006 Women's World Chess Championships.

And third, the former head of Kalmykia (Kirsan Ilyumzhinov) indeed claims to have been abducted by aliens. He has also been the president of FIDE (the International Chess Federation) since 1995.

We visited Chess City during our first week here and spent a couple of hours there in total (we've needed at least four hours to see Elista's sights). Some of the highlights:


The car of a wedding party

Ignore me. This was a stealth picture of the wedding party photo shoot in the background -
the bride kept her powder blue down jacket on for all the photos.

The Wall of Champions:

The Chess Champions of Kalmykia

Chess sets given as gifts to Ilyumzhinov (this was a world leaders board with interesting geopolitical overtones):

King =  G.W. Bush; Queen = C. Rice; Bishop = A. Merkel; Knight = J. Chirac; Rook = J. Koizumi; Pawn = John Howard

King = V. Putin; Queen = B. Bhutto; Bishop = F. Castro; Knight = H. Chavez; Rook = M. Ahmadinejad; Pawn = M. Gaddafi. 

And clothing in the Kalmyk museum:


The dress on the right is for a married woman, indicated by the belt.
Difficult to see, the dress on the left is for an unmarried woman,
indicated by the two tassels that hang to either side of the neck/torso and the lack of a belt. 

Book your plane tickets now!


  1. You make it interesting but it doesn't seem like the jazziest of places! Is Russia kinda, I don't want to sound rude or unappreciative, bland, in general? Not the chess pieces though! What is the work focus of your visit? You probably said already. Love, Wendy

    1. We probably should have included a few more photos, but you're right, it is not the jazziest of places. I wouldn't say that Russia is bland, but it is very, very different than more Western locations. The TV shows and music videos are strange to me, the architecture and spaces are totally different, and there are many unusual and sometimes jarring customs. For example, people don't usually wait in line here - they just push to the front even if they were the last person to arrive. It feels cutthroat, but nobody else seems to be bothered by it.

      The focus of Ted's Fulbright is twofold: (1) He plans to interview native Kalmyks about the role of religion (Buddhism) during and after the deportation of Kalmyks under the USSR. Hopefully he'll write a post about that soon! (2) Ted is lecturing about political geography once a week at Kalmyk State University and collaborating with some professors at the university. That's the "diplomatic" side of our visit. Thanks for leaving a comment, Wendy!

  2. Hmmmm. We're the chess pieces chosen for any particular reason? John Howard and Gadaffi as the pawns? Interesting - maybe they had a sense of humor? Or is that a statement. Interesting post - thanks!

    1. That was just one of many specialty boards on display - not sure why those leaders were chosen. This particular chess set was given to the former leader of Kalmykia as a gift on his 50th birthday in 2012.