Monday, April 17, 2017

Kalmyk Tulip Festival

On Saturday Ted and I had the great fortune to visit the annual Kalmyk Tulip Festival!

The Russian word for tulip is тюльпан [tyul-pawn]

The tulips grow wild out on the steppe, and the festival is timed with the blooming, so it's a little hard to predict exactly when the festival will occur each year - similar to the cherry blossom festival in Washington, D.C. We were lucky to get some fair weather and to see the tulips in bloom. 

Look closely, and you will see the small red and yellow tulips all over the grass.

The festival takes place near the western edge of the Republic of Kalmykia, about two hours by car. And 30-40 kilometers of that drive is on a rutted dirt road.

We saw the marshrutkas lined up in the City Center in the morning, ready to carry passengers to the steppe, however we were lucky enough to get a ride from Valeriy. Thank goodness, because I can't imagine an hour on that bumpy dirt road in the back of a crowded marshrutka!

Just getting to the festival was interesting for us. Though the car ride was long, there was a lot to see along the way. 

We passed a several groves of trees that were loaded with birds nest. I've never seen so many nests in one tree!

We came upon a herd of cows in the road as we approached the festival.

Even just looking at the beautiful sky was enough for me.

We stopped alongside the dirt road at a Soviet-era sign welcoming us to a state-owned farm (sovkhoz) and took some photos. At this one they bred cattle - a plemsovkhoz. It was also for youth, the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League (VLKSM). 

When we finally reached the festival grounds, they looked very much like an American festival out on the plains - lots of cars, buses, and even campers parked at the perimeter, a line of port-a-potties and a hand-washing station, and tents set up for food, advertising, and educational purposes. There was an area with some small rides and a blow-up slide for kids and an area where you could ride a camel or a horse for a photo op.

You can't help but start taking photos as soon as you step out of the car.

The flag of Kalmykia is on the left, the flag of Russia is on the right, and if you couldn't tell by the flags,
the wind was blowing fiercely! The sign says: Shashlik, 350 rubles.

Our first stop was the field of tulips near the parking area. There were lots of families and individuals spread out amongst the tulips, posing for photos. We joined right in!

It was a great experience just to sit in the grass and smell the sagey scent of the steppe, with the wind blowing in our hair (really just my hair)!

The tulips themselves are smaller than tulips we see planted in gardens back in the U.S. They are shorter, too. I think it must be due to the limited rainfall and the strong winds that seem to blow constantly here.

The colors we saw were mostly red and yellow, with an occasional purple or white tulip. A few of them looked like a hybrid tulip + iris! It was very difficult to photograph them up close because the wind was whipping them around so much that most photos came out blurry. I managed to get a few decent shots, though (you'll see my hand trying to hold the tulip steady in some of them!):

After our photo session in the tulips, we stopped to eat some shashlik (pork kabobs) at one of the many vendors. It looked like a bunch of families just brought their backyard grilling equipment and a load of bottled beverages to sell. There were probably 20 different vendors to choose from, so we ended up going with the first one we encountered, and it was absolutely delicious - tender and flavorful!

The men are wearing traditional Kalmyk hats.
The kabobs are called shashlik, and the meat is delicious.

Shashlik is marinated, grilled meat served with thinly sliced onions and usually a kind of sweet/savory sauce. The wind was blowing so hard that we had to hold the plastic plate with one hand and eat with other. Our pile of napkins blew away more than once...

Kalmyk chai (tea)

Once our bellies were full, we wandered around, running into people we knew (well, mostly people Valeriy knew) and viewing the music, dancing, and wrestling exhibitions. The head of Kalmykia was there and gave a short speech, and there were many people dressed in traditional garments, demonstrating traditional Kalmyk crafts and lifestyle.

(In the video you get a sense of the incessant wind!)

The camel puppet is connected to the dombra player's hand with string,
so it "dances" as he plays. 

Due to the strong winds, the weather went from sunny to cloudy to sunny to cloudy very quickly, and we could see rain in the distance. Right around the time my phone/camera battery died, we were hit with a sudden drenching downpour! Of course, we were as far from our car as we could possibly be within the festival grounds. 

Everyone immediately dropped whatever they were doing and started running toward the parking lot. Many took shelter inside one of the tents or yurts, or under tarps set up by the shashlik sellers. We didn't even bother running because we were soaked almost instantly, so we just had a nice long walk in the drenching rain, and it was actually really refreshing! 

One of the last camel rides before the rain completely soaked all the animals - and us!

The rain stopped just as we reached the parking lot, and we debated going back to the festival, but we were pretty cold and wet by that point, so we left. I hope we can get out to the steppe one more time before we leave Kalmykia - it was my favorite part of this trip so far!


  1. Wow! Sounds like the perfect outing--other than the rain. Didn't know that tulips grew wild. Thanks for taking the time to share. By the way, what does the lettering on your beanie say?

    1. My hat is from the University of Arkansas. It says RAZORBACKS. :)

  2. the one of you and teddy amidst the tulips is christmas card (letter) worthy!! xo

    1. We'll have too many Christmas card worthy pictures to choose from at the end of this trip! We'll just send out a Christmas letter citing our blog link. ;)