If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart. ~Cesar Chavez
The quote above perfectly describes my experience with Petr’s family. Last winter holidays my friend Jawid and I traveled to Elista, Kalmykia. Those were easily the best New Year holidays I’ve ever had in my life. As a new student in Russia, I had always wanted to travel the country, especially to small cities – to experience their different cultures and unique atmosphere.
The only way to feel any culture is to travel, meet local people, talk with them, eat what they eat and have fun with them.
Luckily, I met Petr when I came to Russia. He is my friend in the HSE dormitory. Petr is doing a bachelor program in Information Science and Computing Technology in HSE. Sometimes I, Jawid and Petr cook dinner together. I remember one time I cooked chicken soup with special Indonesian spices, while Jawid made his special Afghan chicken soup. Petr was the jury of our little cooking competition and it ended in a draw because he said both our soups were delicious. One day before the winter holiday started, I asked him what his plans for the break were. He said he was going home to Elista (his home city), a city in Kalmykia so I asked whether Jawid and I could visit him.
Kalmykia is a republic under the Russian Federation, which is located in the southwestern part. It is the only region in Russia (and Europe) where the majority of the population practices Buddhism. More than 50% of the inhabitants are ethnically Kalmyk. Although Kalmyks have their own traditional language, only some of the older people speak it. I was very curious about the region because Petr would speak a lot about the history of Kalmyk people, their culture, religion, food, etc. When he said he welcome me to visit I started to plan my first (and hopefully not the last) adventure in Russia.
Petr went to Elista two days before we did, so we had to travel by ourselves. Since there were no direct trains from Moscow to Elista, Petr told us to go to the bus station near the Sokol metro station and take a bus from there. It should have been a big one because it was a long journey (approximately 1,300 km or 16 hours by bus). Unfortunately, since it was the holiday season, all the buses were full and there was only minibus available. We wanted to go so badly that we decided that it wouldn’t be a huge problem. And we were right – we had a fun trip in this crowded minibus with 13 people, 1 dog and 1 cat on board. Most of the passengers were from Kalmykia, working or studying in Moscow and going home for the Christmas and New Year holidays.
We were exhausted after a 16 hours long trip by minibus. But our tiredness vanished when we sat down to dinner with Petr, his sister Vika, his chubby little brother Makar and their mother. We had a special meal of peppers stuffed with beef and rice served with mashed potatoes (farshirovanii pertsi). It was a tasty home-made dish and I like it a lot. The next day we had pelmeni (dumplings) and kholodets which is a special meat jelly. Petr’s mother also made us blini pancakes and traditional Kalmyk tea. Kalmyk tea has a very unique taste because it is mixed with milk, salt and butter. I was amazed by the overwhelming kindness from Petr, his family and his friends that made us feel like one big family.
We spent our time in Elista traveling around the city with Petr and his brother Andre. We visited the amazingly beautiful temple of Burkhan Bakshin Altan Sume (The Golden Abode of the Buddha Shakyamuni). It is the biggest Buddhist temple in Europe and has a giant golden statue of Buddha. We also went to Syakyusn-Syume which is the oldest and second largest khurul (Buddhist temple) in Kalmykia. There we met a young monk who explained the life lessons portrayed in the paintings in the temple. Inside the temple, I felt a strange positive feeling that must have come from the tranquility, calmness and silence of the place.
We also wanted to visit the Lonely Tree national park 20 km away from the city, but our car got stuck in the thick snow on the dirt road and we had to go out and push the car for about half an hour. It was fun even though we didn’t get to visit the national park.
At night, we spent time enjoying hookah (shisha) with Petr and his friends at a café in Elista. Even though Jawid and I didn’t speak Russian and Petr’s friends only spoke a little bit of English, we had a wonderful conversation. They were curious about me and Jawid who is from Afghanistan. They want to know why we choose to study in Russia, why we want to study public policy, what is the weather and the food in our country, etc. I think in this case the shisha really helped solving our problem in communication.
Petr’s family were also interested to know about me, my family, where I came from and why I chose to study in Moscow. I showed them my hometown in Indonesia on the world map hanging in their living room.
Another thing that amazed me is the tolerance and respect within his family. The overwhelming kindness from Petr, his family and his friend that makes us feel like a family. Petr and Vika are Buddhist like most of the other Kalmyks. But their mother who is originally from the Caucasus is not a Buddhist. Vika said her parents are Muslim. Petr told me that even though he is not really religious, he does visit the Khurul (Buddhist temple) to pray in special occasions or before a difficult exam.
We stayed at Petr’s house for two nights before continuing our adventure to Volgograd. Since the moment we came to Elista, we received a warm welcome and were treated kindly. We felt like we were part of Petr’s family, not foreigners. Since that day we knew that we have a new family in Kalmykia.
By Muchammad Isa
Edited and contributed: Tatyana Gudkova
About the author: His friends call him Isa. He is enrolled in the Master’s program in Public Policy and Political Analysis at HSE. He is interested in migration because refugee and migrant related issues are a controversial matter in his country.
About the illustrator: Namdzhil Orushanova studies in HSE Art&Design School. She developed the project of re branding for Kalmykia. Now she is working on it to present it to potential investors in Kalmykia.