A Journey to Elista — (1)

Back in 2007 I was invited to visit the capital of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia. Just getting there was an adventure.

I was invited to attend the Chess Candidates Matches in Elista — by none other than the President of the Republic. That is not as big a deal as it may sound. Kalmykia is located directly north of the Caucasus, and is populated by less than 300,000 people — as much as the local district in Hamburg where I live. The invitation came from the millionaire Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who at the time was the President of the mini-republic, and, as a fanatical chess enthusiast, also President of the International Chess Federation (FIDE). He was a very controversial figure, someone people in the chess world loved to hate. I was a declared opponent, assisting in every challenge to his presidency in FIDE elections. But never did he show animosity or displeasure over this.

My journey to Elista began at the Russian Embassy in Hamburg, where I applied for a visa. I was told that I could only pick my stamped passport on the day of my departure, a couple of hours before the plane was scheduled to leave. “Don’t be nervous,” the officer said, “we’ll have it ready for you. It is the kind of thing that makes life interesting.”

Before accepting the invitation to Elista I had conducted stern negotiations with FIDE. I insisted that I should be picked up at the airport in Moscow, brought to my hotel, and taken to the connecting flight to Elista the next day. This was important, since a colleague of mine had undertaken the same trip earlier, on his own. He had had problems finding his hotel in Moscow, and on the next day had taken a cab to the airport for his connecting flight. But he couldn’t check in: it was the wrong airport! He had to spend two more days in Moscow rearranging his onward flight. I am not as brave as him, which is why I insisted on full chaperone service. FIDE agreed.

The trip from Hamburg to Moscow, in an Aeroflot Airbus A400, was comfortable and quick. I arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport after just two and a half hours’ flying time, twenty minutes early. Piece o’ cake so far.

Déjà vu! This was my first trip to Russia. I had been to Moscow a number of times, but that was when it was the capital of the Soviet Union.

I remember the daunting immigration procedure. Except this time I didn’t have a surly, uniformed guard staring me down, but a nice young lady with a friendly smile.

My FIDE hosts had arranged everything very nicely for me. I hardly broke my stride when I emerged from the arrival area — a driver was waiting, holding up a sign with my name in big letters on it. In no time at all we were on the road to Moscow.

Ah, yes, they have funny letters there, Cyrillic. “Mockba” — the C is an S, the B is like our V, so it translates to “Mos-kva”, which is what they call it. Like to try the airport? W is SH, P is an R, M is M, the b is a softening vowel. So it translates to Sheremetyevo, the famous international airport. You figure out yourself how Cahkt-Netepbypr works.

Let’s do one more: the fourth arch-shaped letter is derived from the Greek Pi and, logically, stands for a P. The big A-like letter is from the Greek lambda and is an L, the H is an N. All this just to confuse us foreigners. Fortunately there are often useful little hints given, as on the signs above.

The hotel I was put up in was called Mezhdunarodnaya, which translates to “International”. It was of the latest standard in luxury hotel, and charged per night — well, huge amounts. The cupboards had motion detectors that turned on the lights when you approached. They had many nice pectopahs (restaurants).

The spectacular view from my hotel balcony, which looked out on the Moskva River.

The grand Soviet-style former government building, of which there are a number strewn across Moscow. This one, I believe, has been turned into a high-class hotel.

My trip from Moscow to Elista started on the second day with a car ride to the national airport, about an hour’s drive from my hotel in the heart of the city. If you read the above carefully you will be able to read the sign: “Vnukovo airport”.

The Soviet-style airport Vnukovo was, at the time, in a process of frenzied renovation.

My God, it’s full of Yaks — the airfield at Vnukovo. These planes are named after the Russian aircraft designer and manufacturer Alexander Sergeevich Yakovlev. The planes are called Yaks, with a numeral added to denote the specific aircraft model.

One of the larger Yaks on the tarmac. The company has been building planes since 1934, including some famed fighter aircraft during World War II. I swear that’s a machine gun bay in the front of our Yakovlev Yak-40.

Our plane to Elista was a three engine regional aircraft which is famous for its ease of operation from small airstrips. The Yak-40 is also famous for it high-pitched whine, which gave it its nickname “flying whistle”, and for its low fuel efficiency.

Forget your wide bodies and A380 s— this is pioneer times in commercial air travel. You have to travel in this aircraft, at least once in a lifetime, to experience history.

With these two pictures you have seen the entire passenger area — believe me.

The… well, emergency exit door, with ample space for carry-on luggage.

I must mention that the service on board was extremely friendly and that the meal came with genuine red beluga caviar — show me that on a $99 Ryan Air flight.

At Elista airport I was greeted by a reception committee, which included two local beauties, who draped the customary white shawls over our shoulders.

We were taken by car to the city and our final destination. The name on the logo is Elista, with the E in red and in orange. The original Kalmyk name is Elst, which means sandy. This was Russified to Elista, with the stress on the second syllable.

This is our spanking new Volga GAZ luxury car. GAZ stands for Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod, and is a company that was originally founded in 1929 as a cooperation between Ford and the Soviet Union. A total of 100,000 Model A’s were built by GAZ in the 1930s.

Entering “City-Chess” (Russian: Сити-Чесс), which lies somewhat on the outskirts of Elista. It is a large residential complex devoted to chess and chess competitions and was built by Ilyumzhinov. I told him it should be called “Chess City”, but you think he would listen?

One of the more interesting residential buildings in City-Chess. They love unusual colours.

Another example of the architecture of City Chess.

The central building of City- Chess, where the chess tournament was played — and where we went to eat in the restaurant three times a day.

My absolutely favourite dinner companion was World Chess Champion Boris Spassky. There is a lot to tell about the week-long encounter with this chess legend, including a story about a trip with him to the Kalmykian steppe. Ten years later I told it in a video interview — in second part of this report: Knowing the Chess Greats.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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