Kalmykia (S5.10)

Audio: Kalmykia

In this episode of 80 Days: An Exploration Podcast, thanks to our backers on Patreon, we’ll be talking about Kalmykia, a republic and country of Russia located directly north of the North Caucasus in Eastern Europe, between Ukraine and Kazakhstan, only around 200 miles or 350km north of Georgia. The Kalmyks, of Mongol origin, migrated to the Caspian region in the 17th century from Central Asia. They were mainly nomadic cattle breeders. Kalmykiya was established in 1920 as an autonomous oblast (region); in 1936 it became a republic, which was abolished in 1944 when the Kalmyks were exiled for alleged collaboration with the Germans during WW2. 

The territory of Kalmykia is unique in that it has been the home in successive periods to many major world religions and ideologies. Prehistoric paganism and shamanism gave way to Judaism amongst some of the Khazars (who included Muslims and Christians in equal or greater numbers as well). This was succeeded by Islam with the Alans while the Mongol hordes brought Tengriism, and the later Nogais were Muslims, before their replacement by the present-day Buddhist Oirats/Kalmyks. It now stands as the only Buddhist region in Europe. 

The republic covers an area of around 76,000 square kilometres (or almost 30,000 square miles), making it a similar size to Panama, Czechia or the US state of South Carolina. With a population of about 275,000 residents Kalmykia ranks among the smallest of Russia’s federal districts in terms of population. 

The Kalmyks benefit from their relatively high levels of education and strong international connections. Overseas communities are found today in many parts of Europe and in the United States. The head of the religious establishment in Kalmykia itself was born in Philadelphia before being recognized by the Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of a Buddhist saint. 

The capital and largest city of the republic is Elista, which has gained a reputation for, of all things, international chess. And for you Star Wars fans, the Ewok language was based on Kalmyk, because George Lucas thought it sounded so odd.  

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Your hosts, as always, are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Dublin, Ireland, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Galway, Ireland. Our theme music and other stings come from Thomas O’Boyle @thatthomasfella. 

As we mention in the episode, this finale to season 5 was voted on by our Patreon backers, and thanks as always to all of them for their support. You can sign up to Patreon to get a say in the episodes we cover in the seasons to come.

Some further reading for this episode:

An excellent documentary from DW on Kalmykia

Music used in this episode:

Thanks to all our patrons who support the show. We really appreciate your continued backing of us. If you want to join them, more information is available at www.patreon.com/80dayspodcast

See you in Season 6!


Ulaanbataar (S5.05)

Audio: Ulaanbataar

In this episode of 80 Days: An Exploration Podcast, we’ll be talking about Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia.  Its modern name means ‘Red Hero’ and it is a city that has had many names including Urga, Örgöö, and Ikh Khuree. Ulaanbaatar was originally founded in 1639 as a nomadic Bhuddist monastery, essentially a moveable city,  and was not permanently settled at its current location in 1778, where it became a crucial trading hub between Russia and China. The city is located in present-day north central Mongolia, around 1000km or 700 miles northwest of Beijing and about 500km or 300 miles south of Irkutsk, Russia. Its current population is around 1.5 million, meaning it contains around 50% of Mongolia’s residents, and is comparable in population to San Diego or Munich. 

At the end of the 17th century, present-day Mongolia became part of the area ruled by the Manchu-led Qing dynasty. During the 20th century, Mongolia struggled against strong influences from the Soviet Union and China, until the Mongolian Revolution of 1990 led to the establishment of a multi-party democratic system. In terms of climate, it can be extremely chilly here. The city experiences an annual average temperature of −1.3°C (around −30 Fahrenheit) and temperatures in January are as low as −36 to −40 °C, making it the world’s coldest capital city.


Your hosts, as always, are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Dublin, Ireland, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Galway, Ireland. Our theme music and other stings come from Thomas O’Boyle @thatthomasfella. 

We’ve also just launched a merch store in associated with TeePublic. You can find our store by clicking here, with exclusive discounts at the time of publishing. 


Some useful resources for further reading include:

  • Wikipedia has a whole article on the beautiful Mongolian script we discussed
  • If you couldn’t quite catch the name of the significant religious leader of the Mongols, more information on his various names on Wikipedia: Jebtsundamba Khutuktu
  • The New Books Network podcast had a very interesting interview with Uranchimeg Tsultemin the author of “A Monastery on the Move”, which talks about Zanabazaar and his artistic legacy
  • Another key source for Mark’s second section was The Bloody White Baron by James Parker.
  • Travels Through Mongolia to China (Vol. 1) by Egor Fedorovich Timkowski is on archive.org (1827)
  • Also on archive.org is Mongolia, the Tangut country, and the solitudes of northern Tibet, being a narrative of three years’ travel in eastern high Asia by Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalskii (1876)
  • More on brick tea in The Russian Road to China by Lindon Wallace Bates, on archive.org here. (1910)
  • InfoMongolia.com
  • For a more modern perspective, we referenced The Changing World Of Mongolia’s Nomads by Melvyn C. Goldstein
  • More on the assassination of Mr Sanjaasuregiin Zorig, which Joe discussed, can be found here.
  • The Guardian also has a great piece on “Mongolia’s New Wealth.”
  • See here for a news article about the 9th Bogd Khan receiving Mongolian citizenship
  • Check out the Bogd Khan’s Winter Palace, and the Gandan Monastery
  • More about the Nadaam festival, and local cuisine
  • Music from this episode can be found on YouTube, with traditional Mongolian music, as well as some amazing Mongolian throat singing towards the end.

Thanks to all our patrons who support the show. We really appreciate your continued backing of us. If you want to join them, more information is available at www.patreon.com/80dayspodcast

Kaliningrad-Koenigsberg (S5.01)


Audio: Kaliningrad / Koenigsberg

We’re (finally) kicking off season five! In this episode of 80 Days: An Exploration Podcast, we’ll be talking about Kaliningrad, formerly Koenigsberg, a city on the Pregolya River, at the head of the Vistula Lagoon on the Baltic Sea. This city has a storied history, having been originally established as a Sambian or Old Prussian settlement, before being administered by the State of the Teutonic Order, the Duchy of Prussia, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and Nazi Germany. Shortly after the second world war, Königsberg and the lands surrounding it were incorporated into the USSR, being renamed Kaliningrad.

City Flag of Kaliningrad

City Flag of Kaliningrad


As a major transport hub, the city is home to the headquarters of the Baltic Fleet of the Russian Navy, and is one of the largest industrial centres in Russia. It is situated within the Kaliningrad Oblast, which is separated by around 400km from the next nearest Russian Oblast, bordered by Poland to the south, Lithuania to the north and east, and the Baltic Sea to the west. It is therefore impossible to travel overland between the Oblast and the rest of Russia without passing through at least two other countries. As of 2010, only a small number of ethnic Germans remain in the city, with most of residents being recent immigrants from other parts of the former Soviet Union. With a population of around 450,000, the city is similar in size to Miami, Florida, or Tallinn, Estonia, and is the 40th largest city in Russia. Kaliningrad and the lands surrounding are home to the world’s largest deposits of amber, with over 90% of the world’s supply.

Flag of Kaliningrad Oblast

Flag of Kaliningrad Oblast

Your hosts, as always, are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Dublin, Ireland, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Galway, Ireland. Our theme music and other stings come from Thomas O’Boyle @thatthomasfella. We also have to give huge thanks to Professor Nicole Eaton of Boston College for her help with this episode, and for giving us a sneak preview of her upcoming book (German Blood, Slavic Soil: How Nazi Germany Became Soviet Kaliningrad (Cornell UP, Fall 2022)). 

Some further reading:

  • One of the few remaining remnants of Old Prussian culture are the so-called “babas” (or “Old Hags”) which are stone figures up to 2m tall of warriors and priests scattered around Poland. Read more about them on Atlas Obscura.
  • Read more on the Sambians and their burial traditions here.
  • The 1963 book Balts by Gimbutas, Marija is available on Archive.org
  • PrussianHistory.org also contains a Short History of Koenigsberg.
  • For more on the Order of the Teutonic Knights, see imperialteutonicorder.com.
  • The architectural history and significance of Koenigsberg Cathedral, as well as some excellent archival photographs see here.
  • For more of the Battle of Grunwald, which Mark mentions in his section, see here.
  • Brandenburg-Prussia, in all it’s glory, can be seen in the map below:
Brandenburg-Prussia within and outside of the Holy Roman Empire (1618)

Some music by composers from in and around this city include:

Svalbard (S4.10)

S04E10 Svalbard Audio

In this episode of 80 Days: an exploration podcast, we’ll be talking about Svalbard (also known as Spitsbergen), a small polar archipelago off the northern coast of Norway. Svalbard is by far the most northerly place we’ve covered on the show, lying roughly midway between continental Norway and the North Pole, around 580 miles (930 km) north of Tromsø, Norway. The archipelago consists of nine main islands, the main island being Spitsbergen, which makes up over half of the land area. In total, Svalbard has a land area of around 24,209 square miles (62,700 square km), making it similar in size to Sri Lanka or the US state of West Virginia. There are only 2,500 permanent residents here, most of whom live in the main city of Longyearbyen. First settled as an arctic whaling base in the 17th century, the islands later saw the establishment of coal mining towns, but in recent years Svalbard’s main economic lifeline has been tourism and arctic research, both of which have boomed recently. Due to its extreme northern latitude, in the summer, the sun does not set on Svalbard for 4 months, while in the winter the archipelago goes weeks without any sunlight at all. Svalbard is also notable for being home to the Global Seed Vault, while as of 2012, all residents must carry a gun while travelling outside an established settlement, in case they encounter one of the many polar bears that live nearby.

Your hosts, as always, are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Dublin, Ireland, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Kildare, Ireland . (Theme music by Thomas O’Boyle @thatthomasfella)

Thanks to Dr Ciaran McDonough (@metamedievalist), Sonja Murto, Aengus Ó Maoláin and Roxana Cremer (@cloudcycling) for talking to us about their first-hand experiences visiting or living in Svalbard. They were invaluable to giving us a full picture of the place.

Some further reading:

  • More on the Pomors, believed to be some of the earliest inhabitants of this region can be found here.
  • The Svalbard Museum has a wonderful section on their website about whaling in the Arctic.
  • An August 1906 article in Nature entitled “The Early History of Spitsbergen” can be found here.
  • For more on Basque whaling, see NABO’s article here.
  • Svalbard-Spitsbergen.com has more reading on the charming-sounding settlement of Smeerenberg, also known as “Blubbertown”.
  • The article concerning Horatio Nelson’s visit to Spitsbergen can be found here.
  • For more on the early scientific expeditions on Svalbard, see this article from Svalbard-Spitsbergen.com
  • The Svalbard Museum has more on hunting and trapping, as well as the discovery of coal.
  • One of the travel guides we referenced on Svalbard can be found for free on Google Books.
  • The “Tragedy at Swedish House” is detailed in an article in Polar Record, which can be found here.
  • You can read more on the history of the Dutch settlement on Barenstburg on visitsvalbard.com.
  • Military Wiki has an extensive article on Operation Gauntlet, which was discussed in this episode.
  • You can read more on the King’s Bay Affair here.
  • An article on Medium details the doomed Vnukovo Airlines Flight 2801, entitled “The crash that changed Svalbard forever.”
  • Thinking of visiting Pyramiden? It’s here on TripAdvisor.
  • Future North: The Changing Arctic Landscape, referenced in this episode, can be found on Google Books here.
  • Take a virtual tour of the Global Seed Vault here, or learn more about it by listening to Endless Thread‘s episode “The Vault
  • This American Life: episode 630 “Things I Mean to Know”, about the Novaya Zemlaya Effect
  • Bowhead [whales] are jazz” article about baleen whalesong and its surprising diversity



Kuril Islands (S3.06)

S03E06 Kuril Islands Audio

In this episode we’ll be talking about the Kuril Islands. This island chain is located in the Northern Pacific, and stretches between northern Japan and Kamchatka, Russia. The 56 islands extend for more than 750 miles across the ocean, and they total 10,500 square kilometers (4,000 square miles) of territory altogether, making their entire landmass roughly the same size as Lebanon or the island of Puerto Rico. The islands today have a population of roughly 20,000, and are controlled by Russia. However, the islands were previously administered by Japan  from the 18th century up until WWII, and have been subject to a land dispute ever since. Japan claims the southernmost islands as their ‘Northern Territories,’ and the conflict over them has led Moscow and Tokyo to avoid signing the peace treaty that would have formally ended the Second World War.

Your hosts, as always, are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Hong Kong, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Switzerland . (Theme music by Thomas O’Boyle @thatthomasfella)

Flag of the Sakhalin Oblast, where the Kuril Islands are officially administered by Russia  Map showing Kuril Island chain between Hokkaido in Japan and Kamchatka in Russia. The sea of Okhotsk and the island of Sakhalin to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east

Here are a few things you may want to read/watch more about:

Joe was recently in Honshu and Hokkaido and took some photos, including from a Jomon-era archaeological site, and the the Museum of Northern Peoples in Hakodate, which listeners might find interesting. Well worth a visit if you’re ever in the neighbourhood

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Music from these islands and the neighbouring territories, some of which you heard, can be found at the following sources:

A massive thanks to all of our patrons on Patreon who are supporting season 3. If you’d like to join them and see what rewards are available for supporters, and get a peek behind the curtain check out www.patreon.com/80dayspodcast. We really appreciate the support and input!

Finally, here is a picture of some of the postcards sent from Hokkaido to our Neil Armstrong-tier patrons on Patreon – they truly are out of this world!

Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (S2.10)

Birobidzhan Audio Link

In this episode of 80 Days: An Exploration Podcast, we’ll be discussing the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO), a somewhat independent region in the Russian Far East wedged between Siberia and Northern China. Its capital is the city of Birobidzhan, and with 75,000 inhabitants it is by far the most populated part of the region. For that reason, the name Birobidzhan is often used to refer to the whole area.

Officially founded in 1934 as an attempt to create a Jewish state within Russian borders, the territory was the world’s first attempt at a Jewish national homeland in modern times, and today is Russia’s only autonomous oblast. Aside from Israel, it is the world’s only officially Jewish territory. As of the 2010 Census, JAO’s population was 176,558 people, or 0.1% of the total population of Russia. Judaism is practiced by only 0.2% of the population of the JAO.


This special episode was commissioned by one our very generous Kickstarter backers, Ian Prince from New York (who does terrible things with food on Instagram). Your hosts are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Hong Kong, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Switzerland. (Theme music by Thomas O’Boyle)


The somewhat familiar-looking flag of Birobidzhan


Some sources and further reading for this episode;

  • Masha Gessen’s Where The Jews Aren’t was the basis for this commissioned episode, you can find it on Amazon here, or listen to the author talk about it on NPR’s Fresh Air here
  • We also relied heavily on this excellent multimedia gallery from Swarthmore College, entitled Stalin’s Forgotten Zion.
  • An interview from People’s World with Masha Gessen provides some solid background on the region.
  • We mentioned the RT profile of Birobidzhan in this episode, you can find that here on YouTube.
  • The New York Times profiled Birobidzhan back in 2012. It’s worth a read.
  • The book Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union by Yaacov Ro’i has some interesting info on the JAO and wider context surrounding Jewish communities in Russia.
  • If you’re interesting in learning more about Stalin in particular, you can check out our episode from earlier this season on Georgia, birthplace of “Joe Steel”.
  • Michigan State University has a good article on the history of the region, as well as some visual essays here.

Thanks to Louise Ireson, John Killeen, Simon Greene for your support on Kickstarter. Thanks too to Rabbi Eliyahu Riss in Birobidzhan for interviewing with us.

We also need to thank our sponsor for the season Hairy Baby, who in addition to making the funniest Irish-themed t-shirts, have also produced the official 80 Days shirt for our supporters. Find it by clicking here. You can get 10% off anything on www.hairybaby.com by using our promo code “80DAYS”.

This will be the final episode for this season, but never fear, we’ll be back with more obscure goodness soon. We’re extremely grateful to everyone who’s supported us over the past year and a bit of podcasting, and if you want to hear more stay subscribed to the feed and keep an eye on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

We’ll see you soon!

Georgia or “Sakartvelo” (S2.07)

S02E07 Georgia Audio

In this episode of 80 Days: an exploration podcast we’ll be talking about Georgia. Not the US state, but the country in the south caucasus, known to its inhabitants as “Sakartvelo”. This former Soviet Republic is nestled between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and is home to around 3.7 Million people with a history dating back thousands of years. Throughout its history, Georgia has been subject to numerous larger powers, including the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire, and dynasties of Persia (Iran) and the Soviet Union. As the Iron Curtain fell, Georgia declared its independence and has operated as a modern Republic ever since. It’s neighbour to the North, Russia, however, has ensured that Georgia’s hold over independence has never been as secure as most Georgians would like. Ethnic conflicts and economic turmoil beset the country throughout the 1990s, culminating in the brief Russo-Georgian war of 2008, from which tensions still remain to this day.  

Your hosts are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly in Hong Kong, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 in the UK, and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach in Switzerland . (Theme music by Thomas O’Boyle)

Map of Georgia, indicating disputed areas

Here are a few things you may want to read/watch more about:

The stunning mountain fortress of Vardzia today (Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the music in this episode were examples of Georgian polyphonic singing, a very important style of music, being the oldest polyphonic music in the world (singled out by UNESCO as a vital aspect of cultural heritage).Some examples are:

  • “Chakrulo”, which was one of 27 musical compositions included on the Voyager Golden Records that were sent into space on Voyager 2 on 20 August 1977.
  • Here’s another example in the “Georgia and the Great Caucasus” documentary

Georgian folk dancing is also a wonderful tradition, here are a few videos of that:

Finally, we promised to include the video of the insane baptism rituals available in the Georgian Orthodox Church, so from EuroNews, here it is:

A massive thanks to the inimitable Gary O’Daly and Jeffrey Dokar, two of the backers of our recent Kickstarter Campaign – thank you for making Season 2 possible. Big thanks also to Mariam Kalandarshvili for talking to us and helping us understand (and pronounce) some elements of Georgian history; we now know that the capital is T’bee-lee-see! Thanks too to our sponsor Hairy Baby, who in addition to making the funniest Irish-themed t-shirts, have also produced the official 80 Days shirt for our supporters. Find it by clicking here. You can get 10% off anything on www.hairybaby.com by using our promo code “80DAYS”.

Lapland or “Sápmi” (Christmas Special)

Christmas Special: Lapland audio

For the festive season, 80 Days brings you a Christmas special on the most appropriate place we could think of, complete with reindeer and Santa Claus: Lapland, or – as the native Sami people prefer to call it – Sápmi. This is a large region of Fennoscandanavia, north of the Arctic Circle, with its territory spanning parts of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia (see map). This episode will touch on all areas of Lapland, but will focus primarily on the Finnish and Norwegian sides. The area is named for the indigenous people (and their specific language grouping), who have sparsely inhabited the region for several thousand years. 

In Lapland, winter lasts from early October to early May, with temperatures well below freezing throughout the region and up to 60 cm or 23 inches of snow during midwinter. However, in summer the sun does not set on the region for several weeks at a time.  Population has declined quite significantly since 1990, and the region is now home to approximately 180,000 people. Residents are spread across a total area of just over 100,000 square kilometers, or 38,000 square miles, and there are as many reindeer here as there are people. Your hosts are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 and Joe Byrne @anbeirneach, in Hong Kong, the UK and Switzerland, respectively. (Theme music by Thomas O’Boyle)

File:Corrected Sapmi in Europe.PNGFile:Sami flag.svg

Some things you might like to know more about:

Toppkandidater Vesthavet valgkrets.jpg

File:Hram Sv Simeona Mirotočivog (Novi Beograd) 040.jpgFile:USMC-101208-M-8527P-077.jpg

  • A lot has been written about Lapland’s most famous resident and how he came to be here. Most of it is mysterious and people make some wild guesses (often not true), but here, in no particular order, are a few resources that might be useful about Santa Claus and his village near Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland. Who is St. Nicholas (about his early years in Myra); Andrea McDonald’s account of visitingHistory of Santa Claus (on the-north-pole.com), Santa Claus and His Works (New York Times piece describing the contributions of artist Thomas Nast to the image of Santa’s snowy abode); Head to Finnish Lapland… (a 2009 article in the Independent, including descriptions of Santa’s village); Checking Out Santa’s Workshop in Lapland (a 1988 article in the LA Times describing visiting Santa in Rovaniemi). For the more cynical, a stuffy article on postmodernism and Finnish tourism policy can be found here (for all the Scrooges out there!).
  • You can often watch people visiting Santa live (or look back at earlier recordings) at this website, which is wonderfully magic

We hope you have a happy Christmas and a wonderful new year and that you are looking forward to joining us for Season 2 in the coming months. As always, please get in touch if you are enjoying what you are hearing or have anything to share with us!


Find out about our Christmas Kickstarter campaign by clicking here. With your help we can make Season 2 even better than Season 1!