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ELISTA, Russia - Back in the days of the Silk Road caravans, this is what people might have called a mirage - a huge glass dome, surrounded by a California-style housing development, rising from the parched brown steppe.That shimmering vision has been brought to life here in Elista, the capital of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, a monument to the power of ego over nature, not to mention common sense and even reason. Its name is Chess City.
Like a glassed-in Biosphere on Mars, the four-story dome encloses a cool, fresh world of carpets and comfort, of whispers and intense concentration, where the most brilliant minds of chess compete for diamond crowns.
For miles around - in fact for almost all the rest of Kalmykia - 300,000 people live in poverty on the barren plains, where tank trucks deliver drinking water and where dried sheep dung, hoarded through the summer, fuels stoves in winter.