Sep
26
2010

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The Black Market

by Going Slowly

Tara:

After our morning meeting with Tom, it's pretty clear there is nothing we can do with our car at the moment. It's Sunday, and all the offices we need to visit are closed. What we can do is take some time to relax. Sitting inside with a hot cappuccino, a croissant, and a good book, is a luxury we've been missing a lot in the last few months.

Morning at Café Amsterdam

Eventually, the other Ralliers join us for a late breakfast. Between meals, the guys take turns going down the block to get their beards shaved. They each come back looking ten years younger, and very, very strange (to us, anyway).

With breakfast and grooming concluded, Tim, Charlie, Alex, and the two of us leave to visit the Black Market. We're told it is the largest one in Asia; D'Arcy and Erika say the spectacle is not to be missed. Twenty minutes after all of us squeeze into a cab to brave the bumper-to-bumper traffic, we arrive at the mother of all markets:

Ulaan Baatar Black Market

There are buskers:

Mongolian Buskers Mongolian Accordion Busker

…food stalls:

Ulaan Baatar Black Market Ulaan Baatar Black Market

…and lots of random crap:

Ulaan Baatar Black Market Ulaan Baatar Black Market Singer Sewing Machine Knock-Off

First stop, sunglasses!

Charlie Charlie Tara Tyler

It is chilly today, cold enough to snow, in fact! I'm freezing, and I've been wanting to buy a hoodie to replace my old fleece one, so I'm on the prowl. Unfortunately most of it feels like shoddily-made synthetic crap. I love this bright green coat with chunky buttons and leopard print lining… but the hood barely covers my head and the sleeves are too short.

Tara in Ulaan Baatar Black Market

Eventually, I find something that warms my head juuust fine, but I think it might be a little over the top…

Tara in Mongolian Fur Hat

Tyler:

The only thing we're seriously looking to buy is a pair of cardboard boxes, or anything we can use to pack our bicycles for a plane or train ride. We're not having much luck, but Tim is having the time of his life. He's bought a new pair of jeans, a new plaid button-up shirt, two pairs of sunglasses, a sweater, a belt, a hat… basically a whole new outfit (which to us, is a whole new wardrobe). Total cost: around $10 USD.

As we're wandering, we bump into Erika and D'arcy, on their second trip through the stands. They quickly whisk us over to their favorite section, the antique area. Here they are, checking out lots of interesting and authentic old junk, mostly surrounded by piles of fake old junk.

Tim, Erika & Darcy

We've received lots of serious warnings about the black market: Look out for pickpockets! There will be scams! People will steal your money! It's in a bad part of town! Tim and Charlie are so eager to spot one of these alleged thieves that they set up a sting, each one hanging a few togrog out of their back pockets. Nobody takes the bait.

As far as we can tell, the place is pretty benign. We do witness one thing that gives us the creeps, though. In Mongolia, loads of people wear facemasks for hygienic reasons. Every time I run into this phenomenon, it makes me feel like I've been dropped into a bizarre, post-apocalyptic world.

Ulaan Baatar Black Market

Also on the list of strange encounters for the day, is a stumbling, ragged, and very inebriated man who staggers over to say hello. He's managed to successfully count us, and we all agree kindly when he explains there are FIVE people standing in front of him (by holding up the number with his fingers).

Next, he stretches out his arm, presumably to ask for money or to shake D'Arcy's hand. Instead, he grabs the bottle of grape juice D'Arcy has been sipping on. There is a brief moment of confusion where the two play tug-of-war for the drink, but D'Arcy quickly concedes the battle. First, the man clutches the drink tightly to his chest, and then he proceeds to down the entire bottle in a single swig. Maybe he thinks it is alcohol?

Shortly after this incident, we see a man passed out out on the ground in the middle of the market. He looks dead. No one else seems to notice him, they just walks around like he isn't there. As we're trying to figure out what we should do a man comes over and helps up the "dead" guy, moving him to another location. He's not deceased, but by the looks of it, he will be soon.

Meanwhile, it is bitter cold out here. All the hawkers we've passed have stared at my bare sandaled feet, aghast, trying to sell me socks. I'm just fine, but I can't imagine how that man is going to fare tonight.


Done with the market, Erika and D'Arcy are about to embark on a hunt for cheap cashmere. They've been told there is a big market for it on Sunday. We're curious to see it, so we decide to tag along. During our hunt for the impossibly-soft garments, we end up at strange warehouse where you can purchase clothing on pallets by the ton.

Pallets of Clothing

No cashmere here.

Pallets of Clothing

As we follow them on their all-too-familiar search, filled with language barrier induced misdirection and confusion, we eventually manage to locate the "big Sunday cashmere market!" It is actually a multi-story shopping mall called Sunday where you can buy cheap cashmere any day of the week. Haha!

By now, we're not interested in clothing, we want to eat. Thankfully, there is a decent-looking restaurant on the top floor. Best of all, they are serving lots of veggies, something we've been sorely missing our here. Score one for us and most especially, our team's veggie, Tim!

Though the restaurant has a large array of vegetable dishes in plain sight, they either won't serve Tim without meat, or don't understand what he is asking. Long after each of us has received our order, he is still patiently and persistently explaining that he doesn't eat meat. At one point, he even goes so far as to say he is a Buddhist (he isn't) and it's against his religion.

They really don't seem to be getting it; either that, or they are flat out refusing to serve vegetables only. Tim stands his ground, pointing at his precious veggies, unwilling to give up, saying "I want that, just that." Ages later, he triumphantly wins the stand-off, and gets his vegetarian feast.

Unless you live here, it can't be easy to be a vegetarian in Mongolia.

Tara:

After a long day at the market, we walk back to the center of town for an evening spent with our friends. Richie and Freddie are flying home tomorrow; their departure marks the beginning of a long succession of slightly depressing goodbye parties as our team disperses.

Making the most of Richie and Freddie's last night out with the team, we spend it in typical fashion: getting drunk at the bar (or, more accurately for us, hanging out sipping on a beer while they get drunk). After one too many rounds, it has gotten too late for us to order food. Jake's Mongolian girlfriends come to the rescue, leading us to a strange, swanky bar at the top floor of a high-rise building that still serves dinner.

Near midnight, we all feast on sandwiches and pizza. By now, the people who aren't busy chatting are stretched out on the bar's plush couches. Tyler and I decide to head home, leaving Freddie and Richie after last call with huge hugs and fond farewells. Bye guys, we will miss you!


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