Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 2, 2006. The Black Market

Yesterday I went to the big market Ė Narantuul Trading Center, or the Black Market as itís commonly called. Itís not a black market in our sense Ė no stolen goods or illegal currency exchanges, thatís just a name. Itís a huge market, a whole city of a market, selling just about anything you might want. Unless what you happen to want is a bottle opener. I bought two bottles of Chinggis beer on my first trip to the nearby grocery store, but I havenít found a bottle opener yet. Fortunately I did figure out how to open bottles with the tines of a fork.

The market is a couple of miles away from my hotel. I set out on foot, while the morning was still cool and overcast and threatening to rain. It never stays that way, though Ė all too soon the sun came out and I was hot. Weather here is a bit like Boulder Ė the air may be cool, but the sun is strong, so it always feels hot. Anyway, I headed into the childrenís park, as itís called, a stretch of green that was on the way to the market. Itís a bit scruffy Ė weeds instead of lawns, crumbling concrete paths, peeling paint on the buildings, painted cement animals gracing the walkways. But itís a lively place. Mongolians in track suits were jogging on the paths, and a few parents watched their children climb on statues and playground equipment. A small boy ran to the top of an elaborate slide as his father and I watched. But he came back down the stairs Ė a man was sleeping on the top, it turned out, whom we couldnít see. But on his second try the boy stepped past the man and came down the slide.

The market is vast, three or four big low sheds full of vendors surrounded by tables and stalls and shipping containers where more people offer their

goods. Where I entered, they sold fabric, the lush brocades used to make traditional Mongolian outfits, in shades of royal blue, plum, forest green, deep red, mustard yellow. I was only slightly tempted; I donít sew in my van, and Iím not so much interested in acquiring fabric as I used to be. Maybe when I come back to Mongolia Iíll buy some, if Iím still interested. I think that way often now, about things I might want once Iím living in a house, not on the road. I donít know if I should think that way, though Ė do I really want to start acquiring again, and then find it hard to move on when the time comes?

Well, thatís a different question. Meanwhile, I was still in the market.

Within a type, the vendors are much the same. So dozens of stalls sell the same assortment of barrettes, pendants, earrings, and hair implements. After much looking, I picked up a few things, for one fifth of what the same items cost in the State Department Store or the UB Mart, the big western department stores.

The clothes didnít even catch my eye. Rack after rack, aisle after aisle, of bland clothing, pale colored shirts in synthetic fabrics, cheap shoes with pointy toes and high heels, bras, underwear, socks. One aisle was devoted to camel hair sweaters and vests; I looked briefly and moved on. Another to industrial ďPersianĒ carpets. A third to leather coats and jackets. I think I really have absorbed the idea that I need nothing, none of it was worth stopping for. The row of leather boots was a bit more interesting, solid knee-high black boots that I see on many of the older men, peeping out from below the long skirts of their dels, the traditional Mongolian coat. They are wonderful boots Ė but Iíd never wear them! Anyway, theyíll still be here when I come back Ė if I come back, if Iím still interested in them.

Outside the buildings, off to the back of the market, were stalls selling food Ė well, some food. Packages of cookies, wrapped candies sold by the kilo. Most had no English on the wrappers, but I thought Iíd try some labeled ďtoffee.Ē Chocolate, coconut, and milk Ė not the best toffee ever, but what did I expect for a dollar a pound? I liked the coconut ones, anyway.

I found myself skirting a square white building, so I went inside. It turned out to be the main food market. One row of stalls sold packaged breads, rolls, and cookies, the same ones they sell in the supermarkets. Another had big blocks of butter and dairy products. In a third aisle the merchants were surrounded by mounds of pink and purple and red sausages, and tubs of kimchee of many varieties.

Down at the end of the hall, flour vendors, surveyed sacks and mounds of flour and grains. Along one wall were the potato and onion vendors, a dozen in a single small shop, each with a few feet of table space and her own set of scales to weigh the purchases. They have lovely nectarines, apricots, and plums in Mongolia, but I didnít see any of them in this market, nor the tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, scallions, and lettuce that Iíve been making into salads for lunch. My guidebook says Mongolians live on mutton and flour, and the statistics on food consumption Iíd seen in the course of my work certainly showed that they can do without fruits and vegetables. This was a truly Mongolian market.

Circling the food hall, I saw the mutton arriving. From a rolling cart a man unloaded skinned sheep carcasses on to a big scale to set their price for the butchers waiting to buy them. And down a ramp in a cool underground passage were rows of butcher shops cutting up those animals. Elsewhere a pair of horseheads, teeth bared, eyes glaring, caught my attention as they lay on a cart to be brought through the market.

Back outside, I found myself meandering through housewares, hardware, office supplies, and kitchen utensils. In the bicycle parts alley they not only sold tires and inner tubes, but rings of ball bearings, cables, and other internal bits of the bike. From a dish vendor I bought a big yellow cup for five hundred tugruks Ė about forty five cents. I played with a tightly coiled spring at a hardware stall, but the vendor glared me so I put it down and moved on. At a stationery stall I bought a shiney red fountain pen with a very fine nib for a thousand tugruks, even thought he salesman didnít have ink to try it with. (It turned out to be very nice indeed!) I wondered at stall after stall selling huge roles of wide webbing tape, till I realized that this was used to hold the

fabric onto the gers being sold in the next aisle. On a more modest Ė and more modern Ė scale, another vendor sat between two rows of brightly colored camping tents, which urban Mongolians sleep in when traveling on their summer holidays. Not as exotic as a ger, towed on a cart by a yak, but easier to pack into the family jeep, and much quicker to put up and take down.

On my way back to the hotel, the park was much busier than it had been in the cool of the morning. The ferris wheel was rotating slowly, its brightly painted seats filled with mothers and children. A paddle boat and an inflatable rowboat circled the shallow pond. And with a holler that suddenly caught my attention, a group of Mongolian teenagers pulled each other into the water, amid splashing and laughter.

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