Finding Nemo

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 13

Click to read Chapters 123, 45678910, 11, or 12

The Black Market of UlaanBaatar

Entrance to the Naruun Tuul, the black market

You hear about the market long before you actually visit it. It is spoken about with ominous fascination. “You went to the black market?! Wow.” And the next question, invariably, is “So… did you get robbed?”

Every person who has been to the market has a story. Either they got robbed or they know someone who did. Sometimes it happens on the way to the market. Tourists, flush with cash tucked into a neck pouch, take the minibus marked 'Зах' (it's pronounced by coughing up some phelgm while saying "zacht") from Peace Square in the center of town. A short ride later, they emerge at the market realizing their neck pouch is still there, yet missing the money! It’s magical, really. How did they do it? Pick-pocketing in Ulaanbaatar is so ubiquitous that it has even inspired “How To Get Pick-Pocketed” step-by-step guides, such as this one.

When Mendee asked if I had a saddle, I responded with a blank stare. Instead of saying, “Yes. A saddle. s-a-d-d-l-e. It’s what you put on the horse you just bought,” he just remarked, “No problem. We will go to the black market.”

The black market! It was exciting and scary at the same time. I was actually going into the hive of scum and villainy itself! (Apologies to Tatooine, but Mongolia is weirder.) With all the stories I’d heard, I devised a plan not even a mother would love. I would hide some money in one sock at the bottom of my shoe, more in the other shoe, and some in my underwear. Together, these wads would be sufficient to buy all the gear I needed. Bwah-ha-ha, my money was impervious! It was genius.

"We don't serve their kind in here" (Tatooine cantina bar)
The first thing you come across upon entering the market are 4 ATM machines in a little shed. Also in this shed was an assortment of various shady characters. The first hid beneath a cowboy hat, the 2nd behind dark sunglasses, and the 3rd under the Mongolian equivalent of a trench coat. I looked them over and decided if I wanted a super-awesome pick-pocketing outfit, I could combine all three items together. Two other foreigners who also needed tack had come with me. They spied the machines and walked right up to get out gobs of cash. I decided against putting a sign on their back that said, “please rob me.” I mean, if the sign was in English it wouldn’t work anyway.

Black market grounds. Photo by Peter Menzel
We then entered the sprawling grounds of the market proper. The other two guys were going on very ambitious treks, over a month. It was actually fascinating hearing about their plans, going over their maps, listening to their fears and excitement. To be honest, I was secretly jealous. Yes, perhaps my beard was thicker and fuller than theirs, but these men were attempting to be Men. Theirs is a story that deserves its own blog post later. Anyway, they had to pick up all sorts of camping gear, and so it was a relief when we finally reached the Department of Horsey Stuff.

Pretty. Pretty damn uncomfortable for your jibblies
This little corner consisted of a few worn tents draped in colorful equine decoration of every kind imaginable. There were bright red and green tassels, gold-fringed bridle pieces, tan straps, silvery bits, bronze rings, and a host of other odd items whose purpose I could only guess was horse body-piercing. Next door were piles of sewing gear, heaps of raw leather, and stacks of colorful saddles of all designs. There were a few worn Western saddles that actually looked comfortable, Russian saddles that looked cheap and painful, and plenty of fresh new Mongolian saddles purposely designed to bash a man’s bits into fine powder. Squatting around within was also a small tribe of chain-smoking wrinkled old women. Their gnarled hands were busy hand-sewing giant needles though thick pieces of leather to create new straps and ropes.

I had absolutely no idea what a fair price was for a saddle, or girths, or saddle-bags. Or for that matter, pretty red and gold tassels which I hoped were not screaming that my horse was gay. Mendee was not only there to negotiate for us, but also make sure we had everything we needed. He was our Mongolian fixer, worth every penny. We agreed on a “Russian” saddle that had pretty green embroidery, complete with Buddhist-style knot designs on the leg fenders. I was surprised to find the girths were made of horse hair. It looked soft and comfortable compared to the hard straps that were used on my horse-trekking up north. So resourceful, these nomads! Re-using horse hair. Brilliant. Why didn’t all the ranchers use it?! Instead of this setting off alarm bells, it made me feel smug that my horse would be the most comfortable one out there. Mendee nodded his approval, and the stupidest decision of my trip was locked in.

Meat section. That ain't filet mignon (by Tim Corrigan)
Finally we settled on a price for everything. They all turned and looked at me expectantly. I smiled nervously and removed my shoes. Then I removed my socks, which I noted with interest had begun to sweat profusely in the hot summer sun. Out came my wads of slightly damp cash, which after counting came up a bit short. I handed it to Mendee, who put out his arm and held it as far from his nose as possible. It is difficult for me as a Westerner to read emotions in Asians, often their faces appear inscrutable. But there was no mistaking the vendor’s look of disbelief at what was occurring. I then proceeded to put my hand down my pants and start feeling around. To my dismay, some my 3rd stash had apparently drifted out of my underwear and down my pant legs. I cleared my throat, and then began undoing my belt. The vendor eyes began to widen further, and reached what I am sure is the limit for a person of Asian descent. As I contemplated Eastern society and the importance placed on propriety, I unzipped my pants. After a moment, my arm found the rest of the cash. I plunked this sweet-smelling addition on top of the sweaty feet cash already in Mendee’s hand.

The super awesome 500 Tookirig bill. Ball sweat not included
“OK, … 200,000 Tookirig, you can count it."

No response.

" … Uh, what’s the problem fellas?”

One of the highlights of the market was the long aisles of traditional clothes. There were brightly colored vests, Mongol long-sleeve shirts, caps, and pants. But the highlight and our reason for coming to this section were the deels: the long cloaks that are the standard outer-wear for both men and women in the country-side. Most rural families make their own plain ones of thick cotton and burlap and no ger is complete without a sewing machine. But here in the city, there were thin light deels of synthetic materials, silks, thin soft cottons, all intricately decorated with gold and silver thread patterns. It was fancy and upscale. Browns, greens, whites, oranges, and even purples and pinks made it clear that this was an item of high fashion. I wasn’t looking for such a deel, however. After my experience freezing in the north, I wanted something thick and warm, something ordinary-looking that would help me blend in. Earth tones would be nice; after all, it would likely be covered in mud and horse-poop by the time I returned. I settled on a burnt orange-brown deel with little decoration. However, I allowed myself to pick out a fairly bright golden-orange sash.
I look so Mongolian it's scary.

“How do I look?” I asked my fellow Westerners, who were also rummaging for outfits.

Brad replied, “Brown and orange. Like a Buddhist monk.”


I glanced down at my battered sneakers which had endured Tokyo asphalt, Philippine skinny-dipping, Chinesecave mud-bathing, and several weeks hiking, um, er… donkey-riding, in Nepal. Perhaps these were not the best choice for horse trekking. Mendee steered me down an alley and around a corner I nearly fell into a bin. Behind it were two more, each stuffed with used black boots of all shapes and sizes, heaped upon each other in piles that came up to my waist. After looking through them I realized the workmanship was about on par with Masai flip-flops. (I realize this comment might not resonate for many, but Masai flip-flops are made by cutting off a piece of car tire and tying them to your feet with a string.)

Believe it or not, they ran a marathon in these shoes made of tires
These Mongol boots consisted of leather nailed onto a block of wood. But then again, I would be riding, not walking. And for that, the high-topped boots were just what I needed to avoid chafing my legs. I haggled the price down to a reasonable US$10 and pulled out another wad of stinky Tookirig from my sock. Feeling quite satisfied with this transaction, I thought, “What could go wrong with these sweet babies?” Such was the incredible naivety of my happy shopping trip on that bright sunny day.

It had been a very successful trip to the black market. In fact, on our way out I smiled to myself at how worried I’d been about thieves. At that very moment, two large men appeared out of nowhere and bumped into our friend Pete. He was stopped in his tracks. The men looked like they didn’t see my friend, even though they were obviously blocking him. At that moment, from behind him another smaller man walked up and, so quick I barely noticed, quickly put his hand into my friend’s back pocket and walked away. He disappeared into the crowd before I realized what happened, and when I turned around the big men who had blocked were also gone in the crowd. Pete turned around, startled.

“Did you see that? What just happened?”

“Dude. It all happened so fast, but some guy picked your back pocket. I think. I mean, I’m not 100% sure.”

“Yeah, I felt that too!" But then he laughed. "You know what? All I had back there was a piece of paper! I had left it there on purpose. They got nothing. Ha ha!”

“Oh man, you should’ve wrote something on it, like: "Congratulations! You came all the way to the black market and all you pick-pocketed was this piece of lint.’”

“Yeah! Or how about: ‘This quality piece of paper is worth more than a 100 Tookirig bill. Well played.’”

A hundred Tookirig was worth about 1 cent.

“Ha ha ha!!! Oh man, that is f-ing hilarious!! Nice one.”

They got nothing. You would have to be pretty dumb to put money in your back pocket in a place like this. But then again, I had noticed plenty of clueless Western tourists in the city. Many more than I expected, to be honest. Mongolia, or at least the 3 day packaged-tour version of it, was definitely on the map. We were all a little shaken up by this and quickly made our way back to the car.

Just another day in the Land of Blue Sky.

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