Narantuul is a sprawling labyrinth bazaar that promises deals and danger. Our Mongolian friends, and more experienced expats, filled our ears with stories of tourists getting hassled and robbed, by gangs of men! Steeling ourselves for a daring encounter with greasy, vodka-laced marauders, we kept an eye out and readied to throttle at the onset of a scuffle. Thantcyn handed me our tiny camera, and said if something goes down, you get it on video. The market should fear us! We trimmed down, carrying only bare essentials: a cell phone, money, and our pocket sized camera. For three consecutive days we found ourselves at Narrantuul, each time with a different set of friends: first Americans, then French, to feel out the bargains, and finally with Mongolians, to close our deals!
Narantuul was a veritable land of wants and needs. You could end up acquiring hardware, jewelry, fur hats, pets, freshly butchered meat, horse riding supplies, custom made boots, traditional clothing, new ‘antiques’, illegal dinosaur eggs, or even an entire ger. We negotiated for an antique snuff bottle, carved with a curious coiling dragon, the top half of a Mongolian wrestling uniform, and heavy deels to keep us warm. Haggling is minimal with only a slight drop in price. Shady merchants develop amnesia, hiking their bargains up moments before purchase. Shrewd shoppers learn to walk away, and finalize their purchases another day.
Enjoy a cool cup of kvas, a Russian beverage, made of fermented rye, near the gate, for a mere 250 tugriks. Be wary of puddles, giant carpet rolls swinging wildly around at head level, people nudging past with well-timed elbows, and coin mongers following you around with their transparent small talk. If you are lucky, you might witness a merchant blessing her booth with newly acquired bills from a sale; it is a quaint gesture, reverently sweeping bills across merchandise waiting to be bought, with breathy mumbles.
After the constant foreboding from locals about the perilous ‘black market’, its mystery was revealed as place to get really good deals. Our deels were a third of the price of various boutiques lining Peace Avenue, and the snuff bottle would have set us back at least twenty times as much, in antique stores. We were a bit disappointed at the all too normal experience of simply purchasing items, but secretly grateful that the worst that happened to us was being followed by a ranting drunk, staggering at zombie speed. However, heed the warnings of locals. The unfortunate stories exist for a reason! Travel light, be aware and don’t be afraid to venture to Narrantuul, the colorful, not-so-black market of Ulaanbaatar!