Narantuul: UB’s Not-So-Black Market

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!

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6 Responses to Narantuul: UB’s Not-So-Black Market

  1. Katherine W. says:

    Dude, did your friends actually get a goldfish at Narantuul? I wish there were a market that full of everything in the states (although indubitably it’d somehow manage to be more dangerous).
    Please post pictures of you guys in your deels, I’d love to see whatcha got!

  2. Priscilla says:

    Aww, thanks for letting me remember our visit to the market! Great, vivid writing. I can’t wait to start a blog, too! Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Thantcyn says:

    Katherine, there is and it’s called Wal-Mart, and yes, you can get a goldfish there too! I don’t think you can get horse riding equipment or gers there though, but Wal-Mart’s open 24/7 and some are more dangerous than Narantuul. Our deels are jetting towards Texas as we speak, so you might have to wait a bit for the pics. Did you get one as well?…I seem to remember a pic of you in one….

  4. Thantcyn says:

    Priscilla…start already! We miss Mongolia, and you have to keep us updated during the cold bleak mysterious winter! ;)

  5. Anthony says:

    Hay I’m wondering, can you take antiques out of Mongolia? Without a receipt that is. Its just I’m in UB at the moment and I would love to buy some old knifes and arrow heads etc. But I don’t want to spend all that money and have them confiscated.
    Any help would be great thanks!

  6. Thantcyn says:

    Anthony, we got an antique snuff bottle out of Mongolia, in our carry-on backpack with no problems. You may have some problems getting the knife out, not because it’s an antique, but because it’s a weapon. However we find that the UB Airport is pretty relaxed with their searches, and chances are you’ll be able to carry the knives in your checked luggage, with no problems. Now you may have some problems getting them into the US, or whatever country you are from, if you are unlucky enough to get searched upon entry. One of our friends was unable to ship a knife out of UB, not because it was an antique or a knife, but because it was made of antler.

    The Lonely Planet states that ‘if you are legally exporting any antiques, you must have a receipt and customs certificate from the place you bought them. Most reliable shops in UB can provide this. If you don’t get one of these you’ll need to get one from the Centre of Cultural Heritage (011-312 735, 323 747)’. We didn’t get anything with our snuff bottle from Narantuul, not even a receipt. The reputable stores they talk of charge twenty times for the same item. We mostly go by the don’t ask, don’t tell rule when taking antiques out. Hope that helps a little.

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