Posts Tagged ‘shopping’

Moskva. Bottom line: my feet hurt. Yes, great metro and bus system, but stepping out of every metro station and glancing around would hardly give a traveller the right idea of the city. Thus, walking can’t be done without, and so, walk I did.

Jan 1. And the decade begins. Streets quiet (except for the left-over fireworks and blank gunshots that continued until the day I left) and littered with empty bottles of Russian champagne ($2.99/bottle), Ryan and I got up early to get him to Sheremetyevo airport for his noon flight. Buying our train tickets to the airport just in time from the electric walk-up vendor (“3 minutes until next train”), only afterwards did the conductor decide to tell us that the first train wasn’t for another hour.

When I asked, “Because of the new year?” I noticed that it was a bit ominous to already be combining “new year” with “iz-za,” the participle used for negative reasons. No other bad omens have popped up since. (more…)

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To properly describe my experience in the realm of the Russian “holiday season,” if such a concept actually exists as a period defined apart from the general conception of everyday life in this country, then I should go back to my Thanksgiving holiday here.

Walking out of a delightful evening of intercultural dialogue (conversation over wine with Russians) on the last Thursday of November, passing the central market, my cohorts and I noticed that within the past few hours, a gargantuan “Happy New Year’s” light-up sign with accompanying fir garlands had been hung on the face of the main shopping mall. That may have made my Thanksgiving more complete than the sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie had.

I don’t consider myself a total minion of the U.S. of Consumerism Culture that I left behind in order to spend the holidays abroad. But, I won’t lie, the probably coincidental Black Friday start of the Russian end-of-the-year shopping season with the Irkutsk central market’s sign-hanging and Christmas-tree construction really did touch my little heart, somewhere between my conviction that Christmas is the “Season for Giving” and my capacity to get an adrenaline rush when I see big red signs including the symbols “-” and “%.”

Thanks to the Soviet reconstruction of, well, everything, (more…)

Day 3 (Mon., Oct. 26): Dollarpower

Dundundundun, dundundundunDUNdun–Downtown. Multiple people had recommended going to the black market in Ulaan Baatar, despite the long walk there and the so-called best pickpockets in the world that hang out waiting for unknowing tourists. Stopping at the post office along the way to pick up postcards with the famous large Mongolian stamps depicting exotic animals (in this case, wild boars), we took our walk down Peace Avenue.

The part-industrial, part-high-rise/new-tech, part-overexcited-advertising aspects of the city more or less made me realize that this was my idea about what an East Asian city à la Beijing would be like, grandiose, snowy mountains looming to the south of the city and all. Granted, in UB, everything was on a slightly downsized level. The pollution wasn’t completely overbearing, glass skyscrapers and new apartment buildings didn’t soar quite as high as other places, the Olympic training center wasn’t a full-scale, made-for-2008 stadium, the face-masked population didn’t exert your typical big-city tension or unfriendliness.

On the note of random communication with strangers on the street, not only did people look at you (perhaps because you’re 1) not Asian and 2) not wearing a face-mask–just asking for the H1N1), but also, for the most part, people were willing and sometimes enthusiastic about helping with directions.

What’s more, to Romany’s and my surprise, Russian actually proved useful in real life. If we had to ask “English? Russki?” to a few people at a bus stop, we usually got about 1 in 4 or 5 who could help with whatever fractured or oftentimes almost-fluent knowledge of either language.

Black Market. After wandering around a few pretty sketchy alleys in the general area of where the market was supposed to be, I finally spotted the entrance. We stuffed our moneys into or socks and gloves, double-checked our pockets for any valuables, paid our 50-cent entrance fee, and went in.

About five people with handheld racks and trays of leather gloves assaulted us right after we got in, shouting their prices in whatever languages they knew. Luckily, gloves weren’t on the shopping list, so we breezed past obstacle number one with no loss of momentum. Then a kind young gentleman dressed in black coming in our direction said rather clearly, “F— you,” while looking me in the eye. Romany and I turned to each other, continuing on, and laughed.

The complex is pretty huge. Two big, blue, plastic-looking, two-story airplane hangar type structures housed the food markets, and the multi-acre property surrounding was home to rows upon rows of leather boots, gloves, wallets; (fake-brand) clothing, jackets, camel-hair socks, purses, luggage; housing goods; Buddhist religious items; antique-looking and Soviet-era items; and more. All for dirt cheap.

We realized we hadn’t brought enough money to satisfy our bargain-getting-value out of Mongolia, namely, from the UB Black Market, but assessed our options as we browsed for an hour or so. My final decisions included: a $25 heavy, Russian-looking, winter jacket with the label “Jack Jones” spelled “Jack Jcnes” (clever, right?), a handful of pins and medals depicting Stalin, Sputnik, the Red Star, and life in the USSR for about 5 bucks, and a pair of (authentic?) camel-hair socks.

Ger-to-Ger. Thinking that the Ger-to-Ger (travel agency) office closed at 2, we speed-walked the 4-5 km back to the center only to find that the office was open until 6. Ger-to-Ger is an eco-tourism project founded within the last decade that lets travelers go from ger (“yurt,” the moveable living structures of Mongolian nomads) to ger, living in “cultural homestays” with the agency’s partner families. The families feed you, give you a bed in their home (ger/yurt), and then take you to the next family via horse, camel, or ox cart. 80% of the company’s revenue goes directly to the families, and since you’re living and traveling with families, the idea is that your Mongolian wilderness expedition will involve minimal ecological damage.

After a chat with the lady working there, we decided on our tour: 4 days, 3 nights on the “Quest for the Last Emperor” trip in the national park 5-hours west of UB. We’d see sand dunes, Swan Lake, a few cultural and religious monuments, and get to travel by all 3 horse, camel, and ox cart. Since we liked the price, and since the only 4-day period before our train on Friday night began the next morning, meaning we had to complete the travel/cultural/language orientation class that afternoon, we ran to the ATM to get our cash our to pay.

Getting back just in time for the class, we sat down with two Australians doing a 4-day, 4-night trip where they’d participate in the nomads’ preparations to move to their winter settlement, and the agency lady led the 2-hour orientation. She explained the day-by-day schedule and logistics, the safety issues, plus the cool new cultural things that we’d have to navigate the next few days including not using your left hand, accepting a tobacco snuff bottle, playing a type of board/dice game with sheep ankle bones, asking for boiled water in Mongolian, only speaking Mongolian, riding animals, and so on.

Basically, we were pretty excited.

Getting ready. Since we had to be out the hostel door at 7:00 the next morning, we needed food and our stuff. We ran across the street to the oh-so-conveniently located State Department Store, grocery store included, to pick up some fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, and peanuts and raisins for trail mix. Coming back to the hostel to pack our food and the bare necessities for the trip, the hostel offered to hold our extra stuff for a few bucks until we got back, which was great.

Everything in order, we sat down to a humble meal at the hostel of cup noodles and snacks we’d found in our food bags from Irkutsk, but then ended the night with a luxurious chaepitie (tea-drinking) with ginger cookies, orange slices, and a chocolate bar.