Location: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 11/08
Randomly Appropriate Music: Black Wave/Bad Vibrations by Arcade Fire (although The Black Angel’s Death Song by the The Velvet Underground & Nico made a strong charge as I recalled the sense of confusion, the wounded pride of it all)
Would that man steal from you? I doubt it…
But he might.
My last post on Mongolia aimed for poetry: the stark beauty and isolation of Ulaanbaatar. This post is slightly more practical. I’ll wrap up next week with some stories from outside the capitol city, which in my mind is the only reason to go to Mongolia in the first place (a fact sadly lost on one my favorite bloggers, Chris Guillebeau, in his Art of Non-Conformity post, Misadventures in Mongolia).
Obviously, you clicked on this post because you want to ensure that next time you go abroad, you’ll be one of the lucky few to be pick-pocketed. Sounds easy, right? Not so fast! To ensure you get the proper treatment from a pick-pocket, who ideally takes not only of your cash but also valuable credit cards, tickets, and identification documents, careful planning is required. You really need to stand out and make yourself an ideal target.
Follow these simple steps, and I promise you, you too will have your pocket picked!
Step 1: Go somewhere dangerous and/or crowded
It is a sunny day in November.
I am in a market in Ulaanbaatar.
I see a man, eyes rolled back into his head, drunk. His face creased with labor-darkened skin, he bounces from side to side of a wide promenade. Obstacles—a small girl, a lamppost, a pothole, a table—confuse him. He tries to hold onto an idea: forward. Keep moving forward, and it will be alright.
I watch as the promenade narrows and he becomes trapped, a pinball between a pile of packing crates and a table of household supplies. The packing crates are impenetrable, and he turns, leaning his arm for balance on the back of a young Mongolian buying dish soap.
With his left hand, the young man swiftly brushes the drunk back. A foot of space emerges between them, and the young man cracks the drunk squarely on the jaw with his right hand, the creased face, now faced down, darkened with the mud of a muddy walkway.
They touched for three seconds, maybe less. The young man did not hesitate. I would have.
The crowd passes around the drunk like a rushing herd swallowing a downed animal. He is crippled but conscious, now another obstacle on the long walk home.
Welcome to Naran Tuul khudaldaany Tov. The Black Market.
Step 2: Be overconfident/ignore warning signs
Allow me to tell you how I got here.
Ulaanbaatar’s Black Market (also known as Khar Zakh) is ominously named and about as scary as you’d expect. It’s located well outside the city center, two bus connections away from any quaint charm that Ulaanbaatar might possess in its crumbling concrete walls.
Like many unique foreign locations, it’s absolutely enormous yet hard to find.
Disregarding warnings, I decide to take the bus instead of a taxi.
For anyone who has never taken a bus in a foreign country, let alone Mongolia, let me cut to the chase: yes, buses are that bad.
There are a few public transportation experiences that stick out in my mind for all the wrong reasons: the time I showed up at the wrong airport in Turkey and had to take a $65 crosstown taxi; the subway in Bucharest without maps or announcements (an English speaking local confided in me, “I have no idea where we’re going, I’m lost, too!”); the time I got trapped underneath Tokyo for two hours with a vicious hangover and a persistent “haven’t I seen this before?” feeling about the subway system that bordered on the dreamlike.
Buses, however are always the worst. They are cramped, and it’s impossible to figure out where you are without asking or guessing (which have a roughly equal success rate of about 4%). Unlike American buses, where you enter in the front in a roughly orderly fashion, most foreign buses employ a tout, allowing you to enter any way you can (including the roof rate for the so-called Chicken Buses of Guatemala). The tout squeezes through the bus, selling tickets and making change, somehow keeping track of who has already paid at each new stop.
Every time the bus comes to a rest, you feverishly duck your head, scanning for landmarks. You talk to the driver or the tout, and hope that they will care for you (or at least understand you). You shoot off boldly into the unknown, anxious for much of the ride, hoping that the unmarked vehicle you stepped into will honor the route on the fading bus stop sign and deliver you to your destination.
As the ancient diesel workhorses of Mongolia’s public transport system expel their passengers into the dirt cul-de-sac, you wonder, “Where am I? Why am I in a dirt cul-de-sac on the edge of town? Shouldn’t the largest market in the entire country be slightly easier to find?”
People rush in all directions. Their body language tells you: anywhere is better than here.
I spy a teenage girl, any seasoned traveler’s most likely bet for directions in English.
I try a family, an older man, a middle aged woman.
I am beginning to think I have once again set sail on a lonely sea of missed directions and hours lost. A man in a suit approaches me, mud caked to his brown leather shoes. “You want Khar Zakh? You want market?
“Yes. I want market.”
I follow him. I have not met him. Quite possibly no one I have met has ever met him. Perhaps no one I have ever met has ever met anyone that he has ever met. We are two completely unrelated bodies. We turn right or we turn left; we walk down a muddy street with high steel walls. There are always walls.
A long concrete rampart with a hole blasted through its center lurks around the next corner. Suddenly, there are many more people. They have emerged from this twisted network of walls, blown out buildings, and dust.
Beyond the concrete wall, there is a chainlink fence, torn at one end, held up as you pass under it. I hardly believe it, but this is the entrance to the Black Market. It felt like sneaking onto the rival high school’s football field, if only the rivals played in Communist Russia.
I wish I had proof, but it’s sort of like the Mongolian equivalent of an airport security checkpoint. Slow line. Everyone is tense. Not the kind of place one feels comfortable taking pictures.
Some people are forced to pay on entering, some insouciantly sidle by. It is not clear why this is. You, of course, as a foreigner, have the privilege of paying. Possibly double.
I reach for my wallet, held high in the chest pocket of my jacket, but my friend in the suit beats me to it, paying the small fee for me. He ushers me inside and gives me a look that says, be careful, you are on your own now, and disappears into the throng.
Apparently, in the summer, this market has as many as 60,000 visitors a day. I am in an endless row of large home appliances, beaten washers, dryers, and stoves, their piping splayed like animal innards. Animals, even dogs, are kept to do work here. They are not part of the family. The same is true of machines. They are kept, repaired, sold, and repaired again to do work, to outlast the poverty that keeps them. They are status symbols only for the very rich.
The market is Byzantine, but organized: appliances, stationary, car parts, and clothing stalls that look like airplane hangers, denim and winter clothes from China stretching beyond sight.
I wander, eventually finding my way to the food stalls. I purchase rice, a few root vegetables, and two whole fish.
4. Always take public transport, especially if you have bags/a backpack
I left as the vendors packed their stalls, and the skies darkened. The drunks, so incongruous in the light of day, began to take over the night. Whether passed out on the street (How would they not freeze? Who will find them?), warming themselves by oil drum fires, or fighting (always fighting), the night is theirs. I hurried to find my bus, confused as always, wishing I had listened to reason and left earlier.
The buses in UB are sorely overcrowded, virtually bursting at the seams. At night, when the market lets out, they are worse. My camera, a Nikon D90 which I prized above all of my possessions (yes, I slept hugging it close to my chest on the 36 hour train ride from Beijing), looked liked a tumor beneath my coat. I might as well have been traveling with a sign that read: RICH FOREIGNER, PLEASE RELIEVE HIM OF HIS WALLET.
My tripod and backpack across my back, my camera to my front, and my arms full of grocery bags, I was uncomfortable to say the least, constantly being jostled, aware that I was about 3 pairs of eyes short of seeing all the hands touching my possessions. Being a foreigner, everyone is often looking (read: staring) at you already. A foreigner taking up more than his allotment of space is no better.
It’s very artful how the pickpockets got me. Learn from this.
Before the stops, it’s clear who is jockeying to make a move, and who intends to stay put. When the thieves sense that you are about to get off, they have the blocker stand in your way and remain as oblivious as possible. As you are fighting to get his attention, you get pushed from behind, squeezed for a brief moment from an angle you never expected. It’s like someone is in even more of a hurry to get off the bus than you are.
And it’s then that a third hand reaches in and makes the theft.
5. Buy a money belt but don’t use it/make sure to carry all of your most important cards in the same place
I still remember hopping off the bus and realizing it instantly, my limpid zipper hanging down where it had once stood proudly protecting the wallet I foolishly thought was safe on my chest. I remember making eye contact with a boy just as I left the bus, and then like Kevin Spacey in the Usual Suspects, poof, gone. Alone on a cold street, with no money, no phone, no way to pay for the bus transfer home.
The thieves throw the cards away (although I still maintain a solemn hope that a small Mongolian boy has tried to use my NJ Driver’s license as some nonsensical fake ID) as that’s the only thing that will ever get them caught. The cash, they take. All told, they got about 18,000 tögrög from me, not even $15.
I gladly would have looked them in the face and handed them the money, knowing that they probably needed it more than I did, knowing how much aggravation replacing these cards would cause me in the next few weeks.
This was the last time I felt infallible as a traveler, the last time I laughed a little on the inside at the naivety of a poor hostel goer whose bag had been slashed or wallet robbed. Bound to happen, but never to you, never to me.
My pride was a wounded lion, shot not for sport, but for survival, by professionals. Professional hunters. Eat hunters. Eat.