Saturday, November 21, 2009
A Step Back in Time
It seems that during winter the experience of going to the outdoor market alters itself just a little. I was thrilled to see that we had one in Hovd when I first got here- markets of any kind are endlessly exciting to me. The noise, the bustle, the strange and exotic things for sale. I blame my father really. When my sister and I were young he used to take us to the Dekalb Farmers Market in Atlanta almost weekly. For as long as I can remember I used to sit in the cart, happily gnawing on a ham and cheese croissant and just be enthralled with the foreign people and goods that crowded the warehouse. They were wonderful afternoon excursions. Here in Hovd, the market is a little different. It is outdoors for the most part and, by virtue of the fact that it is in a remote town in Mongolia, has far less variety. But now in winter it's taken on a positively Dickensian feel. Stepping past the ancient chain link fences surrounding the market is like taking a step back in time. I can only imagine that this is the closest thing on earth to a shopping trip in the Victorian period. The ger and shop fires are blazing already this time of year so the air is thick with smoke. On the colder days people bundle even their faces, gritting their teeth and squinting against the cold. They walk stoically through the ally ways that weave through the market, stopping to talk to friends or investigate a purchase. Some haul furniture, sacks of potatoes or huge rolls of flooring, some lead sheep and goats away on ropes. The women who peddle salt and rice outside wear huge mid-calf length booties over their shoes to stave off the cold; they look like elephantiasis patients. Children dart through the crowds running errands or playing tag. Other kids watch jealously from their stalls, made to man the booths while their parents eat lunch or drink vodka in tiny, smoky little restaurant shops heated by single burning stoves. Buying meat is quite an experience in and of itself. The meat market in Hovd at times makes The Jungle seem like Whole Foods. The market is housed in a long, low building with two rows of stalls; meat sellers occupy both sides and the middle. If you want to make a purchase, the way to check for both freshness and meat genera is to peer under the tables and search for the head of the animal for sale above. Sometimes sheep, sometimes cow, sometimes goat. I have yet to see a horse head but I know the meat is for sale. Ally cats tensely nibble on bits of scraps and bones, keeping half an eye on possible bullies. The meat vendors are a lively bunch, mostly feisty, beefy women, yelling, smoking cigarettes and throwing their bulk into grinding meat and fat. The interior is dimly lit, depending mostly on skylights, and not heated; smoke issues from everyone's mouth and clouds the space. Massive raw haunches coated in layers of fat lie on just about every table and hang from the supportive poles; it's like a maze walking around without brushing up on some recently dead creature or stepping on an errant rib. Since most people here firmly believe that Mongolian meat has no bacteria, the sellers don't wear gloves and lay out raw meat, overlapping fresh pieces with day old bits, on their bare tables. I highly doubt they wash their hands frequently, if ever. After the meat market, it’s off to buy vegetables. The choices left at this year are limited, but not as bad as it will be in a few months. It's still fall where our produce comes from so tomatoes, bell peppers and even the occasional cucumber is available. Pretty soon we'll be confined solely potatoes, onions, carrots and cabbage. Maybe apples, too. The vegetable sellers are no less rowdy than the meat vendors and eager to hassle any foreigner who steps through the threshold. They should nedz!, Mongolian for "friends!", at me and cackle when I shout it back; we pretend like we're old buddies. The vegetable house is taller and lighter than the meat market and smells overwhelmingly like earth. There is a thin layer of dirt in the air, brought about by the women smacking their vegetables out of boredom and habit- in the summer they do that to keep the flies at bay. After buying vegetables, it’s time to leave and perhaps on the way peek into some of the smaller shops peddling general goods. These shops are always claustrophobic and excessively heated. When you open the door the smell of Christmas trees hits you; all the shop owners burn a bright green incense. The goods are packed to the brim in the tiny stores, baskets overflowing with brightly colored candy and fruit. After poking around these shops for a little while, it’s time to head home and unload the purchases. So needless to say, my shopping trips now are quite a far cry from the quick trips to the sanitized, organized grocery stores I used to take and sadly no ham and cheese croissants are for sale where I am. I think if Oliver Twist, Bob Cratchit or even Charles Dickens himself were to be dropped in the midst of our market, they would not be at a loss. It is truly like a step back in time.