Saturday, February 7, 2015

Mongol Gifts

Tsagaan Sar is coming soon - in fact I am counting the days.  Not because I am looking forward to eating lots and lots of buuz (steamed mutton dumplings), but because I am getting the heck out of town and visiting Bronte in Greece.  Lots of other people are looking forward to a local celebration, though.  Before you know it, every store will be flooded with displays of sweets (and I might actually be able to find my favorite Russian chocolates) and those fried bready-things that go along with the festivities.  There will be lots of gift sets, and Mongolian traditional clothes, deel, for sale, as well.  To meet this need, some marketing genius three years ago decided they should offer a national product expo, with everything at wholesale prices, and it's been happening every year ever since.

This year, Engrish, Blondie, and I decided we would go.  It's being held at the Misheel Expo these days, and Blondie wanted some new furniture, so this worked out well.  The Enkhaa Express picked us up around 2 and we headed out via the airport road.  I was stoked to check out all the Mongolian products.  Since I began planning the event that may prove once and for all that I am completely insane (henceforth to be called "Spring Break Shenanigans With Twelve Hormonal Teenagers" or SBSWTHT), I've been more than usually interested in local crafts.  This year's fundraising has not gone as smoothly as I would have liked, but if I ever try this again (ha) I want to be prepared.

But here's the thing:  pretty much everybody in UB was there.  Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but this was the first - and hopefully last - time I've felt like I was in China without leaving Mongolia.  You could not casually browse anything.  You had to mean business.  You had to be ready to stand your ground.  There was pushing. And shoving.  I had one hand on my purse at all time, because this would be prime pickpocket territory.  And disappointingly, there was nothing to really interest or inspire me.  There were a lot of gorgeous deel and boots, but a sturdy woman like me can't just walk up and buy much of any clothing in Asia, and I already had a pearl headdress.  So it did not take me very long to say, "Forget this!" and move as quickly and politely as I could to the end to wait for my two friends.

IF you are in Mongolia and you want some great souvenirs to take home, this is not the place to go.  Sorry.  You will not see Mongolia at its best (a fact I decided even before we passed a huge snarl of cars trying to get in/out as we were leaving).  You might save yourself a couple of bucks, but let's face it - if you are traveling in Mongolia, you can probably afford to spend a little more money.  Do yourself a favor and try:
1. The souvenir center on the top floor of the State Department Store:
They have everything.  I'm not exaggerating this time.  Bow and arrows, shagai (sheep anklebones used for fortune telling and games), clothing (traditional AND t-shirts), embroidery, quilts, furs, felting, shoes, paintings...  They have more than the Mongol Gifts expo and there are fewer people.  And while you're in SDS, you can stop on the second floor to check out their selection of cashmere, although I've decided it's not my favorite place for cashmere (keep reading).
"I saw the sign" - in the middle on the left side of the picture
2. Mary and Martha:
If you like your souvenirs to come with warm fuzzy feelings, this is the place to go.  Mary and Martha is a fair-trade organization, and deals directly with artisans and good organizations that do things like get women out of prostitution.  They have a LOT of Kazakh embroidery, some of it antique, my favorite felt slippers, AND they're very helpful.  It's a little hard to find them, because you'll have to turn north off Peace Ave about a block before the State Department Store, but there's a nice big sign to help you, and it's well worth leaving the beaten path.
3. Tsagaan-Alt Wool Shop:
This place has hats, scarves, slippers, toys, wall-hangings...just about everything you could want made out of wool - all very high-quality and with tons of selection.  It's less than a block down Beatles Street from the State Department Store, on the right hand side.
4. Gobi Cashmere:
Remember what I said about not being able to buy readymade clothing?  Gobi actually carries larger sizes - I bought a cashmere deel there this fall, and although I'm still trying to figure out what to wear with it, the fact that they have things I like in my actual size gets them tons of points.  Mongolian cashmere is awesome and you should definitely buy some.  Gobi has lots of locations, but there are two right in the middle of UB - one block south of the post office, and less than a block west of there on Seoul Street.

5. Hi-Fi Records:
You owe it to yourself to bring home some Mongolian music.  If you don't care much for traditional straight-up khoomi (throat singing) or morin khuur (horse-head fiddle), try some fusion.  There are a lot of great groups, but my favorites are Altan Urag's take on rock and Arga Bileg's jazz.  There is a branch of Hi-Fi in the SDS and one a little east and opposite on Peace Ave.

BTW, sorry about the long hiatus.  Two words: art show.  Maybe I'll write about it one of these days.

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