The Dutchman and I were building a snowman on a frozen lake near our apartment and drinking a cheap bottle of vodka when we got talking about a market he had recently heard about. We got onto the topic of markets as I had just purchased a Russian tank driver’s hat at a market on Stary Arbat which I had put on the snowman. It was a famous pedestrian-only street with various bars and restaurants that is popular with tourists. The fellow at the stall wanted 2000 roubles for the tanker’s hat but I was able to get him down to 1000. The bloke stood there in a black beanie and was missing a front tooth. He was smoking a cigarette and every time he went to speak he pushed the cigarette into the gap in his teeth with his tongue and was able to have a conversation without taking it out of his mouth. It would have been a handy trick at parties when you’re holding a drink in one hand and reaching for food with another.
The Dutchman knew I was a hat collector and said I might be able to find bulk hats at the market that he had heard about. A week later we finally had the chance to go there and caught the metro to Partizanskaya station. The station was quite amazing and had a massive statue depicting some partisans from WW2. As we entered the street we noticed that some police had detained some Kavkaz men (people from the Caucasus which are places like Chechnya). This was a good sign that there was a big market nearby as Kavkaz people love markets.
We made our way to the market and discovered a bear show near the entrance. It was the bear show of famous bear trainer Eduard Rybakov, or so the sign said. He was dressed in a fancy costume and hat and was playing with the bears and making them do various tricks. They seemed quite fond of him although he had a pretty serious limp which made me wonder if his bear skills had failed him in the past. We left the bear show and made our way closer to the market, and as it was a weekend there were quite a lot of people about. The Dutchman pointed out a group of buses parked nearby that all had destinations in the Caucuses written on the front. They were the kinds of destinations where you wouldn’t want to be wearing a Russian Army uniform anytime soon.
As we drew closer there were small tables along the footpath of pirated DVDs and a few with nothing but massive knives, the kind Crocodile Dundee would enjoy. The stalls become more numerous and closer together and then eventually turned into a full-blown sprawling market selling everything you could think of. Each stall was manned by Kavkaz and they were quite physical when trying to entice you into their little enclosed stall grabbing your sleeve and smiling and nodding at you as they tried to guide you in. I can only imagine how many pickpockets and the like were working the crowd. The Dutchman then explained that we hadn’t actually arrived at the real market yet and that all these stalls were actually illegal but must have been paying off the local authorities to stay open.
We eventually arrived at Izmailovsky Market proper and had to pay a small fee to get in, but upon passing through the entry all calm and normality were restored. It reminded me of a refugee crossing at the border of a war-torn country. The guards were trying to keep out all the dodgy Kavkaz pickpocket looking guys and mobile salespeople with bags of goods that hadn’t paid to have a stall. It was souvenir paradise and there were hundreds of little shops with everything you could imagine. There was military gear from the Soviet period but also a lot of high quality wooden souvenirs like Matryoshka dolls and other hand-crafted items. There were also lots of cool shirts and old soviet propaganda posters for sale.
There was also a food area where we bought some Russian shashlik (marinated chunks of meat on skewers). We sat down at a table and started eating our shashlik when a complete stranger came and sat down next to us with his own meal which is quite normal in Russia. He pulls out a medium sized bottle of vodka and fills up an average size plastic cup with it. We kept eating as he then drinks the entire cup in one swig as if it were water. He then repeated the process until the bottle was empty – it was unreal. He then casually finished his meal and walked off appearing completely sober.