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.
Russian tank driver snowman
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.
Partizanskaya metro station
Russian police with some Kavkaz men
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.
Eduard’s bear show
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.
The dodgy part of the market
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.
Waiting for our shashlik
We walked around for a few more hours and I scored a Russian paratrooper’s hat and a few other items. I didn’t get many photos as I didn’t want to look like a foreigner and have the prices doubled. The Dutchman spoke perfect Russian and could often pass for a local which meant we didn’t pay high prices for our souvenirs. After returning to the dodgy section of the market we spotted an interesting sight, a Chinese restaurant. It didn’t look very legitimate and appeared to also be a massage parlour. We decided to go in and sample the cuisine as it had been a while since I had eaten Chinese and I also hadn’t tried Chinese in Russia yet.
A dazed looking character sat by the entrance on a chair staring at the ground. He appeared to be high which made me think that it was probably also an opium den. We went in anyway and walked up some stairs. A Chinaman reading a paper looked at us in surprise and it took a few moments for him to usher us down a corridor to a crude dining area. Two young Chinese waitresses came out and started making a fuss over our presence trying to ready the table and organise the place. They didn’t speak a word of English or Russian which was a problem as the menus were only in Chinese. It was that classic scene where you had to just point at something and hope for the best. We were the only people there and it became quite clear that we weren’t really welcome. I think they were expecting us to leave. We both managed to order a soup dish and it came out quite quickly. It was absolute dishwater vomit broth of an inconsistent colour with all sorts of things floating in it.
We sipped away slowly as we tried to enjoy it and not make things too awkward. All of a sudden we hear an American accent and a guy walks in accompanied by the same Chinaman who showed us in. He is shown to his table and then we try not to laugh as we watch him go through the same awkward experience as we just had. I was about to invite him over to our table, but before I could he became frustrated and scurried out. We left soon after leaving our soup to no doubt be reheated for the next unsuspecting victim to try and order a meal there. The Dutchman noticed the massage sign as we were about to leave and indicated that he wanted to stay for the massage. We parted company and I made my way out on my own. Later on I attempted to ask him several times how the massage went but he always managed to change the subject.
The Chinese restaurant with the massage sign above
A few months later I was told that the entire illegal section of the market was raided by the police and completely cleared out, leaving only the main souvenir section. There are more stalls on weekends but you could probably get better deals during the week when there are not as many customers and the vendors are more desperate for a sale.
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