Monday, June 27, 2011

Shopping in Ankara and Yerevan

They don't quite fit in the category of Charlotte retail, but the markets of Istanbul and Armenia's capitals are fun places to shop, where you can find everything from souvenirs to used surgical equipment.

I got the chance to check out the markets last week, while I was at a conference for journalists in Ankara, Turkey and Yerevan, Armenia (pictures below). Both cities are full of friendly people, historically fascinating, and terrifying places to be a pedestrian. And they both have traditional markets, where haggling is expected and it pays to have local help.

First, Ankara: The old bazaar here is located in the city's historic quarter, under the ruins of an ancient castle. The market grows more "authentic" and less touristy as you walk down from the castle (which is a tourist draw) and into the network of streets around its base.

The place is an interesting mix of goods for both tourists and locals. Some shops are clearly geared towards visitors, offering things such as Turkish souvenir jewelry and carved boxes (and, oddly enough, little figurines of Native Americans and European knights). Other shops next door sell goods clearly not meant to be flown out in any tourist's baggage, such as pitchforks, axes and shovels.

Take the time to wander a few blocks away from the tourist shop cluster into the local shops. You can find grocery stores selling bulk Turkish coffee, clothing stores with both headscarves and jeans and plenty of other local goods to bring back for "authentic souvenirs."

Although marked prices are generally pretty reasonable by American standards (about $10 for a throw pillow made from an old Turkish rug, for example), the advertised price isn't really the selling price. This is where it helps to have someone with you who speaks Turkish, if at all possible. The haggling is easier if you have a shared language and someone who can reassure you that you're getting a good deal.

My Turkish friend Erdem helped me get those $10 pillows down to $7 each, and I bought three. I also got a hand-cranked coffee grinder marked down 20 percent, to about $13, and  a wool scarf for $10 that was advertised for $15.

But be careful: One of the journalists on our trip told us about a former boss he'd had from out of the country, who didn't speak Turkish. When the boss came to Turkey, he took this journalist to help him negotiate. But the journalist said his boss didn't treat him well - so he didn't have much interest in helping him bargain. While yelling in Turkish and gesturing frantically at the merchants and their goods, he was actually yelling, "Don't bargain with this man! Come down 5 percent or less! Do not give this guy a good price!"

Next, Yerevan: This post-Soviet capital city is a strange collection of contradictions, with new Maseratis parked a block from buildings with grass growing on the roofs and people decked out in Western designer clothes a 10-minute drive from pitted roads used more by cows than cars. The market, downtown near the city's opera house, is no different.

Yerevan's outdoor market is much more like an open-air flea market than Ankara's, which is mostly shops. People come and lay out their goods on stands and tables in a park, some under umbrellas on the sidewalks and others on the grass.

The mix is eclectic. In a 10-minute walk, I saw antique silver spoons, surplus military assault gear (fatigues, tactical holsters, boots, knitted green face masks), hand-embroidered tablecloths, souvenir swords, rusted swords from the late Ottoman empire (early 1900s), wooden wine jugs, European soccer jerseys, heavy machine tools, wagon wheels and a whole table covered in used stainless steel surgical equipment that looked like something left over from the set of "Saw."

As in Ankara, haggling is expected. But the dollar is so strong (378 dram to $1), that I didn't feel compelled to drive a hard bargain. I paid the quoted price of 3,000 dram (about $8) for a working, late 1970's model Soviet camera, and got a handmade tablecloth down from $30 to about $25.

If you want to get the best deal, try paying in American dollars. While the Turkish shops wanted Turkish lira in Ankara, vendors at the market in Yerevan were more than happy to take US currency.

So, if you find yourself in either city anytime soon, make sure you hit the markets. Have fun traveling while we get back to Charlotte retail.

Pictures: The top three are from the market in Ankara, the bottom three are from the market in Yerevan.


Anonymous said...

As someone who loves traveling in that part of the world, I really enjoyed your blog today!

Anonymous said...

Great article.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely fascinating. Now I see you're a great photographer and writer. I always enjoy your blog posts!