30 March 2007

The View from Vlad 4: Sportivnaya

I've realized that the idea of my blog as a reference for travelers to Vladivostok isn't the most realistic, but I think there's a lot in this city that's worth writing about, even if none of my readers will ever see it up close. So I've decided to continue the "View from Vlad" entries. Here's the latest.

Where you go to buy your groceries in Russia seems to vary from city to city, and even among neighborhoods within a city. The choices include Western-style supermarkets; продукты/produkty, which are similar to American convenience stores in size; kiosks on the street that specialize in one type of item; and the рынок/rynok, or market. The rynok can be open-air or indoors, but as a rule it'll be comprised of a selection of kiosks ranging from simple counters to various sizes of tent to veritable grocery stores in a big box that folds open into a sort of concession stand-like apparatus. Besides groceries, you can find housewares, appliances, dishes, vinyl flooring, silk flowers, clothes, shoes, makeup, books, CDs and DVDs, and almost anything else you can imagine at a rynok.

In expensive Vladivostok, the rynok is your best bet in terms of price for groceries, and once you learn how the rynok is laid out, you can get almost everything there you could get at a grocery store with only slightly more effort. There are several rynki to choose from – see the list at the end of this entry – but the best is Спортивная/Sportivnaya.

Sportivnaya is big enough that I'm pretty sure I still haven't seen the whole thing, though I've been there several times, and it's a microcosm of everything a market can and should be. You can find Russian babushki selling homemade pickles and berry preserves, young Central Asian men with dried fruit or Uzbek bread, and whole Chinese families running miniature emporia of imported vegetables and Asian prepackaged foods (and, quite literally, 5-pound bags of MSG). Long roofed-in rows of kiosks feature cheap clothing – they're a haven for knockoffs of every designer and brand you can imagine, from Vivienne Westwood to Gap, and all of last season's best styles. Another section of the market includes not only the aforementioned Chinese groceries (the place to buy vegetables in the dead of winter), but cheap, delicious and popular Chinese cafes with owners who lean out the front door as you walk by to invite you in. If you don't feel like eating in the cafes, you can buy shawerma, corn on the cob or sugared fruit on a stick from vendors clustered among the housewares and clothing kiosks. Almost any seller will be friendly to you if you're polite to them and offer an unexpected спасибо, до свидания! ("Thank you, goodbye!") as you leave, but you can also be as pushy as you want: haggling is the expected norm in the non-grocery sections.

As for ambiance, it doesn't get any more "authentic" than Sportivnaya (where "authentic" = "crappy"). Sportivnaya is so named because it's built around the walls of an old athletic stadium. The stadium is located in one of the ugliest, most industrial parts of Vladivostok, and it's crumbling – take a peek inside when you're on one of the endzone sides to get a good look at the disintegrating concrete, rotting wooden bleachers and pothole-scarred field absolutely packed with junky-looking market stalls, dumpsters, and wads of filthy tarpaulin. This setting, added to the general dirt and disorder inherent to markets, makes a trip to Sportivnaya on a cold, rainy day worth your while just for the deep sense of gloom it'll induce. (Don't try to pretend that you weren't hoping for a little deep gloominess on your trip to Russia. If you weren't looking for melancholy, you'd be in the Mediterranean.)

Slogging through the mud of the market, dodging cascades of water as vendors poke broom handles at the tarps hanging over the walkways, fingers and toes numb with cold – I wouldn't call it the post-Soviet equivalent of standing in the bread line, but it's a misery of the same kind, the kind that makes it seem like the best thing that's ever happened to you when you finally make your purchase and the middle-aged bread lady starts up a friendly conversation about the weather, or the guy selling dried fruit tells you to forget about the extra four rubles as you dig in vain for pocket change. It makes coming home to your little Soviet apartment with your purchases and starting up dinner with your roommate seem like its own reward for your sufferings. Therein, I think, lies the reason I love the market so much – at its best, it's bright and exciting and bustling and commercial, and at its worst, it makes you feel glad to turn toward the rest of humanity to find relief from the miseries it inflicts, and provides you with a ready-made throng of humanity to turn to.

Right, so I might be getting a little too pseudo-philosophical with that (it was rainy when we went to the market this weekend, can you tell?), but at any rate, the market in bad weather is just what the doctor ordered on days when you want to taste a little bit of dark, Dostoevskian Russian existence. For those less intrepid, Sportivnaya on a sunny day is considerably more enjoyable (in the traditional sense of the word). And it's really the best place to take care of all of your shopping needs, whether you suddenly feel a hankering for fried silkworms (I think that's what they are?) or realize that you'll never make it through the winter without a hat handknitted out of dog-hair yarn (I know for sure, because I asked).

The promised list of rynki, for the wayward traveler:
1. Спортивная/Sportivnaya, at the bus stop of the same name, one stop beyond the bus station Луговая.
2. Центральный Рынок/Central'ny Rynok at the bus stop Комарова/Komarova, intersection of улица Комарова and Океанский проспект. Features a small row of booths "for pensioners," which allows you to support a worthy cause (if you don't know about the plight of pensioners in Russia, just ask) while buying delicious dacha-grown vegetables and herbs.
3. Центральная площадь/Central'naya ploshchad' (Central Square), at the bus stop Центр. Right in the center of town, but the market is only there on Thursdays and Fridays, and it disappears during the colder months.
4. Первая Речка/Pervaya Rechka, at the bus stop of the same name on Океанский Проспект. A combination rynok/torgovy kompleks.
5. Вторая Речка/Vtoraya Rechka. I don't know what the bus stop is called, but get on a bus bound for the north reaches of town and get off after you've gone over the big bridge and you see signs out the left window of the bus that say "Рынок." It's almost as big as Sportivnaya.
6. Некрасовская/Nekrasovskaya. That might not actually be the name of the market, but it's at the bus stop of that name, two stops beyond Первая Речка (#4). Smallish and indoors.
7. For wimps or those who need 24-hour service, there's a 24-hour grocery store right in the center of town, about 25 yards up Океанский Проспект/Okeanskii Prospekt from the central square.
8. For the really, really wimpy – e.g. those who can't live without Swedish ice cream, cheesecake from Texas, French sugars infused with lavender and rose petals, balsamic vinegar, pesto or real Heinz ketchup – check out the гипермаркет/hypermarket on Okeanskii at the bus stop Дальпресс/Dal'press. You won't be disappointed, although you might go broke feeding yourself.

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