Lesson One - Money and the black market

Christine and her two host sisters, had a car (a pretty impressive thing given the relative expense of hiring one for the typical Uzbek), waiting to bring us back to their apartment. That night Aron, his sister Caitlin, Christine, her host sisters and my self grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant. During dinner I was told my first important lesson; do not to change money at the bank, since the official rate is about four times less than the black market rate. Dollars are highly sought after in Uzbekistan, and what may seem like a trivial amount in the states $20, is more than what most people (teachers and some medical doctors, for example) earn officially in Uzbekistan at black market rates.

F.Y.I. the black market rate is set every Saturday the day before most people go shopping at the bazaar. Local friends are the best way to change money on the black market since they have their own contacts. I was cautioned not to change money with stranger since they will always take advantage of your ignorance or try and cheat you.

To illustrate how veracious the demand for dollars is, consider that in just about a months time (from mid October to mid November 1999) the cost on the back market went from 575 Som to just over 700 Som for one US dollar. Gosh talk about inflation. If you change a Ben Franklin or two, expect a bag of money, since the largest Som denomination is 200.

While in country do not plan on using an ATM or credit cards. Places that cater to tourists (hotels and bed and breakfast inns), may take plastic, but all other places do not. As for personal checks, they can be used for toilet paper (there is no place to cash personal checks, even American Express does not even have an office in Uzbekistan).

An Uzbek ATM machine. Need quick cash? No problem, when a PCV hears that someone wants to change dollars, they make house calls.

During my travels I would find out that all prices are negotiable, that includes all airline tickets, taxi fairs, all goods and services. In country one learns the relative value of the Som, in the bazaar even 10 Uzbek Som, which is worth just over one cent, must be accounted for. For my trip I had a budget of $400, (a princely amount to Uzbeks and PCVs) which was more than enough to bum very comfortably in Uzbekistan.

Lesson Two - Don’t take pictures of state secrets

The first day in Tashkent, I had planned to go to the 09:00 Catholic mass, which is in English. Jet lag pretty much blew that plan out of the water, so I settled for wandering around the city. The plan was to start out at the art museum (a piece of shit in my humble opinion, that is because the building was partially demolished or rather undergoing remodeling and the objects displayed were not impressive enough to overcome my jet lag).

Next it was time to check out the subway system which blew me away. The subway station had green glass shards hanging from the ceiling and Cosmonaut murals on the walls. The station was so cool that I wanted to take a picture, Big mistake! Apparently it is against the rules to take pictures of a state secret (in this case the state secret is the subway system, which is clean, fast and efficient).

After taking a picture, a few really helpful gentlemen dressed in green uniforms detained me, yelling “Nyet! Ne fotografirovat!” All alone in the station the first word that came to my mind was, “Dude!” That seemed to be the magic word, cause they hesitated for a moment with puzzled looks on their faces, then they lowered their voices, but still spoke pretty fast and explained that it was against the rules to take pictures in the subway. They let me keep my camera and film, for which I was pretty grateful. After that incident I really felt like I was in the former Soviet Union.

There are many opportunities to take snap shots in Uzbekistan. This picture of the spice man in Bukhara is just one of the cool things you are allowed to take a picture of. In general you are not allowed to take pictures of the subway station, nuclear power plants or various military instillations.

I was bummed the subway station picture did not turn out as I wanted (it was underexposed), but that was to be expected since I was just using a simple 35mm point and shoot camera.

Circus in Tashkent - Way cool!

After the fun and games in the subway station, I wanted a place to sit down and relax, so it was off to the circus. I met up with Christine and her host sister, who knew where the Tashkent Circus was.

The circus is located in a flying saucer shaped building. Within the building, very comfortable seats over look and surround the ring. For 100 Som (approximately $0.20) it is a great way to spend an afternoon and relax (I fell asleep during intermission, damn jet lag!). Anyway the show is very cool, and a few acts I considered utterly amazing. If you are ever in Tashkent, I highly recommend checking out the circus.

After the show, we headed back to subway station to go back to the girls apartment. It was early evening at the time, when voices suddenly cried out from surrounding buildings. Apparently the voices we heard were the evening calls or prayers (Uzbekistan after all is populated by Muslims). According to Christine it was the first time she ever heard the calls and she had been in Uzbekistan for 15 months.

Airline Tickets - Expect to wait in lines

The next morning I was introduced to the air kassa (the place where one has to go to buy airline tickets). We went there so we could get airline tickets to Nukus, a city in the western part of Uzbekistan.

To obtain a ticket, one must wait in a series of lines. The first line is to make a reservation (the concept of calling in a reservation is pretty alien), then you must wait in another line to actually pay for your ticket. While waiting in line I observed many idle workers just sitting at their desks picking their noses, applying make up, etc. It seemed weird that only one station was open to assist customers make reservations or pay for tickets, but that is what passes for normal business practices in Uzbekistan.

It seemed strange that in order to pay for an airline ticker, you literally needed to bring a bag full of money. In Uzbekistan I found out that many times it is possible to find better service if you ask, “Is there any way around the problem?” In effect you are asking if a token gift of Uzbek Som could assist in whatever problem you may encounter. Another Uzbek travel tip is to bring a few copies of your passport and visa on one sheet of paper because that information is needed to attach to your airline ticket.

Total time to get an airline ticket to Nukus from Tashkent, an hour and a half (I was told that was unusually fast). Cost of my ticket (a one way flight) about $20 dollars. PCVs have local resident status, so they pay less (about half in this instance) than what a foreign tourist would pay for air transportation.

That afternoon we took public transportation to Christine’s site a few hours bus ride from Tashkent.

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