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19th April Tashkent, Uzbekistan

April 20, 2013

Many countries have currency that speak in thousands to the dollar. Indonesia  springs to mind. Uzbekistan’s Som has an official rate of 2,100 Som to the US dollar, 2600 on the black market. But here is where this country is unique: the largest denomination note is 1,000 Som!  That’s under AU50c even at the official rate.  Incredible. The men walk around with a little bag over their shoulder just filled with bricks of notes. The women must carry it in large purses or bags as well. There is a thriving black market here and the driver who picked us up from the station on our arrival, Hamid, said he would change some for us. Our US$300 became a bag containing 780,000 som but as some of  those were in 500 som notes I had over a thousand bits of paper.
     With Hamid’s help we went to the raill station to buy tickets for Samarkand and further on. It was a long business made easier with his help. But when we came  to pay, we noticed the bloke in front of us at the queue had his invoice showing he had to pay over 2 million som for his tickets It was going to be a long wait. But on asking, he was happy to let us go first, our total to pay being only 250,000 som. Thank god for money counting machines. I felt exposed with all that money in my backpack but Hamid laughed, ‘Look around you, they all have their bags full of money’ And they sure did.
     The US dollar was the currency in use for many transactions but recently the president has decreed all payment must be in som.. If paying in dollars it is converted at the till into som at the official rate. With the thriving black market everybody wants to pay in som they picked up on the side..
Crossing the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was another long drawn out process. Not as long as the 8 hours at the China/Kazak border but this was in the middle of the night.  They took our sheets and blankets off us at 10pm, we managed to  doze a little until they came around with the Uzbek immigration forms. All in Russian. No English, no French translations. How the hell were we going to fill these out confident we were putting the right info in the correct spaces. No one spoke English but one of the staff, a young bloke, sat down with me and went through it as best he could. He did a pretty good job as the immigration crowd didn’t ask for more details or to get us o correct anything. Arrived at the Kazak border control just after midnight. Pretty straight forward but still took 2 hours with the carriage getting colder by the hour. On to the Uzbek control. The form we filled in was similar to what we used to fill in 20 years ago: how much money we were bringing in (to the dollar), luxury goods, our itinerary in the country, how many suitcases, it went on and on. As I said, we got it right but it still took a further 2 hours having us arrive at our hotel at 5am very tired.
Tashkent was flattened by an earthquake in 1966. It gave the Russian authorities an opportunity to widen the streets and put in parks and recreation areas. It is a beautiful city. Then the authorities stuffed it up by offering the Russian worker brought in to do the job free apartments and cushy jobs. The locals rebelled.
The main square had a statue of Stalin in all his glory. It was quietly removed on independence and a magnificent one of Timur the Great mounted on a stallion erected in its place. A few years back some person unknown knocked off its reproductive appendage, the horse’s not Timurs, it is a mystery that hasn’t been solved to this day but still intrigues the locals. At least the poor equine still has his family jewels.

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