wandering amphibia

A visit to Tashkent, and why everyone drives a Chevrolet there

At this point, it was a good opportunity to go exchange some money. You see, the story is this. At the time I went to Uzbekistan, there was a strictly controlled market for forex: it was about 4,000 soms for US$1. Foreigners were required to exchange money at exchange points, where you were charged the official rate and given a receipt, which you were supposed to show at point of exit of the country to prove that you haven’t been a bad capitalist foreigner and haven’t been screwing the system. The problem with this arrangement was this: there was precisely zero ways of enforcing it. If I spent all my cash in the country, then whatever receipt I present is pointless, right? Because I neither have the USDs that I brought in, nor do I have the soms that I left in this pretend economy, so as long as I had some kind of a receipt, that’s all that really mattered. So of course, at any bazar, there’s guys peddling forex at something around 6,000:1, which is already a very healthy benefit. Of course, they’re taking advantage of clueless foreigners who don’t know any better and have no friends… but I have friends. Everywhere, apparently. So my friend took me to an “official” exchange point where I exchanged a token amount of money so I could get a receipt in case we need to present it outside, and then we went to a house in a residential area, where an old man came out, I gave my friend $200, and the old man returned with a suitcase of cash because it was 8000:1, and the largest bill Uzbekistan has is 10,000. Which means he returned with 1.6 million soms, which is basically a massive stack of cash. As I didn’t feel exactly comfortable carrying that much cash in one place, I started shoving it everywhere.

Seriously, this was a total flashback to my trip to Guinea. I love these banana republics. I should’ve taken a picture throwing all this cash up in the air and giddily giggling as I am showered in oodles of soms, but remembering sort of trying it in a seedy hotel in Guinea and then having to climb around and collect dirty bills from the dirty floor, I decided it wasn’t worth the Instagram shot.

Shortly, it was the afternoon, and J.L. was arriving from some other godforsaken banana republic (he flew in from New York on the shopping flight – Uzbekistan airways seems to really have wanted a way for its goods-deprived Chevrolet Lacetti-driving elite to procure brand goods, so they somehow bought a landing slot in JFK, and had a once-every-few-days flight there). I went to meet him at the airport. It was interesting to stand behind the front lines, so to say. Since one of the main sources of revenue for local taxi drivers are the hapless tourists, they obviously congregate at airport exits like flies on a pile of cowshit, but the interesting thing was to listen to them talk: since they don’t want to fight in front of the customers, they would decide on who takes who as people emerged from the terminal. “Blonde with brown suitcase!” – “Guy with kid” – “Grandma” – “Family” – “Tall blond foreigner” would be things they’d tell each other, which would lock in whoever said it into that customer (so the bet was, that that customer would respond). I waved at J., so whoever called out the tall blond foreigner failed; we had a quick late lunch and headed to the airport, as we had something awesome to experience: a relic of the collapse of the Soviet Union; in this particular case, I’m only referring to a plane, though, and any other insinuation is entirely conjecture.

As we were spending only four days in Uzbekistan (the length of J’s connection between the #1 shopping city in the banana republic he went to, and some other city nobody cares about). We decided we need to maximise this time, so we decided not to screw around: day 1 was travel, day 2 was Bukhara, day 3 was Samarkand, day 4 was back to Tashkent and an ungodly late night departure.  My flight arrived early in the morning which gave me time for shashlik and tequila bombs, but J. barely had time for a pizza before we had to head off to the airport.