the uzbek black market

It’s about 2,000,000 degrees here and thank heavens I have no tourists to faint in the heat. My currently scheduled tour has been canceled because no clients signed up. Yes, yes, yes this means two weeks off! You can’t imagine my delight. A rest is needed to balance my flora anyway.

This wouldn’t be a bad job if it were two weeks on two weeks off. And, crikey, it would average out to a legal workload.

My last tour was a lovely one, although I’m still a little peeved that I wasn’t tipped. How is it that my favorite group yet didn’t tip me? Oh yes, because they are Australian. But before I tell you about them, I want to catch up on that economics lesson I promised you. It’s high time, as the government moved last week to wipe the black market out entirely.

200somnoteThere are two exchange rates in Uzbekistan, the official rate and the black market rate. The official rate is about 230 cym to $1 USD. The black market rate hovers around 680 cym–the riskier the source, the higher the rate. So, you, a happy tourist, would be insane to exchange at the official rate because you would have to change $100USD at the official rate to obtain the same amount of cym that I get for $34 on the black market. The risk really isn’t that high if the source is known. For example, if I run around the bazaar and change with strangers I’ll never see again, I may get an excellent rate of 720, but as the notes are impossible to count inconspicuously (this is after illegal, so I can’t sit outside and count 72,000 cym note by note without arousing some attention), I may not receive all my cym. Nor will I never find the changer again. At the other end, a happy tourist could go to his trusty tour guide (who can obviously not escape) and receive a solid rate of 600 cym to the dollar.

In the middle, where I get my rate of 680, are people of all sorts: the cashier at the opera, the gift-shop attendant at Hotel Tashkent, the guy who tends a bootleg music kiosk outside of the government department store (my favorite). It involves a little ducking into dark rooms and what-not, but that’s all part of the fun. Or it was.

The most excellent aspect of all this was the pricing on western goods (the outfit I’m wearing now for example). The goods are priced in US dollars. So, a pair of jeans at the Levi’s store is about $87. Expensive, if I pay in dollars. But the store is required to convert prices at the legal, official rate of 230. So the pants are 20,010 cym. Now, I take my cym acquired at a black market rate of 680 and buy the jeans. 20,010 cym at the BM rate means I’ve only spent US$29.43. Not bad.

The favorite store of the Dumbdowners guides is Tashkent Plaza, where up up market colognes & cosmetics were really really cheap. A Helena Rubenstein lipstick was $9 after the conversions. Ahhh. The job does have perks!

Until last week. It was rumored to happen soon, but we all hoped it was only speculation. Last Tuesday the government quietly raised the official rate to 675, higher than the black market rate, which had fallen to 650 due to the rumors. Yes, this means we have to go to banks now. I hate banks. There’s still a black market because Uzbeks keep their savings in USD (due to rapid cym inflation) and because it’s still illegal to change cym into dollars (give that a month or two).

The worst of it, you’ve probably realized, is that Levi’s and Tashkent Plaza are required to convert prices at the legal, official rate of 675. This means that $87 jeans are actually $87. Sigh. So much for the perks. At least I have a week off!

Now that the lesson is over, I’ll tell you about all my favorite Uzbeks and tourists. The characters here are unbelievable. Today an old Uzbek guy who gave me a ride to the center of town told me that I was the first American ever in his car. When I got out, he asked to kiss me on the cheek! Heh heh. I let him, of course.

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