Tag Archives: changing money

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.

logistics of uzbek tourism

Hi.

I wrote this a bit ago and am just pasting it in while I have a second now. At the moment I’m with an excellent, fun group and not hating the job a bit. What a difference a week makes, eh?

Just stuck my hand in a wad of gum stuck to the bottom of this chair. Jeeze.

Mr Crabb arrived and would you believe that it is Steve Crabb—yes, the Steve Crabb, recently retired from the Australian ministry. The Aussies around are all very impressed, having seen him so much on TV. Of course, I am impressed too, but not so much that when offered the chance to dump Vivenne and Steve off on another guide while I stay back in Tashkent on parasite dehosting/administrative duties, I didn’t jump up and down with glee.

It will probably not surprise you to hear that taking care of tourists is a pain in the ass and I am not 100% suited to it. It takes a person with no sense of personal space, personal time, or personal interests outside of making inappreciative tourists happy in Uzbekistan (which to me is not so interesting). The job wouldn’t be bad if it were say, less than 24hrs a day and there were say, more than 24 hrs off a month. Surely this much labor can’t be legal…were it not for this break, I’d be touring non-stop until October. At least I manage to keep my sense of humor about it!

But would you believe that my last group had absolutely no appreciation of my charming sense of humor? I still can’t get over it. (More on this in Bulk 6 or 7.)

When you hear tour guide (or leader as the case may be), perhaps you think of someone who jumps on and off a bus with a bunch of tourists. Not so with [insert firm name]. We specialize in small group journeys and we use local transport, not a giant A/C tour bus. We also use local guides and local home restaurants. And it’s my job to arrange all this, in addition to minding the damn people. This means that when we go from city to city, I first taxi out to the local auto station and bargain with Uzbek drivers for decent price for a van to take us to the next destination.

Yes, a destination 9 hours away through the desert in a 30 year old Latvian built van. These vans have horrible ventilation possibly because only 2 windows open and possibly because exhaust comes up through the holes in the floor. All of them are like this (and don’t be insane, they do not have A/C). I can’t wait until July when the temperatures rise and stay well above 100 F. The notion of a big tour bus has become very romantic to me.

uzbek economics

Dear Friends Afar,

Hello hello. How are you? Has anyone received my lovingly written and posted replies to your emails? I’m not all that confident of the Uzbek postal system, but I have all of five minutes online a month and four of them go to the head office in Australia. The other goes to this bulk message so that I can say hello to everyone and babble a bit. Intimate, isn’t it? At the moment I’m meant to be downloading passenger lists from my email account but the internet won’t connect, so I am typing a letter on Word to be sent…someday.

Do you know that my official title is not tour guide but group leader? I’ll forward my business card immediately. Oh, I hear Dumbdowners’ (my company, euphemistically speaking) web site is up. I’ve yet to see it, but I hear it’s annoying.

It’s 10:20pm on the first night of a tour and my group has gone to bed. The group consists of 2 people—a Mr. Crabb who hasn’t arrived yet and Vivenne Callard, a 78 year old New Zealander with whom I will share a room for two weeks. I really should go to bed now as not to disturb her any later, but I am not tired yet. I’m in the manager’s office listening to a hotel employee spit outside the window near the entry below. I wonder if I will possibly get everything done tomorrow, as I need these passenger lists desperately (to learn Mr. Crabb’s first name, for one). I need to get a Kyrgyz visa, too. And of course, spend every waking moment minding Vivenne and Mr. Crabb.

200 cymVivenne and I saw an Uzbek ballet tonight. It was quite excellent. Usually the ballet is Russian and usually Tchaikovsky, also quite excellent, especially for 600 som (pronounced soom), about 88 US cents. Vivenne was quite unnerved, as most tourists are, when we jumped into an unmarked taxi and bartered the fare to the theatre. They are unmarked only because they are not taxis, but men with cars on the road looking to pick up some som. Yes, it is safe. Yes, even for lone women at night (not too late of course). Yes, this is charming. Does it work this way in eastern europe? I’ve forgotten. It can’t possibly in Russia thanks to the infamous taxi mafia.

Anyway, since I’ve mentioned som, I’ll go on to note one or two of the many economic lessons I’ve learned here. Lesson one: Inflation in unstable countries is very high. This is a big problem for group leaders who pay exorbitant prices (by local standards) for group dinners (say two or three dollars per person) and spend precious moments counting som notes. It’s a big problem for anyone who has to count money, really.

Look at it this way: last year 200 som was a lot of money, or at least a lot more than it is now, so the government decided that it was time to make a note larger than the 100 som note, now worth about 14.7 US cents. They looked forward to 2000 and made a 200 som note, now worth about 29.4 US cents.

Yes, the largest Uzbek note is worth 29 cents. So, if I have a group of ten and people have a huge dinner and a drink the bill will be about $3.75, or 2500som. That’s a total bill of 25,000som. If my tourists have 50 or 100 som notes I will have to count about 250 bills to pay for a meal. It also means I have to carry a bag of money around with me. This is fairly common in developing countries. Next time: a lesson on the black market. I’m off to bed.