Monday, 10 September 2012

Day 171 – The brick phenomenon. (Uzbekistan)

The money situation in Uzbekistan is an odd one. To begin with, it’s the first country any of us have ever visited that has two working exchange rates. It is a very peculiar concept, and we’re still struggling to get our heads around the fact.
The official exchange rate is what’s given out at the bank or a legally licensed currency exchanger. Then there’s the “real” rate, which is illegal. Almost any shop/stall/man on the street will happily exchange money for you at the street rate, and this seems to be the thing that everyone does – tourists and locals alike. We haven’t been so brazen as to try, but apparently most policemen are even happy to exchange money at the street rate. Why does everyone do their banking on the black market? Because nobody wants to accept 1,950 Som to US$1 (we actually checked at a bank this afternoon, just for the fun of it), when any stall holder at a bazaar will hand over somewhere between 2,500 and 2,700 Som for US$1.
We’re really not sure why this is the case. Why does every Dilshod, Sunnat and Muzaffa* want a surplus of US$ so much that they’re willing to pay 30% above what they’re officially worth? Why does the government want to keep the value of their own currency so artificially low? Can I go down to the market and get 2,700 Som for my US$, then take that Som to the bank and give them only 1,950 in return for US$1? Or do the official outlets only sell Som? We have a few theories about some of these questions, but it all seems a bit ridiculous just the same.
The other thing which is in some ways even harder to comprehend is the fact that everything is in wads. The highest note is worth 1,000 Som, which means that for the equivalent of $1 you need to hand over three notes minimum. Seeing as most meals will cost about 10,000 Som pp and souvenirs are up past the 20,000 Som mark, almost everything ends up being paid for in bricks.
After crossing the border into Uzbekistan we were pretty hungry, so we obviously needed some money. The first town we passed seemed as good a place as any so we stopped there. We’d heard the concept of changing money illegally, but weren’t quite sure how to go about it. Do we really just walk up to any old codger on the street and ask him to change our US$? As if asking for directions isn’t awkward enough. A burger shop down a side street took our fancy, so we went there with our dollars. At the counter we asked if we could pay in US$ and were declined. Maybe this wasn’t as straight forward as everyone seemed to make out. A moment passed and he revised his response with an “ok, ok, dollars”. We used his calculator to negotiate a rate, which was obviously a complete stab in the dark for us, and he handed us each a brick in return for our $10 notes. As it turns out, it actually is just that easy.
Because we had no way of knowing whether we were being ripped off or not we’d only changed a small amount that first time, so when we got to Tashkent we had to change some more. Feeling like old hands at the illegal exchange game, we took our $540 between us to the bazaar. Still a bit uncomfortable with the idea of wads of cash just changing hands in the middle of the kafuffle on the street, we entered a jewellery shop and asked them to change it for us. Again we were given the head shake straight off the bat, then suddenly it was possible and we were swarmed by half a dozen men. We were gestured towards a small booth at the front of the shop where we proceeded with negotiations. The rate at the burger shop had been 2,640 S/$, so we were happy to settle for 2,680 S/$. The man in the booth did the maths, I checked it, scribbled the numbers on my arm and tried to prevent my jaw from landing on the ground when the cash was handed over. Considering we got about half of it in 500 Som notes, we were thrust a total of probably over 2,000 notes. We had heard of the “brick phenomenon”, but really hadn’t understood the magnitude of it until these wads of cash were slapped onto the counter in front of us. Caught unawares, we realised we hadn’t brought anything to carry it in. We were handed a small, clear plastic bag, one of the ones that you’d buy fruit in at the supermarket, but it didn’t feel quite right walking through the bazaar carrying this very weak bag full of heavy cash bricks. Tunkles ran off and bought a child’s backpack, which he kindly gifted to me and it has now become the money bag.
Everything we’ve been taught about money etiquette comes down to “don’t count it, flaunt it, or wave it around in public”. It’s rude and it’s not safe. Well it’s certainly a challenge, but we really have to put that predisposition behind us here. When you need to pull out five notes just to buy a bottle of coke, there really is no room for discreteness. Sitting at a table in a restaurant and counting wads of cash that put most reference books to shame is part of the Uzbek experience.

*to replace the common Western phrase “every Tom, Dick and Harry”, I have included the top three Uzbek names.

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