Have you ever seen the zombie films where zombies are coming from all directions, an unstoppable wave all relentlessly descending on one hapless victim, who quickly finds themselves completely surrounded? Entering Uzbekistan was exactly like that. I had only just cycled through the sturdy gates from Kazakhstan when a rotund women trundled purposefully over in my direction, limping under the weight of an enormous bag bulging around her hip. When she was close enough she looked straight through me with an unwavering stare, and let out a hushed whisper. “Money, money.” My body language must have given away that I did indeed need some money, because suddenly I was being approached by people from all directions, all chanting their anthem; “Money! Money!”
As a tourist in Uzbekistan, dealing with money isn't as simple as going to an ATM or bank. The government has fixed the currency, the Uzbek Som, at an artificially high rate. If you go to a bank, or pay for anything with your card or in dollars, you will by default use the official rate, and lose out, more than half your money. A huge, technically illegal black market of money-changers has risen up to prevent this problem by exchanging money at better rates.
The gathering crowd, by now easily 20-strong, had us surrounded and penned in, all offering to change our money at a rate of 5,500 Som per 1 dollar, no-one willing to budge any higher. This wasn't a very good rate, so Susanna and I played our best poker face, and began to cycle away very slowly. The crowd lumbered behind us, just about keeping up. I didn't look back. Our bluff worked, and a man cracked. “5,600” he gasped, struggling to keep up. The price still wasn't quite good enough but it was heading in the right direction. We stopped and asked for 5,800. He shook his head with a vigour that suggested we were crazy to suggest such a ridiculous fee. But another man, keen to clinch the deal swiftly offered us 5,700 Som per dollar.
We realised this was about the best rate we were going to get and agreed. I was just reaching for my wallet when, in a sudden frenzy of activity, they all moved away and began completely ignoring us. Their bum bags of money quickly disappeared, replaced by carrier bags of bottled water. I turned to see three army officials walking around nearby, and couldn't help but smile as I realised they were all pretending to be selling water. Everyone is aware what is going on, and no doubt the officials knew what was happening, but they are willing to turn a blind eye to it. It was even the senior border guard that had told us the current black market rate so we didn't get ripped off!
The next thing to understand about Uzbek money is that it is virtually worthless. As mentioned above, 5,700 Som was worth one dollar. This is made more crazy by the fact that generally the highest bank note you will see is 1,000 Som, worth just $0.17 (5,000 Som notes are available too but relatively uncommon). For every dollar you exchange, you receive 6 bank notes. I handed over a single, crisp $100 bill, and received 570 ragged notes, presented in 4 wads of cash bound by elastic bands.
Carrying around so many notes is absurd; they clearly don't fit in my wallet, so the huge wads of cash are just thrown loose into what has now been dubbed the 'money bag'. A simple trip to the shops for some food can cost around 50,000 Som. Each transaction takes considerably longer, with both parties having to count out the massive roll of notes. I would like to see someone buying a car; you would need a separate car filled with money just to pay! It feels very counter-intuitive taking out such a massive stack of money in a public place, seemingly declaring your wealth for all around you to see,until you realise it is only a few dollars. And yes, finally, in quite possibly what felt like the richest and most self-indulgent night of my life, I used a few wads of cash as my pillow... just because I could!