Day 14 – Flash the Cash

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Counting out 305 notes on the edge of a hot bazaar with someone impatiently watching over you is definitely something that makes you lose the will to live.

3005 Uzbek Som - US$100
3,005 Uzbek Som. Or, conversely, a brick.

The Uzbek Som. Possibly the most worthless currency in the world. Not worthless in and of itself – there are approximately 2,300 to the US$ which makes it have more value than, say, the Lao Kip or the Cambodian Riel. Rather, it’s ‘worthless’ because it suffers from a lack of high-denomination notes. The largest note in general circulation is the 1,000 som – in British terms that’s just over 27p.
In addition, there is an active ‘black market’ currency exchange in Uzbekistan, where the going rate is over 3000 som to the US$. This therefore means that changing a $100 note into Uzbek som … takes a while.

At this point I’m going to express ignorance on two points. My understanding as to why there’s no widely circulated note higher than the 1,000 som is because the Uzbek government is quite bloody-minded and refuses to accept that their currency is in decline (that sort of thing only happens to poor backward states, after all), and the exchange rate back in the early 90s was actually pretty ‘normal’. However (we never did this sort of thing in ‘A’-level Economics) I don’t quite understand how this leads to a very vibrant Black Market, and nor do I understand quite what’s in it for the people in the bazaars who change at very favourable rates for travellers, unless it’s simply so that they can get hold of large quantity of a more stable currency (possibly with the expectation the som will decline further).

The other thing this means of course is that everyone, most of the time, is carrying round large bundles of notes with them, usually held together with elastic bands. In many countries, travel advice is not to flash around wads of cash; here in Uzbekistan you don’t generally get the choice. However, everyone’s more-or-less in the same boat, and the only money-related crime in general practice is that the real Black Market rate that the locals get is nearer to 3,300 to the US$.

Talking of money; when I arrived in Indonesia I felt sure I was fleeced with the cost of the journeys getting from the airport to Padang Bai, and I was a little peeved about it. On entry to Uzbekistan I’m absolutely certain the same thing happened, in a different way, but given relative prices, I’m not sure I’m that mythered; in fact it left me a little confused – how cheap is this country?
Having crossed the border, I ended up on a dusty, lonely, street with virtually no-one around. I was certain there were regular buses to the nearby town of Andijon, but with no-one obviously waiting, and no signs, it was unclear where they went from or when the next one was. I wandered down a bit until I came to a gaggle of what would have been shared-taxi drivers, except there was no-one to share with. They quoted me $30 for the ride to the city of Fergana – I wandered off and came back with a suggestion of $20. They immediately agreed. This made me wonder if the real cost should have been nearer $10.
It costs slightly less than $20 to get a taxi in the UK from my local main-line railway station at Alfreton to my house. It’s about 4 and a half miles; I have walked it many times. I don’t know how far the journey from the border to Fergana is, but I was in that taxi for maybe two hours, and he was driving most of the time like a bat out of hell. $20 has never felt so cheap. And yet so weirdly expensive.

That the other side of the border was so quiet shouldn’t have surprised me; the whole border crossing was quite empty. Even on the marshrutka on the way in, I was the only person left on it when we arrived, and it felt strangely quiet walking past and through the buildings, along the barriered pathways (that swapped from one side of the road to the other without warning).
The crossing itself took over an hour, the vast majority of which was at Uzbek customs. I had to fill out two copies of a custom declaration form (including listing how much money I had – as I was carrying six different currencies and the accepted wisdom amongst the online travel community is to declare everything to the last cent, my form ended up with writing all over it – hopefully that won’t cause me too much of a problem leaving the country), and then have my bag searched. Including my tablet computer. They were looking for seditious or pornographic material – the border guard in fact looked through all my pictures of the UK for about 20 minutes.
It might surprise you to know that I don’t have any pornography on this computer, apart from pictures I’ve made myself. When I told the guard this, his response was interesting and somewhat surprising: “Oh that doesn’t count, everyone does that”.
As I left, I looked behind me – it looked like a tour party of Americans was arriving. I’m not sure who I felt more sorry for; the tour group or the border guards.

The fact I haven’t mentioned accommodation yet implies that it wasn’t a major part of my day. When I woke up this morning, I had an e-mail from the agent of the guesthouse/homestay I e-mailed last night saying ‘yes, no problem, come before 6pm’.
There were two minor problems en-route; the first being that I couldn’t find the place. Fergana, like much of Central Asia I’m noticing, does not have much of an affinity with neither road signs nor building numbers, so it took quite a while to get my bearings and find the place. It doesn’t help that the bazaar in the middle of the city is absolutely huge and covers several blocks in what seems like a Tetris-like configuration, nor that some of the streets are literally building sites with collapsed buildings, earthmovers, rubble, and fenced-off walkways that everyone ignores.
The second problem was that no-one was at home when I arrived. For about an hour. And no-one responded to my text message. I called them and got someone speaking Russian but that seems to have done the trick, as about 15 minutes later an old chap came and let me in.

Apartment block in Fergana.
The apartment block I stayed in during my time in Fergana. You can tell it’s an ex-Soviet country …

It seems that this is part guesthouse part homestay. I have a small room with two single beds in it, in a large and very fancy apartment in a very ugly Soviet tower block (never before has the phrase ‘never judge a book by its cover’ seemed so apt), that’s still lived in by an old-ish couple who just rent their spare rooms out to travellers. At the moment there’s only one other traveller here – but notable in that in all my time travelling, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Malta before.
There is no Internet here. In theory we can use their compute, but the speed is akin to dial-up and their web-browser of choice is IE6, so nothing actually works …

My room in Fergana.
The room I stayed in in Fergana. Despite the two beds, I was always alone; I used the spare bed for dumping my stuff on.

I think I have free reign of the fridges, but I’m not sure. They don’t speak much English, but when the man let me in, he showed me both fridges and said ‘no problem’. Anyway I’ve limited my foraging to half a bottle of water and a dodgy processed stick of dried salami.

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