Six lessons on money management in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan money
Uzbekistan money

Mo’ money, mo’ problems?!

We arrived in Nukus, Uzbekistan at 6:10pm. The banks had just closed. Some helpful lady told us there were no ATMs in the city. All we had was stupid US dollars and we had no idea what to do.

It was then that we suddenly knew: Money matters in Uzbekistan were not going to be easy. But as we progressed through the country, from the wild north of Karakalpakstan into the Silk Road heartland of Bukhara and Samarkand, we got thrown into the school of economic hard knocks, repeatedly learning the hard way about how to manage our money. While people in the north were relatively friendly and honest, as we drove south the locals got increasingly greedy and savvy at skimming money off of us stupid tourists. By the time we left Tashkent we felt like we had finally got a grip on the essentials. Now we’d like to pass our experiences on to other travellers, both in hopes that they have it slightly easier than us, and because I found the greedy and entitled nature of some Uzbeki people so infuriating.

This advice is specifically aimed at budget travellers, not the carefree middle-aged tourists we saw wiping their bums with 1000 som notes.

Lesson 1: Bring all the cash you’ll need, in US dollars

Things may change in the future, but currently there is very limited access to the international banking network in Uzbekistan. We didn’t believe it, but it was true. Inside major cities like Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara it is possible to find some ATMs that will accept Visa or Master Cards, but during peak tourist season many travellers report that the machines are constantly empty of money. Outside of these three cities it is impossible to find an ATM that accepts foreign cards. Supposedly it is possible to go inside of some banks and receive a cash advance on your Visa or Master Card, but we didn’t try it.

In short, bring all the money you think you’l need on your trip in cash, and in US dollars. If you manage to find an ATM that works, don’t withdraw som! Take your money out in US dollars and change them on the black market.

Tips:

  • Don’t rely on banks and ATMs, bring as much money with you as possible
  • If you absolutely need money, try exchange offices at major hotels in Tashkent, or a cash advance at a bank

Lesson 2: Don’t get ripped off at the black market

When it’s time to get some local currency, take your crisp, smooth US casholah to the nearest bazaar. Just by being there you’ll attract plenty of guys (and sometimes women) who light up at the sight of your foreign face, croaking out “Maney maney! Exchange! Dollah! Euro!”. Tell them how much USD you want to exchange, and they’ll reach deep into their plastic bags and pull out a thick bundle of Uzbekistan Monopoly money, shove it into your hand, and encourage you to count it before they scurry off, content.

Welcome to black market currency exchange. It’s not legal but it’s tolerated by the police, and it’s available everywhere. According to the bank, one US dollar is currently worth around 2390 Uzbekistan som, but on the black market it’s worth more depending on the region. But exactly how much is hard to tell. When we visited (October 2014), the official “tourist rate” (what guesthouse owners and cheeky black market money exchangers said) was 3000 som. In Urgench, we found a local woman who called up her local “money dealer” for us, and his rate was 3160 som. In Tashkent, a woman at Chorsu Bazaar gave us 3200 som for every dollar.

Tips:

  • Find out what the tourist rate is and always ask the money dealers for a better rate
  • If possible, have a trusted local exchange your money–but don’t necessarily trust your guesthouse!
Uzbekistan money

Time to get a bigger wallet…

Lesson 3: Protect your money from the locals

Everywhere south of Khiva, most local people will do anything short of mugging you in order to take your money and put it into their pocket. Usually this means quoting a price that you are supposed to negotiate (see Lesson 4 below), but often times they will do things like charge extras to your bill and refuse to show you a receipt, or charge for things like boiling water and hairdryer use (yes we had a guesthouse that did this!!). We had the biggest problems in Bukhara and Samarkand–places where people thrive on tourist dollars, tend to think all Westerners are rich, and don’t have such a big culture of hospitality.

Tips:

  • Always, always, ALWAYS confirm the price of every single thing you plan to buy, then calculate the total yourself
  • Don’t assume extras are free–always ask and send it back if you don’t want it

There is even more involved when it comes to protecting your money from the police, which is something we’ll tackle at another time….

Lesson 4: Never pay in US dollars

It’s common practice for guesthouses, and sometimes shops, to quote you a price and ask you to pay in US dollars. If you insist on paying in local currency, they will calculate the amount owed using the black market “tourist rate” instead of the official exchange rate. Both of these practices are illegal, but they are easy ways for greedy locals to take advantage of naive tourists.

We had the biggest problems with guesthouses that we had reserved online. For example, Booking.com would say that a room costs $30 per night, and that you should pay the equivalent in local currency. Upon arrival, the guesthouse will ask you to either pay the US $30 (in crisp bills), or pay 90,000 som, despite the fact that, legally, they can only charge you 71,700 som. It may not seem like a lot, but over the course of a trip it really adds up.

Tips:

  • Insist on paying in local currency at the legal exchange rate. It may take some pushing, but they always give in
  • If you are reserving online, try and confirm the price in som instead of dollars beforehand

Lesson 5: You are going to pay too much money

Like most Europeans and Americans, we are shit at haggling. Uzbeki’s, however, are citizens of a Silk Road nation with merchant blood coursing through every inch of their bodies. They don’t just love haggling, they thrive on it. According to our local friends, haggling is not only a fun way to build up rapport between buyer and seller, it’s also a way for each party to understand the time and effort that went into producing the goods and earning the money that are involved in the transaction.

What all this means for you is that almost all bazaars, the majority of shops, and many restaurants do not have prices displayed. The merchant, seller, clerk or waiter is going to say a price that is obviously too high, and it’s your job to negotiate it down to something reasonable–if you know what the reasonable price might be. When you get tired of wasting your holiday on arguing about the price of carrot salad and toothpaste, there are some shops around that have the price of everything displayed. Unfortunately, these shops are significantly more expensive than the bazaar, often selling goods at close to their US or European price.

Tips:

  • Learn some Russian and get good at haggling
  • Don’t buy so much shit

Lesson 6: Whatever you do, don’t bring Turkmenistan manat out of Turkmenistan

Just don’t do it. The stuff is almost completely worthless outside of Turkmenistan. We accidentally brought 120 manat (supposedly worth around US $40, according to the Turkmen) with us to Uzbekistan. Banks won’t take it, so we tried in several cities to exchange it on the black market. Every time, the money dealers just laughed. Finally, we were able to find a money dealer in Bukhara (which is relatively close to Turkmenabat) who bought the lot for a measly 60,000 som (about US $20). Big financial loss and a huge disappointment.

Tips:

  • Don’t buy too much manat, and try and buy it for a better rate outside of Turkmenistan
  • If you have too much manat, try to sell to other backpackers instead of black market money dudes

 

Let us know in the comments if you have any additional tips, or stories of crazy Uzbekistan money experiences!!



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  1. Rafa

    hey hey Fabian, just a short note about Lesson Four: yeah, it’s a bit complicated with foreign currencies here but try to think what price should a hotel-owner put online. If the nominal price is $20, the owner can’t put 48,000som (20 x official rate of 2400) online because he expects to see some money worth $20 and for 48,000som he can only get $15 here. That’s why they want $20 in usd or 64,000som (20 x 3200 black market rate).
    If instead a hotel owner puts 64,000som (a true equivalent of $20) online, a tourist will convert it online, using official rate of course, and get $27 (64000/2400). Which may seem more expensive when in uzbek reality it is still $20 if you pay in usd or exchange on black market here. Hope that makes sense) In this particular case it’s not greed but just a way how things work here with two exchange rates.

    • Semi

      Hey Rafa! Thanks for the comment 🙂

      I see where you’re coming from, but in our experience the reputable hotels we stayed at (one oriented towards Western tourists like us, the other a small hotel that seemed mainly for Russian speakers) would display two prices: The amount in USD and the equivalent amount in UZS according to the bank exchange rate. On the other hand, the guesthouses that catered almost exclusively to Western tourists would insist that guests pay in USD, or grumpily accept USZ at the rate of $1=3000 som.

      I personally don’t agree with the practice of having travellers pay in anything but the local currency, no matter what the country. But in the case of Uzbekistan I think it really breeds distrust between visitors and locals. Booking websites online usually display both the amount in local currency and the official conversion, so we can judge for ourselves before we make a reservation. The guesthouse owners should write the value of their accommodation in som and only accept som from guests. If they want to change money for guests (and many do, but only at $1=3000 som, not 3200) then that is something else… caveat emptor.

      • Rafa

        I was just filling out our profile page on booking.com and had this dilemma. If, as you advise, I list the prices in som, people will convert it online and see a price higher than it really is, not knowing that for them it would be cheaper when they change their usd on black market here.

      • Semi

        It is a dilemma indeed!! Searching in euros, I checked several cities (Beograd, Istanbul, Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Bishkek) on Booking and some of them tell you how much you’ll be paying in the local currency and euros, some of them tell you to pay in euros but then when I change it to GBP (£) it tells me to pay in the local currency (but not how much), and for whatever reason, in Bishkek it actually tells me the total in euros and USD, saying I have to pay in USD. I guess this is a problem with Booking, whoever does the “local currency” settings for each country.

        FWIW, if someone is a guest I would much rather have them be surprised that it’s cheaper than advertised, than feel angry or annoyed because, when they want to pay in the local currency, it’s more expensive than they imagined. And at the end of the day, if what I’ve heard is true, it’s the law to pay in the local currency. It’s also difficult because the black market rate is different depending upon who you talk to. Many people insisted it was $1=3000, and some people would say 3100 or 3200, depending on how friendly they are or how much you pushed them. If Booking/hostelworld let you, I would post the price in UZS in the description, or make a note about the exchange rate somewhere in the fine print. 🙂

        I guess this is a problem pretty unique to Uzbekistan (Iran’s black market money rate is different too, but then we can’t reserve online ;)), so maybe talk to other travellers and see how they feel. Also read the Booking and Hostelworld reviews of other guesthouses, there is a lot of good information on what people do and don’t like. If you’re worried about appearing too expensive in Tashkent, you shouldn’t; the cheapest accommodation we could find was still listed as $18 + “city tax” for a dorm bed… and it was shit!

  2. Charles

    Funny, I lived in Samarkand and I didn’t have the same experience. Tourist vs local I guess. Also, it’s true sometimes you get tired of haggling;;;

  3. Jama

    Be careful in the black market 🙂 Even though I’m native there, they screwed me up once :p they gave me bunch of paper wrapped inside uzbek money 🙁

    • Semi

      Yikes!! Did it look like the typical 100,000 bundles? We usually made a half-hearted effort to count through the cash in front of the money dealer, because all the locals told us we have to be careful. Must be so annoying :-/

  4. Flo

    I know this is an older blog post, but still comes up when searching about money here. Yes, places here advertise one rate online and you get something different from the black market rate, but do you expect everyone to accept a lower amount than they could get from the black market? It is confusing, but all but a handful of expensive places use the black market rate so just count on that and be surprised if it uses the official rate (btw now it is more like 3100 official, 6100 black market)

    As for people trying to rip you off, we have been here several weeks and haven’t experienced that at all. The worst that happens is the same as everywhere that taxis and hotels start at a higher price and you negotiate, we’ve never found hidden fees. On the other hand, we’ve had exceptional hospitality, fair dealings, kind people. Uzbekistan is highly recommended!

    • Semi

      Hi Flo, thanks for the comment. I dare say that, if you haven’t met an attempted scam in Uzbekistan, then you’re either very lucky or you’re not really experiencing the country. 😉


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