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.
- 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.
- 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!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!!