Uzbekistan’s petrol problems: Buying benzin on the black market

Closed petrol stations are a ubiquitous sight in most of Uzbekistan
Closed petrol stations are a ubiquitous sight in most of Uzbekistan

Closed petrol stations are ubiquitous sights in most of Uzbekistan

In Iran, petrol prices are set by the state at 10,000 rials (about $0.30) per litre. In Turkmenistan, the Dear Leader provides petrol to his people for 0.62 manat (about $0.22) per litre. Cheaper than water! We could hardly believe it.

But at our next stop, Uzbekistan, things were a little different.

We entered the country in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in the very north of the country where the people are incredibly friendly, despite the fact that they are poor as shit. It’s a remote place with limited infrastructure, but we didn’t understand quite how difficult things are for them until it came time for us to buy petrol.

We drove for ages, from Nukus up to Moynak, and then back down to Kungrad. The entire time we didn’t see one open, functioning petrol station. There were a few places selling gas, both methane and propane, but every place that advertised benzin looked forgotten and decrepit. We began to notice that most of the vehicles were running on gas, from old Ladas to big dump trucks. And as our needle dropped lower and lower, we began to worry.

It turns out that Uzbekistan has problems with fuel shortages in a large swath of the country. In Karakalpakstan, benzin is almost only available on the black market, which we finally discovered thanks to some help from the locals. Suppliers advertise themselves in neighbourhoods and from the side of the road using either funnels or small plastic bottles filled with water or fuel. We paid 5000 som (about $1.70) per litre for low-grade petrol (probably 89) in both Nukus and Urgench.

Petrol vendor in Urgench

A house in Urgench selling petrol and cigarettes

Petrol vendor in Urgench

Filling up black market-style

A guesthouse owner told us that by next year, the region will stop receiving supplies of benzin and methane completely, and everyone is being urged to convert their vehicles to propane. Though we don’t know how reliable that information is, it would definitely be disturbing news for overland travellers like us.

As we travelled south from Nukus to Khiva, we began to see a few petrol stations that not only looked open, but were completely rammed with cars. Sometimes the queues would extend for half a kilometre down the road. And the most crazy thing about it was that all the cars were empty. Not a driver or passenger in sight. Apparently, people queue up for petrol hours or days in advanced, waiting for the next shipment to come in.

The further south you drive the better the situation gets—but only slightly. We were finally able to find a petrol station that was open and dispensing fuel in the suburbs Samarkand. The queue was long and it took us about 30 minutes to get through, but at 3500 som per litre (for 91) the benzin was better priced than on the black market.

Petrol station in Samarkand

Waiting to fill up in Samarkand

The capital Tashkent was a completely different story. It was finally time for us to leave the country and we needed petrol badly. We steeled ourselves for the task ahead, either forking out too much cash for black market fuel, or queuing up forever at the city’s only petrol station. We asked our car-owning Couchsurfing friend where the nearest place to buy benzin was. “At the petrol station just down the road,” he said plainly.

Oh. Tashkent obviously has no problem with their fuel supply, and we got ours at a shiny, modern petrol station for just 2400 som per litre. Awesome for us, but you really have to feel bad about everyone struggling so hard in the rest of the country.



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