Monday, 12 December 2016


When you enter Uzbekistan at Tashkent airport, you're required to fill up a declaration form, indicating the amounts of all the currencies you have on you. When you leave the country, you fill up another such form, to show how much you're leaving with. Uzbek authorities want to make sure you leave with less than what you bring in, to curb money laundering or some such racketeering. They do this by making you fill up two declaration forms upon your arrival -- one for their records, and one for you to present upon departure.

As I woke up to my first morning in the country, it dawned upon me that I had filled up just one of these forms. A quick search online, and a chat with a fellow tourist staying in the same hotel, confirmed my worst fear: this could become very unpleasant. With this little predicament weighing heavily on my mind, I went to a travel agency, where I was told I'd have to make my way back to the airport to resolve the issue. The only consolation at this point was the fact that the airport's a mere four to five kilometres away from the city centre.

So I repeated my spiel to virtually every airport official and security personnel I met, about how I'd forgotten to fill up the second form, and how the passport control officer said nothing when he stamped my passport and let me through.

I eventually landed up at Customs House, right next to the airport terminal. There I met Javed, and some of his subordinates who took some interest in my peculiar story (which, I found out later, was not unusual -- coming in with just one declaration form was not unheard of). Not that many of them understood what I was saying anyway. Their English was only as good as my Uzbek or Russian.

But everyone knows the universal language of money. I was asked how much cash I'd brought in, and how much I had on me at the time. Very quickly I understood where this was probably going, and I feigned ignorance. Although I have to say, I could have been making a huge assumption.

Eventually Javed agreed to help, but not before enquiring about my love life.
'No girlfriend?'
'Ah. Uzbek girl, very nice!'
'Ah yes, I've seen some on the streets.'
'Yes! Very pretty, and very good! You marry Uzbek girl!'
I chuckled. I don't think he necessarily believed what he said though. A scan of his office, and I was greeted by posters of Katrina Kaif (a Hindi film star). But yes, everywhere I went in Uzbekistan, the question about marriage would come up. One 23-year-old student I met in Samarkand found it strange that I was still single at my age. According to him, most Uzbeks marry by their mid-20s and would have had at least one child before 30. He pinned my different perspective to a Western-style upbringing -- something I did not agree with, but I'd decided not to pursue the matter.

But I digress.

My two weeks travelling across the breadth of the country whizzed by and I was back at Customs House to see Javed, hours before my flight out. He'd found the declaration form I'd submitted on my arrival and had a made a copy of it. But instead of giving it to me, he slipped it into the folder he'd taken it out from. I found this peculiar. Instead, he handed me an official-looking document written in Cyrillic script with the numbers denoting the foreign currencies I'd entered the country with, and his signature at the bottom of the page. I was to present this to an officer at a counter before passport control.

The officer was not entirely convinced though. He seeemed hesitant to stamp the letter and my declaration form (the one you fill up before leaving the country). All the knots untangled themselves the moment he waved me on. Thank you Javed!

Or so I thought.

Passport control was next. The counters next to me stamped passports rhythmically, while my officer pored through my pages. Which objectionable stamp was he looking for? Or was it something else altogether? It reminded me of Tashkent's metros, where security staff would check your bags before you enter the station. If you're a foreigner, they ask for your passport. After a while, I'd figured that they were just browsing a document they might not again nose through for a long time.

As the stamps continued to slam at the neighbouring counters, I felt myself relax.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Even stevens

There were at least 4 lines, but owing to the size of the hall, everyone waiting to clear immigration was virtually pressed against one another. I somehow managed to join a queue which was not particularly long, but it was further away from the currency exchange office. I don't remember seeing anyone behind the desk, now that I think about it, but it would have been nice to exchange a few US dollars for the local currency, som. Bearing in mind, of course, that the official rate for Uzbekistan's currency is much lower than that which is available on the black market (at least two times more). Mustafa, my companion during the flight from Beijing to Tashkent, had told me as much. You can get at least 5,000 som on the black market for every 1 US dollar, he declared proudly.

When you exit the terminal building, waiting relatives and taxi drivers come into view some 70 metres away. As I cross the narrow road and cut across a pavement towards them, I can't help but feel like a sheep walking straight into a slaughterhouse.

Three taxi drivers stand before me, making outrageous claims about how much it would cost to ferry me to my hotel in Tashkent (I'd lost Mustafa in the baggage claims area). I know the city centre is a mere four to five kilometres away, and refuse to offer anything more than 2 US dollars (which I found out was excessive as well). One cabbie eventually agrees, perhaps seeing an opportunity to earn something off me.

In the taxi, the conversation leads to the next most pressing issue.
'You want Uzbek som?'
'Yes. How much?'
'1 US dollar, 4,500 som.'
'Oh. Hmm. I was told I could get 5,000.'
'5,000 too much!'
'It's ok then.'
A pause.
'Ok, 4,800 for you.'
That's pretty easy, I think to myself.
I agree to buy 100 US dollars worth of the currency.

After a quick phone call, we zip towards the railway station, turning left into a wide road just after the Holy Assumption Cathedral. I have a gut feeling I was going to be robbed.

We stop behind a car and a man in a leather jacket. My cabbie excuses himself, walks over to talk to the man, and comes back barely a minute later with a plastic bag filled with bundles of notes. It's my Uzbek soms. I don't manage to count the cash. This being an illegal transaction, they are afraid of being caught by the police, which, by the way, are not an uncommon sight on the streets of Tashkent. I do however manage to make sure all my notes are in denominations of 1,000 (apparently a common scam is for the black market dealers to slip in 500 som notes).

What follows is a fifteen minute ride around the city. The cabbie says he's not sure how to get to my hotel. In the meantime, he gives me a quick tour of some sights that I could consider visiting during my time in Tashkent. I politely marvel at the sights.

My hotel is in a residential area. The streets are generally dark save for a couple of lamp posts erected in what appears to be an afterthought. The hotel is on the first floor, while a restaurant takes the ground level. My cabbie gets out to help me with my bag. Thanking him, I pull out two dollars from my wallet.
'No, no. you pay 78 dollars.'
'What? We agreed to 2 dollars!'
'Yes but it's very far from airport, and we drive 26 kilometres. One kilometre 2 dollars.'
'No, I'm only paying 2 dollars because that's what we agreed. Take it or leave it.'
Not wanting to draw too much attention to himself from some diners exiting the restaurant, he quietly accepts. You're not cheating me, I say before walking off. 

I go to bed soon after checking in, exhausted after a long day all over the place, even though I still have a nagging feeling that something isn't quite right.

The next morning I pull the notes out of the plastic bag. They are definitely in denominations of 1,000 soms. But they fall short.

Shorter than what I'd have gotten from the airport.

But as it turns out, this isn't the worst of my problems.
Something more pressing has happened, and it requires an immediate trip to the airport.

(to be continued) 

"No Farsi"

If there's one thing visitors to Iran swear by, it's the hospitality.

One German tourist I met on a tour to Persepolis said he became friends with an entire family in Esfahan who were picnicking next to the river. An Italian woman I had breakfast with at my guest house in Yazd spoke of a similar experience, where she was taken out for dinner by a group of Iranians she had met at a cafĂ©.

Me? No such luck.

Maybe I look arrogant, something I've been accused of several times (yes, the problem with first impressions). But as it turns out, they (the Iranians) thought I was one of them.

By the time I reached the desert city of Yazd towards the end of my trip, I had gotten used to being taken for a local. Virtually everywhere I went, people would speak to me in Farsi until I convinced them I have no knowledge of the language. Many times they would refuse to believe me. One guy at a train station even looked at me in disdain.
'Oh, no Farsi!'

He probably thought I was a foreign-returned Iranian for whom speaking Farsi had become uncool.

But Farsi wasn't entirely foreign to me. Hindi and my own mother tongue, Punjabi, owe parts of their vocabulary to the language. For example, some numbers are similar, which made learning them that much easier. I was also told that many Iranians watch Hindi films and though they may not know the language, they understand the gist of the dialogues (a little bit of trivia here: the 1975 classic, Sholay, is wildly popular in Iran).

On some level then, maybe I wasn't a complete stranger to Iran, and visiting the country felt like returning to a faraway homeland. It made travelling to Iran that bit more special, never mind the countless incidents of mistaken identity, one of which puts a smile on my face even now.

In Yazd, I was walking to guest house a Swiss couple I had met in Shiraz were staying at. The road was a narrow one, with a vintage car parked on one side. A group of four to six tourists were blocking the path. Two were posing next to the vehicle, one was armed with a camera, while the others stood by. I managed to vaguely identify the words that escaped their lips as I slowed to a halt a short distance away to let them finish. Judging by their appearance alone, I narrowed their origin to Malaysia or Indonesia. But the vocabulary was not Indonesian. As I waited for them to finish, I concluded they were from Singapore or Malaysia.

Walking alongside them, I contemplated being friendly. As if on cue, one of them smiled, giving me the sign I was looking for.

'Awak semua dari Malaysia (Are all of you from Malaysia?)'
One shot back a look of horror, another stopped dead in her tracks.
'How do you know Malay?'
'Oh, I learned it while I was in school. I'm from Singapore.'
'Ya Allah! We thought you're one of them!'