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) 

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