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.