Uzbekistan has never been considered an easy country to travel but it is continuously changing, now more than ever before, as it opens its doors to the world. Even our brand new 2018 Central Asia Lonely Planet (despite it’s best intentions) had become outdated in some respects just three months after publication. That’s how fast the country is changing. In some ways, it was easy to travel Uzbekistan – streets were spotless, public washrooms were incredibly clean, people were friendly with local vendors in bazaars offering generous samples while pushing for a sale more in an endearing rather than annoying way. The city was safe to walk even at night, and officials from border guards to tourist police and customs officers were friendly.
But traveling a country essentially closed off since independence almost 30 years ago, is never without its surprises. And Uzbekistan is no exception. But it’s often these surprises that make the best travel stories when you return home. Here are a few funny things you may encounter on a trip to what is often viewed as the most preserved ancient Silk Road country in the world.
1. You will feel incredibly rich.
When changing cash remember, you might not have enough space in your money belt or wallet for all those massive stacks of bills, due to an incredibly devalued currency. Prior to 2013, the 1,000 som note which equated to less than $0.50 USD, was the largest bill, causing locals and travelers alike to need a separate backpack just for cash (yes, that really did happen!). When we arrived to Uzbekistan in Fall 2018, the largest bill was 50,000, quite an improvement but it still felt like we were lugging wads of cash with us everywhere. We made the mistake of changing $100 USD upon arrival to Tashkent, only to find it took 10 minutes to count all the bills, and then another 10 minutes to find a place to stash them all! Paying for a fancy evening dinner in Samarkand at a restaurant of the same name with local wine for two made us feel like millionaires. Our bill cost thousands … which equated to ….. <drumroll> ….. $10 USD total! (Where else can you fine dine for this cheap?)
Fresh off the press …. the largest bill is now 100,000 som which equals around $12 USD, as of February 2019! In these three short months the world for locals and tourists alike has changed with the issuance of this larger bill. Didn’t I mention Uzbekistan is changing at lightning speed?
2. Don’t bet on finding an ATM machine that works for your international debit card in Uzbekistan.
You’re better off bringing US Cash and going to the many easy-to-locate money exchange centres in the main cities. A better use of the time trying to withdraw money is to spend it admiring Samarkand’s magnificent Registan or watching the sunset atop the ancient walls of Khiva.
3. Order from the Russian menu even if you can’t read Russian.
Restaurant menus in English often don’t list prices AND state a higher obligatory gratuity %, unless you can order from the Russian menu. But on the upside, waiters seem to give tourists credit for trying to read Russian and we ended up not only being charged the 10% gratuity but also the local menu prices just for our concerted efforts to order in Russian (even though we don’t speak the language). In one Samarkand restaurant the waiter came by five times wondering if we were ready to order. We smiled sheepishly at him and said “almost”. At another restaurant, two waiters stood over us, one with excellent English wondering why we were breaking our backs trying to order from the Russian menu when he could just translate for us. As tourists who don’t want to get ripped off you can never be too careful. We smiled at him saying we wanted to practice our Russian. On that note, it was fun for us to try to order the local way, but considering how far your money can go in Uzbekistan, even if you get ripped off in the end, remember to ask yourself, do you really care that much about that $0.25? Will it really break your wallet? If you’re not as stubborn as us, it’s totally ok to just throw in the towel and admit defeat to these clever waiters. If you think about it, they kind of earned it too right?
4. Taxi drivers will find creative ways to try to rip you off, keeping you on your toes.
This is nothing new in developing countries but in Uzbekistan they showed us a few tricks we weren’t expecting. They quoted prices per person when we thought they mean per car. They tried to stop prior to reaching our agreed on destination but did continue driving after we insisted. They swarmed around us at train stations but we quickly realized if we just learn to say “no thank you” in Uzbek, they suddenly respected our space and left us alone. In the end, it’s the same as anywhere. If you just talk to people in a language they can understand, they will listen. Who would have thought, right?
5. There will be no customs forms at the border but hold onto your accommodation stubs for dear life. We arrived at the Uzbek border by train, an extremely interesting and long journey from the ancient Silk Road city of Turkestan, Kazakhstan (which was 8 hours but only 300 km in distance by the way). The toilet was locked for 3 hours, and didn’t even flush (ultimate nightmare experience for a female!). The customs guards asked a lot of questions but were friendly enough. Surprisingly we didn’t have to fill in any customs forms (despite some guidebooks’ outdated notes about a huge process) and were just asked some questions about medications and other banned products which of course we did not have. While in Uzbekistan, however, we needed to provide our passports to every accommodation host to fill in cards which we had to protect with our lives, and hand back to customs officers upon departure (oddly, some were filled out merely on sticky notes). On our departure at the airport, turns out the customs officers asked to see my accommodation stubs but not my husband’s. The customs officer asked a lot of questions in a very serious tone, as my husband waited for me wondering why I was held up. I answered question after question nervously.
Finally, the officer suddenly smiled broadly, wished me a pleasant journey, and hoped I would return to his country someday.
Even up to the very last second, the beautiful country of Uzbekistan did not fail to surprise me.