By James Power
Uzbekistan’s black-market economy can be tough for outsiders to navigate. The Uzbek Central Bank has set an exchange rate that significantly overvalues the som. When we were there, the official bank rate was around 1850 som to the dollar. However, the government makes it nearly impossible for Uzbek citizens to buy dollars at this rate, so there’s a thriving black market that will give you a 30-50% better rate than any bank. To help counter this market, the government requires foreigners to purchase things like airline tickets in dollars, which the National Bank of Uzbekistan is loathe to give up to tourists on credit card advances. Large swathes of the country are also gripped with gasoline shortages that lead to gas lines dwarfing anything the U.S. may have seen in the 70′s. We relied an awful lot on strangers, whether we were lost in Urgench, at a loss as to where to find quality petrol, or losing our minds trying book a flight on short notice. On several occasions some nice guy stopped what he was doing, jumped in his car, and led us across town to set us on our way or show us where to find the best black market gasoline. If he didn’t have a car, he would flag down someone who did and have him guide us.
It seemed like we spent all of Uzbekistan short on dollars and gas. We learned pretty quickly not to trust men that come running out from behind abandoned gas stations claiming to have 92-octane in a canister. We were past empty, so we bought five expensive gallons. Within a mile, our engine started voicing its disapproval of whatever it was that guy put in our tank. It rattled, but it ran, and it got us where we needed to go. Unfortunately, every time we got anyplace, we ended up spending unbelievable amounts of time going from bank to bank looking for dollars. When we actually found dollars, it always seemed to turn out that either our banks had blocked our cards or the Uzbek bank was unable to connect. We lost entire afternoons in ancient Silk Road cities going from bank to bank trying to access our own money.