In most countries, changing money on the black market is something to be strictly avoided at all costs. (Pun intended.) But in Uzbekistan, it is the best way to get more som for your dollar (and nowadays more and more your euro.) The Uzbek government has set the exchange rate pretty low, so if you take money out of a cashpoint (ATM to North Americans and bankomat to Central Asians) you get done a fair bit. You can of course use official currency exchange places too, but their rate is tied to the government and therefore is also rubbish. It does mean, though, that if you exchange too much, you can change it back again, as nowhere on the black market will they buy your som for dollars. (The dollar is hard currency and most people don’t like to use banks, so collecting dollars is the regular man’s saving scheme.)
Graeme and I got stuck as we tried to exchange back into dollars, as they needed the official customs declaration that we had changed legally in the first place. I had been fully intending to treat Graeme to dinner on our last night together as he had been so generous as to treat us to a hotel in Tashkent. But because I got ill, I didn’t manage to spend any of it and because we couldn’t change it back, we were both stuck with a lot of som. Graeme went to the shop and bought lots of things I would need in the near future, as we might as well buy things instead of just having lots of useless currency leftover.
Uzbek som comes in a few denominations of notes, and no coins at all. 200, 500, 1000 and 5000. Mostly 1000 notes though, as the 5000 notes are practically non-existent and they were only introduced a few years ago. So you end up carrying huge wads of cash everywhere which at first is kind of fun and novel, but it soon becomes a tad annoying. Especially when paying for anything more than a drink in a shop, because the 1000 note isn’t worth much. The going rate is 3000 to the dollar (USD) or 5000 to the pound (GBP). It can take a long time to count out the right money to pay a dinner bill, for example.
You often see Uzbeks pull out a huge stack of cash to pay for anything at all really, just because of the way the money is. You feel rich for a while, when you do the same, but it is maddening, as counting it all out takes ages. Paying for shared taxis is a great example of this. One of our journeys cost 60,000 som for the both of us. Graeme counted out 30,000, I counted out 30,000 and then the poor driver had to double check it. I wonder how much of their lives in Uzbekistan are wasted counting money. Though it must be noted that all shops have those automatic counting money machines you normally see in banks in other countries! This is especially necessary in a country where cash is king.
The funny thing about it all is that there isn’t a 100 som note, probably because it wouldn’t be worth the paper it would be printed on. But! Some things are worth 4900 som, for example, and everywhere you go they have a box of sweets at the till, so that you can have a sweet worth 100 som instead of actual change.
How do you change your money on the black market though? Trust me when I say it’s really easy. The black market will find you. I lost count of how many people we walked past on the street who offered to exchange money for us, especially in Bukhara. Most independent hotels will do it for you too, or get a man to come to the hotel and do it for you. It’s easy, hassle free and absolutely the way to get money when in Uzbekistan. Just make sure you don’t change too much, because it’s a closed currency and you will be stuck with it.