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October 23, 2002

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Changing money in Uzbekistan is like robbing a bank. Money transactions always involve a bag-full of money because the most common bill equals twenty cents. No Uzbek bill is worth more than 80 cents. Everyone changes money illegally on the black market since the black market rate gains 50% compared to the official rate. It's an illegal transaction, so it must be quick. We jumped into the backseat of a parked Daewoo station wagon and exchanged 3 one hundred dollar bills for a trash bag of money - over 1800 notes in denominations of twenty. It's like receiving three hundred dollars in dimes. When you make such a ridiculous transaction, you can only make sure you have all of the big wads of money, no chance of counting each bill when you're worried that a police officer might appear and confiscate the whole thing. For a half hour we counted our bag-o-money in the safety of our hotel room and every last bill was accounted for - it seems the money changers must be honest to keep the system and their livelihood going. Our Central Asia trip has been dominated by the pursuit of visas; it's a pain getting these things in this region because of the invitation letters, long queues, and quirky embassy rules. Today in Tashkent we laid the groundwork for a Turkmenistan visa. The line waiting for Turkmen visas was full of characters. We met a Turkish truck driver who proudly showed us his Iraqi work visa. In the evening we attended Tashkent's national ballet, a mere 50 cents per ticket for a top notch show. We heard English being spoken by a lady walking by and introduced ourselves. She is a Kuwait student and her friend was from Tajikistan, so we had a lot to talk about during intermission. For dinner we bought a pizza, 6000 sum, and handed over a lump of small bills. The pizza guy had a counting machine instead of a cash register.
Our black market connection, look like mafioso?
In Tashkent, when first class ballets cost 50 cents for front row seats, anyone can become an expert at Swan Lake.