That time I accidentally exchanged money on the black market

This is a continuation of my previous post describing my journey to Uzbekistan?

‘All fur coat and no knickers’ is how I’d describe my hotel in Uzbekistan. A northern England expression meaning something, or more often someone, that is all style over substance.

The lobby was immaculate. Bright white marble and dark wood with gold trim. The antithesis of the grey concrete landscape I’d seen through the car window on my journey from the airport.

My room was well presented but, on closer inspection, a little frayed around the edges. Makeshift repairs were like small booby-traps. Broken electric sockets were repaired with sticky tape. Loose bathroom barely clung to the bathroom sink.

After unpacking I went back down to lobby to exchange my hard currency (US dollars)  for local Soum.  I felt helpless without local cash. The porter and I had a momentary stand-off when he dropped the bags at my room, waiting for his tip. But I had nothing to give him.

By the way, what is the tipping protocol in Uzbekistan?!

‘Hi. I’d like to exchange some US dollars for local currency please. Can you tell me where I can do that?’

The receptionist smiled. ‘Certainly sir, follow me’.  Stepping out from behind the reception desk, more smiles, he beckoned me to follow. After a few paces, he turned right down a corridor. No fancy white marble here. Cleaning products and tools were propped up against the walls. I assumed he was taking a shortcut, leading me to the currency exchange desk.

He turned right again into what appeared to be a cloakroom. Coats, belonging to staff presumably, hung from hooks along the walls. More cleaning equipment. I had no idea what was going on… but this was fun.

‘How much would you like to exchange sir?’ I took out a US $50 note. ‘Just this please’.

I don’t remember where it came from but, almost magically, he pulled out a huge bag of local currency and began counting it quickly. His hands were a blur they moving that quickly.

Uzbeks were some of the fastest counters of money in the world. Rampant inflation meant large quantities of notes were needed even for relatively small transactions. Hence Uzbeks had lots of cash-counting practice.

Back in my room, I realised what had happened.  ‘Oh my god!’ I thought. ‘I just exchanged money on the black market!’ Which is illegal and explicitly forbidden for a British public servant like me. I was a naive traveller as well as a nervous traveller.

And I’d only been in the country a few hours.

Part 3 to follow…

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