Thursday, April 9, 2009

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

It is a pleasantly warm evening and we are sitting in our guest-house in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. We flew here from Almaty today, arriving early enough in the morning to unload our luggage and get to the Chorsu Bazaar by lunchtime.

Tashkent is a beautiful city. It is the fourth largest city in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), after Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev. Friendly people, clean streets, lots of greenery, and very colourful attire. It’s a fascinating place. One of our guide books describes it as the place where “Lenin and the Prophet had their high-noon, and Lenin lost his nerve.” Uzbeks are fiercely independent and singular in their sense of autonomy. There isn’t a shred of the USSR left here. Lenin and Marx statues have been replaced by replicas of Emir Timur (a 14th century tribal organizer of the region, and, some argue, ironically, a pre-dawn founding father of the Russian state. Waldo: anything?)
But the Chorsu bazaar: a tiled dome that covers three acres of spices, seeds, and dried fruit, set on a 20 acre open air market, where, as I have described before, you can buy just about anything imaginable. Even cash.

The currency in Uzbekistan is called Som. $1400 Som equals one American dollar. The problem is, the biggest bill they print is $1,000. So, if we trade two single, one hundred dollar bills, we get 280 sheets of paper in return. Bundles of money. The local people don’t usually carry that much money, but because we are on holidays, our pockets were bulging with cash. And banks are scarce outside of the main city, Tashkent.

I asked a store vendor where the nearest bank was and he in turn asked me how much Som I expected for a dollar. I bluffed and said $1600. He called a friend who called a friend and within minutes all four of us followed another friend down an alley into a small store. A nod, a wink, and we were back on the curb counting out three bundles of a hundred and a loose handful. It takes a while to count to 320 if you are nervous and trying to look inconspicuous. Today, I got $1700 in plain view of 3-4 cops and a couple hundred people. I tossed a couple bundles to Edna and said “I feel like saying ’I’ll meet you back at the hideout’”

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