The Silk Road. An ancient network of trade routes that were for centuries central to cultural interaction and trade, connecting East with West and stretching from the coast of China, across Central Asia, to Istanbul and the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately I don’t have time to cover the whole route on this trip so I’m travelling from Tashkent in the east of Uzbekistan to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.
I arrived in Tashkent just after midnight. My main luggage did not. But even before I realised that, I had to fight my way through passport control. I don’t mind queuing for these formalities. It’s part of the deal when you travel. So, as I got off one of 3 buses that that had picked up passengers from my flight I strolled casually into the terminal building as others rushed ahead. About 10 meters inside I stopped behind a large crowd. Peering over the top to see what the hold up was I realised that we had reached passport control.
Being English I tried to work out where the end of the queue was so I could stand in the appropriate place and wait my turn. I soon realised that there wasn’t an “end of the queue” because there wasn’t a queue. The entire crowd was trying to manoeuvre it’s way past one of 3 or 4 open booths simultaneously. As a firm believer in embracing local customs when abroad I decided to join in. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the most efficient method but after only 3 days I got to a booth, handed over my passport and eventually was gestured at to continue.
My bag was somewhere. Not in Tashkent, that’s for sure, but it was somewhere. It might still be in London, or maybe Istanbul where I’d changed flights. As I waited in vain for it to appear on the single carousel, I noticed an advert for a Chinese restaurant. It had the slogan “It will make you pludge into Oriental Legends”. For a few moments I contemplated whether I wanted to pludge into anything right now, let alone Oriental Legends, but decided against it and went in search of my bag. The guy at the lost luggage counter wasn’t able to say for sure where it was but he gave me a “Property Irregularity Report” and told me to call the airport the following day to see if it had turned up.
It was 3am by this point so I got a cab to my hotel. I slept well and eventually emerged into the day around lunchtime. In my rush to escape the airport I’d left without changing any money, paying for the cab in US dollars. The receptionist told me that the best place to get local currency was the corner shop just down the road so I set off. About a minute after setting off the security guard from the hotel caught me up.
“You want Som?”, he asked. Som is the local currency of Uzbekistan.
“Yes”, I replied, “I’m going to the shop”
“I give you good rate. 1 US dollar, 8200 Som”
The official exchange rate for US dollars is 4000 Som so this was a pretty good deal. To be fair though, you’d be a fool to take the official rate. Almost everyone in Uzbekistan takes part in the currency black market. Every taxi driver seems to offer exchange services, as do tour guides and small shops. And they all sell at somewhere between 7500 and 8200 – way above the official rate.
“OK”, I said, “I want 50 US dollars worth”
“You give me dollars, I go, come back in 10 minutes with Soms” he offered.
“Erm, how about I walk with you and give you the money when I can see the Soms?” I countered, “In my country if I give you 50 dollars and you walk away I’ll never see you again”
“OK, my friend. Come”
So we went for a walk. To the corner shop that I was heading to anyway. I handed over the 50 dollars and was given a plastic carrier bag. I looked inside and sure enough, there was 420,000 Soms. In 1000 Som notes. I shrugged. It was money, albeit a lot less portable than I had hoped, so I took it and headed out to continue my walk.
A day and a half later my luggage arrived. In the grand scheme of things that wasn’t bad. I’d once spent the first week of travelling around Namibia with no luggage and was a few hundred miles away from the airport when it eventually landed. It then caught a taxi out to meet me and I had a joyous reunion with clean underwear and fresh t-shirts. Thankfully, on this occasion I’d only had to shower wash* my clothes once, not several times. The formalities were finally over and I could get on with my trip.
*Shower wash: To attempt to clean clothes while showering in order to (a) save money and (b) ensure everything you wear also smells of Lynx Africa