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Business as Uzual

The feasting showed no signs of stopping in Uzbekistan, for as soon as we had pried ourselves back out of the  comfortable beds that Shoney’s family had prepared for our arrival in the dead of the night before, we discovered a new feast had been laid out on the Yakubjanov’s kitchen table.

And so we did the only thing we could, which was dig in, begin drinking cups of coffee, and generally feast. There were fresh crispy chunks of Uzbek bread called Lepyoshka, fresh meat-filled pastries called Somsas, a dark sticky earthy Uzbek halva, fresh black grapes, peaches, cut turkey and ham for little breakfast sandwiches, and even hand rolled balls of hyper salty fermented milk called Kurut, which we would find were a Central Asian staple.

The fruit in this country! I was not prepared for how amazing Uzbek fruit would be. With each bite I was reminded of all the flavors that lesser fruits are trying to maximize. “And it’s all organic too,” Shoney assured us. “That’s just the way Uzbeks have been growing it for thousands of years.” I was already falling in love, as I popped another few grapes into my mouth and reached for another crust of bread to make a turkey sandwich with.

“We’ve got plans, guys,” Shoney explained. “My grandfather is excited to meet you and would like to show you around. Excellent, we thought. We were also introduced to Shoney’s sister, who turned out to be an impossibly thin but quite beautiful little girl, who spoke mostly Russian, and emanated a most piercing intelligence. There was a certain greatness about this little girl, something like one must have felt when speaking with Madam Curie or Barak Obama as a child. We were also introduced that morning to the house cat, a very popular fellow, given a traditional Uzbek name.

And then Shoney’s grandfather, Nazarkulov Yakubjan Palvanovich, arrived. He was a rail thin man, with fierce features and an even fiercer intellect. He spoke deliberately and intelligently, proving a veritable font of knowledge on all topics Uzbek.

We had brought out our giant stack of foreign currencies to illustrate as we explained the story of submitting our customs form, and Shoney’s grandfather was quick to add our first 500 Uzbek сум onto the top of the pile.

The сум is a gorgeous, if bizarre and hyper inflated, currency which he holds up now for us to photograph.

And with that, we headed out with Shoney’s grandfather. We piling into a cab and headed out into Tashkent. The traffic was most interesting and unique, being in large part comprised of old Soviet vehicles. Of those that were not old Soviet Ladas and Volgas, the vast majority were actually Chevrolet’s, a model called the Matiz, a Korean model, actually placed into the Uzbek market during a failed venture by Hundai, rekindled by Chevy.

Our first stop was the Abdulkasim Medressah. It is a complex attached to one of the nation’s most prominent Islamic Universities.

We wandered through the grounds, thoroughly enjoying the unique Uzbek architecture. Inside the Medressah, we had our first taste of Uzbek wood carving as well. The interior courtyard of the place was supported by giant wooden columns, all intricately carved.

Also, placed all around the grounds were constantly running drinking fountains for the people. Shoney claimed you could drink the tap water in Tashkent, though it might give you a little bit of stomach discomfort. We were not quite ready to try it, not having been reared on its essence, but we did find the ever running fountains an impressive choice. It was dry as a bone here, with the difference between the temperature in the shade and in the sun so drastic that you could see most of the people clustered in the shade of trees or overhangs avoiding the midday heat.

Perhaps it was the polarization, or the cooler feeling of the bright sun as seen through the optics of our Maui Jim’s, but for one reason or another, we were just eating up the sun that day. It poured over us, warm and comforting. We had no need to worry about stickiness, sweatiness, or general reeking. We could just move through this fascinating environment, taking in the many shades of blue and white tiles adorning the buildings, our sweat evaporating as soon as it was secreted, to the soft trickle of the public drinking fountains, and the lofty spire of the minaret, all from behind the comfort of our Dawn Patrols.

The call to prayer times prominently displayed on the wall inspired a moment of reflection on our concepts of time.

Soon, Nazarkulov’s bum hip began acting up, and we all noticed his limp increasing. And so it was that Shoney took bishop, so to say, and walked us back to the road.

He put out his hand, and the first passing car stopped, agreeing to take Nazarkulov back home for a dollar or so.

Our next goal was to change money. You see, dear reader, in Uzbekistan the currency has two exchange rates, the official one, and the black market one. The official one is about 1600 сум  to the dollar. The black market rate is much more like 2200 сум  to the greenback. So you see, dear reader, if you attempt to change money legitimately you are donating 37% of your money to the government.

Shoney took us to a market to find a black market money trader. Once in the market, it was not hard. Men with giant black trash bags full of money were wandering around calling out “dollars! dollars!” We stopped one, and Shoney began haggling an exchange rate for us in Uzbek. I could see a police officer in the distance, and attempted to subtly point him out to Shoney. “Oh, don’t worry, bro,” Shoney replied, “he’s in on it… probably gets 10 percent.”

Wild. We exchanged two one hundred dollar bills for a giant stack of сум .

We then understood why our dear Shakhrookh (Shoney is short for Shakhrookh) had always been wearing cargo shorts. We had thought it was just his Uzbek military punk style. But no, no; it’s for the сум .

The largest bill, dear reader, is when exchanged at the black market rate, worth just over 40 cents. This means that in order to pay for anything, one must use quite a few bills. This necessitates carrying around a serious bundle of cash, which instantly popularized the man purse, the fanny pack, and cargo shorts in Uzbekistan.  This monetary state of affairs has moved us to introduce the latest Tee-Shirt into the AsiaWheeling Trading post:  Business as Uzual.

Paying with the сум wad turned out to be one of our favorite parts of this country, injecting each transaction with new gravitas.

Wad in pocket, counted and recounted, we headed back further into the market. Our next goal was cell phones. We were back in the land of Beeline, AsiaWheeling’s preferred cell phone provider. However, it was explained to us upon entry to the shop that SIM cards were actually not legal to  issue to visiting foreigners. The man frowned and apologized, “There is nothing I can do.”

Of course, in reality, he just wanted us to pay him $4.00 instead of $2.00 for each card. And so we did. And christened with new beeline cards, we wandered back into the bright sun and the dry air, falling harder and harder for Tashkent.

We walked past vending machines selling unlabeled, hand-filled plastic drinks, to be poured and drunk from communal glasses and past stands selling ice cream in freshly made waffle cones. Everything was very cheap, and the locals seemed thrilled to have us around, looking up from their work with expressions between a welcoming smile and a shocked stare.

We continued on past a giant open concrete space that had in years past been packed with sellers, but had now,  for reasons that eluded even our dear Shoney, been fenced off and made illegal to enter. We continued up a long wide set of steps into the Chorsu Bazaar, where we continued our stroll, past people selling all kinds of foods: noodles, spices, flour, pickles, oil, olives.. you name it, dear reader.

People in the market were also quite curious about us, and we stopped from time to time to chat a bit, using Shoney as an interpreter. Shoney turned back to us for neither the first nor the last time and said “Uzbeks love foreigners, you know?”

The ceiling of this market was a fantastic golden dome, with a central skylight, which let in just enough light to easily inspect the products for sale, but not so much as to let it get hot inside. On the contrary it was actually quite cool, compared to the sunny street. We walked by ride merchants, and tea merchants, and interesting advertisements for American branded beers.

Then Shoney took us out to lunch in the ready-to-eat food section of the market.

We had a large plate of noodles with horse meat, some long skewers of very cheap and delicious Shashlik, served with vinegary onions, and a bottle of the delightful Russian soda bread known as Kvas.

Finished with eating, we headed off to look for wireless Internet, which can only be found in a couple places in all the city. The fastest of them is a central mall called Kontinent. Unfortunately, even in Kontinent, the connection was so slow that working on anything other than e-mail was nearly impossible. We had barely loaded a page by the time our hour was up and we headed off to do some more feasting.

We headed back out to the street, got a cab, and it drove us across town to a restaurant where we were to meet one of Shoney’s old teachers, a man by the name of Brooksy.

Brooksy turned out to be a fascinating character, and we enjoyed learning more about his and Shoney’s life here in Uzbekistan, over more Shashlik and a bottle of добрыи вечер (good evening) vodka.

We paid for the meal with a giant pile of cash, and headed home.


  1. Jackson | November 30th, 2010 | 8:19 am

    Great post. Good to know. The Zimbabwean dollar was also hyper inflated

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