April 24, 2013
This was my second time in Shymkent and I had no intention of staying any longer than the first. There is a town, Sayram, that’s only 10km from it and had some interesting Islamic history that I wanted to see. Most of the mosques and mausoleums aren’t that old in this area because the Mongols liked to level most of what they conquered. If the Mongols didn’t do it, then the earthquakes did. The fact that this town had a minaret and Islamic history that predated the Mongols made it worth a quick side trip before I went to Uzbekistan.
I first had to take taxi half way across the city to the other bus station to get there. Once I did, I promptly walked right by the minaret and kept doing so for another 20 minutes or so. This would normally be followed by me cursing, but I had found a beautifully tiled mausoleum that wasn’t in the guidebook. So I patted myself on the back for my mistake. I did find the minaret, in the end, as well as the other monuments, including the mausoleum of the man they believe brought Islam to the region in the 8th century. How could they not be sure?! Whatever. It gave me something to do. I had a delicious dish of plov and a kebab before returning for my journey to the border.
When I returned to the bus station, I made sure that it wasn’t the one I should depart from before I went to the other. So, when I arrived at the other bus station and they also told me that the only way to get the border was a taxi. While I could afford a taxi, I didn’t want to go through the hassle of exchanging more money. There was a better way, and it found me. One particular man knew how to help me out. I was to pay him both the fare for his cab and the mashrutka to the border. The cost would be 1/10 of a taxi and that just seemed to good to be true. Once in the cab, I found a 20 something female that knew some English. She told me she’s going to Chicago this summer to work. Perfect! I needed her to make sure I understood the situation. Well, I guess I was talking too fast because I confused the hell out of her. I was just going to see where this ride took me and figure out the rest. My biggest fear was that I would end up at another bus station and be told that a taxi is the only way to the border. Someone was smiling on me that day because I arrived at a mashrutka taking passengers to the border, he paid the operator for me, and I was off. Whew!
Just shy of the border, I decided that I would exchange $20 to get a sense of the black market rates. Uzbekistan has an official rate of 2000 som to $1. The rate I was given was 2700 to $1. In other words, no one in Uzbekistan uses the banks to exchange money. After demonstrated that they were shorting me, I took my money and crossed the border routinely. On the other side, I haggled with a cab driver and got to my hotel without any issues. The only reason I chose such a nice hotel was because I could book it on Kayak.com, but I have to admit it was nice to treat myself to something really nice. I was on the top floor facing one of the squares, feeling like the man.
By this time it was 6PM and I needed more local currency and some food. So I headed to the market to find the money exchangers. Now, try to imagine that the US Treasury only printed 1 dollar bills and you payed for everything with cash. That’s how it is here and it’s a total pain in the ass. The largest denomination is 1000 som, so when you exchange $50, you get 135,000 som, or a brick of money. Since this activity isn’t technically legal, but openly tolerated, it’s still awkward to count that much cash in the middle of a market. The transaction takes minutes as you make sure that no one pulled a fast one. The cool part is that you could go a club and make it rain for $50. The uncool part is that no money belt is going to diguise that much cash, so you rubber band it and put it in your backpack. So, this is how drug dealers feel….
With my brick of cash I found an establishment to eat. As I paid, one of the 3 drunk women across restaurant came over and grabbed my arm saying something and the one dude with the women came over and did the same. I was about to go over and figure out what the fuss was about when the cashier told me not to talk to them and that ‘they are bad people.’ Say no more! I was gone. I figure that it was a pimp with his women, but who really knows.