Uzbekistan? Overchargistan!

I don’t know why my country, he likes to cheat everyone.

— Aziza, an Uzbek woman, rhetorically pondering why many of her Uzbek countrymen enjoy ripping off tourists so much.

Excited Little Girl - Khiva, Uzbekistan
Young Uzbek girl in Khiva, Uzbekistan.

Shaft us once, shame on you. Shaft us twice, shame on us. Try and shaft us repeatedly and charge our friends $1.00 for a few teaspoons of sugar, and we write a blog post about you. [Yes, one of our travel mates was repeatedly charged for sugar – and outrageous sums, no less.]

Apologies to all of our recently acquired Uzbek friends, but rip-offs in Uzbekistan – particularly along the touristy parts of the Silk Road – seem endemic.

Living in Pakistan with her husband, Aziza returns often to visit her family in Tashkent. As an experiment to see what foreigners are charged for services, she occasionally pretends to be an English-speaking tourist when she returns. After receiving a “foreigner price” of five to ten times the normal rate, she then berates the taxi driver (or other service provider) in fluent Uzbek. As if still questioning the perpetrators of all those attempted rip-offs, Aziza continued, “Why you make me a fool?”

In order to demonstrate, we offer a few representative anecdotes from our experiences, from banking to dining:

1) National Bank, Urgench

It probably goes without saying, but count your money. Always. And the more official the institution in Uzbekistan, the more suspicious you should be. We learned the hard way. Every money exchange transaction involved missing bills that had to be coaxed from the money-changer.

Our worst experience of all occurred at the hands of the National Bank of Uzbekistan branch at Urgench. After exhausting us and our two friends for 90 minutes in a simple U.S. dollars to Uzbek som transaction, the agents pretended to forget to give us our money. When they finally forked it over, we didn’t count it, somehow satisfied with the official looking paper bands wrapped around each stack of 50 bills. Only later did we discover that two of our officially-banded stacks were short a few bills. Although we only lost a few dollars in the transaction, the bank’s audacity was infuriating.

By the way, if anyone in Uzbekistan finds eight extra bills in their stacks of Uzbekistani som from the National Bank in Urgench, please drop us a line. Maybe it really was an honest mistake ;)

2) You’ll rarely find menus at restaurants

“Why?” we asked Aziza. “Oh, they have menus. They don’t give you the menu because it’s easier to cheat you that way.” Three examples (of many) come to mind:

Islam Khoja Minaret - Khiva, Uzbekistan
Islam Khoja Minaret in Khiva, Uzbekistan

a. Farrukh Restaurant, Khiva: Its comfy tables and brightly colored suzani (embroidered wall hangings) cater to a tourist crowd. Waitresses are polite and well-dressed. There’s even a slight air of formality. But no menus, strangely enough.

Our friends asked the price of the main dishes before ordering to ensure the place was still within everyone’s budget. However, upon receiving our bill, we were all shocked by the amount which was a bottom line figure without any detail and several times higher than we had calculated.

“Can you explain to us how much everything cost?” we asked our waitress. She pulled away from the table and returned with something resembling an itemized bill. The food was still reasonably priced, but the beers were five times what we had paid in a similar restaurant just down the street. We questioned the price and our waitress offered matter-of-factly, “This is good price. The Intercontinental Hotel in Tashkent, twice as much.” Not only was the bill bad, but so was her attitude.

Manti (Stuffed Dumpling) - Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Manti at the market in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

b. Market in Samarkand: We decided (as we often do) to grab a bite off-trail by ducking into an alley-side restaurant stall on the edge of Samarkand’s main food market. In the middle of our meal, a man sidled up to us and engaged us with some usual chit-chat in Russian. At the end of the meal, he tried to “help” us by inserting himself into the bill payment process. What he didn’t know was that we had already asked for the price of absolutely every last bit on our table, having previously learned our lesson. Not only were his prices incorrect, but his math was conveniently off in the northerly direction by 50-100%. We ignored him and amidst the lunchtime chaos, we found the woman who ran the place and paid her what we knew we owed.

c. Art Café Dervish, Tashkent: One evening in Tashkent, we decided to pop into Art Café Dervish, just down the street from the Hotel Orzu where we were staying. Dervish had a menu, thankfully. The prices were relatively high compared to other local joints, but there was no service charge indicated on the menu. (Uzbek service is by no means world class, but you’ll find service charges occasionally indicated in menus and often appearing on your bill, running upwards of 20 percent).

After finishing our meal and watching the British group at the next table suffer through a painfully slow and error-filled eating experience where most of their food never arrived and half the party left hungry and frustrated, our bill arrived with an unmarked 20% service charge tacked on. We engaged the waiter. In Russian, he indicated: “This is normal.” We said, “Not normal. Not on the menu,” and asked for the manager.

Someone posing as a manager appeared. “This is normal. Standard,” he said with a tone that implied “…you idiot.” When we continued to press him, he explained that the restaurant was using the “old menus with old prices.” Their new menus had the service charge marked, but the prices were higher. According to him, we were getting a discount and shouldn’t complain.

Follow that impenetrable logic? Neither did we. We calculated a 10% service charge (which was also excessive), paid our bill and walked out. Avoid this place. The food is mediocre, the service is horrible and dishonest, and the guy who posed as the manager is condescending. Not the right equation when you’re looking for a pleasant meal.

If money is precious and you don’t enjoy getting ripped off, be aware when you are following the tourist trail in Uzbekistan. An attitude prevails, and is even sometimes voiced, that says “Why are you here if you don’t have a lot of money?” It’s not so much the amount of money that is at stake in these transactions, but the principle of it all.

If getting ripped off is no issue for you, let it ride. That said, diligently asking the price of everything in advance and maintaining a sense of humor will keep you sane and vendors honest. If you happen to be traveling for business, you likely won’t feel any of this. Nor will you care. You’ve got business to take care of and someone else is probably footing the bill.

A Bright Star

Not everyone is in the game, however. While in Bukhara, we met Star, a young 20-something Tajik-Uzbek woman with a sharp business sense and a remarkable ability to acquire languages.

Ceramics Vendor - Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Star and her ceramics stand in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Star spotted Audrey struggling to tie her Turkmen silk scarf under the beating August Uzbek sun and offered her a sure scarf-tying hand.

The next day, Audrey was scarf-less as we passed by Star’s ceramics stand. Star noticed, and later that day she beckoned us over, presented Audrey with a new scarf and invited us to talk with her. We were apprehensive from our recent interactions with vendors where money seemed the sole objective. Star called us on our mistrust and joked that she wasn’t going to try and sell us anything. We laughed through the awkward moment and sat with her for the next hour, watching her speak five different languages as she sold ceramic bowls and tea sets. In the down time, we talked about life in Bukhara and politics in Uzbekistan, and asked her what tourists are like from her perspective as a vendor.

We enjoyed one of our most enlightening discussions in Uzbekistan in the least likely of places – a ceramics stand in the most touristy area of Bukhara.

More photos from Uzbekistan

Enjoy this?

Then sign up for more travel wisdom & inspiration from 7+ years of traveling the world.

Comments

  1. says

    She was pretty cute and was our unofficial guide to Khiva our first night! A few families have moved back into the walled old town, which gives it life and makes it much more interesting.

  2. says

    OK, I thought her name was Khiva which sounds like a lovely name :-)

    I just had dinner tonight with a good friend. She said she met two guys from Uzbekistan in Seattle. They were making-up a country they were from–something like “abjectistan”–as a tactic to charm her. Unfortunately, for these two guys, my friend, Kate, studied USSR history knew nothing of Abjectistan. She busted them and they capitulated.

  3. says

    Now that I think of it, Khiva is a pretty cool name for a girl. Just remember, the Khiva naming trend started here.

    The story of the two Uzbek guys making up a “stan” country made us laugh. We refrained from writing Aziza’s views of Uzbek men…but it matches. Most Americans don’t know much about that region, so their technique probably worked for quite a while before meeting your friend. Funny.

  4. says

    Tanya, let’s just say that Aziza’s view of Uzbek men was not particularly flattering! It was along the lines of the men like to keep their wives “barefoot and pregnant,” cooking and cleaning, while the men go out and hit the discos at night drinking and womanizing. She married a South African man instead.

  5. SM says

    I think ripping off tourists is common in poor countries everywhere and I don’t think one can do anything about it. Regarding 15-20% service charges, it is normal in Uzbekistan. It is almost always written separately on the bill or menus (I am talking about Tashkent).

    “She married a South African man instead.”
    I don’t think she married SA because all or majority of uzbek men are like the one she described. This is a typical excuse for an uzbek woman who marries a foreigner, especially someone from SA.
    I agree that it is a conservative country with its traditions where woman’s main role is housekeeping. 50 years ago women in the US were also typical housewives, they were made to stay home and have kids. Watch the movie Mona Lisa Smile, for example.
    Also saying that men go out and hit the discos, etc is pathetic. How many married uzbek men, I mean those over 35-40, has she or you seen go out to night clubs? I thought discos in Uzbekistan were places for younger people.

    Ivan,
    russian men may be even worse. I can give you numerous other examples. But again it would be wrong to generalize.

  6. says

    @SM: Unfortunately, we’ve learned over the last 2+ years on the road that ripping off tourists does happen often in tourist areas, like in these Silk Road cities. However, get outside the tourist areas and we’ve found people treat you like humans and are incredibly giving, like at small plov stands around Tashkent or outside the old town in Khiva (where a woman invited us to share her lunch with her).

    We met Uzbek women happily married to Uzbek men and Uzbek women happily married to foreign men. Each had their own reasons for choosing to marry the way they did. Traveling as a married couple, we get lots of questions about marriage in America and hear lots of views on marriage and family in return. As everywhere, there’s good and bad.

    Even though Uzbek society (as well as other societies in Central Asia) may be traditional, I’ve met many Uzbek women (in Uzbekistan and outside) who are successful professionally and are very strong people. There are still traditional areas in America today as well, not just 50 years ago.

    As for the discussion of Uzbek vs. Russian men, that’s for another time and place!

  7. Kimal says

    hi,
    Absolutely agree wiz Shaxnoza.
    May be Tourist in Uzb. are cheated by Uzbeks but why we should talk about uzbek men and relationship between women and men. I think every country has it own bad and good sides. US and other developed countries as well.
    One thing I can say (having experience of working as a formal tourist guide in Uzbekistan) Uzbek people are very kind and their hospitality is perfect, they can give a place to sleep and peace of meal even not think what u r and who r u. (free, I saw it many times, during my stay there ) however, I’ve never heard that in US or in other countries same story.
    Well, hope everyone can understand that it is not so good to criticize other nation.

  8. says

    @Kimal: We completely agree that Uzbek people are very kind and hospitable and the intention was not to criticize Uzbekistan, but to report on something we observed. We also had the experience of Uzbeks giving us meals for free (see #6 here) and going out of the way to help us. Usually, this happened in areas where there were not many foreign tourists. Our experience showed that in areas frequented by foreign tourists there was a much higher chance of scams – this is true all over the world of tourist sites. This is why we always tried to get out of the tourist areas and connect with regular Uzbeks. As in any country, this is the best way to get to know a place and its people.

  9. Yahya says

    Absolutely true, cheating tourist is rampant in touristy sites…more so in poor countries.

    In Morocco I got cheated in the old town Medina, Fes and Marakech souqs. I was so enticed after sampling the juicy fat dates and delicious figs at one of the shops. Bought a 2 kilo box of figs in good faith but later found only the first layer was good and the rest were just fit for donkey’s food. In fact some wiggling worms were showing up by the time I arrived in my country. So was Marrakesh, I bought a small piece of amber for 125 dirham and later discovered it actually cost only 20 dirham! Even for a glass of juice, one can get ripped off. Ironically, I still love Morocco….but I’ll be smarter next time :)

  10. says

    @Yahya: I’m so sorry to hear about your experiences in Medina, Fes and Marakech! Once a person spends some time in a place, it’s easier to understand how things work and what regular prices are for things. But, it is unfortunate that you always have to be on guard in Tourist areas. Glad you still love Morocco!

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current ye@r *