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.
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:
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.
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.
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.