Today I got to experience the complicated process of withdrawing cash from an Uzbek bank. And I ended up with over half a million Som in my hands (wrapped in a plastic bag).
Whenever I have needed cash throughout the trip, I’ve simply gone to an ATM and withdrawn funds in the local currency. It’s worked very well, as there is no need to enter a bank and there is usually no waiting at an ATM. Things are a bit different in Uzbekistan. Inflation is very high and local money is worth less and less each day. There’s a strong desire to acquire foreign currency, such as US dollars and the Euro, so there is a thriving black market of money changers, all keen to offer you a good rate to get hold of dollars and Euros (which actually increase in value against the local currency as time goes by).
Whilst several banks have ATMs in their lobby, they are almost all unplugged. Secondly, banks are brand-specific when it comes to the plastic that they’ll process. You can’t use a Visa card at a Mastercard bank, for example. Then there are some banks that don’t take plastic at all.
First I went to the National Bank that is reported to do cash advances on Visa card. For some unknown reason, they gave me two different options – other than themselves. The first one wasn’t too far away, so I tried that first.
The first step was getting past the bank security, for which I needed to show my passport. Then I was sent to an office with a sign saying something about ‘plastic’ on the door. When the lady served me, she asked for my passport and then a ‘hotel concession form’. I didn’t know what that was but it turned out to be the registration document that the hotel provides to say you are staying there. With my bonafides established, I was taken to an upstairs room where there was a small hand-held credit card machine, like those used by retailers. The clerk used the machine to get my ‘purchase’ authorized but it came back saying my PIN was incorrect (it wasn’t). So, I was out of luck as far as the Mastercard debit card was concerned.
The next option was the Kapital Bank, which I was told was a long way and I would need a taxi. I knew the general direction and started to walk at first. I saw two other banks along the way, and thought I’d ask if they did cash advances on visa. They didn’t. But then I received another random act of kindness. Two employees of that last bank that I checked offered to hail a taxi for me to take me to the Kapital Bank which was still a long way. Then, they had a quick conversation and told me to get in their car. I think they were leaving to go for lunch anyway, as I heard the word ‘pizza’. Anyway, these two gentlemen drove me all the way to the Kapital Bank – and it was a long way to have walked.
What a pleasant surprise though – Kapital Bank had a working ATM outside the bank. And it churned out brand new $100 US bills! They charged a 2.5% fee for cash advances but that was worth it to avoid the procedures at other banks.
A little later, whilst getting a taxi ride, the driver offered to change money for me. He offered me a rate of 2,900 Som to one US dollar. Two days ago, I got a ‘good rate’ of 2,600 to one, whilst the official exchange rate is currently about 2,290. With an agreement to change $200 US, the taxi was parked in a shady spot whilst the driver accessed his ‘bank’ in the trunk of the car. Six wads of cash were handed to me to count. I got 580,000 Som – over a half-million Som – for my $200 US. The wads were too big to fit in my pockets, as they were almost all 1,000 Som bills, so he also gave me a plastic bag to carry them in.
Tomorrow, I will take a couple of wads of cash and go looking for diesel.