The short answer is yes. As I arrived in Uzbekistan from Turkmenistan, I became accustomed to the Turkmenistan Manat [one equals approx. US$2.80] or to simply pay in U.S. dollars. When I first arrived in Uzbekistan after several hours navigating the bureaucracy of a border crossing by land, I arrived at my hotel, a former caravanserai just outside the Bukhara city center. The young Uzbek working at the hotel offered to change money.
Great, I thought, that is one less detail to deal with. Between my travel companions and I we decided to exchange US$400. When the young Uzbek returned, he met me in my room with a plastic bag full of cash – over 1 million Uzbek soms. What made this startling moment even more ridiculous was that the largest bills to be had were denominations of 1000 som notes, and more than half of the bag was full of 500 som notes. If you do the math you will get a picture of the amount of cash we are talking about.
Fortunately I usually carry a small Swiss Freitag bag [affectionately known as my man purse] while traveling. Unfortunately, I had to empty most everything out of it to accommodate the newfound riches that I carried. It was indeed a bag full of cash.
While the official exchange rate fluctuates between 2300 and 2800 som to the U.S. dollar, tourists generally get 2500 or so per dollar. That much cash allowed me to put my pinky finger to my lip, look at the camera, and confidently state à la an Austin Powers villain, “one million som.”
In practical usage, the fact that there are no bills available bigger than 1000 som notes makes paying for things quite cumbersome. At our first modest dinner, for example, the bill came to 66,500 som. Wanting to get rid of the 500 som notes first, we paid with 101 five hundred som notes and 16 one thousand som notes. It was a stack of currency 117 high, the kind only Mitt Romney’s followers usually see.
The ridiculousness of the currency situation only slightly outweighed the awe at watching the locals count the currency with lightning fast precision, a skill no doubt learned at an early age.
If you plan on visiting Uzbekistan – and you should – just be prepared to carry around an amount of currency only normally carried by someone with the dreaded surname of Trump.