I generally don’t carry a lot of cash. This extended trip is no exception. Where did the screw up start?
# I love Bishkek
Between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. I have been changing money between borders, e.g. I successfully changed Azerbaijani Manat into Georgian Lari at a Tbilisi metro station money exchange, successfully changed Georgian Lari into Armenian Drams at a money exchange between the two borders. I also changed my Kazakhstani Tenge into Kyrgyzstani Som at an Almaty moneychanger.
At the Bishkek airport, I had 2000 Kyrgzystani Som (almost ~30 USD), but didn’t find a money exchange at the airport. I didn’t think too much about it, figuring that I probably can change that into Uzbekistani Som at the Tashkent International Airport. That assumption, however, was the first domino to fall.
I had set aside 50 USD to pay for the 40 USD Tajikistani visa on arrival (it’s 50 USD for an electronic visa – I also read elsewhere erroneously that I needed to apply 5 working days in advance, so I was outside the window). The Tashkent International Airport money exchange only exchanges the following currencies: USD, Euros, Chinese Yuan, and Russian Rubles. Of the list, I only had USD hard currency on me. I figured, no biggie – I’ll just change 10 USD so I will have the bus fare into town, and then grab some cash in an Uzbekistani ATM.
# Tashkent Loves You
That was the second domino to fall: Uzbekistan has weird ATMs. Cirrus, Plus (and more recently), UnionPay are some common ATM processors. For some odd reason or other, ATMs in Tashkent only have (more commonly) Visa and Mastercard. Que??? Apparently, you are supposed to do a cash advance of sorts on the ATMs to get cash, assuming the ATMs aren’t empty.
Well, what’s the problem? Several years ago, I was the victim of a very bad spate of bank fraud. Both my USA and Singapore bank accounts got cleaned out by some asshole(s), because they used my debit cards to run up purchases. It took months before various banks returned my money to me. For a while, I lived off $12 for weeks. Since then, I no longer have a debit card. I have an ATM card on the Plus system. I also carry a lot of credit cards, as it’s a lot easier to dispute charges than debit cards. Also, it’s not tied to my bank account.
If I have so many credit cards, why can’t I get cash from ATMs? Well, although I have several credit cards, I don’t have a single credit card that uses chip and pin. None of my credit cards actually have a pin, making ATM withdrawals impossible. Uh oh.
Registan Ensemble in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Living off $10 for 3 days in Uzbekistan is actually not hard. I usually travel by buses, and eat cheaply. Unfortunately for me, my flight from Tashkent to Dushanbe was at 7.35 am. Buses in Tashkent don’t start at 5.30 am. This would have cut things a bit too close. Given that there are only that many direct flights a week between Tashkent and Dushanbe, I had to make that flight. So now, I had to take a cab to the airport, which according to research, will cost ~$3-$4. My (credit card) alternative was to book a hotel car for $60.
All the cash that can’t be used
The day before my trip to Tajikistan, I decided to see what I could do to solve this problem. I looked more in-depth into the Tajikistani electronic visa. More research threw up a range of answers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the visa ranges from immediate, to a couple of hours, to a few working days. There were many data points suggesting that it can get approved in under 24 hrs, so I decided I shall take a shot on the electronic visa. I figured I had about 16 hrs to get it approved, and I can check it at the Bishkek airport using my phone.
If the above fails, hopefully, there will be a working ATM in Tajikistan that’s hopefully different from Uzbekistan’s ATMs … or perhaps a moneychanger that will take Kyrgyzstan Som, or maybe Japanese Yen (digging deep here – I found spare cash in my wallet).
Google’s ProjectFi is not available in Tajikistan
In the wee hours of the morning, my incessant checking of my e-mail in the Tashkent airport yielded nada. Let’s hope that it gets approved while I’m in the air.
The Bishkek International Airport is a special kind of hell. There is nothing between disembarking from the plane, and getting to immigration. Also, while my ProjectFi data roaming has worked into most countries I’ve visited thus far, well, Tajikistan is not in its coverage zone. Talk about bad timing.
The immigration control also didn’t have these things: 1) Free wifi; 2) Money Changer; 3) ATM. Boy, are we in a pickle! I have $30 in cash, and some Japanese Yen, but that’s not going to help me. It is starting to become apparent that I would probably have to purchase a Tajikistani visa on arrival as well, but I was short of $10.
True Heroes Don’t Wear Capes
At the Visa on Arrival counter, an Israeli guy actually had to purchase a VOA, because his country is not eligible for electronic visa. I decided to ask him how much the VOA is, because there’s also conflicting information online (the rules flux quite a bit, so information is time sensitive). He confirmed it is $40 – I was hoping against hope it’s less, or they take other currencies.
Eventually, I explained my situation to the Israeli gentleman. Without much ado, he simply handed over $10, and offered to wait with me while I sort out my visa issues.
This is probably one of the most humbling experiences in my life, as I had to bum $10 off a total stranger for the first time in my life. The truth is, heroes aren’t dressed in capes. Heroes are people who basically put faith in other human beings.
Well, as it turns out, my electronic visa did get approved before the plane even landed (I saw the time stamp on my e-mail later). It was actually in their system, but the Tajikistani visa office at the airport just decided to hold some of us who didn’t print it out to shake us down (probably for extra cash).
I was actually approved 20min before my flight touched down
After one hour of holding us there, and as it became increasingly apparent that we weren’t going to pay up, they simply stamped us in. For future reference, do print out a copy of your electronic visa to avoid problems.
I did eventually find Eldad (the Israeli gentleman who generously spotted me $10) in Dushanbe to return his money. You’re a true hero. And yes, I know my problem was self-inflicted.