Uzbekistan Currency – The Strange Som

The Uzbekistan currency, the Som, is quite interesting in a number of ways.

Firstly, because of the instability in the Som and its high rate of inflation, the US dollar is used in parallel (i.e. you can pay for most things in both currencies). There is an official exchange rate and also a black-market exchange rate (or the more appropriately named unofficial exchange rate, as everyone exchanges openly at the unofficial rate). The official exchange rate is around 1100 Som to a dollar, whilst the black-market exchange rate is 2800 Som to a dollar, which means you can exchange over 150% more on the black-market.

Now, you can further save because you have the option to pay in dollars or Som, for example an official hotel or attraction will have a dollar entry cost, but because they are official, they will use the official exchange rate and so paying in Som will save 60%. On the other side, an unofficial hotel will use the local black market rate, which as a tourist you will have difficulty obtaining, so it is marginally better to pay with dollars.

Secondly, the highest denomination is a one thousand Som note.  If you exchange a single 100 US dollar note at the black-market rate, you will get 280, one thousand Som notes! This is a stack about an inch (three centimetres) thick. To pay for lunch, hand over around 25 notes, taxis between major cities, you better start counting the notes about five minutes before you arrive at your destination. I have never seen restaurants with the need for note-counting machines till Uzbekistan. We saw one man without a wallet, but a wad of folded notes straight in his back pocket. As Sonya mentioned, imagine having to pay for everything with fifty cent coins.

280 thousand Som notes equal to 100 USD

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

We arrived in Tashkent in the afternoon by a shared-taxi and went straight to the Kyrgyzstan embassy. We had made the mistake of not applying for enough time on our visas, and our Kazakhstan visa had already expired (before even entering the country). We had read that the Kyrgyzstan visa could be processed the same day (for a fee) so we decided to head straight into Kyrgyzstan and then onto Kashgar in China. Fortunately, we managed to get the visa in time, only one day prior to our Uzbekistan visa expiring.

Tashkent is like any other capital city, quite modern with a mix of people. One of the great things was the metro.  A fixed 700 Som could get you anywhere on the line, but what was really interesting was the underground subways, apparently designed in the Soviet era to withstand a nuclear bomb, each station had lavishly designed interiors. However there didn’t seem to be a concern for passenger safety, with trains starting and stopping rather abruptly and doors closing seconds after the train had arrived at the platform.

We briefly stopped at the Uzbekistan History Museum which had the usual collection of ancient artefacts. Uzbekistan has had a number of political and religious changes through history, and was visible in the vast collection.

Museum of History and Archaeology Ancient stone tools one-million five-thousand years oldMuseum of History and Archaeology Statuette of a priest V to IV century BCMuseum of History and Archaeology Buddha with monks I to III century AD
Museum of History and Archaeology Bodhisattva I to II century ADMuseum of History and Archaeology Ceramic dish X to XII centuryMuseum of History and Archaeology Statuettes from ceramic XII century AD

One of the more interesting experiences we had in Tashkent was the Uzbekistan theatre. We had read that the theatre was worth checking out and ticket prices were inexpensive. We found one theatre and purchased tickets for some Russian musical for 14000 Som. Upon arriving later in the night, we were informed that the performance had changed, with the name again in Russian. When the performers arrived on stage in black, sat on stools with paper notes, we realised it was going to be numerous monologues, all in Russian. We could understand the first five minutes which was determining where the audience was from ethnically – whether Uzbek, Kazakh, Uighur, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, Russian, etc, and realised the multiculturalism of Uzbekistan (or something along those lines) was the topic of the night. The rest of the performance was rather a blur, though, even though we could not understand the majority of it, it was still an interesting experience.

Gabt Im. Navoi Theatre
Crying Mother Monument

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

We arrived in Samarkand from Khiva at 6:30am on the overnight sleeper train. While not as comfortable as the Turkmenistan train (due to lack of a cooling system), it was still a good way to travel between cities as it meant avoiding having to squeeze into a shared taxi and a bumpy ride on the pothole ridden roads of Central Asia.

We headed straight to the Bohadir B&B which was in the LP, as well as being recommended to us by other travellers in Bukhara.  They gave us a double with bathroom for US$9 each including breakfast, which we were happy with. We had some brekkie and headed out to explore. The B&B is located right next to Samarkand’s Registran so as we walked out we saw the breathtaking view of the Registran’s medrassas. It was noticeably cooler than it had been in Bukhara and Khiva.

We started off at the Registran but realised we need to exchange some money so headed to Siob Bazaar. It was not hard to find a money exchanger on the black market – almost every shopkeeper exchanges or knows someone who does!

Bibi Khanym Mosque

We then headed to the grandiose Bibi Khanym Mosque. It is massive at forty-one metres high. This mosque was built for Bibi Khanym, the Great Timur’s Chinese wife. Apparently the architect fell in love with Bibi and Timur had him executed. We crossed the road over to the Bibi Khanym Mausoleum which has brilliantly restored interior. The lady there offered us to climb the ‘minaret’ for 5000 Som which turned out to be the tin roof of the mausoleum, but it had great views of the Bibi Khanym Mosque and nearby Shah I Zinda.

Turquoise fluted dome of Bibi-Khanym MosqueBibi-Khanym MosqueInner courtyard of Bibi-Khanym Mosque
Blue mosaics of Bibi-Khanym MosqueSide entrance of the Bibi-Khanym MosqueHard carved and painted wooden being sold at the Bibi-Khanym Mosque
Intricate wooden carving at the Bibi-Khanym mausoleumTiles of the Bibi-Khanym mausoleumTiles of the Bibi-Khanym mausoleum
Stalactites of the Bibi-Khanym mausoleumBibi-Khanym mausoleumBibi-Khanym mausoleum

Hazrat Hizr Mosque

Next was a visit to the 8th century Hazrat Hizr Mosque, beautifully decorated in pastel colours with wooden columns.

Hazrat-Hizr MosquePascal minaret at Hazrat-Hizr MosquePascal coloured Hazrat-Hizr Mosque
Colourful mosaics at Hazrat-Hizr MosqueIntricate tile work at Hazrat-Hizr MosqueInner dome of Hazrat-Hizr Mosque
Stalactites of the Hazrat-Hizr MosqueThe outer kiblah of the Hazrat-Hizr MosqueInner dome pattern at Hazrat-Hizr Mosque

Shah I Zinda

We headed to the spectacular Shah I Zinda, avenue of mausoleums, a truly brilliant array of mausoleums (including that of Qusam ibn Abbas, cousin of Prophet Mohammed) with beautiful tile work, mosaics – a feast for the eyes! It is a pilgrimage site and many of the tombs were covered in Som (Uzbek currency) notes.

One of the many highly mosaiced tombs at Shahi-ZindaInner dome of one of the tombs at Shahi-ZindaInterior of one of the more lavish tombs at Shahi-Zinda
Intricate blue and white mosaics at Shahi-ZindaTurquoise domes of two tombs at Shahi-ZindaAvenue of mausoleums at Shahi-Zinda
Avenue of mausoleums at Shahi-ZindaAvenue of mausoleums at Shahi-ZindaThe entrance of Shahi-Zinda (avenue of mausoleums)


An ancient Samarkand site of Afrosiab is located near to Shah I Zinda, so we decided to visit this next. While the site itself is mostly in ruins, the museum houses a 7th century fresco of KKing Vokhaouman (Sodgian period) and some Afrosiab history.

In the evening we headed back to the B&B and it started raining heavily. Thunder bellowed and lightening struck.

The Registran

The following morning we headed to the Registran, one of the most spectacular sights in Samarkand. Our B&B was just a stone throw away, so we’d walked past it a number of times but decided to explore the interior medressas on our second day. There are three magnificent medressas – the Ulugbek Medressa, named after Timur’s grandson Ulugbek, famed for his passion for astronomy and mathematics, the Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa which depict liger-like creatures (in order to align with Islamic regulations around depicting animals) which are frequently used in Uzbekistan artwork and handicrafts, and the Tilla Kari Medressa which insides contains extremely well restored mosque with its elaborately gold-decorated dome.

After we went in search of a bank (Asaka Bank) and an internet cafe, taking a walk along the streets of old Samarkand.  There seemed to be a lot of restoration going on in the streets of the old town.  We had lunch at a restaurant – plov, two salads and green tea.

East wall of the Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa part of the RegistanFluted turquoise dome of the Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa part of the RegistanFluted turquoise dome of the Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa part of the Registan
Sculpture of Kazizoda Rumi, Mirzo Ulughbek, Ghiyasiddin Jamshed, Muhammad Khavofi and Ali Kushchi at scientific discussionThe inner court of Ulugbek Medressa part of the RegistanThe inner court of Ulugbek Medressa part of the Registan
Turquoise dome of the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) MedressaTurquoise dome of the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) MedressaTilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa part of the Registan
The gold-leaf of the Tilla-Kari Medressa part of the RegistanThe inner dome painted blue and gold in the Tilla-Kari Medressa part of the RegistanThe gold-leaf of the Tilla-Kari Medressa part of the Registan
The inner court of the Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa still under restorationPainters restoring the interior walls of the Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa,The entrance portal of Ulugbek Medressa part of the Registan
Ulugbek Medressa part of the RegistanThe entrance portal of the Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa part of the RegistanSher Dor (Lion) Medressa part of the Registan
Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa part of the RegistanThe entrance portal of the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa part of the RegistanThe three Medressas making up the Registan
Sonya and Travis at the Registan, SamarkandThe entrance portal of the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa part of the RegistanTilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa part of the Registan

Guri Amir Mausoleum

We then headed to the Guri Amir Mausoleum which contains the tombs of Timur, his sons and grandsons (including Ulugbek). We also popped into the Ak-Saray Mausoleum hidden in a back alley behind the Guri Amir.

Blue fluted azure dome at Guri Amir MausoleumGuri Amir Mausoleum with blue fluted azure domeGuri Amir Mausoleum with blue fluted azure dome
Inside the Guri Amir Mausoleum hallwayGold and blue mosaics at the Guri Amir MausoleumGold and blue mosaics at the Guri Amir Mausoleum
Gold and blue mosaics at the Guri Amir MausoleumEntrance of Guri Amir Mausoleum with blue fluted azure domeGuri Amir Mausoleum

The following morning we caught a shared taxi to Tashkent, 55,000som per person for the three hour journey.

Khiva, Uzbekistan

Khiva is located around 500km north-west of Bukara and situated almost on the Turkmenistan border. To get there from Bukara we caught a shared taxi, shared taxis are a great form of transport, the only negative is you need to wait for all four seats to fill up, and this time we waited over two hours for two passengers to fill the car.

A former capital of the Khwarezmian civilization in the ancient Khwarezmia region, the Itchan Kala is the main former walled city of Khiva and contains over fifty monuments, most tiled with blue mosaics.

One of the nicest of these monuments is the unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret, a beautiful fifteen metres in diameter and twenty-nine metres high. The one-third complete minaret is covered in blue mosaics.

We spent a day wandering the Itchan Kala before catching an overnight sleeper train to Samarkand.

West entrance gate to Khivas Ichon Qala with unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret visible behindBlue mosaics of the unfinished Kalta Minor MinaretMap of all the inner buildings with blue highlights indicating blue mosaics
Khiva map with minaret in the backgroundJuma MinaretIslom-Hoja Minaret
Mud brick buildings in Khivas Ichon QalaAlloquli Khan MedressaAlloquli Khan Medressa
Water channels on a mud brick wallThe western wall of Khivas Itchan KalaTravis and Sonya with the Khivas Itchan Kala in the background
Looking through Oq Shihbobo bastion towards Khivas Itchan KalaThe unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret and Muhammad Amin Khan MedressaOverlooking Khivas Itchan Kala from the west wall
Overlooking eastern Khivas Itchan Kala from the west wallMuhammad Amin Khan Medressalom-Hoja Minaret and Medressa
Mohammed Rakhim Khan MedressaNorth entrance gate to Ichon QalaInside one of the many Medressa inside the Itchan Kala
Uzbek family playing traditional musicMinarets on Mohammed Rakhim Khan MedressaOne of the many alleys in Khivas Itchan Kala
Looking past Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medressa towards the west entranceMohammed Rakhim Khan Medressa with Islom-Hoja Minaret visible in the backgroundThe bazaars in-between the historic buildings
The bazaars around the Kalta Minor Minaret selling local Uzbek handicraftsWooden carved walking sticks being soldOne of the many turquoise mosaic minarets
Wooden column base in Tosh-Hovli PalaceOne of the original wooden columns on display in Tosh-Hovli PalaceThe wooden columns in Juma Mosque
View of west Ichon Qala and unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret from Juma MinaretView of Islom-Hoja Minaret from Juma MinaretView of west Ichon Qala and unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret from Juma Minaret
Entrance to Islom-Hoja MedressaMinaret of Islom-Hoja MedressaInside Sherghozi Khan Medressa