Saturday, August 23, 2008

How the French and Italians spoiled Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand

It was the lust for the products of the exotic Far East that gave rise to the Silk Road. The doges of Venice and the Frankish Kings desired the silk and spices of the East and were willing to pay well for these products. Things have not changed over the Millenia.

In Khiva, Bukhara, and (we are told) Samarkand, there now exist two kinds of pricing - one for the locals and one for the tourists. Indeed, in many shops, you can no longer follow the age old practice of bargaining. We can now add Froman's Third Law of Travel: Whenever the first quoted price is in euros instead of the local currency, the battle is already lost.

Why? We have seen that the busloads of French and Italians just pay whatever is demanded; consequently, many merchants no longer bargain. After all, why negotiate prices with the Brits and American backpackers who do not come in busloads, when the next busload of Frenchmen will just buy up everything at the quoted price?

Not all commercial transactions are equal. Of course, silk, carpets, art objects, or clothing, have intrinsic value. More disturbing is the lack of a level playing field for simple transactions. After all, what should be the price of a 60 cl bottle of beer or a 100 gram stick of grilled shashlik, or a bowl of Uzbek soup? Items that are immediately consumed should cost the same for all. In the non-tourist areas of Uzbekistan, for all purchasers, the beer sells for 700 sum or so, the shashlik is 700- 1000, and the soup might be as much as 1400, especially if it has a reasonable amount of meat.

Neither the tourist areas nor the non-tourist areas have menus of any kind, so you sit down to eat as a matter of faith. Hence it is a shock when two [large] skewers of shashlik and a 50 cl beer suddenly end up costing us 12,000 sum (4000 for each skewer, 3000 for the beer, and 10% service charge). It is even more of a shock when you suspect, as we learned from an American exchange student who was visiting a local, that the non-tourist price for that meal at that same restaurant at the same time is closer to 4000 sum.

We tried to get a handle on this. In tourist Bukhara at a chaikhana where Lonely Planet (publ. Aug 2007) said that mains ran 1200 sum, we sat down for lunch on Aug 21. We ordered two kinds of soup, a plate of plov, bread and tea. We asked the young waiter to tell us the cost for the meal would be. He was unable to do so. The manager came by, and told us 9900. We agreed, and subsequently decided to add a beet salad and a bowl of yogurt. The manager came by, and we swear said the price was now 12300. We said, OK.

The meal was delicious, and it was pleasant being surrounded by both locals and tourists enjoying a sparkling afternoon. We left the 12300 on the table and got up to leave. The manager came by and said: "No, it's 13200." We know our numbers.

For Carol the icing on the cake was being charged 200 sum to stand in line to use the bathroom in the restaurant where we had just paid 13200.

We have decided that the only way to deal with this unfair situation, other than just sucking up and paying, is to avoid obvious tourist restaurants and other shops, especially those patronized by the French and Italians. Alternatively, we may have to get our bill in writing and pay it on the spot, before eating. Does this make us Ugly Americans?

Note: Carol thinks Mike is obsessed with this money issue.

1 comment:

Timothy said...

Mike is obsessed with this money thing.
As subsequent posts have proven, such pricing doesn't exist everywhere, so suck it up!

A wonderful blog so far! It would never have occurred to me the ancient "Silk Road" would be something to see!