Over the years, our interest in the old silk road routes has brought us to quite a lot of old mud brick ruins in Central Asia. We have stomped around in the desert near Termiz, searched for the silk road town of Akyrtas, and for the proto-urban settlement of Sarazm. This time we have set our mind on finding the ruined towns of Paikent and Varakhsha. Both settlements, we know, are not very far away from Bukhara. Thus, during our two days in town we set out to explore them.
„To Qoraköl? Ah, to the border, yes?“ Today we have only a small daypack between the two of us. Nevertheless, the shared-taxi driver naturally assumes we want to go to Turkmenistan. After all, there’s nothing else in the direction of Qoraköl where tourists might want to go.
Except for the ruins of ancient Paikent!
A road trip to the ruins
They must be somewhere close to Qoraköl, a village along the way to the border.
„Do you know the ruins?“we ask the driver.
Paikent, yes of course he knows, let’s go! We agree on a price for two seats. He already has another passenger going to the border, so we set off quickly. The other passenger even quibbs in: Paikent is not far from Sayyob, he has been there, too, no problem.
When we pass the road sign pointing to Paikent to the left, our driver does not stop. Instead he insists on bringing us there. The next u-turn opportunity offers itself only 10 km further down the road. Now, the „knowledgeable“ third passenger advises a dirt track and then a small road through villages off the main road.
During the next ten minutes it turns out that none of them actually knows where Paikent is. We stop now and again to ask locals. This direction, they say, very far away. It seems complicated, but then, Uzbeks in our experience have no very clear concept of distances and directions: Very far may mean 2 km, or 20. At some point we decide to walk along the desert paths rather than hoping for the driver to find the right road, asking everyone we pass about the whereabouts of the ruins. All the locals know what we are looking for and point us in the right direction until we can see the plateau with the ruins in the distance.
A find in the desert: The Paikent Museum
For the last few kilometers a car going in the opposite direction gives us a lift. The driver doesn’t even want money, it’s an opportunity to say hello to the museum curator, a neighbour, and pick some ripe apricots from a tree in the courtyard. The Paikent museum, a concrete block in the desert with only a few apricot plantations around, turns out to have a surprisingly good collection, well-presented, and the curator is all too happy to show it off to visitors.
From the museum we walk to the excavation site, a large hill with still-visible adobe brick fortifications and an impressive citadel. We find the large palace hall with brick flooring still in place, the minaret stump and the mosque with huge pillars. Some rooms still have arched doorways, and storage jars are visible in the floors of houses. But of course mostly it is only foundations that are visible.
Paikent, which has meanwhile become part of the UNESCO World Heritage, was settled from the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD. In its heyday during the Hephtalite and early Arabic period, the 18 ha large city had a citadel with a Zoroastrian fire temple and later a mosque, several residential quarters, and numerous craftshops, even a pharmacy. Much of it is still unexcavated, but century-old ceramique fragments litter the desert floor.
The ruins of Varakhsha
The next day, one of the taxi drivers we pass in Bukhara offers us a surprisingly good price for an excursion to Varakhsha, another old silk road town we have read about and seen excavated objects from. We agree to meet him later in the afternoon to avoid the midday heat. When we set off he asks whether he could bring his wife: she would be interested.
This driver, we realize soon, also has only a vague idea of Varakhsha’s location and has to ask around a lot. In addition he clearly didn’t anticipate the road to be as bad and the ride so time-consuming. We worry a bit that he will refuse to go along the bad road or demand more money. But as it turns out the „wife“ is less interested in ancient history than in spending some quality time with our driver. As soon as we saunter off to explore the ruins, they drape the windows with some cloth. We don’t mind, because this way everyone is quite content with the deal.
The tell, or archaeological mound again is quite visible from far away, but the excavations comprise only a small area around the citadel. Huge adobe fortifications, some gateways still arched, corridors and cells with high walls where hundreds of birds are nisting.
Varakhsha, a final retreat for local kings
Varakhsha was one of the major towns of the Hephtalite civilisation in the oasis of Bukhara, and it was the final retreat for the local kings when the Arab armies advanced. The archaeologists unearthed a palace here with exquisite frescoes showing battle scenes and wild animals.
But of course these finds are in the museums (in Tashkent and St. Petersburg), and the site itself offers nothing more than wall foundations and some pottery sherds. It is possible, however, to walk around the whole of the triangular fortifications.
As with most of the old silk road cities, we find the enormous man-made hills (tells) impressive that only grew from the rubbish of century-long settlement. We are also always suprised how close today’s main roads follow the old silk route: Most of these ancient towns are only a few kilometers away from major roads, and even more smaller tells visible from the roads indicate the old network of trading posts.
How to get to Paikent and Varakhsha
Paikent is about 5 km from the main road between Bukhara and Alat / Turkmen border. From the town of Qaraköl the access road is signposted, but turns into a dirt track and later forks out. By then, the tell is already visible to the Northwest. The museum is located 500 m west of the ruins. Shared taxis can drop you at the turn-off; from there you will need a lift or walk. For the way back to Bukhara you can wait for the bus or hitchhike.
Varakhsha, 30 km northwest of Bukhara and almost as far from the smaller towns of Jondor and Romitan, is more difficult to access. The next village accessible by public transport is Romish. This is another 10 km from the ruins, on a very bad and rarely used road, so you might very well have to walk. We went in low season and paid around 18$ (in Som, at an inofficial exchange rate) for the return trip by taxi including waiting time. However, we have also had quotes two times as high at other times.
Both Paikent and Varakhsha are openly accessible and have no guardian nor entrance fees. You can contact us for the exact GPS data.
Is it worth going to Paikent and Varakhsha?
Considering the bad road to Varakhsha, in spite of the splendid archaeological finds that were made there it is not a very rewarding site to visit, although it is nice enough to stroll through the ruins. Paikent, on the other hand, was „merely“ a rich merchants’ town without an aristocratic palace, but the ruins are rather impressive and the museum is surprisingly good (some English explanations as well). With a car, it is a rather straightforward excursion from Bukhara, and even on public transport perfectly manageable if you are prepared to walk a few kilometers from the main road in case you can’t get a lift.
In 2023, the UNESCO inscribed both Paikent and Varakhsha on the UNESCO World Heritage list as part of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor.
NB: Our travels to Paikent and Varakhsha were not sponsored in any way. We paid all travel expenses ourselves.
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