Finding Paikent and Varakhsha – two ancient Silk Road towns

Natascha in the ruins of Paikent near Bukhara

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.
ruins of ancient Paikent near Bukhara
Ancient storage jars in the ruins of Paikent

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.

ruins of ancient Paikent near Bukhara

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

ruins of Varakhsha near Bukhara
Excavations of the old silk road town of Varakhsha near Bukhara

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

ruins of Varakhsha near Bukhara

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.

Isa exploring Varachscha, and Paikent

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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  1. You have a very adventurous trip, finding the ruins of the old silk road. Although I can’t understand why locals don’t know where the locations of the historic sites near where they live. Probably when the government fix the access to these ruins and teach locals about the historic sites, they will get more tourists come to their town.

    1. Dear Umiko, “nearby” is a wobbly concept. For people without a car who do everything by foot, 20 km is a long distance. Thus they might have heard about the ruins, even been there once, but are not able to explain the path to others.

  2. What an interesting part of the world to visit. I’ve never heard of either of these places, but I think they are worth seeing. The structures are incredible and really let you see into the country’s history.

    1. I like to explore old ruins too. I think my favorite ruins are in Ostia Antica outside of Rome. I am glad you didn’t run into any problems driving to remote locations to find the ruins!

      1. Dear Tami, finding these old Silk Road ruins is always a challenge (it got easier however with GPS data). But that really makes for some explorer feeling.

  3. I am sure it has been fascinating to find the many stops along the old Silk Road. But I am sure that the journey to some of these spots is quite eventful. Especially when a cab driver really does not know how to get to Paikent. Varakhsha looks like it was worth finally getting there for a stroll through the ruins – even on a bad road.

    1. Dear Linda, sometimes finding theses old ruins is part of the fun. Usually everybody has heard about them but nobody knows exactly where they are! It always pays to gather as much information as possible beforehand to get the most out of a visit.

  4. What an incredible place to visit. I can see why it’s on the list to be designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site. What history, to know that it was settled from the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD is impressive to roam through the ruins and learn more of its history.

  5. Wow, I wouldn’t be happy if I paid someone to take me somewhere and they couldn’t get me there. Not sure I would have got out and walked. I would have been worried about how to get back. Great that it all worked out and good to know the road to Varakhsha is bad.

    1. Dear Sherianne, you get used to this problems in Central Asia (and also in Africa). People want you as a customer and they would always assure that they know the way in the hope of finding someone who helps them later.

  6. A very interesting post on the ancient ruins of Paikent and Varaksha. I’m amazed at how these civilizations flourished on silk route. Also the remarkable architecture displaying frescoes, pillars, arches and storage jars telling stories from the time.

  7. Wow, both offer a unique look into the life along the Silk Road centuries ago! There’s no doubt that these towns will give any traveler a memorable experience. Though they look barren and dry, the photos are suggestive of the history and mystery covering these places which make them all the more interesting.

    1. Dear Trisha, it definitely pays to read up on those places before you go there. We had also seen artefacts from Paikend and Varachsha in several museums. So actually standing at the excavation site added to the experience.

  8. A very interesting read on the ancient ruins of Paikent and Varaksha. It’s so heartwarming to understand how the civilizations of yesteryears flourished on the silk route. The remarkable architecture tell a story in themselves. Such a wonderful journey. The Uzbekistan terrain looks just fabulous.

    1. Dear Subashih Roy, actually you need a lot of imagination to see the former silk road town at these sites. I is a good idea to read up as much as possible before you go there. Uzbekistan is a great place to visit, but I would recommend the cities like Buchara, Samarkand and Chiwa for a first time visit.

  9. I would love exploring the ancient ruins. It’s like you can feel the layers of history and the people who lived it when you are in places like that.

    1. Dear Donnamarie, the Silk Road is for sure a fascinating piece of history. However these old towns do not offer any explanation on what you are seeing. That makes it sometimes difficult (for me at least) to imagine the people who lived there once.

  10. What a fascinating place to visit and learn more about the history of the silk road. We have visited ancient ruins in the US and Mexico, but not in this region.

  11. Such an interesting place. In general, not many people visit this part of the world. This region has always been connected with India, where I live. India was also part of the silk route because many spices, fabric etc moved via this route. Some people enjoy the fact that visiting this part involves a lot of adventure like finding places which are not well-marked or not known.

    1. Yes, indeed. For us finding this old towns is part of the fun. We usually try to find out as much as possible before we go. We sometimes go to the library and seek out excavation reports to get a better understanding of what we are going to see there.

  12. Paikent and Varakhsha sound very mysterious. I haven’t heard of these places before. A trip along the silk trail must be an extraordinary adventure—a very inspiring post.

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