Penjikent is a city in Tajikistan.
Substantially closer to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, than to Dushanbe, Penjikent is the old center of the Sogdian empire. It lies at the entrance to Zeravshan Valley, one of Tajikstan's main touristic attractions. Around the modern town and in its museum you will find remains of the pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian civilization. The remains of this Sogdian city are just out of town, on a hill overlooking the valley. You can wander around the site without being bothered by anyone. Unfortunately,there are hardly any signs explaining what is what. The director of the museum just next to the site is able to explain everything in detail though. You may also find some excavators here, and students from St. Petersburg willing to tell you about their work and finds.
The town has a another small museum with Soviet memorabilia and stuffed animals as well as impressive finds from the excavations nearby -- wall paintings from the 5th century, with faded colors but recognizable motifs and hunting scenes.
Shaivism was popular in Sogdiana and Eastern Turkestan as found from the wall painting from Penjikent on the river Zervashan. In this depiction, Lord Shiva is portrayed with a sacred halo and a sacred thread ("Yajnopavita"). He is clad in tiger skin while his attendants are wearing Sodgian dress. In Eastern Turkestan in the Taklamakan Desert. There is a depiction of his four-legged seated cross-legged n a cushioned seat supported by two bulls.
You can also do excellent treks in the surrounding Fan Mountains and further up the Zeravshan Valley. Penjikent is usually visited from Samarkand as part of a tour along the Silk route, other entry points are Dushanbe in the South or Khujand in the North. For the latter routes, you will have to cross high passes though. This means that Penjikent is often isolated from the rest of the country during wintertime.
The name Penjikent is derived from "panj" (five) and "kant" (settlements), meaning "five settlements". Rudaki, the founder of Persian-Tajik literature called "Adam of poets", was born in Panjakent.
The ruins of ancient Penjikent are situated in the Zarafshan Valley about 60 km east of Samarkand. Penjikent was the easternmost city of Sogdia. The site is being excavated from 1947 onwards. Excavations were led by Y.Yakubovsky, A.Belenitsky and B.Marshak of the Ermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Due to the long period of excavations, Penjikant has become one of the most thoroughly studied early medieval cities in all Asia. Excavations show that Penjikent was founded in the 5th cent and was inhabited until the 770s.
Penjikent is famous for the outstanding frescoes. Today, a few of them are exhibited in the small Rudaki Museum at Penjikent, but most of them are exhibited in Dushanbe and the Ermitage in St. Petersburg.
Ancient Panjakent was a town of the Soghdians. The Soghdians were a people of an Iranian language. They belonged to the most important peoples in Central Asia before arrival of the Islam. The name Soghd or Soghdian is mentionned in historical sources of the Achaemenid Empire (6th cent BC). The Soghdians founded several city-states in the Zarafshan Valley and colonies along the Silk Road from the Crimea to China and Mongolia. Ancient Panjakent was the capital of the state of Panch. The town dates to the 5th cent. AD. It was inhabited by rich merchants and land-owners. The Arabs conquered Panjakent in 722. The last ruler, named Devashtich, fled into the mountains, but he was captured and sentenced to death. People stayed in Panjakent under the rule of the caliphate, but towards the end of the 8th century, the city was abandoned.
Most visitors enter Panjakent and the Zeravshan valley from Samarkand, which is just accross the border to Uzbekistan. You will need a valid Tajik visa to enter and a double/multi-entry Uzbek visa if you intend to return the same way you came. There is no public transport crossing the border and unless you have arranged your trip through one of the many Uzbek tour agents, you will have to switch taxis at the border. Taxis leave from Pandjakent Koutchasi, the south eastern part of the Registan. The trip to the border takes about 30 minutes and costs US$3 per person. From the border, the trip takes another 30 minutes and costs another US$3 per person. Travel agents at Samarkand organize the trip for about US$40 (including transportation, guide, admission fee and "border crossing fee").
Warning: as of January 2012, the Samarkand-Panjakent border crossing is closed, with no signs of opening in the future.
From Khujand or Dushanbe, it is a spectacular but exhausting 7-10h trip to Panjakent in shared taxi. In 2009, the price for a seat is about 140TJS for the Dushanbe-Panjakent bit. The roads range from virtually absent to spectacularly good, depending on whether you travel on the original road or one of the bits already repaired.
The distance from Dushanbe is about 230 km. You will have to pass Varzob Gorge and go over the 3,370 m high Anzab Pass. In 2006, the 5 km long Anzab Tunnel has been opened. From Khujand, you will have to pass the Shakristan Pass with a height of 3,380 m.
Panjakent also has a airport from which small planes occasionally fly to Dushanbe. There is no schedule. Normally, if the passes are closed and enough potential travellers have assembled, Tajik air runs a trip or two.
Panjakent is stretched along the south banks of the Zeravshan River. There is one bus line (not surprisingly bearing the number 1), which is running along the main Road (Rudaki) connecting the far ends of this small city. For other explorations, you will have to rely on taxis or wave down any car going into the desired direction, which is a common practice in Tajikistan. Note though that drivers will expect as small as a contribution to their fuel costs.
You can do excellent treks in the surrounding Fan Mountains and further up the Zeravshan Valley.
The Fannsky Gory (Fan Mountains) are one of Central Asia's most popular trekking areas. You can do a day trip from Panjakent to the Seven Lakes (Marquzor Lakes), about 60 km south of Panjakent. It costs about US$ 40 to hire a car from Panjakent (2007). Anothe favourite place is Iskander Kul, a mountain lake about 25 km south of the Panjakent Dushanbe road. There is, however, no public transport to the lake. The former Soviet holiday camp offers accomodation for 20TJS (2007) and a great lakeside restaurant. The lake is at an altitude of nearly 2200 m.
After having done the mandatory cultural tour, got stocked up on goodies on the bustling market in the center of town. Since it got modernized and reorganized, it lost quite a lot of its original charm, but it will still allow an impressive vision of traditional Tadjikistan on a busy day. Note that there is a another market (for clothes mainly further east (not far from to the main bus terminal). Products there are fancy and cheap, but of dubious origin and quality.
Travel agencies will also offer a variety of homestay accomodation (from 5 USD with breakfast) or let you a complete appartment (10-15 USD/night). This may often be a better pick.
There is a number of tour operators in Penjikent which can organize about everything in Penjikent and the Zerafshan Valley. Those having a webpage are listed below:
Zeravshan Tourism Development Association - A network of small providers offering Community Based Tourism products with special emphasis on cultural and ecological sustainability. Supported by international development organisations. Excellent for arranging custom made tours and accomodation for the individual and group traveller. http://www.ztda-tourism.tj
Pamir-Travel, one of the biggest and most experienced operators in Penjikent. http://www.travel-pamir.com (Nematov Niyozgul, Rudaki 22/16 - ask for ostanovka samarkand)
Note (as of late 2012): the border crossing between Penjikent and Samarkand has been closed since 2010 and is not likely to open soon. Most visitors leave Penjikent and the Zeravshan valley to Samarkand. There is no public transport crossing the border, so you will have to switch taxis at the border. The trip to the border takes about 30 minutes and costs US$3 per person. From the border, the trip takes another 30 mins and costs another US$3 per person. Taxis arrive at Samarkand at Pendjikent Koutchasi, the south eastern part of the Registan.
From Penjikent to Khujand or Dushanbe, it is a spectacular but exhausting 7-10h trip to in shared taxi. In 2009, the price for a seat is about 140TJS.
Flight to Dushanbe operate infrequently in winter. Ticket price is US$ 45 (2007). The airport is about 4 km west of the town.