9 February 2018.
As long as the Penjikent border remains closed, crossing from Dushanbe to Samarkand will continue to be a rather long-winded affair.
Hoping to save Tashkent for the end of our trip through Uzbekistan, we took a rather convoluted route between Dushanbe and Samarkand instead. In the end, the adventure took close to 20 hours and saw us lug our backpacks from hostel to taxi to marshrutka to taxi to other taxi to train station to taxi to bus to train before collapsing into bed at 4 a.m. for a much-needed sleep.
If you’re in Dushanbe and hoping to make Samarkand your first stop in Uzbekistan, here’s how to do it and avoid making the same mistakes as we did.
UPDATE | Thankfully, the Penjikent border is now open! If you’re in no hurry and up for an adventure, the long way around can still be a fun way to travel between the two cities, especially if you like getting off the beaten path or have plans to stop at any of the towns along the way. If you’d rather take the more direct route, this guide has all the details on using the Penjikent border.
Using the Turnizoda – Sariosiyo border crossing, there are three main transport options to get between Dushanbe and Samarkand. Intent on taking the train for as much of the route as possible, we probably ended up on the most convoluted route.
Door to door, it took us 19 hours including 13 hours of actual travel, though the same trip can easily be done in around 11 hours plus wait time. This summarises the general transport options and prices with further details for each route below.
Dushanbe centre to Zarafshon bus station in Dushanbe | Bus: 1 som | Taxi: 30 som with meter
Zarafshon bus station to Turnizoda | Marshrutka: 5 som
Turnizoda to border | Taxi: 10 som per person or 40 som per car
Border To Samarkand | Taxi: $10 to $20 per person or more | Taxi To Denau and Train: $10 per car + approx. $10 in Kupe | Bus To Kumkurgan and Train: 5,000 som + 84,000 som
Taxi in Samarkand: up to 30,000 som
From the centre, anywhere along Ayni Street or lower Rudaki Avenue, take bus 8 to Zarafshon bus station for 1 som (one-hundredth of a cent). If there’s a few of you or you have a lot of luggage, a taxi will cost around 30 som.
From the bus station, you’ll hear marshrutka drivers yelling out for Turnizoda or they’ll simply ask if you’re heading to the border. Buses leave when full so if you arrive in the morning, you shouldn’t have to wait long.
There’s no additional space for luggage so it will be piled up on your lap or at your feet. The trip takes about an hour an costs 5 som per person.
From the park in Turnizoda where the marshrutka terminates, a number of taxis wait to shuttle people to the border, though it seemed there were not so many people waiting to be shuttled. The going rate for the short trip is 10 som per person. If there’s no one else to share with, you’ll need to pay 40 som for the entire car. The drivers did not seem willing to negotiate.
If time is more important than budget, you can also take a taxi directly to the border from Dushanbe.
Having read a number of horror stories about this border crossing, we expected the process to be a jumble of bribery, bag searches and awfully long queues. In fact, it was exceedingly easy and pleasant, without the need for money to exchange hands.
Arriving at the border there were a handful of money changers waiting to take our remaining Tajik somoni. When discussing prices with them they just happened to leave a zero off of the conversion. As always, know the correct rate.
On the Tajik side, you’ll pass through three different passport checks. Two that merely glance at your paperwork, and the third more official check where your photo will be taken and your passport scanned.
The Uzbek side was almost as straight-forward. You’ll enter a room with a number of podium desks where you’ll need to fill out two of the immigration entry forms. These are sitting in piles on the desks and around the room.
From there you’ll be ushered through the door on the far side in groups of five or so for your baggage check. If there are no English forms available, simply ask the attendant at the door and they should bring you a few.
Be sure to include the number and value of all the currencies you’re carrying as you may be searched here or at the border when you leave Uzbekistan.
Once directed through the door your passport will be taken and checked, your baggage scanned and most likely, you’ll be asked to unpack various items – mainly medicines and books or magazines.
Needless to say, do not have anything on you that you shouldn’t. The full list of banned substances can be found here and includes several standard over-the-counter drugs, such as those containing codeine.
With no holdups along the way, we were across the border crossing in under an hour.
When you leave the dusty wasteland that marks the border zone, a group of taxi drivers will be waiting, insistent on taking you to Samarkand or Bukhara. Having spent far too long in cars with maniacal drivers during our time in Central Asia, we weren’t keen to spend another full day crammed into a taxi and instead opted to get the overnight train.
Annoyingly, they were having none of this!
If you’re looking to get a taxi from here to Samarkand, which is easily the most straightforward option, prices went as low as $10 to $20 per person without us even having to haggle. We simply insisted we wanted to take the train and their prices continued to drop.
If you’re not travelling in a group you’ll likely be paying much more and may have to wait a while for the car to fill up – we saw just 2 other people crossing the border. Ultimately, many drivers will have dropped passengers off earlier that morning and are just looking for a fair price to get back to Samarkand.
If you don’t want to take a taxi, a train is your only other option, though depending on what day you arrive will determine from where.
TOP TIP: If you aren’t arriving with any Uzbek currency, you’ll need to visit the bank before buying your train ticket as they will not accept USD. Exchange booths are open at somewhat irregular hours so try to find a bank as soon as you arrive in Denau to allow enough time to buy a ticket and make the train. You’ll find a bank on Mustakillik Street, about 800m from the train station. When we visited, they seemed to take a long lunch break so try to get in either before or directly after.
DENAU To SAMARKAND – EVEN DAYS ONLY – 10 Hours + Wait Time
To get to Denau from the border, taxi drivers were charging $10 per car, an extortionate price for Uzbekistan, though it seemed, not negotiable. We assumed this was the ridiculous tourist price for such a short trip, but really, they wouldn’t accept anything less. Try to band together to share the cost with locals or other travellers and ask to be dropped at the train station.
From Denau, an overnight train runs directly to Tashkent via Samarkand on even days only which, unfortunately, we were not there on. Tickets can be bought at the office to the right of the tiny train station with departures around 2PM. You’ll want to leave Dushanbe early in order to reach the station in time for this train.
DENAU TO KUMKURGAN AND SAMARKAND – EVERY DAY – 10 Hours + Wait Time
If you’ll be getting the train from Kumkurgan, ask to be dropped at the bus station on the outskirts of town.
If you don’t want to take a taxi and you’re not crossing the border on an even day, hopping on the train that travels between Termez and Tashkent via Kumkurgan and Samarkand is the next best option and the one we took as a last resort.
If it’s an odd day, don’t bother stopping in Denau, just ask your taxi driver to take you straight to the bus station on the outskirts of town. You’ll be hounded by taxi drivers offering to drive you to Kumkurgan for 80,000 som, or a bus leaves from the same plot at least every hour and costs just 5,000 som per person. Ask the driver to be dropped at the Kumkurgan train station. The Russian word for train, ‘poyezd’, is a good one to add to your arsenal. Try not to get the bus later than 4PM in order to reach the station and get a ticket.
Trains to Samarkand leave daily at 6:45PM and we had no problem booking a ticket on the spot, though those to Tashkent were sold out. In peak season, tickets may be harder to come by.
If you’re travelling in Kupe class (84,000 som/$10), you’ll need to walk a fair way down the platform and along the tracks (to the left of the station) to reach a second platform where you’ll board the train. Be sure to do this before the train arrives, though if you’re lucky, a guard may escort you the whole way there and into the carriage.
The overnight service from Denau pulls into Samarkand around 2AM, while the train from Kumkurgan arrives at 4AM. We’d recommend booking a guesthouse in advance and letting them know you’ll be arriving in the wee hours. Internet in Samarkand isn’t great so we’d also suggest waiting for their confirmation before rocking up in the middle of the night – they may not open up for you.
Search rates and availability of guesthouses in Samarkand here.
Even in the small hours, you should find a handful of taxi drivers eagerly awaiting passengers from the train. They were asking 30,000 som for a trip to near the Registan which is slightly higher than the usual rate, but at 4AM, we weren’t going to argue.