Situated as it is only 70km from Samarkand, Panjakent makes an interesting day excursion from the Uzbek city. Not that it's something you can decide to do on the spur of the moment! Not only do you need a Tajik visa, you also need to have a multiple entry visa for Uzbekistan to be sure of being readmitted when your day is done. Our visit was pre-arranged through our Uzbek travel agent. We arrived in Uzbekistan with a multiple entry visa and the agent made the necessary arrangements for the Tajik visa and had it ready for us before we left Tashkent.
There is no public transport between Samarkand and Panjakent. Any transport you arrange from Samarkand can only take you as far as the border and once you have crossed in to Tajikistan you are still some 30km from the town. The archaeological site is further still - you can get a taxi to the border and pick up a taxi on the other side (and do the same on your return) but having your transport organised for you does make for an easier day, and a guide will definitely improve your understanding of the lumps and bumps of mud that are most of the ancient city, so even if you are an intrepid independent traveller, this may be one time to seriously consider a more organised approach
Be sure to bring your Customs declaration with you on the day - the one you kept of the pair you filled in when you entered Uzbekistan. You will need to fill out another form, stating the currency and valuables you have on you, and submit the two forms to the Uzbek customs officer before you can be stamped out of the country. It is essential that you fill this form out correctly, listing all the currency you are carrying, your camera, mobile phone, etc. Be prepared to wait patiently whilst the information is laboriously entered, by hand, into a large ledger - depending on the size of your group, this could take an hour or more, even if any local people who are also crossing allow you to go ahead of them.
(On your return, you will have to fill out two forms as you did when you arrived in Uzbekistan. Once again, the details will be entered by hand into a ledger, both forms stamped, one kept by the customs officer and one handed back to you to be kept until you finally leave the country)
Once the customs formalities have been completed and your form is stamped, it's time to walk across the few hundred metres of no man's land between the Uzbek and Tajik border posts. We had left our driver back on the other side of the Uzbek border, with instructions to return at 3pm and made the walk unaccompanied - a rather odd sensation as we made our way down the deserted country road, knowing we were 30km or more from Panjakent itself, heaven only knows how far from home, and trusting that there would be someone there to meet us!
This is not the place to produce your camera, though a surreptitious click with a mobile phone has been known to produce a fuzzy souvenir snap or two.
With the officious formality of the Uzbek border post behind you and the walk between the two countries nearly at an end, it's time to approach the Tajik border. Back in Uzbekistan, the post is a solid concrete building, with doors marked in and out, an x-ray machine for bags and baggage, desks for officials and writing stands for travellers to use as they fill out their forms. Behind the Tajik barrier there's a corrugated iron shed and a rickety table and bench under a tree across the road.
Our guide was waiting for us behind the barrier with a fistful of flimsy documents just like the ones we had filled in back up the road. Making our way over to the table and bench, we filled them in with her help - just one this time, no duplicates were required here, and no English translations of the questions either so it was as well there was someone there to help us with them. Then across the road to stand at the window at the end of the shed to have both customs forms and passports checked - no handwritten ledgers here either - just a smiling "Welcome to Tajikistan" from the immigration officer.
Passports stamped and then a wave-on from the bored-looking border guard, it was time to make our way to the waiting minivan and our day in Panjakent, only to do the whole thing in reverse when we arrived back at 3pm. Altogether, the border crossing formalities consumed about two hours of our day (most of this on the Uzbek side), and we were only a group of eight. Bureacracy is alive and well in Central Asia!
Our visit to Panjakent was planned and paid for along with the cost of our entire tour so I can't say exactly how much we paid for this component. However, knowing not everyone who comes to Uzbekistan does so as a member of a tour group, and as a matter of interest, I contacted our Uzbek agent today (31/10/09) to ask what were the logistics and cost of organising a visit for an independent traveller. Here is her answer:
"The situation with prices is quite unpredictable. We've been told to expect the rise in prices in November (2009). Currently the trip to Pendjikent will cost approximately 200 USD per person if only 2 people wish to make the trip. It will include: transport to and from the Uzbekistan border, meeting at the border by a local Tajik guide, transport in Penjikent, lunch, guide, 1 day visa (permission) to Tajikistan.
All our experience shows it is usually too complicated to arrange a re-entry visa for Uzbekistan once you have arrived in the country. That's why we are so particular on that and advise our customers to think itineraries over before they come. Otherwise it will cost much money, energy, and time, and there is no guarantee that's will be realized."*
I would suggest you can take this advice as reliable. It is also bang up-to-date, unlike anything you may read in a guide book. If the price seems steep (and I know it does) I can only say the overall cost of our entire tour arranged and booked directly through this agency was very reasonable when compared with tours offered by Western agencies so I am prepared to accept this as the going rate for for a Samarkand to Panjakent excursion organised by a reputable agency. All the arrangements for our excursion came together beautifully and we thoroughly enjoyed the day.