Surkhan Darya's second town is Denau, also known as Denov. It is the border town with Tajikistan when entering into the west of the country for Dushanbe and the Pamir Highway, and transiting between the two countries is the most likely reason you'll find yourself here.
Denau is set between a rock and a hard place. With the magnificent snow-dusted Hissar Mountains to the north, Chulbair Range to the west and turbulent Tajik border to the east, Denau and the traditional rural kishlaks surrounding it constitute one of the farthest-flung and most untouched mountain cul-de-sacs of the Uzbek republic.
The valley around Denau has a subtropical climate, which has enabled it to become a relatively successful wine-producing area and also to support a wide range of non-native plants in the R Shreder Dendrarium. The archaeological remains of two important Kushan-era cities, Kalchayan and Dalverzin Teppe, are also within easy reach of Denau.
As the semi-independent land of Chaghanian, Denau ('New Town') enjoyed relative freedom over the centuries and even at the beginning of this century it maintained only nominal relations with the emirate, via the east Bukharan capital at Hissar (in present-day Tajikistan). It provided taxes, soldiers and beautiful women for the emirs harem, as did all the other 26 begships of the emirate, but rebellions were commonplace and bandits rile. In the 1880s Denau was partly destroyed by a punitive force sent from Bukhara to pacify the rebellious beg. The mountains that provided such effective cover for bandits also concealed the later basmachi and Denau merged with the lands to the east to provide the dramatic backdrop for the last stand of these early mujahedeen and also the final fall of Enver Pasha, the Turk who had briefly united them.
The colourful and kinetic bazaar, fuelled by cross-border trade with Tajikistan, forms the vibrant heart of modern Denau and, in this region where chapans heavily outnumber tracksuits, is a good place to invest in some traditional Central Asian garb. Look too for the renowned Denau ceramics and toys, especially from the Zukhurov masters. Close to the bazaar and the central bus station, lies the Sayyid Attalik Madrassah, vestige of Denau's past and auspice to its future. The 16th century madrassah, one of the biggest in Central Asia, closed in 1935 and opened it's doors after independence from 1991 to 1997, before it closed for renovation (since halted due to a lack of funds). Its scale and elegant symmetry are more than ample compensation for the lack of ornamentation. Director Murat is keen to show people around. You are likely have the site to yourself; the atmosphere is somewhat eerie, as if echoing that a generation of students is missing and mourned. Also in the town centre is the impressive, circular fortress of the Beg of Denau, set high above the Sangardak River as silent testament not only to the power of the local rulers but moreover to the distant, and sometimes uncertain, hold of the emirate.
A surprising discovery on S Rashidov is the R Shreder Dendrarium, an arboretum with more than 1,000 species of plants brought here by scientists and official visitors from around the world. Amongst the more common trees, flowers and herbs, many of which are native to Uzbekistan, are also imported varieties including kauchuk, bamboo and sequoia. The arboretum also has a notable collection of persimmon: more than 200 species are represented in the garden. Stop here for an hour or two if you've overdosed on madrassas and ruins: the plants will refresh your mind.
Just outside Denau in the small kishlak of Yurchi lies another feudal fortress, dating from the tenth century. Colin Thubron visits the ruined fort in his book The Lost Heart of Asia, in an attempt to get to the root of the myth surrounding the death of Enver Pasha, but Pasha was most probably killed further east in present-day Tajikistan. Instead, he found in the village the grave of Licharov, the regional Bolshevik commander who was killed here in 1924. Marshrutha taxis ply the road to Yurchi. Ask for the stary krepost, 100 metres from the town chaihhana.
Thirty kilometres east of Denau lies the village of Vakhshivar and the Sufi Allah Yar Mosque (1713), named after the celebrated Uzbek poet buried here in 1724.
The hinterland around Denau contains a number of intriguing sites which, though probably not worth a visit on their own, can be combined into a worthwhile day trip, particularly if you are already in the area. The Surkhan River valley around Denau/Chaganian was one of the main cradles of Kushan urbanization. The Graeco-Bactrian and Kushan city of Khalchayan (fourth century ВС to third century AD) lies ten kilometres (six miles) northeast of Denau, but its remains are faint and its fascinating past is better tasted through the remarkable collection of Parthian-, Greek- and Kushan-influenced sculptures. The Soviet archaeologist Professor Galina Pugachenkova led extensive excavations here in the mid 20th century, and found a large number of Kushan-era sculptures, many of them particularly lifelike. The variety of dress, hairstyles and ethnic features displayed in the figures reveals both the diversity of people living and trading in ancient Kalchayan, and the skill of the city's artisans. The most important finds have been removed from the site and are now displayed in the State Fine Art Museum in Tashkent.
Around 30km south of Denau on the road to Termez, is the small town of Shurchi and neighbouring archaeological site of Dalverzin Teppe, a Kushan-era (1st—4th century ad) settlement that was once an important defensive site on the Surkhan Valley branch of the Silk Route. The slightly better-preserved site of Dalverzin Tepe was once one of the most glorious Kushan cities of the age and an early capital for the Tokharian (Yue Chi) Turkic tribes. Today only the sunken remains of a Buddhist temple, Bactrian shrine and Zoroastrian altar remain, encased in a five-sided city wall between the modern towns of Denau and Shurchi.
The settlement, which was protected by walls 10m thick, housed an important and wealthy Buddhist complex; archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a stupa, prayer hall and also the so-called Kings Room, a hall richly decorated with sculptures that show both Buddhist and Hellenistic influences. The neighbouring complex contained a Bactrian temple, numerous statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas and, remarkably, a treasure hoard of gold and silver items, many of them set with precious stones. The total hoard weighed in at 36kg, and the most important items are now exhibited at museums in Tashkent and in Russia.
The Dalverzin Teppe site is rather better preserved than Kalchayan; significant portions of the city wall are still clearly visible, as is the Buddhist temple and part of a Bactrian shrine. There's no charge to enter and no set opening times, though you'll need to go during daylight hours to stand a chance of seeing anything.
Getting there Denau is well connected with other cities in Uzbekistan. Most arrivals from Tajikistan will be heading by shared taxi or minibus along the picturesque road through the hills to Samarkand (5hrs; US$18), Bukhara (6hrs; US$22) or Termez (2hrs; US$5). These prices are for journeys by shared taxis; minibuses are about 30% cheaper. Public buses run regularly to and from Termez, Shirabad and Jarkurgan from the new bus station on Makhtumkuli, close to the bazaar. There are also daily buses to Baisun and Tashkent. A shared taxi to Termez doesn't cost a lot and takes two hours. At present buses for Dushanbe only run to the border, from where onward buses can be caught inside Tajikistan. A new overnight train service to Tashkent departs every other day at around 3:40pm, making this a convenient option for travellers headed overland between Tashkent and Dushanbe.
The Tajik-Uzbek border crossing is northeast of Denau on the road to Tursunzoda. It is significantly faster crossing from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan rather than the other way round as the customs checks are far less arduous. Both minibuses and taxis wait on both sides of the border for onward journeys, and there is sufficient foot traffic that you can always find someone with whom you can split the taxi fare. Expect to pay US$15 per seat in the shared taxis from Tursunzoda on to Dushanbe.
There are two helpful train routes out of Denau. The local train to the border town of Sariosiyo (4hrs; US$1) is irritatingly slow, but cheaper than taking a taxi. There are three departures a day. There is also a less-frequent sleeper train to Tashkent (15hrs; US$24), which departs at 15.40 every other day and travels via Karshi, Navoi and Samarkand. You don't have to change, just be very patient. The railway station is to the east of the town centre, within walking distance of S Rashidov.