Sheki, a pleasant little town amid green mountains, far away from the deserts and the desolation of the Caspian coast, is mostly known for two things — the Karavansaray and the Xan Sarayi. The former is a restored old caravan inn, with a classic arcaded design, surrounding a lovely courtyard. It has been converted into a hotel, the modern equivalent of its ancient function. In this place we picked up, for the first time, the scent of the Silk Road which we are after; indeed in older times Sheki was an important traders’ junction, and many such caravanserais were operational. Now the glory days of the caravanserai are coming back, and we saw two more in construction, one a restoration of a 19th-century ruin, and another one completely new, made of concrete, but following the same old design.
The Xan Sarayi is a 18th century palace built by the local khan. It is richly decorated with wall paintings, as well as intricate wooden and glass mosaics, but unfortunately I can only show it from the outside since photography inside is forbidden.
Following the recommendation we got from the Israelis we met in Baku we put our paces towards the region of Zaqatala. Shira and her American husband Jeff have been living in Azerbaijan for two years, volunteering for the US Peace Corps. Shira knows many volunteers around here and she connected us with some of them. Jeff spent some time here doing his research. And so, the instructions we got were to reach Zaqatala, go to a village named Car, seek a man called Asildar, and mention that Jeff has sent us. He would take good care of us. This sounded like an adventure, so we set off without hesitation.
On the first day we didn’t find Asildar — we found his house easily, but he wasn’t home. We stayed at a sort-of-resort called Lazzat, which rents out bungalows but is better known for its restaurant. This type of establishment is very popular in Azerbaijan — a restaurant out in the woods, consisting of a number of tables spread out between trees, inside cozy pavilions, with a central kitchen and of course a grand barbecue. The manager of Lazzat knew Asildar too, just like everyone else in this village, and volunteered to find him for us. In the meantime, we went back down to Zaqatala to meet some other contacts, Shira’s Peace Corps friends Jessica and Irene.
We met at the Heydar Aliev park, named after the beloved and revered former leader who moved on to the big parliament in the sky some years ago, leaving behind hundreds of statues of himself, as well as countless streets, parks, hospitals and other namable entities named in his honor. We were having some tea and talking, when wind suddenly started picking up. Black clouds appeared on the horizon; Jessica said, “it’s going to rain.” Within the next 30 seconds the breeze turned into a full-blown windstorm. A general panic ensued, as everyone scrambled to pay for their tea, no change please, and started running out of the park as fast as they can. The wind howled; dust and leaves filled the air. Trees started creaking and cracking around us as we were running. Branches were being torn off and flying. As the wind intensified even further, whole trees started snapping like matches. It felt as if the apocalypse had come. We were running for our lives and not looking back. The rain followed soon enough, first a drizzle, then a downpour. We were completely drenched within seconds. Outside the park, people huddled under a small roof, and we joined them, watching the street in front of us as it disappeared under a torrent of water, carrying broken tree branches. We had no choice but to remain there, shivering, and wait it out; after 20 minutes the wind and rain subsided and cars started driving on the streets again. Later we learned that the region hadn’t seen a windstorm like that since 1981; in the park alone more than a hundred trees were felled, one of them smashing a row of five cars parked by the local wedding hall, in which a wedding was taking place. The whole region lost electric power for two days and the cleanup is surely still ongoing.
We moved to Asildar’s house the next day. His wife Brilliant welcomed us and put us in their guest room, which looked like it had been taken out of a Victorian home and moved here in one piece. Asildar and Brilliant host people all the time, be it friends visiting from Baku, their son’s best friend Mike (a Peace Corps volunteer from the US), or anyone else in the area in need of a place to stay. They are sweet people with big hearts; we felt very lucky to meet them and stay with them, and so dig a bit deeper into Azerbaijan than the usual guidebook-guided traveling allows.
In the evening a neighbor popped in. His house is a new one, still under construction, and it was almost destroyed during the storm when a giant walnut tree, about 80 cm wide at the base, snapped and fell down. Fortunately it fell into the neighbor’s yard and not on his house. Now his mother was having her 82nd birthday, so she was holding parties — the previous day for men, the next day for women. The women party had just ended, but this woman can’t stop partying, so she invited us all for yet another one, this time just for us. With a table full of food and drink, we toasted to her birthday, our meeting, and everything else in the world. The next evening she wanted to invite us once again, but Asildar’s uncle beat her to that, so we had the same chain of toasts once again at his house.
Since we mentioned that we wanted to hike, a party of three youngsters was assembled to take us to an ancient graveyard on top of a mountain above Car, a popular hike in the area. We ascended through a forest, which then gave way to grass fields as we gained altitude. The young guys were entirely too energetic — we could barely keep up. We finally reached it after 4 hours of intensive walking, and the youngsters barely broke a sweat.
After two days with Asildar and his family we decided that it would be wise not overstay our welcome, and moved on. Our next destination was Lahic. This small village is known for its coppersmiths, and according to the guidebook, also for the hikes in the mountains around it that are supposedly easy to organize. It took a whole day to get there; on the way we experienced some of the less pleasant sides of the Azerbaijani character, which will be the topic of another post. When already there, we found the guesthouse owners to be less than enthusiastic; to top that off, the person in the tourist information office, who is supposed to help organizing hikes and similar activities, only discouraged us from trekking anywhere, citing possible bad weather. After such a string of clues, we got the message, and left for Baku after only one night’s stay. It is a great shame, because the village is quite a gem, surrounded by beautiful landscape — but it just doesn’t seem to be very inviting to travelers.
We stayed one night in Baku, in our familiar hostel which already feels like home, and left for our next destination — Xinaliq — in the morning.