Civilisation - well a shower at least!

Sheki Travel Blog

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People I met here who contributed to, and improved my trip: Julia (Russia)

Sheki (called Nukha until the 1960's) and the neighbouring village of Kish boast rich intertwining history's, with Sheki growing at the expense of Kish, which was wiped out by not one but two floods in the 18th Century. Kish has been inhabited since at least the Bronze Age and there are human remains at the Albanian Church to attest to this fact. The khanate that was begun in this village in the 1740's was however moved to Sheki by 1772, although only lasted until 1805 when the town was ceded to the advancing Russians. What remains today is a thoroughly charming colourful town of 63,000 people, which boasts charismatic crumbling buildings and some which have been lovingly restored.

Stood in the bus station we struggled with the dilemma of which hotel we should head to. A converted caravanserai sounded incredibly romantic, but was twice the price of a functional hotel on the other side of town. The main priority was to make sure that wherever we stayed we had a hot shower, so we decided to phone Pensionat Sahil to find out some information on its rooms. The owner came across as a friendly guy and confirmed that 16 Manat ($20) was for an en-suite twin room with hot shower and tv, so we opted to stay there. With the money that we saved we planned to go to the caravanserai's restaurant for tea the following day.

Having checked into our room we walked along the quaint streets into the town centre, looking for somewhere to burn my photos to DVD.
Eventually we found one shop willing to burn three copies for 4 Manat ($5), whereas other places had asked for 9 Manat ($11.25)! It was going to take an hour to complete the burning, so we walked to the town square to get some food at Shelebi Xan Restaurant. Now I take my hat off to Lonely Planet in this instance, as they recommended the place for its cheap Borsch (soup), but looking at it from the outside and in the location that it was in, you would never believe that there could be anything affordable to a budget traveller. It was therefore a pleasant surprise that a huge bowl of Borsch only cost 1.40 Manat ($1.75), whilst the scrumptious chicken soup was a bargain 1.60 Manat ($2). The service was excellent, the soups delicious and we even received a tasty basket of homemade bread for free.

Returning to the photo shop we collected the DVD's and then found an internet cafe on the square to upload some photos to Travbuddy. By the time we stood up from our workstations it was pitch black outside and freezing cold. We scurried across the square and back into the warmth and comfort of the restaurant to have our evening meal. This time I had the Borsch and Julia had the chicken soup, and for a main course we ordered some Manti. Manti are supposed to be large dumplings, but these were more like small dumplings and at 4 Manat ($5) for 10, it was rather overpriced. Nevertheless the Export beer was only 1 Manat ($1.25), so we ordered a couple of those to accompany our meal and settled in for the night.

I was surprised to see it had been raining when we left the restaurant, but thankfully it held off whilst we made our way home.
Not such good news was to discover that both my trainers  had holes in them, even though I only bought them in Iran, so my feet were sodden by the time we reached the hotel. It felt wonderful to jump into a warm shower before bed, only the second one that we had had the chance to take in Azerbaijan!

On Thursday morning we checked out of the hotel and caught a rickety old bus to nearby Kish. Heavy fog was obscuring the mountainous scenery that encompasses the village and just as I said “There's no way this will clear up today” the sun literally burst through the mist. I really must use this reverse psychology on the weather more often! By the time we arrived into the old hamlet there were patches of blue sky and the setting seemed instantly more appealing.

Whilst Sheki has steadily grown over the last few centuries, Kish has stood stagnant and most of its 2300 residents appear to be elderly citizens. This is a far cry from times gone by, when the village had been an important centre for Albanian Christians, who occupied most of Northern Azerbaijan. This religion gradually died out and was finally enveloped by the Armenian Church in the 19th Century, but there are several churches still standing in the region to attest to the former glories of the religion. Whilst most now lay in ruins, Kish's church was rebuilt with the aid of Norwegian funding, after famous ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl claimed that the Norwegian race originated from Azerbaijan.

A pleasant 10 minute walk took us from the bus stop up through cobbled streets that were sporadically dotted with red tiled houses to the church.
The striking red round towers stood out magnificently against the white brick walls and it reminded me of Tallinn a great deal. The curator of the church let us in for 50q ($0.60), and I decided not to bother with my camera as this cost an additional 2 Manat ($2.50). Outside the church were some interesting Bronze Age burial pits, including one that was home to a gigantic woman who measured a staggering 2.20 metres! Inside the church was an excellent little museum describing the history of the Albanian nation (not related to modern day Albania) and exhibiting a few nice artifacts.

Returning to Sheki we made a beeline for Shelebi Xan Restaurant to warm up on a couple of bowls of chicken soup. I was struggling to work out why the soup was so cheap, as the other dishes were all 13 Manat ($16.
25) and upwards, but I was too busy pigging my face to bother asking! From the restaurant we went east through the old town and began climbing a hill that led up to the old fortress. It was a real pleasure to walk along the streets, which had countless fascinating old photogenic structures and I was pleased to see that they hadn't had the life restored out of them.

Entering through the fortress walls we heard several women screaming “Museum, museum” at us, but this really isn't a good sales pitch from my perspective. Now if they were shouting “Piva, Piva” - “Beer, Beer” then that's another matter, but coaxing me into a building with promises of old fragments of clay just doesn't wash with me. Instead we took the opportunity to walk around the wall and view the delightful Russian church and a couple of other character filled edifices.

Xan Sarayi is the former Khan's Palace, built in 1762 and located in the north east of the fortress. Whilst I didn't expect too much from it, the admission price was a reasonable 80q ($1), so we decided to go in and take a look. The building was set in a nice garden with two towering trees dominating the entrance, whilst the facade was intricately decorated and contained two silver stalactite vaultings, similar to what you often see at Iranian mosques. Even from the outside I was already wavering on whether I should pay the 2 Manat ($2.50) camera fee, but decided that it was sensible to take a look inside first before committing to anything.

Having donned some fetching old slippers we were granted entry into the interior rooms and I was immediately blown away by their beauty.
Stained glass windows (shebeka) filtered sunlight into the room, casting striking shadows over the wooden floor, whilst the walls were adorned with intricate paintings. One ceiling had a hypnotic effect as its carved wooden pattern had dancing beams of reflected light shimmering constantly. It was all too much for me and I whipped out my 2 Manat and started taking photos!

The two stories of the building contained some really dazzling rooms, painted with battle scenes from the days of Haci Chlebi, a lions tail devouring its master, hunting scenes, pomegranate trees and a whole host of different murals. There was a guided tour in Russian which Julia did her best to translate, but it's always difficult to hear two voices at once and try to absorb what is being said, whilst admiring what you are looking at AND trying to take pictures!

From Xan Sarayi we continued around the fortress walls and then went to one of the towns restored Caravanserais.
The building was incredible and had been lovingly restored into a hotel and restaurant, but sadly they didn't serve tea, so we just had a nosy around and then walked back to the town square. Along the way we passed some interesting mosques and also a very peculiar chess club, but it was all part of the town's quirkiness.

It felt disappointing to leave behind such a wonderful little place, but we had seen the main attractions and didn't have too many spare days before needing to be in Turkey. Therefore we collected our bags and caught a taxi down to the bus station. We knew the price of the taxi should be 1 Manat ($1.25), but confirmed this when we got into the cab. When we arrived the driver tried to scam us and said in was 1 Shirvan, which is actually worth 2 Manat.
If the hotel receptionist hadn't told us the price I may have paid 2 Manat, as I'd read that this is sometimes the practice that people count in Shirvans, but on this occasion I knew the driver was lying. After one half hearted attempt at extracting the extra Manat from us, he gave up and drove off. The drive to Qax took just over 2 hours and we were treated to some splendid views of the snow capped Caucuses range en route.

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photo by: jose28