At last I get to stay in a Caravanserai
21/9/10 - 25/11/10 27 °C
Although the next village we wanted to go to was only a days walk over the mountains we opted for the easy life and caught buses. This was only easier in the "not walking for several hours over high mountains with heavy bags" sense, as it involved going all the way back to Baku and then catching another bus to Ismayilli and a taxi on a bumpy road to Lahic, incorporating the usual bargaining and waiting. We arrived in the evening and decided to stay at a pension on the edge of the village that had a private 320 year old hamam. The house was in an orchard and the setting was very beautiful. The hamam was great - it smelled a bit musty, but it was amazing to have it all to ourselves whenever we wanted. After our brief day in the warm lowlands it felt very cold there and so it was very welcome.
The village of Lahic is famous for its coppersmiths and its cobbled street contain a lot of workshops. Unfortunately a lot of these were closed when we were there as the summer season was pretty much over. I had been really looking forward to coming here, but after our stay in Xinalig just a couple of days before, I felt a bit disappointed in it. I found it all a bit too manicured and it reminded me a bit of Poundbury near Dorchester (Prince Charles's upmarket housing estate). Its got a large influx of tourists from Baku, (which has had a similar treatment). Thats not to say it wasn't a very pretty village and the people there were also quietly friendly. Apparently their ancestors had come from Persia hundreds of years ago and they speak a language close to Farsi (Iranian/ Persian).
I think if I had spent more time in this village I would have come to appreciate it more. I do prefer to travel slowly, to go to less places and to see more of them, but our Azeri visa were running out. Its not that I want places to stay picturesquely in the past, so I can come along and visit them (I hope) but it felt to me that this village had been sand-blasted into a tourist version of its previous self. Also, we both quite disliked the rather arrogant man who was running the guest house, who was quite dismissive once he realised we weren't going to shell out for any expensive day trips needing guides. Travelling for longer periods of time does mean that you really have to ration these although you might want to support the local economy. But I can understand why the people you stay with might think you are being stingy compared to people who come for a brief holiday. A few times we've stayed somewhere we don't particularly like but are too lazy to move to a different place, which is a shame as the other places in the village were very friendly.
We spent a couple of days here, looking around and then caught a mashrutka (see earlier blog) early the next morning back to the town. When we got on it looked already pretty full, but the people made room for us and our bags. A few others got on, but at the next village, nearly half a school of teenagers was waiting for it. I'm still amazed that so many managed people managed to fit in such a small space in such a good natured manner!
A few journeys later, one of which was on the prettiest oldest, slowest bus I've been on, we arrived in the town of Sheki. It was lovely and warm and the people there were immediately incredibly friendly. We caught a town Mashrutka to the hotel of my dreams - a converted Caravanserai. It surpassed my hopes. The entrance was through a narrow door set in a massive old wooden door and led into a stone domed building with a fountain in . Off this was a large rectangular courtyard surrounded by a two storied multi-arched builing. Behind each arch was a set of rooms. These consist of a small sitting room, a bedroom behind it and a very old fashioned, but functioning bathroom in between. The walls were rough stone, with a small arched window, and it was easy to imagine how it would have been when it had been a functioning caravanserai.
Caravanserais are common all along the Silk Roads and neighbouring areas and is where merchants would be able to stop with camels caravans and do a spot of business. Behind you could see the rolling green hills that surrounded the town. Not only that, but it was half the price of a bed in a crowded dorm room in Baku! I've always fancied staying in one so at this point all my high-minded desires for ethnic travelling suddenly disappeared and I wanted to stay here for ever in the luxury I have always wanted to become accustomed to! (Though in reality it isn't really luxurious, it just seemed that way to me, but that's good enough!) We had originally intended to stay here for one or two nights and then either go to a homestay or go on to the next town, nearer to the border, but chances like this don't come along very often and so we stayed for longer and went straight to the border from there. It also helped that the town was very pleasant and the people the friendliest I've come across in Azerbaijan.
Up the road from here was the Palace of the Khan, a tiny palace with the most amazingly painted walls and stained glass windows set in wooden frames. Outside was an old man with a cloth covered object. Once you agreed on a price he lifted up the cloth to reveal the only wolf I will probably get to see in the Caucasus. Not only was it moth eaten and stuffed, with a sewn up mouth, but the piece de resistance was when he dramatically waived his hand and its eyes lit up! Brilliant!
We also went to a village a few miles away where there was an ancient church (remember this is a Moslem country) from the times of the Christian Causaian Alabanian nation. This is not to be confused with the other Albania. In the church were a lot of information boards, one of which described the theory that the Norwegian royal family originally descended from the Caucasian Azeris!
Sadly, we left Sheki to go to the border, pausing only to eat in the border town and argue with a bus driver who insisted we hadn't paid - we had, but I think it actually might have got a bit mixed up with other peoples fares - they just get handed over when you get off. A bit of a sad ending to a brilliant month in Azerbaijan. At the border the officials carefully searched our visas for inconsistencies and finding we had left on the last day possible, Azerbaijan spat us out back to Georgia.