A Travellerspoint blog

November 2010

Quba to the Georgian border

At last I get to stay in a Caravanserai

sunny 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.

Karavansary, Sheki, Azerbaijan

Karavansary, Sheki, Azerbaijan

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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!

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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!

Caucasian Albanian Church,, Kish, nr Sheki,  Azerbaijan

Caucasian Albanian Church,, Kish, nr Sheki, Azerbaijan

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.

Posted by sue deegan 07:37 Archived in Azerbaijan Tagged mountains churches village border georgia azerbaijan caravanserai sheki lahic coppersmiths Comments (0)

Xinaliq

An ancient village in the Caucasus

all seasons in one day 15 °C

We finally managed to leave Baku and headed north on a bus to the town of Quba (pronounced Guba). This took us through the usual scrubby and rather dismal desert that surrounds Baku and into a higher, lusher area which is famous for its apples and carpets. Our destination was a small village that was high up in the Caucasus, called Xinaliq (pronounced Khinalic).
We spent the night in Quba, a pleasant small Azeri town, which has a small carpet factory, a market and a bus station and reputedly, the best shwarma in Azerbaijan. They were pretty good.
Although I liked the town, I spent a large amount of the time nursing my tooth abscess, which had chosen that day to become too painful to think straight. I wondered at the wisdom of going to a remote village at 2350-metre height in that amount of pain - maybe the altitude would make it worse and there certainly wouldn't be any dentists there. However, I decided that I may as well suffer surrounded by beautiful mountains rather than in a hot, dusty town and we managed to find some cheap transport up there early the next morning. The road was quite a steep climb, through beautiful, remote, grassy mountains with little sign of habitation. Eventually we reached a small wind-swept village.

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All I knew about Xinaliq was that it was an ancient village built on a hilltop in the mountains, consisting of traditional mud and stone buildings. Now that the road had been improved and satellite dishes had arrived, it was, inevitably becoming more and more modern and the traditional ways were changing. This was probably a last chance to see it before it became radically changed. I worried that we might have been too late as there seemed to be rather a lot of blue plastic tarpaulins and corrugated iron roofs in sight.

We were dropped off at the bottom of the village, which seemed to be made up of steep muddy paths leading to houses. The wind was bitter and my clothes totally inadequate. I had imagined my arrival (always an unwise thing to do) totally differently. At last, I'd thought, a chance to properly stay in a family house in a village. All we needed to do would be to hang around a central area waiting for people to come up and offer us places to stay. Instead we climbed up the steep, rocky paths to look for an alternative. There was a small village shop that sold a few things that the locals didn't produce themselves - sweets, tea, biscuits, beer vodka and the inevitable cheap Chinese products you see in many shops around the world.
There were a couple of people in the shop, hiding from the biting wind and they looked at us with mild interest as we walked in. There was no rush to offer us accommodation and it seemed that there was a Guest House down the road by the river so we headed back down again.

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Eventually we were organised in a large empty house with two big bedrooms upstairs and a kitchen and sitting room downstairs, which we were to have ourselves, with food brought to us, not quite what we had expected, but lots of space. Soon the day cleared and we went back to the village to look around. We walked past the next house where a family were making mud bricks, which they left to dry in the sun. They told us that they had 3 houses, two near the river and one up in the village. This was easy, they told us, when the bricks came from the ground, the stones came from the river bed and there seemed endless space around to build in.

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Everything started to look a lot better in the warm sun and I was noticing the traditional mud houses, rather than the blue plastic sheeting and the shiny tin roofs. We'd been told that there was a wedding on in the village, which was an event attended by everyone there at some point - they run over 3 days and only happen in the summer. As we walked around the lanes, we realised that the people were much friendlier than they had first appeared and had a few very limited conversations. We met the school teacher, who spoke English and was able to tell us lots about the village.

When we heard some loud music, we followed it to a blue plastic lean-to construction in which people were dancing. A couple of men told me to go and take photos as that’s what tourists do, and so I willingly obliged. The first people I photographed were a couple of women who were very shy at first, but soon one of them dragged me off to her house nearby and fed me tea. She told me off for not having come to stay with her, showed me photos of other foreigners that had stayed with them and then tried to sell me a pair of knitted slippers. I was itching to get back and see the wedding party but the music abruptly stopped and everyone went home. When we passed by again, the blue plastic was being dismantled. I imagined I’d had the bad luck to arrive on the last day of the wedding.

We wandered around the paths some more then and walked a bit away from the village. It’s hard to describe it without using the words "nestled" and "perched", but it was a village perched on top of a hill, nestled in the mountains! As I said, the houses were made of local stone from the river bed with mud roofs, with newer bits built in a haphazard manner. Each house had a large stack of dried cow manure, ready for the winter.

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The next morning we decided to take a short walk up in the mountains for the morning and come back down to the village in the afternoon. The weather had become much warmer and sunnier and we walked up behind the village towards some small mountains. Those of you that have been following my blog know that I love walking up mountains and find it hard not to go just a little bit further than I intend. Unfortunately, this is coupled with a deep fear of going down anything slippery or very steep. I try and forget this fact when I’m going up and optimistically hope that it will have changed by the time I go back down.
Inevitably, the one we decided to walk to the top of was a lot steeper and further away than it looked. The last bit was mainly composed of slidey, slippery shale which was even hard to climb up. However, the view was certainly more than worth the effort and not only did I, unusually have no accidents, even minor ones, but the altitude seemed to have made my tooth better!

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Just as we got to the top and were sitting relaxing and taking in the scenery, I could hear the music start up again. As it had only lasted a short while the day before, I was pretty sure that it would finish just as we got back there. I so wanted to be able to take photos at the wedding, but it looked a long and slippery way back down the mountain and given my track record of injuries, I realised I should really not rush! I don't know when my fear of going down steep things started - though I do remember freezing going down the stairs at Blarney Castle years ago. I'm absolutely fine looking over the edge of the steepest drop but when things start to slide, it’s my idea of hell. Going down the steep shale I wondered why I liked mountains so much and the why I was spending so much time in them - but what is life if we don't challenge our fears? I eventually got into just sliding down - it was certainly quicker that way! As we walked back the music wailed out across the mountains, sounding so very wild and exotic. I imagined a band of strange Azeri instruments. Every time it paused I was sure it had stopped completely and they were packing up the blue plastic.

Luckily I was wrong and the blue plastic had just been moved to a different place. This time it was full of young people dancing. The wild and exotic music was being made by one man on an electric organ and another on a drum. Weddings in Xinaliq are in 2 parts- one at the bride’s house and one at the grooms. We were at the bride's, who looked very young sitting there with her friends. She was 17, quite old by past standards. This marriage had been a "love match", but they are often still arranged by the families.
People were dancing to the music. Often the girls would dance gracefully with each other, while the boys pranced around in good natured competition with each other, resembling crowing cockerels. Occasionally a man threw money onto the dance-floor and the little boys ran around picking it up, making a pretence of trying to keep it before handing it over. Everyone was very welcoming and once I started taking photos, they wouldn't let me stop and various combinations of people were thrust in front of me. We had become celebrities in the village and were greeted warmly for the rest of our short stay there.

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The Xinali are a Caucasian race (as is to be expected in the Caucasus!) and look somewhat different from other Azeris, who are a dark Turkic race. They are lighter skinned and haired and have a definite mountain appearance to them. The man who’d driven us up to the village, and was from it himself, had reminded me of someone I know back home. When we got there I realised that several other people did too! They all had similar features and sometimes I got different people mixed up with each other. This is to be expected in such a remote place where everyone is related to each other, I suppose. In recent years life has changed a lot with constant electricity; running water; different building materials; TV with numerous channels from all over the world; a school and of course, mobile phones. However they are also very proud of and aware of their culture and traditional lifestyle: the school teaches in Xinali (a language unrelated to any other); marriages are celebrated by the whole community and a large proportion of the men take their sheep many days trek away to graze in the lowlands for the whole winter.

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I'm always surprised how different places can be from first impressions and that its best not to have any expectations, though hard not to. Xinaliq is definitely such a place. I'd like to go back again, not just for the beauty around it, but also to see how their traditional community is adapting to rapidly changing lifestyles and technology.

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Posted by sue deegan 01:10 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (4)

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