Saturday, April 9, 2016

Sheki.

In Sheki.

Our Azeri roadtrip continued. This morning we left Qabala and tonight, we're in Sheki.

I woke up very well rested.  Nothing beats sleeping in a cool, quiet, dark room on a comfy bed with a blanket to keep me warm.

When I walked into the kitchen, which has served as our common area, Rafael was already up.  I asked him how his foot was and he said it was feeling much better.  I believed him but it was obvious he was still in some pain.

Before breakfast, he insisted on driving himself to the pharmacy and getting a few things.  Wisely, he had the young boy go with him.  He hobbled down the front steps and out the door.  I watched him get into the car and drive off.  It looked like he was okay doing that.  If there was any issue, I was going to talk to Pat about staying an extra day in Qabala to give him time to heal.  Like me, Rafael is stubborn so I have to keep close watch on him because I well know what it's like to re injure your foot.

Rafael returned a short while later with bandages and a small bottle of liquid that I can only describe as a salve of some sort.  He said this what he's learned to do from his mother and with that he proceeded to apply the salve and then with the help of the hostess, apply the gauze.




I then used the ace bandage to wrap his foot - I pulled the bandage tight around his ankle to make sure he had good support.


After we got Rafael taken care of, we turned our attention to breakfast.  I was about to break into the eggs but our hostess insisted on cooking for us.    


We had our eggs, some bread and cheese and tea for breakfast.  A very simple meal and we ate pretty quickly as well.  We have to get on the road though in hindsight, there really wasn't a need to rush off.

Our hostess and her son.  We stayed in the gray cement building (guesthouse) on the right.  The main house is on the left.

A parting photo.  They were a very lovely family.

Before we left, our hostess insisted on giving us a bottle of cherry compote.  Homemade of course.

We paid 50 manat for the night's stay in the modest guesthouse.  Had we chosen to stay in the resort hotel, we would have easily tripled the cost and the experience would not have been as rewarding.

On the way to Sheki, we drove along a road that Rafael described as passing through a village that specializes in bread.  Indeed, we passed by one small shack after another with women working alongside a tandir.


Rafael asked if we were interested in taking a closer look at the oven and the bread and of course we were so he pulled over and parked the car.

He's feeling much better today!  I found the tree limb for him and insisted he use it. 
Wearing a slipper on his left foot was a great idea!  I must do the same.

Rafael tried to tell us that the people who live in the village are of a particular ethnic heritage.  Most certainly, this blued eyed woman did not look like the typical Azeri person.



I'm not a big bread eater but there's something about the smell of bread baking that I cannot resist.  We had to buy a loaf.  It was only 1 manat.   As soon as I had the still warm from the oven loaf in my hands, I tore off pieces for all three of us to share.  It was delicious - slightly crusty on the outside, warm and soft on the inside.  A bit of sweetness to the flavor.  It would have been REALLY delicious if I could have slathered some butter on it. :-)


It was another overcast day with a slight chill in the air.  Where is the sun?  I swear the not so inspiring landscape of this part of Azerbaijan felt very drab.



It was about an hour or so drive from our guesthouse in Qabala to downtown Sheki - the two towns are very close to each other.  Driving through the heart of the town, Sheki looked like a larger version of Qabala.

We didn't stop anywhere in town; Rafael drove us straight to what I would describe as a cultural heritage complex.  We started with a visit to the Khansarai aka the Palace of the Sheki Khans. 

The Palace of Sheki Khans was built in 1797 by Muhammed Hasan Khan as a summer residence of the Sheki Khans.

Pat got us our tickets and we headed on inside the compound.  Before entering the building, we took a few photos.   A very old and large plane tree (Azeri: Xan çinar) dominates the front garden near the entry path.  The trunk was beautifully gnarled - I never even bothered to look up to see if there were any leaves.




The palace is renowned for the lavish decoration of its exterior and interior.   Floral tile panels and tile mosaics lined both the exterior facade as well as interior walls.


Muqarnas, crowning the four iwans, are highlighted with gold on the lower level and covered with mirror fragments on the first floor.

Looking up at a muqarna on the second floor.

Large portions of the residence's faсade are covered by a mosaic of colored glass set in a wooden latticework (shebeke) that was assembled without nails or glue.  This was the same type of glass and wooden latticework window as what we had seen inside the museum in the Shirvanshah Palace in Baku.


Inside the front entrance, our guide was waiting for us.  He began by telling me that photos were not allowed so I have nothing to post up of our walk through the interior of the palace.  Starting at the ground floor, he took us through various rooms.  As best I can remember, all the rooms on the ground floor were rooms used to entertain guests and the public.  From the ground floor, we headed to the upper level to tour the private quarters.

The interior walls of the residence are covered entirely with frescoes painted at different times during the eighteenth century. Many of the frescoes feature flowers in vases, while a series of paintings on the first floor halls depict hunting and battle scenes.   Some of the battle scenes were actually gruesome in detail.

The tour lasted about half hour.  After that, our guide took us to a nearby giftshop.  We peeked inside but that was about it.  After tipping our guide, we headed back to the car to meet up with Rafael.

Rafael drove us a very short distance down the road.  If my left foot was fully functioning, we could have easily walked and the walk would have been less than 5 minutes.  In any case, this was the town's ethnographic museum.  We had to pay 2 manat to enter.  There were three or four small rooms of displays.  Stuff was scattered all about.  I couldn't figure why things were in the room they were in and there were no descriptions so all we could really do was just walk into a room, do a quick look see and then walk out.  Fine by me actually as I'm not much of a museum person to begin with and this place as nothing special.  On the flip side, it's good to see that the people of Sheki are proudly preserving their heritage.






When we entered the museum, we passed by two young women participating in a photo shoot of some sort.  On our way out, they asked if we wanted to take their photos. At first I resisted as I thought they would want some sort of payment but the photographer himself urged us to take shots.  It was a good opportunity to photograph some traditional style dress.

So I snapped a few photos.  I have to admit, they are pretty girls - they knew how to smile and the camera loved them.  They did look lovely in traditional Azeri clothes although the girl in red was wearing an outfit that was a tad big for her.  As they walked away,  I noticed that they had sneakers on and were wearing jeans under their skirts.  Traditional on the outside, modern on the inside :-)



From here, Rafael drove us back through a part of town filled with stone buildings. 

The buildings looked to be of new construction but were deliberately designed to have an old world feel to them.


We stopped to check out a building that was once a caravansarai but is now a hotel.  We had to find a place to spend the night and this was a good option. 


The caravansarai was originally constructed by the Sheki Khans to house caravans as they passed through on the Silk Road to and from China. This was one of 5 such stops in Azerbaijan during the 18th and 19th centuries, and was the biggest caravansarai on the Silk Road in the entire Transcaucasus region.


We entered the place through through a massive wooden door.  Inside, the main hall was very dimly lit by just one or two lights.  There was a very mysterious feel to the whole place.


Off the main entry hall was a room that was used as the reception room.  There, two gentleman sat in front of a small TV.  Rafael did the inquiry.  Yes, rooms were available and would cost 30 manat.  We asked to see the one that we would be put up in.


One of the men led the way.  From the entry hall, we walked towards the main courtyard and then took a set of steps to the second level where our room was located.  We checked out the room and it all looked fine.  We decided that if nothing else better came up, we would stay here.


Walking down the hall towards our candidate room.

A view of the courtyard from the second floor.

We continued our hotel search in town.  Rafael dropped us out front of a very modern hotel.  As expected the nightly rate was well above 100 manat though still very reasonable by US standards.  Pat and I quickly bounced around the pros and cons of staying at this hotel.  The big pro was that it was located in the center of town which meant easy access to restaurants, shops, parks etc.   Basically, there was stuff all around us to keep us entertained.  But....we'd have to pay a lot more for being in the city.  Knowing that we could get a perfectly comfortable room for just 30 manat, we opted to go back to the caravansarai.  We could find ways to keep ourselves occupied other than wandering the streets.

Rafael took us back to the caravansarai where we checked in.  Rafael was going to spend the night in another place as he was only willing to pay 20 manat for a room.  I offered to pay the difference so he could spend the night in the same place as us and he gladly accepted.

He then gave us sometime to settle in and wander about on our own.  There were a few shops on the same street as our hotel so we decided to just do a bit of window shopping.  Unfortunately, quite a few of the places were closed so our shopping opportunity was cut short.

Azeri skullcaps.  I've not seen too many locals wearing these so I wondered if this was just for the tourists??

Local pottery.  I'm guessing the jugs are for water and wine and the pots are for cooking stews like the one Rafael prepared for us.

Ceramic pieces.  I have similar pieces from Istanbul.  Wouldn't be surprised if these are also Turkish in origin.

Later, Rafael came to pick us up and took us on the short drive to the small village of Kiş ("kish") to visit a well known church that is located there.  By now, the sun had finally pushed its way through the clouds.  Blue skies at last!


Backstreets of Kiş.

The region of Sheki was once part of the region known as Caucasus Albania.  Christianity was already beginning to spread in Caucasus Albania in the 1st century and by the 4th century, it was the state religion.  The church in Kiş holds a special status among Albanian cultural heritage landmarks because it is considered to be the oldest church in all of the Caucasus having been founded in the 1st century AD by the Apostle Eliseus (aka St. Elishe) atop the grounds of a pagan temple.

In its long lifetime, the church has functioned as a Georgian church and later as an Armenian Apostolic Church.  It has long been inactive and these days, it functions as a small museum though the plans are to grow it.  





Skeletal remains, housed inside an ancient crypt, located in the church's courtyard.

While Rafael waited for us in the church courtyard, Pat and I ventured inside.  The interior was very small and empty for a very tiny altar and a few displays, with a artifacts recovered from the village, alongside the walls.




We didn't spend much time at the church.  After that, Rafael took us back to our hotel and we had the rest of the day to ourselves.  We would meet back up with him later for dinner.

In hindsight, it might have been an enjoyable experience to wander a bit through the backstreets of Kiş.  With its stone buildings and cobblestone streets, it looks like a charming, rustic Caucasian village.



Back in our room, we rested for a bit.  I took the opportunity to take a video.  Come see our room!


In no time, we were itching to wander so back out we went.  We started with the grounds of the hotel.  In a larger, side courtyard, hotel workers were hard at work cleaning and setting up for what looked to be a special event of some sort.   Before I could even take a single photo, this friendly guy came up to me and motioned for me to take his photo.  As many people as there are who don't want to have their photo taken, there are just as many who more than willing to not only have their photo taken but they'll even do a cheesy pose as this guy did.....turning his broom into a guitar!



In the garden there was a small playground as well.  I can imagine that families vacation in the area - it's a nice place to escape the heat of the city and to take in a bit of Mother Nature.

Standing in the garden looking back at the interior courtyard.

We walked up the main street, heading back towards the palace that we had visited earlier in the day.  We walked barely one block, uphill, when the commercial strip ended.  As we turned back downhill, we stopped inside a small candy shop.   Sheki is known for its halva but Pat is not a fan so we passed up on getting any of the candy.  Instead, we bought a small plastic container's worth of sugar coated hazelnuts.  We doesn't like sugar coated nuts?


We hadn't had lunch so the nuts were it but we needed something to wash them down with so we sat down inside a small internet cafe (at least that's what the sign outside said it was) for some tea.  The only other people there were two men, one of whom worked at the place.  They were watching a video on a cell phone.  One of the guys was smoking like a chimney.  I was tempted to leave but Pat didn't seem bothered by it so I decided to just put up with it.  That and well, I didn't notice any other place nearby to have a drink.  This part of town might look nice but it's sure dead.


I munched on the nuts and gulped down my tea as quickly as I could.  I really could not stand the smell of the cigarette smoke.  From the cafe, we took a stroll on a street that ran alongside our hotel.  It looked like it made its way into a neighborhood and we were curious to see what a typical Sheki neighborhood street looks like.




I was hoping to find ourselves in the middle of a quaint area.  You know, charming stone houses flanking cobblestone streets with cute gardens surrounded by stone walls.  Sort of what we saw when we were driving through Kiş.  Instead, it was the opposite.  A lot of old, dilapidated buildings.  There was not an ounce of charm here.  In no time, I suggested we turn around and there was no objection from Pat.

For us, Sheki turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  I resigned myself to spending the rest of the afternoon back in our room.  We weren't there long. 

I love the archways.  Down the way was our room.

Pat doing her key keeper duties.  Opening this particular door was a bit of a challenge.

In the room, I saw a pair of mens slippers.  One fit my left foot perfectly and the color matches my sock too!  I decided to ask the
front desk if they would let me buy it from them.

Since we hadn't had any lunch, we decided we needed an early dinner.  Rafael was back at 5p to pick us up.  Walking to the car, I pointed out the slipper on my left foot.  I was so happy to have it on because for the first time in days, I could actually walk comfortably.....not feeling the discomfort of walking on gravel or cobble stones!  Rafael agreed to ask the hotel folks whether or not I could have the slipper.  Of course, I would be willing to pay for it.  He did this when we got back after dinner and they said no.   I felt a wee bit dejected at their response because I was asking for a good reason and you'd think they could easily replace the slipper but for whatever reason, they didn't want to oblige.  So, I will have to buy one tomorrow at a shop or market somewhere.  I'll figure it out with Rafael's help.

Rafael took us to dinner at a restaurant called Chalabi Khan.  It's supposedly one of the top restaurants in town.


It was early for dinner so the place was empty of diners except for the three of us.  We got seated in our own private dining room.



Sheki is known for a dish called piti which is a soup made with lamb and vegetables, potatoes, and chickpeas. Piti is prepared and served in individual crocks.  Pat and Rafael ordered the piti; I opted for dolma as I'm not all that keen on stewed lamb.  Rafael also ordered some brined vegetables for us to share.  I took bites of each - everything was much too salty for me.  I could see Pat refraining from taking even a single bit as salted veggies are not up her alley.


Our dish of salted veggies - small onions, cabbage and something that looked like a squash of some sort.  Soooo salty.


In Azerbaijan, piti is suppose to be served in two steps. First, bread is crumpled into a separate bowl and sprinkled with a mix of spices. Then, the broth is poured over it.  The resulting mixture is something like a hearty soup.  Obviously, Pat did not know all this so she just followed what Rafael was doing.

We had bread on the table but Rafael never broke pieces into his bowl.  He just scooped out the piti from his crock into the bowl.



He then sprinkled the spices over the meat vegetable concoction.  I didn't notice if he ate his bread separately or not but I'm guessing that's what he did.


My dolma with its yogurt dipping sauce.  Though I prefer the traditional Turkish dolma over Azeri dolma, this wasn't bad.

After dinner, it was back to the hotel.


The WiFi was pretty bad here so there was no internet surfing to keep us entertained.  Nonetheless, I was able to stay busy.  It started with taking a sponge bath.  It had been days since parts of my body had been in contact with soap and water so I was overdue for a cleaning.  But, it was much to cold to strip down to my birthday suit plus I really didn't feel like having to bag up my left foot to keep it dry under the shower so I just opted for a washcloth.  I managed to get the important bits cleaned.


Although I don't feel like we did all that much today, I am somehow still tired at an early hour.  I think it will be early night's out for me.  Tomorrow, we're heading back towards Baku.  I hope there will be some interesting sights along the way!

Goodnight from Sheki!